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Measure to curb gov’s powers advances

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An effort by a local legislator to curb some of the governor’s emergency powers cleared another House committee Wednesday, though he admits it faces an uncertain future as it inches its way through the legislative process.

Members of the State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee, by a vote of 7-1, moved to advance House Joint Resolution 6 (HJR 6) to the House Judiciary Committee, but with “no recommendation” for approval.

“They are saying it deserves to be heard in the next committee, but they are not endorsing it or putting their stamp of approval on it,” state Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said in describing Wednesday’s vote.

The action was taken after a motion to advance HJR 6 with a “do pass recommendation” deadlocked in a 4-4 vote by the same committee.

If approved by the New Mexico House of Representatives and Senate, HJR 6 would send a proposed constitutional amendment to New Mexico voters in a 2022 statewide election to require the governor to convene a special legislative session if a state emergency is expected to last more than 90 days.

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Once called into session, lawmakers would have the opportunity to suspend, modify or cancel a state emergency declaration or public health order if they can get a three-fifths supermajority in both legislative chambers to do so. Should no action be taken, the order or declaration would remain in place for another 60 days.

After that, if another extension is warranted, the governor must call the Legislature into session until either the declaration or order lapses or the governor or Legislature moves to terminate the emergency.

Such efforts have gained the support of many state Republican legislators and other critics of the public health orders issued by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, that have placed constraints on businesses, the operation of schools and the size of public gatherings in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The governor has repeatedly said such measures have saved lives.

Nibert acknowledged that Wednesday’s vote on HJR 6 signals that resistance is mounting to HJR 6 and House Bill 139, a bill he sponsored with Albuquerque state Reps. Daymon Ely, a Democrat, and William Rehm, a Republican. HB 139 would enact the same measures as HJR 6 but do so through legislation rather than a constitutional amendment.

Both measures previously garnered bipartisan support and “do pass recommendations” when they went before committees. The House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee did so with HJR 6 on Feb. 22 in a 5-0 vote.

The State Government, Election and Indian Affairs Committee passed HB 139 on Feb. 3 with a “do pass recommendation.”

During Wednesday’s hearing, Nibert and Ely said they believed that over the years, the Legislature has ceded too much power to the executive branch, especially as it relates to emergency powers.

Ely said during the current emergency related to the pandemic, when legislators receive calls and questions about the state’s response, there is little they can do.

“We have to just turn it over to the governor’s office because we have no input on that,” he said. A special session, he said, would provide constituents with a mechanism to provide complaints and feel they have been heard.

Critics of the measure on the committee, such as state Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, said the Legislature should have a role. But as a volunteer Legislature that typically only meets for a short time every year, it is not presently structured in a way that lawmakers can effectively do so in a statewide emergency.

“We have a part-time Legislature. We have no staff, except when we are in session. We simply don’t have what we need to weigh in on a public health emergency,” Chasey said.

She is also worried debate on such a proposal will turn into a forum for people to complain about the state’s response to the pandemic.

“I would like some kind of assurance, at some point in time, that the debate is going to be about principle and not attacks on the actions the governor felt compelled to take based on science,” Chasey said.

Nibert said the intent of the resolution is not to criticize the governor.

“My effort going forward is not to look in the rearview mirror, it’s not to cast aspersions on any decisions that have been made. It’s simply a recognition that, I believe, that the Legislature has a role to play in good times and bad,” he explained.

If approved by voters, Nibert said the constitutional amendment would not go into effect until 2023, when the pandemic is likely to be over.

Other lawmakers, such as state Rep. Wonda Johnson, D-Rehoboth, said she had mixed feelings about the proposal. “At this time I am holding back, but I would like to see the concept move forward,” Johnson said.

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