Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The New Mexico Legislature could hold part of its upcoming 60-day session in a 72,000-square-foot convention center in the state’s capital city in an attempt to allow at least some members of the public to attend committee hearings.
But the plan was put on hold Friday after a barrage of questions from top lawmakers, some of whom argued the session should be conducted entirely virtually due to a recent surge of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths statewide.
“I just think we need to model the behavior we expect of every New Mexican,” said Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, during Friday’s remote meeting of the bipartisan Legislative Council.
With the 60-day session just over two months away, other lawmakers suggested the session should be delayed until later in 2021 when a coronavirus vaccine could be widely available.
However, Raúl Burciaga, the director of the Legislative Council Service, said the state Constitution mandates the session start on the third Tuesday in January – that date falls on Jan. 19 next year – and last for only 60 days.
He also said the Constitution requires that legislative sessions take place in Santa Fe.
Given those legal restraints, the Legislature would only be able to meet later next year if lawmakers vote to convene in extraordinary session, which has happened only once in recent state history, or if Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham calls a special session.
But both extraordinary and special sessions are limited to no more than 30 days, per the state Constitution.
Lobbyists and members of the public were not allowed to enter the Roundhouse during a June special session, though media members were allowed in the building.
Most lawmakers were also in the state Capitol for the special session, though some cast votes remotely from their offices or from off-site locations.
Though all legislative floor debates and committee hearings are webcasted, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said Friday that legislative leaders wanted to find a way to conduct the 60-day session with more in-person public participation.
“The underlying principle here is public participation in a way that is safe,” Egolf said.
He said holding House and Senate committee hearings at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center would allow that to happen, since the facility is spacious enough to allow for limited public attendance while abiding by social distancing guidelines.
Under a draft plan discussed Friday, both the House and Senate would still have their respective floor sessions at the Roundhouse – which is about one half-mile from the convention center.
No lobbyists or members of the public would be allowed to enter the state Capitol, though the public could testify on bills via zoom or other platforms on the Legislature’s website.
But no vote was ultimately taken on the plan, and the Legislative Council plans to revisit the issue later this month.
Staying safe is pricey
Holding at least part of the legislative session at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center would be costly.
After discussions with Santa Fe city leaders, Burciaga said the negotiated price tag for renting the facility for 60 days would be about $250,000, which does not include parking expenses and possible overtime for convention center staffers.
He said money left over from a bill that pays for legislative expenses could cover that cost, since most interim committees did not hold meetings around New Mexico this summer due to the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Burciaga said other venues were also considered, including several state-owned buildings, but none were determined to have large enough meeting rooms to be safe options.
As for the Roundhouse, which was constructed in the 1960s, he said the building is more spacious than many other state Capitols but many of its committee rooms are still too small to adequately space out legislators, staffers, lobbyists and others.
“It would be difficult if not impossible to open the Capitol to the public while maintaining COVID-safe practices,” Burciaga said.
If the Legislature does enter into a contract with the city of Santa Fe for the use of its convention center, Egolf said the contract would include a “no penalty” clause if legislators decide later to change plans.
Mask-wearing and COVID-19 testing are also among the litany of issues facing the Legislature when it convenes next year.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, suggested lawmakers should be tested every three days while the Legislature is in session, citing testing done by professional sports leagues as a possible model.
But other legislators said lawmakers should not even step foot in the Roundhouse given the state’s worsening COVID-19 outlook.
Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, said lawmakers could conduct the session virtually or strike a deal with the Governor’s Office to hold the session later in 2021.
“I see no reason, personally, for us to be there and increase our risk,” Armstrong said Friday.
There’s also the issue of compliance with the New Mexico current public health order, which expires next week but is expected to be extended.
In its current form, the health order bans public gatherings of more than five people. While public officials meeting in the scope of their duties are exempted from that mandate, lobbyists or members of the public attending legislative hearings are not.
But some lawmakers suggested the Legislature should make its own decisions regardless of executive branch edicts.
“Believe it or not folks, we are our own branch of government here,” Rep. Candy Spence Ezell, R-Roswell, said during Friday’s meeting.
In addition to approving a new state budget, other issues likely to be debated during the 60-day session are economic aid for hard-hit businesses, cannabis legalization and changes to the governor’s emergency powers.