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Lawmakers to seek larger emergency response role

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – As the coronavirus pandemic has shown, New Mexico’s governor currently has broad authority to implement and enforce public health orders in the case of declared emergencies.

But several lawmakers – both Democrats and Republicans – say they are working to craft a bill for the upcoming 60-day legislative session that would change the state’s emergency response laws to give the Legislature a greater say in decision-making.

Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, said the bill is currently in the drafting process and expressed hope it would win bipartisan approval.

He said the bill was not intended as a criticism of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, saying he approves of the governor’s handling of the pandemic and that she been utilizing past laws approved by the Legislature.

“We got ourselves in the position that the Legislature is not playing a role,” Ely said. “And the Legislature should be involved in the process.”

Under current law, public health orders expire automatically after 30 days – if they’re not ended sooner – but can be renewed by the governor an unlimited number of times.

Lujan Grisham issued her first executive order declaring a public health emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 11. The order has since been extended and revised more than a dozen times, and is slated to remain in effect until at least Jan. 13.

Among other things, the current public health order bars movie theaters, bars and concert venues from operating, limits the maximum capacity of grocery stores and other essential businesses and requires the wearing of face masks in public settings.

The governor has also used emergency powers granted to her by the Legislature to enact a 14-day travel quarantine for those entering New Mexico.

Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, who is working with Ely and several other lawmakers on the emergency powers bill, said legislators never contemplated an emergency lasting for nearly 10 months – or longer.

“I just feel we have a constitutional role to play and we have not fulfilled that constitutional role,” Nibert said this week in an interview.

Nibert and other GOP lawmakers filed bills during special sessions held in June and November that would have required legislative approval for an emergency public health order to be extended beyond 30 days.

But neither of those proposals were debated at the Roundhouse, in large part because Lujan Grisham did not add them to the sessions’ agendas.

A separate bill that sought to expand the governor’s emergency powers – including the authority to temporarily authorize liquor delivery and curbside pickup – also stalled during this year’s first special session.

A Lujan Grisham spokeswoman said the Governor’s Office would review any legislation that advances in the upcoming session, but said the state’s current laws allowed the Democratic governor to take prompt action once the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“Nationwide, we have seen clearly that states have benefited from being able to take immediate action to manage the pandemic, including New Mexico,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said. “There is no question that the governor’s ability to respond quickly to the pandemic has saved lives.”

The debate over emergency powers is complicated in New Mexico by the fact the state is the only one in the nation in which legislators are not paid a salary, though they do get daily per diem payments intended to cover food and lodging expenses.

In addition, the Legislature only meets for a small portion of the year – for 30 days in even-numbered years and for 60 days in odd-numbered years – under the state Constitution.

In part for that reason, Ely said that requiring the Legislature to approve public health orders every 30 days might be too short of a time frame, indicating that three months might be a more acceptable compromise.

He also said that he was considering a provision that would require a three-fifths vote of the Legislature to end an emergency order, which is the same threshold required for lawmakers to convene in extraordinary session.

For his part, Nibert insisted the proposed bill would not be a political statement, despite the fact Republicans have consistently criticized Lujan Grisham for her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It shouldn’t matter who the executive is or what party the executive comes from,” Nibert said.”I think there’s a need for the legislative branch of government to weigh in.”

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