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GOP lawmakers rail against legislative session

State Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, speaks to a crowd at the April 21 meeting of the Chaves County Federated Republican Women at the Roswell Convention Center. Also pictured are state Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, and state Rep. Candy Ezzell, R-Roswell. The three lawmakers, along with Republican state Sens. Bill Burt of Alamogordo and Cliff Pirtle of Roswell, expressed frustration with much of the legislation passed during the 60-day legislative session from Jan. 19 to March 20. They also denounced legislation passed during a special session that will legalize recreational cannabis in New Mexico. (Alex Ross Photo)

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Republican lawmakers from Chaves County last week offered a blistering critique of the 2021 legislative session and of a bill legalizing recreational cannabis.

Speaking to an audience at an April 21 meeting of the Chaves County Federated Republican Women, three state senators and two members of the New Mexico House of Representatives condemned the agenda passed during the 60-day session.

“I will be honest with you, I have been there many, many sessions and I think that we had a real turn up there and it’s not good for New Mexico,” said state Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, who was elected in November to a ninth term.

A total of 199 bills passed the House and Senate, where Democrats hold majorities, and reached the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

But lawmakers from the heavily conservative southeastern part of the state say they saw little reason for celebration, and accused Lujan Grisham of using strong-arm tactics to get her legislative priorities passed.

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“She bullied, pressed and pushed senators to get what she wanted,” said state Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, a staunch critic of Lujan Grisham.

The repeal of a dormant 1969 statute that criminalized abortion, as well as passage of bills prohibiting trapping on public lands; establishing an end of life option for some terminally ill patients; and allowing individuals to sue state and local public bodies for alleged violations of constitutional rights, were among the measures Lujan Grisham ultimately signed into law.

“And the list goes on and on and on,” state Sen. Bill Burt, R-Alamogordo, said.

Some, like state Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, lamented passage of measures they say will make it harder for the state to attract and retain businesses.

“We make it easier for them to make decisions to go to Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, Utah and other states, but particularly our neighbors,” he said.

Nibert cited as an example a new law that gives New Mexico authority to set air quality and hazardous waste disposal standards that are more stringent than those imposed by the federal government.

Backers of the legislation said it will allow for more regulatory consistency when a new president takes office, which is when such standards often change, and flexibility to deal with environmental issues unique to New Mexico.

Opponents worry the new power will be wielded against the oil industry, ultimately causing them to flee the state.

“What does that do to New Mexico businesses? It is going to cause them to go across the border into Texas to have their facilities over there,” he said.

Pirtle said in the Senate, Republicans did their best to influence the debate, but because of their small numbers, were limited in their ability to do so.

“We fought as hard as we could on many issues. We won a few battles, but you know what? Last election we lost the war,” he said.

In the House, Republicans were also on the defensive.

“The only way we could stop anything on the House floor was to debate things for three hours and that is exactly what we did,” state Rep. Candy Ezzell, R-Roswell, said.

Many Republican bills, they said, were either not taken up, defeated in committee or significantly altered.

Ingle said he sponsored legislation, Senate Bill 375 (SB 375), to provide additional training to law enforcement officers.

SB 375, he said, enjoyed broad support and passed the Senate. However, when it reached the House, Ingle said, a series of amendments were placed on the bill that were designed to kill the bill.

Though SB 375 did pass both chambers it was ultimately vetoed. In a veto message, Lujan Grisham said she objected to a measure in it that would have changed the composition of the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy Board by removing two of its civilian members.

Restricted access

The 2021 legislative session took place amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

As during the special session, public health protocols were observed to limit the spread of COVID-19, including prohibiting access to the Roundhouse by members of the general public.

Republicans said the move amounted to excluding the public from the legislative process and stifling debate.

“Public policy cannot be made when you exclude the public from the building where public policy is made,” Nibert said.

Members of the public were able to take part in virtual hearings, by phone or via Zoom, but critics such as Nibert argue those provisions were insufficient, because of limits on how long a person could speak.

Recreational cannabis

Republicans saved their harshest criticism for the coming legalization of recreational cannabis in New Mexico.

Lujan Grisham called the Legislature into a special session in March to pass a sweeping bill to legalize possession and use of recreational cannabis for adults 21 and older.

Despite growing public support for legalization, no Republicans voted for the bill.

Burt said he believes cannabis will become “a terrible scourge” on the state and believes it will increase incidents of people driving under the influence.

“There is no field test for it, so how are our safety officers going to deal with it on the street, and businesses?” Burt asked.

He added that he still has concerns about what cannabis use could mean for safety issues and how employers deal with employees who come to work with cannabis still in their system.

Pirtle, who ahead of the special session pushed his own legalization bill, but voted against the legislation that ultimately passed, said he, too, believes the bill is something the state will come to regret.

Legal sales of recreational cannabis are not allowed to begin until next year, he said. People 21 years and older will be able to possess up to 2 ounces of it come this summer.

Such a gap, he said, will give those who sell cannabis illegally the opportunity to continue to thrive.

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

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