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Lawmakers petition for State Capitol public access

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Alex Ross Photo State Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, has drafted two bills to give businesses financial relief due to coronavirus-related shutdowns. He is seen at a July 2019 event in Roswell.

A local lawmaker led a predominantly Republican group of legislators Thursday in asking the New Mexico Supreme Court to reverse what they say is an unconstitutional action to block public access to the New Mexico State Capitol building during the upcoming special legislative session.

New Mexico Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, along with 19 other state representatives and senators, filed a petition requesting the court issue a Writ of Mandamus to prevent the Interim Legislative Council Committee from prohibiting the general public from entering the State Capitol during the special session, which begins Thursday, according to documents.

Aubrey Dunn, former Commissioner of Public Lands, was also listed among the petitioners.

The committee, a group of 16 legislators from both the House and Senate, approved a motion during a Tuesday virtual meeting preventing the general public from entering the State Capitol during the special session, which is being held to address a $2 billion state budget shortfall.

The motion is meant to ensure the Legislature is in compliance with the governor’s public health orders meant to curb the transmission of COVID-19.

Under the motion — which passed without objection — only legislators and legislative staff can access the State Capitol, which has been closed to the public since March. A separate motion was later agreed to allow media access to the State Capitol.

In court documents filed with the Supreme Court, petitioners argue barring the general public from the State Capitol during a special legislative session is a violation of Article IV section 4 of the Constitution of New Mexico, which states “all sessions of each house (of the Legislature) shall be made public.”

“No provision in the Constitution provides the power to the Legislature to ignore the plain language of the Constitution or provides an exception that allows for this requirement to be avoided in a special session occurring in a public health pandemic,” the petition states.

The Legislature, the documents state, can implement other restrictions to protect public health short of closing the State Capitol to the public.

Petitioners also argue keeping the State Capitol closed to the public deprives them of due process, which they quote a past court decision as meaning the opportunity to be heard in a meaningful time and manner, according to documents.

Though the special session will be streamed online for people to view, Pirtle told the Roswell Daily Record Friday the intentions of the legislators might be good, but many parts of New Mexico, especially rural areas, do not have access to dependable internet and therefore cannot observe or take part in livestream or webcast meetings during the session.

Pirtle said people should be able to attend the special session while observing social distancing guidelines. The special session is being called to fix a $2 billion shortfall in the budget, while complying with social distancing guidelines.

“Keeping the State Capitol open to the public epitomizes the importance of an open government, an open New Mexico and how critical it is for the public to have rights and freedoms,” Pirtle said in a press release Thursday.

Pirtle, an advisory member of the committee without committee voting privileges, said he received a slew of phone calls and emails from concerned constituents following the vote.

John Boller — a senior staff attorney with the Legislative Council Service — when reached for comment Friday said the council will file a response to the petition Monday.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext, 301, or breakingnews@rdrnews.com.