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Local lawmakers question need for special session

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Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

Ten days after their 60-day legislative session concluded, New Mexico lawmakers will be back in Santa Fe for a special session with an agenda mainly focused on legalization of adult recreational cannabis, a move that has irked local Republicans.

“It’s absolutely ludicrous,” state Rep. Candy Ezzell, R-Roswell, said Friday. “We just got home last Saturday. We haven’t even had a week yet and now we have to go back Tuesday.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday issued a call for a special session that will start Tuesday, March 30. Two items were on the call: a bill to legalize the use, sale and production of adult recreational cannabis in New Mexico, and a bill related to funding of the state’s Local Economic Development Act (LEDA) fund.

Only items listed on the call can be discussed during a session.

No word on how long this session will last, but Nora Sackett, Lujan Grisham’s press secretary, said it is hoped the session will end “within just a couple days,” and it could be as short as one day.

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In a press release, Lujan Grisham blamed the unusual nature of the 60-day session — with its rules and dependence on virtual participation — for slowing the legislative process and preventing those issues from reaching her desk before the session ended March 20.

“While I applaud the Legislature and staff for their incredible perseverance and productivity during the 60 day(s) in the face of these challenges, we must and we will forge ahead and finish the job on these initiatives together for the good of the people and future of our great state,” Lujan Grisham said.

Cannabis legalization, with its potential as a job creator and source for millions of dollars in state revenue, has been a top priority for Lujan Grisham. Such legislation during the session did pass the New Mexico House of Representatives, but stalled in the Senate hours before the session ended.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational cannabis.

Republicans though have blasted the idea of a special session, accusing Lujan Grisham of doing it to pressure legislators to pass measures she was unable to get during a regular session.

“The governor did not get her way on an issue that she feels strongly about. So she is going to call us into special session because she thinks she has a shot of getting her way,” state Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said.

Special sessions, he said, are typically reserved for pressing matters that require immediate action by the Legislature, such as budgetary issues and redistricting.

“We had 60 days. There was cannabis legislation introduced. It did not pass and it does not seem, to me, that that is an issue of critical importance that we need to go back into special session for,” he said.

Others, such as Ezzell, said the move could prevent legislators from enjoying the Easter holidays and bemoaned the price tag.

“I hope people understand the severity of what she has just done. The amount of money it is costing,” Ezzell said.

Estimates on the cost of a special session vary. Raul Burciaga, director of the New Mexico Legislative Council Service, said in the last 10 to 15 years, special sessions have on average cost roughly $50,000 a day, depending on how many people are hired to assist.

Friday’s development though did not come as a surprise.

Lujan Grisham and some legalization advocates floated a special session as a possibility as early as March 20, after legislators wrestled with a series of complex health and tax matters related to legalization and had to make constant revisions to proposed legislation.

“We knew that we were probably coming back in a special session to deal with the cannabis issue because this is a priority with the governor and this administration,” Sen. Bill Burt, R-Alamogordo, said.

In anticipation of an eventual special session, members from both parties in the House and Senate have been engaged in discussions and efforts to hammer out a bill that can pass both chambers, said Chris Nordstrum, a spokesperson for the Senate Democrats.

“That work will continue up to and through the special session as each measure goes through the standard legislative process,” he said. Any bill would have to pass both chambers of the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

One Republican Friday announced that he has developed a bill which he believes could garner broad support.

State Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, unveiled a 131-page bill, similar to Senate Bill 288 (SB 288), legislation he tried to get through during the regular session but that was sidelined in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Pirtle’s proposal retains many of the features of that legislation, including a low tax rate on cannabis products, but with a few changes. Unlike SB 288, the new proposal would allow people to have a maximum of six mature cannabis plants in a household.

He added that the bill was the product of consultation and addresses the concerns that many in law enforcement, local government, the agriculture community and others have about legalization.

“If the governor insists on forcing this issue by calling a special session, this is the sensible and prudent solution to cannabis legalization. This bill enhances public safety measures and guarantees that our farmers have a low barrier to market entry to support our agriculture community,” Pirtle said.

He added that he believes his bill could also garner bipartisan support. However, hopes of winning over Republicans could be difficult.

Many, such as Burt, say they are against legalization, citing workplace and road safety concerns and the lack of sobriety field tests for impaired drivers.

“We can’t even get a handle on DWIs in New Mexico. And now we are going to roll out a whole new problem on top of that: driving under the influence of a legalized drug,” he said.

Burt said he worries any economic gains legalization will yield would be offset by the need to hire more police officers and health care problems that could accompany legalization.

“There are two sides to every story and I don’t think we are hearing about the downside to legalizing cannabis in the state of New Mexico,” he said.

Ezzell said she is also a “no.”

Lawmakers in conservative districts are not feeling pressure to go along with legalization. Nibert said most of the feedback on the issue he has received from constituents in his House District, which includes parts of Chaves and Lincoln counties, has been against legalization.

Though he will listen to the debate, Nibert said he has misgivings about legalization, particularly the effect cannabis can have on children.

“I’m just very concerned about the message that sends,” Nibert said.

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

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