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Local lawmakers sound off on special session

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State Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia AP Photo

The New Mexico Legislature officially ended its five-day special session Monday, after passing a revised budget and several other pieces of legislation.

Members of the New Mexico House of Representatives adjourned Monday evening, two days after the Senate finished its work on a bill to balance the state budget, providing economic assistance to businesses impacted by the pandemic, temporary changes to election laws and police reform.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham applauded lawmakers for coming together to address a $2.4 billion budget shortfall and other items she had placed on her call for the special session that began Thursday.

“Amid unprecedented and difficult circumstances, both chambers and both parties were receptive to my call and came together to deliver for New Mexicans: for our neighbors whose businesses and livelihoods have been ravaged by the effects of this pandemic, for our neighbors who for so long called for an examination of and eradication of systemic racism and injustice, for our neighbors who have the right to exercise their franchise this fall without fear of infection,” she said.

Legislators representing Chaves County — all Republicans — classified the session differently.

They claimed Democrats, who control both legislative chambers and the governor’s office, excluded Republicans from the legislative process, not considering their amendments or legislative proposals.

“It was done with no input from the minority,” state Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said. “Everything was already predetermined and that is how everything worked out.”

A spokesperson for House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, did not respond to a request for comment about Nibert’s statement before press time Tuesday.

Nibert, along with House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, and two other Republicans introduced House Bill 10 (HB 10), which would terminate after 30 days an emergency order or the invocation of emergency powers by the governor, unless both legislative chambers approve an extension.

Daniel Marzec, a spokesperson for House Democrats, claimed Saturday, HB 10 was not taken up for vote because it was not among the items listed in the governor’s call.

Nibert said he thought the special session and governor’s call should have focused only on the budget and governor’s emergency orders, with other matters taken up in the coming regular session in January.

“Those are the only two issues that should have been addressed and yet we had all this politically charged legislation before us,” he said.

Body cameras

One of the final pieces of legislation passed by the House Friday was Senate Bill 8 (SB 8), which requires that most law enforcement officers wear body cameras and have them activated while on duty and interacting with the public.

The bill passed the New Mexico House, 44-26, with local Republican state Reps. Phelps Anderson, Nibert and Candy Ezzell, all from Roswell, and Townsend joining in voting against it. All but two Democrats voted for it.

The Senate passed the bill Friday, 31-11, with five Republicans, including Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, voting for it.

Fellow Republican Sens. William Burt of Alamogordo, Cliff Pirtle of Roswell and Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales all voted against it.

If signed into law, SB 8 would apply to municipal police departments, county sheriffs’ offices, the New Mexico State Police Department and the New Mexico Department of Public Safety and would require peace officers to wear body cameras while on duty.

According to the legislative analysis on SB 8, the cameras must remain activated during calls for service or other law enforcement or investigative encounters between an officer and a member of the public.

All footage from the cameras would have to be maintained by law enforcement agencies for a period of 120 days and agencies would be required to come up with rules and disciplinary measures for officers who do not use cameras as required and either manipulate or prematurely erase video recordings.

In a press release Monday, state Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, noted 26 of New Mexico’s 33 counties already use body cameras and called the law “a step in the right direction toward a future without police violence and abuse, fostering a safer New Mexico for all New Mexicans.”

Townsend said while he believes body cameras are a good idea and the bill does provide $19,000 in funding for some body cameras to NMSP, it does not appropriate money for communities and counties to purchase the cameras and equipment.

“And so there are a lot of small communities that are going to be greatly impaired by this,” Townsend said.

According to the legislative analysis, the cameras are estimated to cost about $795 each. However, Burt said, other costs are needed to comply with the bill. They include secured computer systems in which footage can be stored and accessed and people to manage that data.

“And there was no real budgeting set aside for things like that across the state,” he said.

Burt said he was told by bill sponsors police departments were not consulted when the bill was written.

“This is a bill created by politicians in Santa Fe and their way of thinking how police departments should run and what they should be obligated to do,” Burt said.

Nibert said he voted against the bill for a multitude of reasons, including the lack of exceptions, including for officers in an undercover operation, something he said would be a “death sentence” for officers if they were ever found with a recording device on their person.

The legislation, he added, also lacks protections for privacy related to interactions with informants, and situations like domestic disputes, of which video could later be made public.

“And when they do that, the public will be able to view your private actions with your spouse and it will be for all the world to see,” he said.

Nibert added that under the bill, law enforcement officers could also be held liable if the camera malfunctions or is damaged on the job.

Temporary election law changes

One of the issues taken up that engendered the most debate was legislation to temporarily adjust state election laws in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and which would expire after the November election.

In the House, all Republicans voted against the bill. In the Senate, Burt, Pirtle, Kernan and Ingle joined Democrats and all but two Republicans in supporting an amended version of the bill.

SB 4 covers a myriad of issues related to voting, including polling locations on American Indian reservations, and will allow eligible voters in New Mexico not registered with a political party to vote in a state primary election.

Initially, the bill also would have allowed county clerks to automatically send mailed ballots or applications for absentee ballots to all eligible voters in November.

An amendment inserted into the bill passed by the Senate took out the mail ballot provision, instead only affording the counties the option to send out applications for absentee ballots to registered voters.

Though he voted against the bill, Townsend said he liked the provision allowing voters who are not registered Democrats, Republicans or Libertarians to vote in a party primary.

In the end, Townsend said he opposed the bill because his constituents found various parts of the bill too ambiguous.

Elections conducted by mail are something Townsend said he opposes.

Establishing more polling places voters could go around the state, Townsend argued, would be a better way to more safely conduct an election amid the pandemic.

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