Rank-and-file lawmakers want Roundhouse open for session

Legislators are shown on the busy House floor in 2019. A bipartisan group of lawmakers is seeking to have the Roundhouse open during the special session. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A New Mexico special session is getting contentious – and it’s still nearly a week away.

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 a provision in the New Mexico Constitution that stipulates that “all sessions of each house shall be public.”

The decision also infringes on New Mexicans’ right to participate in the legislative process, they claim.

“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.

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, the one non-legislative 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.

Meanwhile, of the 16 lawmakers who signed onto the Supreme Court petition, 13 are Republicans and three are Democrats.

The three Democrats are Sen. Gabriel Ramos of Silver City, who was defeated in last week’s primary election, and Reps. Willie Madrid of Chaparral and Candie Sweetser of Deming.

It’s unclear when the Supreme Court might rule on the petition, but the state’s highest court on Thursday directed the Legislative Council to file a response by Monday.

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.

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, at least for the House of Representatives, would expire at the end of the special session, Egolf said.

A prominent New Mexico open government group has acknowledged the coronavirus outbreak represents a unique challenge for the Legislature.

In a letter sent Thursday to legislative leaders, the board president and executive director for the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government said lawmakers should publicly post all bills at least 72 hours before they are voted on and take other steps to maximize transparency.

“Next week’s special session is new territory for all of us, but we have seen your counterparts across the United States conduct legislative meetings which provide the greatest public access possible while also incorporating necessary health protections,” the FOG leaders wrote in their letter.

They also said that New Mexico should aim to be even more transparent than other states during the special session.

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