After years of military combat, Howe was not going to be deterred by the New Mexico Legislature.
The House Appropriations and Finance Committee meeting was set to start at 1:30 p.m. on a recent Thursday — or 30 minutes after the House floor session. It was approaching 3 p.m. and the House was nowhere near the end of an agenda that included lengthy floor debates, vote tallies and even a reconsideration of an earlier vote.
"I've talked to one staffer who said in 16 years they've never started on time," Howe said. "I was here at 1:15 just in case this day was going to be different."
But Howe was ready. He had come with another veteran who was waiting with his wife to testify on the bill that would send $250,000 to the Department of Health for the couples-focused treatment program for PTSD. He was prepared with a three-ring binder, cellphone and summary notes on programs in other states. "We're totally ready," he said.
He glanced at the three items before his bill on the House Appropriations agenda and estimated if the subcommittee started by 5 p.m., he might be back in Angel Fire by 10 p.m.
At 6 p.m., the House was still talking and many committee sessions had been canceled. Howe stayed overnight in Santa Fe and was told the bill would be rescheduled for a hearing on Saturday.
Committee hearings run notoriously later than their posted starting times. Most advertise that they will convene after the end of the floor session, but that doesn't account for caucusing, a gathering of members by political party. These closed-door meetings sometimes last for hours.
During one notable caucus, a hearing on proposed background checks at gun shows before the House Judiciary Committee was advertised at 1 p.m. and did not begin until after 4:30 p.m. So many people were waiting in the room that sergeants-at-arms barred entry, then the committee chairwoman asked residents to leave so that judges and lawyers waiting in the hall could hear discussion about the bills in which they had an interest.
Among those often waiting to testify are doctors, sheriffs, university staff and faculty, hospital administrators, judges — and others who could otherwise be providing services to taxpayers.
The delay Thursday was for two pieces of important legislation — the proposed health insurance exchange, required under the Affordable Care Act, and a measure to use a portion of the Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood education.
But sometimes the chronic wasting of time is attributed to old traditions in the citizen Legislature.
On the House floor, for example, it's not uncommon for representatives to spend several minutes each questioning new legislators who have their first bills up for adoption. Invariably, they also at some point ask the freshman lawmakers to sing a song. This year, the House heard renditions of tunes by Pink Floyd, the theme song to the TV show Cops and something nearly indistinguishable about a ding-a-ling from Rep. Phillip Archuleta, D-Las Cruces.
The bill up for discussion was about discounted hunting licenses for armed forces veterans.
When Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Bernalillo, wanted to institute a warning system for missing persons suffering from dementia, the jokes kept on rolling in.
"Can we issue a Silver Alert for members of the House who wander off during votes?" asked one member.
Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, proposed an amendment to the rule adding the word "surfer" after each appearance of the word "Silver" in the legislation.
Down the hall from Howe on Thursday was a woman who had driven three hours to speak on HB 512, a measure to provide money to the University of New Mexico to study a repository for radioactive uranium waste in the Grants area. Jonnie Head is vice president of the Bluewater Valley Downstream Alliance and wanted to talk about the need to protect groundwater from leaking uranium tailings.
Head drove three hours from Cibola County. "All the people in my group are working, so here I am. I'm here, I'm determined."
Dan Ritchey of the New Mexico Association for Young Children was waiting to speak on an early childhood issue outside another hearing room, which was still dark and empty at the time it was scheduled to begin. "You have to allow yourself extra time when you come here," he said. "It's very different and it's very frustrating for people who don't know how long floor sessions are going to take. Bring a book, bring your cellphone, surf the Internet."
Ritchey said the committee chairs are often considerate of those waiting and can move items up or down when there are a lot of people on a certain bill. But items also can come and go from agendas without prior notice.
Sen. Phil Griego, who chairs the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee, has a policy that any bill amendment needs to be posted 24 hours before discussion so his members can consider it before debate. But that can also mean that members of the public who come to speak have to make multiple trips because amendments are not necessarily posted publicly.
Alexandria Taylor, executive director of Valencia Shelter Services in Los Lunas, was waiting Thursday to testify about a bill on confidentiality for victims of domestic violence. She had a computer and reading material. It was the same with the Maryland Legislature, when she worked there. "I'm ready to wait. It's important our clients are protected," she said.
San Juan County Sheriff's Office Detective Mike Sindelar was in another hallway. He said there are days he doesn't get out of committee hearings until 9 p.m. or even midnight. He was waiting along with Sandy Blalock, who represents small recycling businesses, for a hearing on HB 383. It is a bill to expand the Pawnbrokers Act to require daily reports to law enforcement on new as well as used property that is received or purchased by brokers. And when gold, silver, gems or precious metals are bought, a photograph would have to be included in the reports.
"You're lucky if it comes on the same day" said Blalock of the legislative hearings. Sindelar added, "It's a messy process, but it's the best we got."