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Historic session over, with 7 bills passed

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, right, speaks in favor of a bill to require police officers to wear body cameras as she addresses Rep. Patricio Ruilobo, D-Albuquerque, on Monday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers concluded a historic special session Monday by granting final approval to legislation requiring police officers to wear body cameras and authorizing up to $400 million in low-interest loans to help small businesses survive.

The state House passed the two measures inside a mostly empty Capitol – two days after the Senate left the building, having already completed its work.

The bills now head to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who called the Legislature into special session Thursday – although the Roundhouse remained closed to the public as a health measure.

“This special session produced hundreds of millions in investments in small businesses, and local governments and economies; it accommodated and preserved much of the essential progress we have begun to make in our public education system as we begin to navigate a new global economic reality; and it launched, in earnest, an important and overdue conversation about accountability in law enforcement and in ensuring a just and safe New Mexico for all,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement shortly after adjournment.

The body camera legislation – passed Monday on a 44-26 vote – calls for law enforcement officers in New Mexico to wear cameras and activate them when responding to calls. Senate Bill 8 also would direct a state board to revoke the certification of any officer convicted of unlawful use of force.

Also approved was Senate Bill 3, which would establish a loan program to aid small businesses and local governments damaged by the pandemic. It won bipartisan support, passing 59-5.

Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, called the camera bill a critical step toward responding to the call for reform amid national protests against police brutality, triggered by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who pleaded for breath as a white officer pressed a knee into his neck.

Over the past five years, New Mexico has had the nation’s highest per capita rate of killings by police, according to legislative analysts. Just this month, a Las Cruces police officer was charged in the death of Antonio Valenzuela, who died after the use of a vascular neck restraint.

“In the community I call home – just like so many across the country – our loved ones have faced police brutality and violence,” Lara Cadena said.

Supporters of the proposed legislation said Monday that cameras would add transparency and accountability, protecting officers from false accusations and shedding light on deadly police encounters.

Opponents assailed the measure as an unfunded mandate that would discourage people from pursuing careers in law enforcement, worsening officer shortages throughout the state.

They also argued that it wasn’t the right time to enact the legislation – because the Capitol is closed to the public amid the coronavirus pandemic, limiting the opportunity for public testimony.

House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, accused Democrats of rushing the bill through without adequate scrutiny.

“We haven’t had an officer walk in and make a comment. … They have grave concerns – grave concerns – with this legislation,” Townsend said.

During the special session, lawmakers pledged to ensure the proceedings were broadcast online, although technical problems interrupted each chamber’s work repeatedly Thursday, the first day of the session.

House committees accepted public testimony through a webinar program. Senate committees took written testimony by email.

But the volume of public comment was much smaller than in a typical session, when committee rooms often are packed with people ready to testify for or against bills.

“I really hope we never have to do a hybrid session with virtual participation again,” House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said before the House adjourned.

‘A big step’

The police body camera legislation, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, passed the Senate last week 31-11. Five Albuquerque or Rio Rancho Republicans joined every Democrat in voting for the bill.

But the House debate stuck closer to party lines. Just two Democrats, Joseph Sanchez of Alcalde and Candie Sweetser of Deming, crossed party lines and joined Republicans to vote against the bill.

If signed into law, the proposal will go into effect in 90 days.

Lujan Grisham thanked legislators for passing the measure. She described it as “a big step toward ensuring law enforcement accountability.”

Each law enforcement agency would have to craft policies requiring officers who routinely interact with the public to wear cameras and imposing discipline for failure to comply.

The officers would have to activate the cameras when responding to calls or engaging with a member of the public for a law enforcement or investigative purpose. The video would be retained for at least 120 days.

Law enforcement agencies would face civil liability for spoiling evidence if their officers violate the camera policies.

The legislation doesn’t specifically ban chokeholds – an idea backed by Lujan Grisham and Attorney General Hector Balderas – but it more broadly addresses unlawful use of force.

It would require the state Law Enforcement Academy Board to permanently revoke the certification of any officer found guilty of a crime involving unlawful use of force, unlawful threatening of force or failure to intervene in the unlawful use of force.

The camera requirement could be costly for departments that don’t already have them. Legislative analysts estimated the cost of buying cameras at $795 each and storing video at $4,920 per camera annually, based on the experience of the State Police, where cameras are already in use.

Albuquerque police already have body-worn cameras, though Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales has repeatedly resisted calls to require deputies to wear cameras.

Low-interest loans

After the camera debate, the House late Monday passed Senate Bill 3, which would authorize the state to make low-interest loans to help small businesses and local governments. Money from the Severance Tax Permanent Fund would fund the loans – up to $400 million for businesses and $50 million for governments.

Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, answers questions about a bill to provide low-interest loans to small businesses on Monday, the final day of the special session. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“The point of the loan is to create economic wealth – economic recovery – in a time in which many, many businesses, through no fault of their own, are in a desperate situation,” said Rep. Marian Matthews, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill.

Opponents questioned whether low-interest loans would put state funds at risk or generate a strong return on investment. They said there were better ways to help the economy, such as relaxing business restrictions.

Some Republicans said they had mixed feelings about the bill, but would support it.

“I think this is probably one of the worst programs we could have come up with to help small businesses get back on their feet,” Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Corrales, said before voting in support.

In all, lawmakers passed seven bills during the special session.

Other measures passed include budget solvency bills aimed at absorbing a steep revenue decline caused by the pandemic and sharply lower oil prices, along with legislation making changes to the state’s election system with a high-stakes general election just four months away.

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