Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico’s unusual special session – inside a Capitol closed to the public – offered a few more surprises Saturday night.
An elections bill was defeated, revived and then granted final approval – all within a few hours.
The Senate, meanwhile, adjourned after sending the governor a budget solvency package aimed at helping New Mexico endure the financial damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
The House, in turn, opted to remain in session to continue its work this week – when it will take up Senate-approved bills that would require police to wear cameras, authorize small-business assistance and target institutional racism.
Already on their way to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham are the budget legislation, a proposal to establish a civil rights commission and a measure halting tax penalties during the pandemic.
“Given what we were facing with COVID-19, I think we made significant progress,” Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, told the Journal shortly after the Senate’s adjournment.
The House intends to return Monday to continue its work. If it passes the Senate-approved bills, they will head to the governor.
Any changes would endanger final passage of the bills, because the Senate and House must agree on identical language before sending legislation to Lujan Grisham.
Under the state Constitution, however, the Senate would have to return to Santa Fe on Thursday if the House is still in session.
Election bill revived
One of Saturday’s most dramatic moments focused on legislation, Senate Bill 4, to authorize emergency changes to New Mexico’s election code.
Senate Bill 4 initially failed on a dramatic 38-32 vote. More than a dozen Democratic lawmakers joined all 24 Republicans in voting against the proposal.
But the House subsequently agreed to reconsider the bill. After Democrats and Republicans both held closed-door caucus meetings, it then passed 44-26, with all but two of the Democratic opponents switching their votes and supporting it.
The proposal, which now goes to the governor, centers largely on emergency procedures for the 2020 election. Specifically, the changes are intended to protect Native American voting locations and create some flexibility for election officials as they prepare to conduct an election amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But some Democratic opposition emerged because the Senate added a permanent election change into the proposal on Friday – a provision to allow independent voters to change their affiliation at a voting site, allowing them to participate in primary elections.
Democratic Rep. Matthew McQueen of Galisteo slammed the Senate change, describing it as an inappropriate addition that bypassed the usual vetting process.
“There was no public notice about it,” McQueen said. “There was no meaningful public input on it. … The public at large doesn’t know this is happening.”
He remained opposed to the bill, even after some of his Democratic colleagues agreed to switch their votes and supported the measure.
The change of heart for some Democrats came after the Senate adjourned and left the building, meaning it would likely be futile to try to change the bill and get Senate approval for a new version.
Republican legislators in the House consistently objected to the election bill. Republican Rep. Greg Nibert of Roswell raised questions about whether it would grant too much power to the Department of Health and a legislative task force to change election procedures.
Before adjourning, the Senate spent much of Saturday honoring seven incumbent legislators who were ousted in this month’s primary election and won’t be back in January.
During their farewell speeches, several of the defeated Democrats decried large spending by outside groups in their primary election campaigns.
“I wasn’t running against my opponent,” said Sen. Gabriel Ramos, D-Silver City. “I was running against PACs that were spending tons and tons of money trying to make me look like a dog.”
The ousted incumbents include several prominent Democrats, including Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces and longtime Senate Finance Committee chairman John Arthur Smith of Deming.
Smith urged his colleagues to listen to bright young minds in state government and avoid the Senate’s rancor of the past.
But he also warned the state’s finances are unlikely to bounce back quickly from a double-whammy caused by the coronavirus pandemic and plummeting oil prices.
“New Mexico, we are not alright,” Smith said. “This looks like it’s going to be a prolonged downturn.”
Those remarks came shortly before the Senate voted 30-12 to approve the budget solvency bill aimed at absorbing a projected $2 billion revenue decline for the budget year that starts next month.
That bill, House Bill 1, is one of several solvency measures approved during the special session. It relies on a mix of federal funding, cash reserves and one-time budget maneuvers to avoid deep spending cuts.
But spending levels for the coming budget year would still be reduced from $7.6 billion to $7 billion – or roughly the same as current levels.
More budgetary belt-tightening may be necessary when the Legislature returns to the Roundhouse in January, Smith and other lawmakers said.
The special session called by Lujan Grisham started Thursday and was focused on budget adjustments.
But the governor also added several other issues to the special session agenda, and the Democratic-controlled Legislature acted on most of them.
Specifically, lawmakers approved legislation, House Bill 5, creating a nine-member New Mexico civil rights commission to study issues including qualified immunity, a legal doctrine in federal law that protects law enforcement.
That commission would be tasked with recommending possible changes to state law by mid-November.
Legislators also approved a measure, House Bill 6, that would temporarily forgive tax interest penalties during the pandemic and boost temporary state payments to New Mexico cities hit hard by the economic downturn.
The fast-moving session played out in a Capitol closed to the public, with little expert testimony, because of procedures intended to protect public health.
The unusual circumstances drew bipartisan criticism from lawmakers who questioned whether some of the legislation was getting enough scrutiny.