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Legislature’s off to a quick start

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Walk through the Roundhouse hallways these days, and you’ll hear a common refrain from veteran lobbyists, advocates and lawmakers alike: Things are moving fast.

As the 60-day session that started this month hits the quarter pole, lawmakers have already debated bills dealing with guns, teacher salaries, medical marijuana on school grounds, voting access and more.

There’s even been a Saturday committee hearing – weekend hearings usually don’t happen until the session’s final weeks – on a proposal to repeal a 50-year old state abortion law.

“Everyone’s excited,” House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said in an interview. “There’s a lot of pent-up energy for bills.”

Indeed, the reason for the session’s unusually brisk start appears to be the combination of an expanded Democratic majority in the Legislature and a new chief executive, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has unveiled an ambitious legislative agenda.

In recent sessions, many bills ended up being vetoed by former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez or stalling in the Legislature due to disagreements between lawmakers and the governor.

That ultimately led to a decrease in the total number of bills both filed and approved.

That’s not the case this year – at least so far.

More than 800 bills have already been filed in the House and Senate, a number that does not include proposed constitutional amendments and nonbinding memorials. Hundreds more bills could be introduced before the Feb. 14 bill filing deadline.

And after many votes Wednesday on the House floor, 18 bills have already been sent to Lujan Grisham’s desk for final review. That includes a $26 million spending measure the governor already signed that’s intended to cover the costs of the session and interim legislative hearings.

Many of those measures passed by the Legislature are on a so-called rocket docket, a list of fast-tracked bills based on previous legislation that was vetoed by Martinez after being approved by overwhelming margins.

Twelve-term Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, said the rocket docket bills have given this year’s session a different feel.

“What’s making it seem faster than usual is that we had this bottleneck of legislation from under Gov. Martinez,” Garcia told the Journal.

But not all lawmakers are thrilled about the session’s pace.

Some House Republicans have complained that bills are being rushed through by majority Democrats without thorough consideration.

During one committee hearing, GOP members walked out before the vote on a solar energy bill after being told no more questions would be allowed.

“We’ve had a few committees where they cut off debate – and I have a problem with that,” said Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Belen.

Another lawmaker, Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, said bills have been moving so fast that legislative analysts have in some cases not been able to keep up with the pace.

Egolf said he’s heard the criticism, but he insisted bills are getting a thorough review. He also pointed out most of the fast-tracked bills are also winning support from Republicans.

The House speaker also said he’s heard from some committee chairs about delay tactics from minority Republican lawmakers, though he said he hasn’t witnessed that personally.

Meanwhile, Egolf also said the House is not intending to put pressure on the Senate by sending them bills early in the session – a tactic used in some past legislative sessions.

“We’re not trying to jam up the session or put pressure on them,” Egolf said.

House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said Republicans are trying to ask necessary questions so that the public knows what’s actually in the various legislative proposals.

“Your job is try to force the bills through – my job is to try to vet the bad ones out,” he said, recalling one conversation with a Democratic committee chair.

The legislative session ends March 16.

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