DRCNet Interview: Dave Miller, Legislative Liaison for New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson 3/23/01

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With the New Mexico legislative session now over and drug reformers having had mixed success, DRCNet sought out the governor's point-man in the legislature, Dave Miller, for an insider's assessment of what went right, what went wrong, and where we go from here. Miller spoke by phone from his office in Santa Fe.

Week Online: You got three out of eight bills in the drug reform package through the legislature, but not the most substantive reforms. What is your take on the outcome?

Dave Miller: Legislatively, we've moved the needle from ground zero a year ago, when the legislature basically told us to go away and die. We've been in this fight all of two years now, and we've developed a legislative reform package, we've seen it heavily debated, it's been covered extensively by the media, and we've see significant action taken by the legislature. The bottom line, of course, is that only a handful of bills actually passed, but three others were very close -- poised for final action -- and two more were moving through the committees. As legislative liaison, I'm very pleased that we got progress on all parts of the package.

WOL: Clearly, disagreements on drug policy were not the only reason the entire package did not pass. Could you comment on the role played by partisan conflict and the fact that the session is so short?

Miller: Certainly there is a logistical problem when you have to deal with 2,000 bills, 480 of which passed, in a 60-day session. And, of course, drug policy wasn't the only big issue on the legislative agenda. We also dealt with education reform, concealed weapons, lots of other issues. As for Democrat versus Republican, well, it gets funny. We got support from a handful of Democrats who showed real courage -- Roman Maes, Patsy Trujillo, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Ken Martinez -- while at the same time we were unable to in any way tap into the Republican Party's libertarian wing.

WOL: You did get support from the state party chairman, John Dendahl.

Miller: And look what happened then. When Dendahl stepped up, our senior US senator [Domenici] went through the roof; he demanded Dendahl step down. Other prominent Republicans are also calling for his head. There is a great concern among the state GOP, not about what's right and what's wrong, but these issues drive them crazy. What is going on out there that would bring them out to attack like that?

WOL: Do you have an answer to that question?

Miller: I think it's the politics of marijuana and also of hard drugs. According to our best numbers, in this state 112,000 people out of 1.8 million smoke marijuana regularly -- on a monthly basis, anyway. But I'd be curious to see how many legislators had tried it, not many, I think. Marijuana is an alien thing for a lot of them. There is still a generational dividing line. And this is a rural state. The guys with the cowboy hats aren't too wild about smoking marijuana. The governor has literally left lawmakers speechless when he talks about legalizing drugs. It's like they're in shock.

I work with these guys on a hundred other issues, and it's rare to see them seize up like that; the whole idea just makes them supremely uncomfortable. So it was difficult to get sponsors, to get movement; they can't handle that whole illicit drugs issue. Even medical marijuana, with strong support, only passed the House by two votes.

WOL: What lessons do you take from your experience this year?

Miller: Last summer, I began to grow concerned about emphasizing the drug stuff. Steven Bunch of the New Mexico Drug Policy Foundation was always nagging me to talk instead about saving money, protecting children, things like that, and I'm increasingly a believer in that. Look, I think we did a lot of things right, things that could be applied in other states. The blue ribbon panel on drug reform was very valuable. We had six one-day meetings, funded by Lindesmith, and for ten or fifteen people to be able to set aside a few days to come up with specific recommendations and strategies was invaluable for the governor and the legislature. That really helps set the stage.

The lobbyists, the hired guns, were also of enormous value. The guys in the suits in the halls of power. It's that whole nuts and bolts approach, hand-to-hand, committee-to-committee combat. Somebody has to be working this process all day, every day for 60 days straight. The lobbyists are affordable and they are worth it.

Then there is the high value of personal leadership, not only by governor, but also those folks I mentioned earlier. There have got to be politicians who show real courage and take up the cause.

WOL: You mentioned New Mexico as a model. Can you elaborate?

Miller: Especially for rural Western states. What we did here can be exported. A modest amount of money can make a big difference. And if Congress and the White House are resistant to change, the encouragement that the reform community can take is that change is possible at the statehouse level.

WOL: How is this going to shake out in the medium- or long-term?

Miller: Having worked with legislators for eighteen years, I think getting a package like ours through substantially intact will require two or three trips to the well, at least, just to get traction on the core issues, and then many years of much heavier lifting, moving budgets from the criminal justice side to the public health side. Where the money goes is where the action will be, moving it from Corrections to Health, from Public Safety -- the police -- to Children, Youth, and Family. All that will occur in finance committees with performance-based budgeting. It'll be a five- to ten-year battle.

WOL: And what about the governor's remaining year in office?

Miller: We'll sit down and meet with the folks from Lindesmith soon, do a post-mortem and see what to do next. But without question, Gov. Johnson will pursue this issue to the final day of his administration. There are two possibilities for legislative action. That includes a possible special session on redistricting, which would be in September. The next regular session -- it's called a "short session" because it's only 30 days long -- is usually devoted to budget, appropriations, and revenue matters, but it is also known as the "governors session," because constitutionally he can introduce any bill he wants. He does have enormous clout as to what goes on the agenda. The governor hasn't announced anything yet, but I have to believe that the fight will go on.

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Issue #178, 3/23/01 Mexico's President Fox Talks Legalization, Becomes Second Western Hemisphere Head of State to Break With Drug War Consensus | Sentencing Commission Sets Harsh New Ecstasy Penalties, Panel Ignores Scientific, Medical Testimony, Heeds Only Drug Warriors | Supreme Court Bars Drug-Testing of Expectant Mothers in South Carolina Case | See No Evil: New Jersey State Officials Sat on Racial Profiling Data for Years, Testimony at Hearings Contradicts Earlier Accounts, Points Finger at Verniero | New Mexico Post Mortem: Modest Reforms Enacted as Legislative Session Closes, Major Components of Johnson Package Await Another Time | DRCNet Interview: Dave Miller, Legislative Liaison for New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson | Puerto Rico Update: Drug Czar Office Created, Collazo Bows Out, McCaffrey Signs on as Advisor | Australian Prime Ministers Ousts Reformers from Drug Panel, Shows "Zero Tolerance" for Contrary Opinions | Alert: Drop the Rock (New York State) | The Reformer's Calendar | Errata: Switzerland | Editorial: The Next Wave of the Drug Debate
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