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Roundhouse to be closed to public

Top New Mexico lawmakers voted Tuesday to close the Roundhouse to the public for an upcoming special session, due to the coronavirus outbreak. The special session is set to begin June 18. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The people’s house will be off limits to the public during New Mexico’s legislative special session.

Top lawmakers voted Tuesday to close the Roundhouse for the special session due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, though some media members will be allowed inside the building.

All legislative staffers present for the special session will be required to undergo COVID-19 testing and wear masks, though lawmakers stopped short Tuesday of requiring testing for themselves.

That came after a few legislators raised questions about testing delays and whether lawmakers who test positive could be barred from participating in the special session.

“Legislators are not employees – they’re elected by their constituents,” said Raúl Burciaga, the director of the Legislative Council Service. “You really can’t mandate (testing for them).”

However, testing will be made available for lawmakers who want it, Burciaga said, and several legislators urged their colleagues to get tested.

“Erring on the more cautious side is probably the best move so we set the tone,” said Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque.

The special session is scheduled to start June 18, and all House and Senate floor sessions, along with committee meetings, will be webcast by the Legislature.

At least some of the proceedings will likely be done virtually, although the two chambers are expected to vote on their own rules for the special session once it gets underway.

An online meeting Tuesday of the Legislative Council, a bipartisan group of 16 lawmakers, was broadcast live on the Legislature’s website but featured multiple technical problems, including audio feedback and several lawmakers who had trouble asking questions after being muted.

The sound of dogs barking could also be heard at several points during the meeting.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said in an interview after the meeting that lawmakers will attempt to be as transparent as possible during the special session under the unique circumstances.

He also said a key legislative budget committee will unveil its budget-adjustment proposal during a meeting Wednesday, more than a week before the special session begins.

“It’s challenging because it’s different,” Wirth told the Journal. “We’re all getting our heads around how this virtual world works in a legislative environment.”

Meanwhile, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government urged the Legislature to make all bills available to the public for review and comment.

The government transparency group also pointed out that the state Constitution requires all sessions of both houses of the Legislature to be open to the public but said it also understands the need to implement health precautions to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The state Capitol has already been closed to nonemployees since mid-March, shortly after the state announced its first confirmed coronavirus cases.

Focus on $7.6B budget

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last month announced plans for the special session, which will focus on solvency changes to a $7.6 billion budget plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The budget adjustments are necessary because plummeting oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic have caused state revenue projections to be reduced by $1.8 billion to $2.4 billion.

Lawmakers could also debate an aid package for businesses hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak and the state’s response to it, along with any other measures added to the agenda by the governor.

Some lawmakers have called for election changes to be part of the special session mix, after roughly 422,000 voters cast ballots in last week’s primary election – more than 250,000 of them by absentee ballots.

The flood of absentee votes swamped election workers in some counties, leading to some races not being decided until several days after Election Day.

Meanwhile, there also have been calls for new laws governing law enforcement agencies, and specifically their policies on use of force. Protests have erupted throughout New Mexico and the nation since the death of George Floyd, a black man who died while a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes despite Floyd’s cries that he couldn’t breathe.

Other items that could be considered include tax interest relief and giving the Lujan Grisham administration authority to temporarily allow liquor delivery and remote notary services, Wirth said.

However, Lujan Grisham has said many nonbudgetary issues will have to wait until the 60-day regular session in January to be debated.

The governor has also said she will roll out her own budget plan before the special session begins.

Per diem payment OK’d

Although the special session will not officially start until June 18, several legislative committees are scheduled to hold meetings June 17 to begin their work.

That could include crafting new rules regarding remote voting that would have to be approved by the full House and Senate once the special session begins.

In addition to voting to keep the state Capitol closed to the public, Legislative Council members also voted 7-3 on Tuesday to allow lawmakers to collect per diem payments for taking part in remote meetings before the special session.

The per diem, which is intended to cover food and lodging expenses, is set at $192, and some lawmakers questioned whether it was appropriate when legislators are participating in meetings remotely, often from their homes.

“It seems like we would be subjecting ourselves to a lot of criticism, and it would be due,” said House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia.

But other lawmakers said the per diem payments would be warranted, because they have to take unpaid leave from their jobs to take part in legislative meetings.

“If you’re going to sit in front of your computer for eight hours … that is a cost,” said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup.

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