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Legislative session gets underway

The public gallery is closed off at the New Mexico House of Representatives as state lawmakers trickle into the Statehouse on Tuesday in Santa Fe, on the first day of a 60-day legislative session. Fences, roadblocks, police and troops encircled the building as a precaution against federal warnings about the potential for violence. Plexiglass partitions have been installed on the floor of the House and Senate to protect legislators from coronavirus infection, and the Capitol is closed to the public to avoid spread of the contagion. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

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New Mexico lawmakers gathered in Santa Fe Tuesday to begin a 60-day session, with clear reminders of the ongoing pandemic and a heightened sense of alert about the potential for political unrest.

Members of the House and Senate both convened at about noon at the Roundhouse to be administered the oath of office, receive committee assignments and other business that will determine the course and set the tone for the session.

The session gets underway just 13 days after a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, leading to the deaths of five people including one Capitol Hill Police officer.

Amid worries of similar acts of violence, state Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said the Roundhouse has been fortified by a high fence, while New Mexico State Police and National Guard troops stand guard.

“I had to show my credentials to enter that perimeter to get to my office,” he said.

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During past legislative sessions, Nibert said, the security presence was lighter.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, speaking from the rostrum, referenced the attack on the Capitol and portrayed the session as a victory over the throngs who forced their way into the U.S. Capitol.

“We will not be deterred from doing the important work ahead of us,” he said.

Egolf also called for civility and said bills for both Democrats and Republicans will be considered.

“We will be looking at legislation that represents the best of both sides of the aisle,” he said.

In the Senate, state Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who was elected Senate President Pro Tempore, also called for bipartisanship saying that neither the Democrats or Republicans can tackle the challenges the state faces without help from each other.

House members voted to reelect Egolf speaker over House Minority Floor Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia. Egolf won another term leading the House in a 45 to 25 party-line vote.

The COVID-19 pandemic is strongly influencing the session. During the opening House floor session, many members cast their votes and took part from their offices via Zoom.

Members who appeared in person sat masked and boxed in by plexiglass partitions which separated them from one another.

A rule adopted during the two special sessions last year to allow House members to cast votes and participate in committee and legislative meetings via Zoom was also adopted Tuesday.

Nibert said the House Rules and Order of Business Committee, of which he is a member, expects to meet Friday to consider what rules will be adopted in the House for this session. Like in the two special sessions, entrance to the roundhouse will be restricted to lawmakers, legislative staff and members of the press.

Nibert added that regardless of the option to allow members to take part in the session virtually, he and many of his colleagues from southeast New Mexico plan to be on the floor throughout the session.

“We all plan to be present on the floor, in our seats, participating in the Roundhouse,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic will be a central part of the session.

Nibert said he is working with state Rep. Damon Ely, D-Albuquerque, on a bill that would require the governor to consult with the Legislature when it comes to prolonged emergency declarations.

During both of the special sessions, Nibert introduced a bill that would mandate that the governor consult with the Legislature within 30 days of an emergency being declared, to extend the use of emergency powers. During both special sessions the bill was not taken up because it was not on the agenda.

The new version of the bill, he said, will extend that 30-day timeframe to 90 days.

“So basically the governor has three months to deal with an emergency. If she wants to extend that emergency beyond 90 days, then she has to come to the legislative branch of government, engage us in a special session to involve us in the crafting of public policy and authorize the expenditures of money to deal with it moving forward,” Nibert said.

Under the proposed bill, each extension would be 60 days long before another extension would have to be granted.

“That is the only way that each and every community in the state gets to participate in the crafting of public policy and I think that is reasonable,” Nibert said.

Members of the House and Senate also received their committee assignments for this session.

In the Senate, Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, will be on the Senate Judiciary Committee, while Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, will be on the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee.

Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, will be on the Senate Taxation and Revenue Committee, the Senate Education Committee, and the Business and Transportation Committee.

Egolf announced from the House floor Tuesday the assignments for members of that body.

State Rep. Candy Ezzell, R-Roswell, will continue to serve on the House Agriculture and Water Resources Committee and join the House Education Committee. She will no longer serve on the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee.

State Rep. Phelps Anderson will remain on the House Appropriations and Finance Committee and also join the House Health and Human Services Committee.

House Minority Floor Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, will serve on the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the House Judiciary Committee, the Rules and Order of Business Committee and the House Printing and Supplies Committee.

As in the previous session, Nibert will be on the House Judiciary Committee, the State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee, but he will also join the House Rules and Order of Business Committee.

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

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