Home News Local News Bill to curb governor’s powers passes committee

Bill to curb governor’s powers passes committee

State Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, speaks to an audience at the November 2019 meeting of the Chaves County Federated Republican Women. (Daily Record File Photo)

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A bill introduced by a southeast New Mexico legislator to limit the length of time an emergency public order or emergency declaration remains in place cleared its first committee last week.

House Bill 139 (HB 139), also known as the Legislative Oversight of Emergency Declarations Act, passed out of the State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee Feb. 3 in a 7-2 vote.

State Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, along with Albuquerque state Reps. Daymon Ely, a Democrat; and William Rehm, a Republican, sponsored the bill and voted for it in committee.

HB 139 would require any public health emergency order or emergency declaration issued by the governor to expire after 90 days. If an extension is necessary, the governor would need to call the Legislature into special session before the 90-day deadline.

According to the bill, lawmakers during that special session would have the opportunity to amend, suspend or terminate the order by a simple majority vote. If no such action is taken, the emergency would be extended for another 60 days, and if the governor feels another extension would be warranted, another special session would have to be called.

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The pattern would continue until either the 60-day extended deadline passes and a special legislative session is not called, or the declaration is terminated by the governor or Legislature.

Because the legislation includes an emergency clause, HB 139 would go into effect immediately should it be signed by the governor.

Republicans, such as Nibert, whose House district includes Chaves and Lincoln counties, have been critical of the use of emergency powers by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lujan Grisham has used her authority to limit public gatherings, mandate mask-wearing and temporarily shut down large swaths of the state economy in order to limit transmission of the virus.

Nora Meyers Sackett, press secretary for Lujan Grisham, on Friday said such authority and flexibility to act immediately by the governor has helped save lives.

Nibert and supporters of HB 139 said during the committee hearing that the bill is not meant to punish the governor, but is a vehicle to allow the Legislature, as a co-equal branch of government, to weigh in on a protracted emergency.

“When emergencies go beyond a fairly short period of time, I believe we as a legislative branch of government have a constitutional role to play in crafting public policy and appropriating money to deal with those emergencies,” Nibert said.

Some Democrats also agreed that state representatives and senators should have a bigger part to play.

Ely lauded the response by Lujan Grisham to the pandemic, but said over the years the Legislature has “checked itself out” and ceded authority on some issues. Now, he said, they need to claw back some of that power.

“What I told my colleagues on my side of the aisle is, look, regardless of who the governor is, Democrat or Republican, our system works better when all three branches of government are involved in an issue,” he said.

Similar measures in both legislative chambers have been introduced: two in the House and two in the Senate, along with House Joint Resolution 6 (HJR 6). The House Resolution, which is sponsored by Nibert and Ely, would submit to voters in a statewide election a proposed Constitutional Amendment to enshrine the process outlined in HB 139 into the New Mexico Constitution.

According to a figure in the fiscal impact report on HB 139, the cost in 2015 for a one-day special session would have been $54,480. If HB 139 was law at the time Lujan Grisham issued her first emergency order in March 2020, she would have been required to call four special sessions to extend the state of emergency, which would have cost the state a total of $217,920 based on 2015 prices.

Opponents of HB 139 at the hearing questioned whether New Mexico’s Legislature has the tools in place to perform such a function in an emergency.

State Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, and a member of the committee who voted against passage, said she believes the Legislature needs to have the powers granted by HB 139, but worries New Mexico’s structurally weak Legislature is not equipped to do it.

Chasey noted that unlike most Legislatures across the county, New Mexico lawmakers are not paid, do not have a professional staff and rarely meet.

“I would just feel so much better about exerting our authority if we actually had it in structure,” she said. “And we absolutely need to have that to weigh in on these types of emergencies.”

Chasey added she is also worried about the timeline required to call a special session during ongoing emergencies where the situation is often fluid.

“I worry about the actual mechanics of the situation,” she said.

Ely responded he agrees with the idea of reforming the Legislature to place it on a more professional footing, but the Legislature still needs to perform its duty.

“Just because we are not paid and don’t have staff doesn’t mean we should give away our authority,” he said.

HB 139 next heads to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration.

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

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