Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Democratic legislative leaders said Monday that they support moving ahead with next year’s 60-day session – scheduled to start in January – even if it means conducting some of their work online or making other adjustments amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
They left open what form the session might take – whether it would take place in-person with rigorous mask-wearing, through a videoconference program or a hybrid of the two.
In a legislative meeting Monday, House Speaker Brian Egolf and Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, both Democrats from Santa Fe, said the Democratic majorities in each chamber support conducting the session during the dates set by the Constitution, from Jan. 19 to March 20.
No final vote was taken Monday on how to conduct the session.
But the Legislative Council – a bipartisan panel of high-ranking legislators – voted 12-4 to authorize negotiating a contract with the city of Santa Fe for use of its convention center during the 60-day session, or later. Lawmakers directed their staff to ensure the agreement has a clause allowing the state to back out of the deal without penalty if needed.
Supporters said the Santa Fe Community Convention Center – about a 15- to 20-minute walk from the Capitol – would be a good option for committee meetings because it would provide extra space for people to spread out and testify on legislation.
“We’re not locked into anything,” Wirth said of the potential contract. “I think it gives us the most options possible.”
The decision to pursue space at the convention center comes amid a broader debate over how – or even whether – to conduct the regular 2021 legislative session.
New Mexico reached new highs in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths last week.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Friday that it’s ultimately up to the Legislature to determine its plans for the session, but she strongly encouraged lawmakers to delay most – if not all – of their work until later in the year when conditions are safer.
“I just don’t see a scenario where that can be safely done,” she said of the possibility of an in-person session with public participation.
Republican members of the state House echoed the governor’s concern. They said it’s inappropriate to hold a legislative session under conditions that make it difficult for the public to participate in person.
A special session in June, for example, was held inside the Capitol even as the building was closed to most of the public. Legislative staffers and members of the news media were permitted inside.
Advocates for and against legislation could testify by video or phone during committee meetings, but participation wasn’t as robust as during a regular session – when the Capitol is often packed with people from across the state.
House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, noted that the public health order that went into effect Monday instructs New Mexicans to stay home as much as possible, in addition to imposing restrictions on public gatherings and business operations.
“I’m a little concerned about the optics of us doing something contrary to what everyone else is being asked to do,” Montoya said.
He added: “If we’re going to do a regular session, and the public is limited in participation, I think that harms the overall credibility of what gets done.”
Legalization of recreational marijuana, repeal of an anti-abortion law and tapping more heavily into one of New Mexico’s permanent funds – all progressive priorities – are expected to be debated next year. Lawmakers also will craft a state spending plan for the year beginning July 1, a particular challenge amid the disruption to the state and national economy.
Egolf, the House speaker, said he envisions broad public participation one way or another in the 2021 session. If in-person testimony isn’t safe, he said, then people could sign up to speak in committee hearings through an online video program or by phone.
But he also encouraged lawmakers to be flexible as public health conditions change.
As an equal branch of the government, Egolf said the Legislature can determine how to conduct its session without fear of violating executive orders issued by the governor.
Rep. Elizabeth Thomson, an Albuquerque Democrat and chairwoman of the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee, said the 2021 session could actually make public participation easier – by allowing people to testify online rather than having to travel hundreds of miles to the Capitol.
“This is about keeping all New Mexicans safe and getting our work done,” she said.
Some lawmakers – both Democrats and Republicans – have broached the idea of convening the 2021 session as required by the Constitution, but adjourning early and taking up some or all of their work later.
It would take support from three-fifths of each chamber for the Legislature to call itself into session. The governor could also call a special session, although in that case, she sets the agenda.
Either option would limit the session to 30 days.
Federal health officials say COVID-19 vaccines could be available to at-risk groups early next year and perhaps broadly available to everyone by spring or summer.
A variety of House Republicans said Monday that they believe moving to online-only testimony would diminish the influence of rural residents where broadband service is the worst.
“It’s a total disgrace in my opinion,” said Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell.
Any changes to how the Legislature conducts its businesses – such as a move to operating online – would require the adoption of new rules by the House and Senate.
Journal Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Boyd contributed to this report.