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Special session will have to wait until it’s safe to meet, governor says

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislators agree there must be a special session this year, but the “time is not right now,” the governor says. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – Despite calls from some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the Roundhouse, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham does not plan to call a special legislative session anytime soon.

With New Mexico’s Legislature lacking any easy way to meet remotely, bringing all 112 legislators back to Santa Fe is not a prudent idea during the COVID-19 outbreak, which has already killed 51 state residents, the governor said this week.

“As soon as it’s safe to hold a special session, we will do so, but it’s clear that time is not right now,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said Friday.

The governor also believes there needs to be more consensus among lawmakers on targeted economic relief plans and a better grasp on what additional federal funding might be available before moving ahead with a special session, she added.

However, some legislators say a special session needs to happen as soon as possible to approve a relief package for businesses and employees hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak.

They say that could be done safely by having lawmakers gradually enter the Roundhouse, take necessary safety precautions and cast votes in waves so as not to violate social distancing guidelines.

“I want to follow data as much as the governor does,” said Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales. “But I do think we can have a safe session – especially if we get bipartisan support.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Ely, who is the House’s parliamentarian, said many businesses forced to close temporarily under state public health orders might not be able to survive if a special session is not convened until June, as some top-ranking lawmakers have suggested.

“I think you’ve got to give the public some hope,” said Ely.

House Republicans have also pushed for prompt legislative action.

“Every day that ticks off the calendar, there’s more damage that’s being done,” Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, told the Journal.

Already, 24 states have adopted budget legislation in response to the coronavirus outbreak, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

That includes a $50 million crisis fund in Arizona and up to $24 million for disease response efforts in Utah.

In New Mexico, state agencies have launched relief efforts and the State Investment Council, which Lujan Grisham chairs, authorized a $100 million recovery fund to provide low-interest loans to businesses that meet certain qualifying criteria.

But the Legislature has not passed any specific coronavirus-related measures, since its 30-day session ended Feb. 20 – or nearly three weeks before the state’s first confirmed case was announced.

The New Mexico Legislature has not met in special session since 2017, when then-Gov. Susana Martinez called such a session to revise certain spending provisions after axing large chunks out of that year’s budget.

Lawmakers will also have to address spending levels this year, as an approved $7.6 billion state spending plan for the budget year that starts in July will have to be revised – if not totally scrapped – due to plummeting oil prices and a broader economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

But some have suggested that budget work could be done during a second special session that could be held later this summer. The cost of a special session is roughly $50,000 per day, based on past averages.

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, center, chats with fellow lawmakers on the House floor in January 2019. Legislators are expected to be called back to Santa Fe for a special session this year, although a date has not been set.

Meanwhile, after a Supreme Court ruling this week that New Mexico could not conduct its June 2 primary election largely as a mail-in election, there had also been speculation Lujan Grisham could call a special session to quickly change the state’s election laws.

But that’s not in the works, according to the Governor’s Office, and Lujan Grisham instead has urged eligible voters to use the absentee ballot method instead of voting in person.

“Our focus right now is defeating this virus and disease prevention so state businesses can reopen broadly the moment it is safe to do so and stay open for longer – any premature action risks a potentially even more damaging situation where businesses reopen and are forced to close again,” Sackett said in a statement. “That’s untenable.”

Some lawmakers have expressed views similar to the governor’s, with Sen. Steven Neville, R-Aztec, saying in a recent interview that holding off on a special session would give lawmakers and state officials more time to assess the new realities and take a necessary response.

“That will give us a better feel for how dire the situation will be,” Neville said.

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