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Local lawmakers react to end of legislative session

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Democratic state Rep. Roger Montoya of Velarde works on a laptop in the state Capitol rotunda in Santa Fe in the final hours of a 60-day legislative session on Saturday. (AP Photo)

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

New Mexico legislators concluded their 2021 legislative session Saturday, one that will go down as unique in the state’s history.

The session, which began Jan. 19, was the first regular session of the New Mexico Legislature since the pandemic began. Lawmakers had met in two short special sessions last year.

For Democrats, who enjoyed their third consecutive year of unified control of state government, it was marked by considerable legislatives wins.

Lawmakers representing southeast New Mexico though — specifically in districts that include Chaves County, a Republican stronghold — are glad the session is over.

“My headache hasn’t gone away,” state Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said Monday.

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COVID restrictions

The pandemic loomed large throughout the session. Members were required to wear masks and plexiglass barriers were erected between seats on the House and Senate floors. Most committees did not meet in person.

As was the case during last year’s two special sessions, access to the Roundhouse was restricted to legislators, legislative staff and credentialed media.

Many Republicans decried the restrictions and before the session began suggested it be postponed until March or April, when cases of the virus would be fewer and the public could come to the capitol to weigh in on pending legislation.

Speaker of the House Brian Egolf defended moving forward with the session, citing the need to provide economic relief to individuals and businesses impacted by the pandemic.

The public was able to offer comment and participate by calling into committees or taking part via Zoom. Daniel Marzec, a spokesperson for the House Democratic Caucus, said Monday that 19,090 people took part in virtual hearings.

Nonetheless, critics say the absence of the public’s presence did have an effect.

“The crafting of public policy without the public being present made it much more difficult,” Nibert said of the session.

Republicans pointed out that many New Mexicans in rural areas of the state lack access to dependable broadband service. House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, alleged that people who did call into committee meetings had a one-minute limit on their comments.

He added that each year groups from across the state devote considerable time and energy to come to Santa Fe to inform legislators of their priorities and promote their communities, something they were deprived of the chance to do this year.

“People want to have the ability to go in, sit down and talk about bills that come up,” he said.

Legislation

In all, 199 pieces of legislation were forwarded to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk for action, according to the official website of the New Mexico Legislature. They include 158 bills, 36 memorials and five resolutions.

Lujan Grisham has until April 9 to sign or veto the measures. After that deadline, items not acted upon will not become law.

At a press conference Saturday, Lujan Grisham touted the accomplishments of the session, including repeal of the state’s dormant 1969 law criminalizing abortion, an overhaul of the state’s liquor licensing system and some COVID-19 relief for businesses.

Others items passed included a series of healthcare and environmental measures, and a state constitutional amendment that, if approved by voters, would allow a portion of money from the state’s permanent fund to be used for early childhood education.

“You name a priority area, and I can tell you that we had incredible leadership and incredible success in the legislative session,” she said.

Republicans though had a less favorable view. Finding themselves badly outnumbered, Republicans mounted efforts to quash some proposals, but with little success.

“It didn’t matter if we debated a bill for three hours and pointed out every flaw, they still passed it because of the speaker,” state Rep. Candy Ezzell, R-Roswell, said.

Nibert said from his perspective much of what passed will continue to “grow government” and make it more challenging for businesses and industry to operate in New Mexico.

He cited Senate Bill 8 (SB 8) as an example. The legislation, if signed, will allow the state to set air quality and hazardous waste standards more stringent than those set by the federal government.

“And it is mine and many others’ belief that that is primarily focused on the oil and gas industry,” Nibert said.

Millions of dollars in COVID relief was approved while the session was underway.

Townsend though said the big emphasis should not have been on approving dollars for assistance but getting rid of the last vestiges of COVID restrictions placed on businesses.

“That is the kind of relief they are looking for,” he said.

Bills on emergency powers

Measures introduced by Republicans were also not taken up during the session, chief among them bills designed to curtail the governor’s emergency powers.

Nibert, along with state Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, sponsored two measures, one a bill and the other a joint resolution for a state constitutional amendment, that would require a governor to convene a special session when they believe any emergency order would last more than 90 days.

The measure initially garnered bipartisan support, with the constitutional amendment passing the House Consumer and Public Affairs and State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committees. The bill passed the State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee.

The bill and the resolution were both slated to be taken up by the House Judiciary Committee. However, Nibert blames the governor’s vow to veto the bill, and pressure Lujan Grisham placed on Democrats to kill both measures, for dooming the effort.

He said that state Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, refused to schedule either measure for a vote or hearing in committee.

“And it was all because the governor was pushing back,” Nibert said.

The issue though is one that Nibert said he is not giving up on, because he believes the Legislature as a co-equal branch of government needs to play a role in protracted emergencies.

“Me and my co-sponsor are resolved to bring that up at every opportunity we have the ability to do so,” he said.

Special Session

One priority that failed to reach Lujan Grisham’s desk was legislation to legalize the use, purchase, sale and production of adult-use recreational cannabis. The governor and other legalization advocates have pointed to the additional state and local revenue and added job opportunities that could result from legalization.

One bill, House Bill 12 (HB 12) passed the House 39 to 31 and advanced through committees but a stack of proposed amendments prevented the bill from reaching the floor before the session ended.

Lujan Grisham has floated possibly calling a special session on or around March 31 to approve a bill to make New Mexico the 16th state to legalize recreational cannabis use for adults.

Some local Republicans though are opposed to the idea of returning to Santa Fe so soon after the end of a regular session.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Ezzell said.

A one-day special session comes with a price tag of as much as $54,480 a day, according to a figure from 2015 provided by the Legislative Council Service.

Nibert added that he does not see adult-use cannabis legalization as rising to the level of urgency that requires a special session. Townsend said that calling a special session is disrespectful to individual lawmakers and shows a disregard for the legislative process.

Lujan Grisham said Saturday the unique nature of the session slowed the pace of the legislative process, and that there is enough agreement to get a bill passed.

“In short, we are very close. And we will finish the job,” she said.

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

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