Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a special session of the New Mexico Legislature convened Thursday as a steep budget shortfall and the growing demands across the country for police reform also took center stage.
Wearing face masks and adhering to social distancing practices, members of both the House and Senate gathered in their respective chambers at noon. The pandemic loomed large as members of the House observed a moment of silence for New Mexicans who have died from the virus.
In his address to the House, Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said the special session is the first New Mexico’s Legislature has held during a global pandemic.
The session was convened chiefly to deal with a projected $2.4 billion budget shortfall. However, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has authorized the Legislature to consider a host of other subjects including a proposal to use money from the state’s multibillion-dollar Severance Tax Permanent Fund for loans to small businesses and municipalities impacted by the pandemic, changes to state election law, police reforms, and the formation of a commission to look at the issue of qualified immunity for officers accused of misconduct.
“The focus of this special session is relatively narrow given the economic crisis and the public health concerns about gathering for an extended period of time — but we must begin to address both the financial and human rights emergencies of this moment and put ourselves in a position to evaluate and enact broader structural reform in the next regular session of the Legislature,” Lujan Grisham said in a press release.
In all, Egolf told the Legislature that as of noon, nine bills were on his desk.
Some Republicans though said lawmakers should concentrate on shoring up the state’s budget. Under the state Constitution, legislators are tasked with crafting a budget plan that does not spend more than it takes in.
“That is what we were sent here for,” State Rep. Candy Ezzell, R-Roswell, said shortly before the session officially started.
Legislators, she added, were advised to prepare for a session that would be a minimum of three days long but could extend beyond that. Each day the Legislature remains in session, Ezzell said, it costs the state an additional $50,000.
“We need to deal with the budget and then we need to get out of here,” she said.
In a press release by House Republicans, House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, blasted the governor for waiting until noon Wednesday to issue her legislative call and not having any draft legislation with it for legislators to analyze.
“None of this has been made public until noon today (Wednesday) — we are expected to be taking up election law changes, setting up commissions to study qualified immunity, and the list goes on and on — all without draft legislation for review,” said Townsend. “Focusing our efforts on anything other than our budget and our economic crisis is unacceptable.”
Daniel Marzec, a spokesperson for House Democrats, said the governor’s call was sent Wednesday and the Legislative Council Service has been doing “its due diligence to get those bills uploaded for public viewing as soon as possible.”
Some Republicans have introduced legislation of their own. State Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said he has put forth a bill that would limit to 30 days the amount of time the governor could put in place or change an emergency public health order without getting approval from the Legislature.
Similar legislation that would automatically terminate a public health emergency ordered by the governor after two weeks, unless approved by the Legislature, has been introduced in the Senate by state Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen.
Nibert said the Legislature needs to assert its power in those situations to appropriate money to combat a pandemic and debate the emergency.
In response to Baca’s legislation, Nora Sackett, press secretary for the governor, in an email called the proposal concerning in what she called its disregard for public health — and not logistically sound, because the issue was not included in the governor’s call for the special session.
Republicans also expressed opposition to some of the measures outlined in the governor’s call.
Nibert said he is most unsettled by one regarding election reform. Lujan Grisham in her call of the Legislature threw her support to making some changes to election law, including one that would grant the state’s county clerks the ability to send a ballot to registered voters with a current mailing address.
The proposal, if passed and signed into law, would also allow voters and election administrators to track their ballots through the mail delivery system and include other changes to election law, according to a press release from the governor’s office.
Nibert said he does not know if the bill would allow an all-mail ballot election only in emergencies, such as a pandemic, or just for the coming November election amid fears of a second wave of COVID-19.
A process already exists to deal with elections in such an emergency, Nibert said, where voters who feel uncomfortable going to a polling place can simply request an absentee ballot. He said that process has more safeguards in place to protect the integrity of the elections.
The pandemic has also changed how the Legislature operates. One proposal that passed out of the House Rules and Order of Business Committee would allow House members to observe online and cast a vote remotely without being present in the chamber.
Ezzell has expressed worries that such a proposal could limit participation by members, while Nibert said he would be open to a proposal where lawmakers would not be present on the House floor to vote but could do so inside the Roundhouse at alternate locations, such as an individual member’s office.
Marzec said that amidst the pandemic, remote voting is not something unheard of.
“State legislative bodies nationwide are adopting similar measures and not one has been deemed unconstitutional as states prioritize the health of members and of the public,” he said.
After the proposal passed the committee, it was then sent to the full House for final approval. There was no word as of press time Thursday whether the full House approved the rule change.
Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext, 301, or email@example.com.