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Outsiders’ use of Roundhouse chambers debated

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – For years, New Mexico lawmakers have allowed outside groups – case by case – to use the state House and Senate chambers when the Legislature is not in session.

But that policy could come under review in the coming months, as House Speaker Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat, recently questioned whether outside use of the Roundhouse chambers should be allowed at all.

Specifically, he said, other legislators have raised the hypothetical situation of white supremacist or other hate groups requesting use of the legislative chambers, which could put lawmakers in a tricky position.

“If we are creating this forum … you may have to let a group like that come in,” Egolf told the Journal in a recent interview.

He said he hasn’t talked more to other lawmakers about the issue since it first came up during an April meeting of the Legislative Council, a bipartisan group of top-ranking lawmakers, but intends to pursue the discussion.

New Mexico’s House and Senate chambers are used by lawmakers only when the Legislature is in session – 30-day sessions in even-numbered years, 60-day sessions in odd-numbered years and occasional special sessions called by the governor.

For the rest of the year, the chambers generally sit empty.

Under a revised policy top New Mexico legislators approved in 2012, the legislative chambers can be used by outside groups for educational events, provided they request and obtain permission. The policy generally prohibits all commercial and political events from taking place in the Senate or House chambers unless specific approval is granted by the Legislative Council.

In recent years, permission has typically been granted annually to high school students to use the House and Senate chambers for events such as Model United Nations.

In addition, the Legislative Council has in the past voted to allow a request from Emerge New Mexico, an organization that aims to help Democratic women win election to public office, to hold a training event in the Senate chambers.

More recently, top lawmakers voted in April to allow the University of New Mexico College Republicans to use the chambers for a convention, though top legislative branch officials said it doesn’t appear the group ever held the event.

The idea of restricting outside access to the legislative chambers has not been embraced by all, as Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, indicated he would be staunchly opposed to the idea.

“This is the very definition of a public square,” McSorley said. “We ought not to be in the business of deciding who can advocate their right to free speech in this building.”

No fee is usually imposed for use of the legislative chambers, though it can be if use is authorized outside normal hours or if additional legislative staffers have to be on duty.

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