Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham set an ambitious agenda for the unusual special session that begins Thursday, directing lawmakers to take up legislation on policing, voting by mail and tax relief.
The session is dedicated largely to addressing a projected $2 billion hit to state revenue amid the coronavirus pandemic and plummeting oil prices. Legislative committees are already working on solvency plans for the budget.
But Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who controls the session agenda, said Wednesday that she will add to the Legislature’s to-do list and ask lawmakers to consider bills requiring police officers to wear cameras, allowing county clerks to mail ballots to voters and waiving some tax penalties.
“The focus of this special session is relatively narrow given the economic crisis and the public health concerns about gathering for an extended period of time,” Lujan Grisham said in a written statement, “but we must begin to address both the financial and human rights emergencies of this moment and put ourselves in a position to evaluate and enact broader structural reform in the next regular session of the Legislature.”
House Republicans immediately blasted the governor for broadening the special session agenda beyond what they said is immediately necessary – addressing the budget and the economy.
They said they haven’t had a chance to review drafts of legislation they will be asked to take up.
“For the governor to call a special session and tell us what we are going to hear with less than 24 hours before we meet is incredibly disrespectful – not just to this institution, but to the people we all represent,” said House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington. “This is legislating at its most cynical.”
Besides the budget, Lujan Grisham said Wednesday that she will ask lawmakers to take up bills to:
• Require police to wear cameras, ban chokehold restraints and make officers’ disciplinary history a matter of public record under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act. She is also asking lawmakers to establish a commission to evaluate ending qualified immunity for police officers, a legal doctrine that helps protect officers from civil lawsuits.
• Authorize county clerks, during a public health emergency, to mail ballots to registered voters without requiring the voter to fill out an application first. Ballots would go to voters with a current address, the governor said, and voters and election officials could track the ballots’ progress through the mail.
• Waive penalties and interest for small businesses and individuals who are unable to pay their property and gross receipts taxes on time.
• Grant the administration extra flexibility to help businesses during an emergency by, for example, allowing liquor delivery or electronic notary services.
• Direct the state investment officer to use some of the $5 billion Severance Tax Permanent Fund for loans to help small businesses and municipalities damaged by the pandemic.
“New Mexico families, workers and businesses have been suffering as a result of this pandemic, and it is our duty not merely to shore up the state budget – although that is imperative – but to deliver them whatever immediate relief we can as a state,” Lujan Grisham said in a written statement.
House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said it’s unfair for the governor to seek immediate action on complex topics – such as the election code and qualified immunity – without the draft legislation being available ahead of time.
“Focusing our efforts on anything other than our budget and our economic crisis is unacceptable,” Townsend said. “The people of New Mexico deserve better.”
The session will formally open Thursday amid restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease that has killed 452 New Mexicans.
The Capitol is closed to the public and lobbyists, although there are exceptions for legislative staff and media.
Legislative activities are to be webcast – as usual – although lawmakers routinely fail to turn on their microphones, making it hard to hear.
The session doesn’t have a formal end date, but legislative leaders say they hope to finish within three days. Past special sessions have cost about $50,000 a day.
Legislators and staff members wore masks during committee hearings Wednesday, though at least one lawmaker, Republican Sen. Greg Baca of Belen, didn’t.
He was the only member of the Senate Rules Committee, for example, without a mask.
In an interview, Baca said he has been isolated at home and would wear a mask when the Legislature’s new mask rules go into effect. He would have put one on Wednesday, he said, if a colleague had asked.
“I didn’t think much of it, to be honest with you,” Baca said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention generally recommends that people wear cloth masks in public settings, and the Lujan Grisham administration last month revised a public health order to require that New Mexicans wear face coverings in public, with a few exceptions.
Negotiators for the legislative and executive branches continued Wednesday to work on a solvency plan for the state budget and made some progress. But significant differences remain.
A revised Legislative Finance Committee plan now includes about $5 million for a new tuition-free college scholarship program that Lujan Grisham wants to launch.
A $7.6 billion budget approved earlier this year included $17 million for the program, and an initial solvency plan discussed by lawmakers would have cut it entirely.
The two branches also disagree on pay raises.
Lujan Grisham is proposing an increase of 2% for teachers and state employees, or half what was approved earlier this year.
The legislative framework proposes a sliding scale for pay increases based on an employee’s salary, with a maximum boost of 1.5% for workers who make less than $40,000.
Under the proposal, the state’s recurring spending for the budget year that starts July 1 would be trimmed from about $7.6 billion to $7 billion.
But some legislative staffers said Wednesday that the pared-back spending plan would not represent a budget cut, because it would largely maintain current spending levels.
Tapping into the state’s cash reserves and using federal funds – among other financial maneuvers – would help the state avoid the need for deeper cuts in response to the $2 billion projected hit to revenue.
But legislators and analysts warned that the following budget year – starting next summer – may require more dramatic steps to balance spending and revenue.
Dawn Iglesias, chief economist for the Legislative Finance Committee, told lawmakers Wednesday that it could take five years for employment to reach pre-pandemic levels in New Mexico.