SANTA FE — A New Mexico special session is getting contentious — and it hasn’t even started yet.
A bipartisan group of 22 rank-and-file lawmakers filed a petition Thursday with the state Supreme Court that asks the court to block a decision by top-ranking legislators to close the Roundhouse to lobbyists and the public during the special session, which is set to begin next week.
In their court filing, they argue that closing the state Capitol to the public for the special session due to the coronavirus outbreak violates the state Constitution and infringes on New Mexicans’ rights to participate in the legislative process.
“It is imperative that the public be able to participate in person because legislators are going to be making decisions that directly affect the public’s interest,” said Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, who was one of the lawmakers who signed on to the Supreme Court petition.
“Their rights (and) our rights are protected by the state Constitution, and I am a firm believer in protecting our rights, covid or no covid,” Pirtle added.
The Legislative Council, a bipartisan group of 16 top-ranking lawmakers, voted Tuesday to close the state Capitol to the public for the special session, though it also voted that media members would be allowed in the building to cover proceedings.
The proposal to close the Roundhouse was approved by the Legislative Council without debate and without any dissenting votes.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, told Journal reporters and editors Thursday that members of the public would have ample opportunities to testify on bills during the special session, despite not being allowed in the building.
Specifically, he said public testimony will be accepted during House committee hearings, either via online programs or by phone, and that all committee meetings and floor sessions would be webcasted by the Legislature.
“I think it’s an unprecedented expansion of public participation,” Egolf said.
However, one petitioner in Thursday’s court filing — former state Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn — said he lacks reliable internet service at his ranch near Carrizozo and might not be able to access the webcast of the special session.
Of the 16 lawmakers who signed onto the Supreme Court petition, 13 are Republicans and three are Democrats.
The three Democrats include Sen. Gabriel Ramos of Silver City, who was defeated in last week’s primary electino, along with Reps. Willie Madrid of Chaparral and Candie Sweetser of Deming.
The special session is scheduled to begin June 18 and will focus largely on budget adjustments in response to an estimated $2 billion revenue downturn for the coming fiscal year, caused by the pandemic and plummeting oil prices.
However, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said this week that other issues could also be added to the special session’s agenda, including election changes and an aid package for businesses hard hit by the COVID-19 outbreak and business restrictions enacted in response to it.
In addition, both the House and Senate are expected to approve rule changes at the start of next week’s special session that would allow at least some legislators to participate remotely.
Those rules would expire at the end of the special session, Egolf said.