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Local lawmakers propose to delay legislative session

In this Jan. 21 file photo, New Mexico House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, speaks to fellow state lawmakers in Santa Fe. (AP Photo)

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Some local lawmakers are calling for a postponement of next year’s legislative session, voicing concerns that measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 could hinder public participation during the session.

In a press release issued by the New Mexico House Republican Caucus Thursday, House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, raised the possibility of delaying the session.

Townsend, who represents Chaves, Eddy and Otero counties, said for legislators to move forward with the 60-day session would be disrespectful to New Mexicans and a double standard, given Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s call for people to limit outings and social gatherings amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.

“If New Mexicans are being told to skip Thanksgiving and Christmas with family members because of the risk, then we surely can delay the session until later this spring when it is warmer, when the virus is hopefully more manageable, and most importantly when we can fully include the public in the process,” he said.

The Constitution of the State of New Mexico requires the Legislature convene at noon on the third Tuesday of January each year for a legislative session.

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In a press release later in the day, House Speaker Brian Egolf said not meeting in January as prescribed by the state Constitution, is “not an option,” especially as the state grapples with the effects of the pandemic.

“The New Mexico Legislature will not abandon New Mexicans or delay important work in our communities,” he said.

Egolf in his release also described Townsend’s comparison of putting off the session to skipping a holiday as “grossly irresponsible.” He added various lessons have been learned from the special session in June when Legislators met to resolve a budget shortfall amid the pandemic.

Townsend though said he believes the Legislature can convene as scheduled on the third Tuesday in January for the purpose of swearing in members, take care of other urgent matters and then adjourn until a later date.

Republicans criticized some of the measures taken during a special session in June to resolve a budget shortfall during the pandemic. During that session, access to the Roundhouse was limited to legislators.

Whether the Legislature moves forward with its annual session, lawmakers say it needs to be done in a way that allows the public to participate.

In the special session called in June to resolve a budget shortfall, the public was blocked from entering the Roundhouse, with only lawmakers, some legislative staff and credentialed media allowed access to the building. Republicans decried the move as lacking transparency.

Though legislative hearings will likely be livestreamed, state Rep. Candy Ezzell, R-Roswell, chair of the House Republican Caucus, said that does not take into account people from parts of the state with undependable or no internet access.

“We have areas of the state that do not have broadband, do not have Wi-Fi capabilities, that do not have computers. How are they supposed to be able to participate with their legislators from these areas,” Ezzell asked?

She added a possible rule that could limit the number the number of people in the audience during a House procedure to five people at one time. A member of the House Agriculture Committee, Ezzell said farmers and ranchers make the long drive to Santa Fe during the session to interact with lawmakers and offer input on bills that have a direct impact on their livelihoods.

Such limits on access to the capitol, she said, could mean rural New Mexicans could lose the ability to be heard on such bills.

Ezzell and Townsend each said how the Session will happen will be discussed Monday at a Legislative Council meeting.

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

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