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Checkpoints, new rules await NM lawmakers

New Mexico State Police and National Guard troops talk outside the state Capitol in Santa Fe on Monday. Security fencing has been installed, and some roads in the area have been closed to traffic amid reports of possible riots and civil unrest. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Leadership elections, COVID-19 rules debates and the swearing-in of just-elected lawmakers are on tap Tuesday as New Mexico legislators embark on a 60-day session at a fortified Roundhouse.

What’s not on the menu for the session’s opening day is the traditional State of the State address, as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will deliver the speech at a later date – likely remotely – due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

A spokeswoman for the Democratic governor confirmed the break with tradition Monday, saying Lujan Grisham’s speech will occur at an unspecified later date.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said Monday that lawmakers will vote on whether to adopt new rules once the session gets underway.

In the Senate, those rules could allow senators to participate remotely in committee hearings to reduce person-to-person contact. For floor sessions, senators would have to either be present on the chamber’s floor or be in their Capitol office to debate and vote on bills.

The rules will likely be different in the House, which could allow for remote participation from lawmakers’ homes.

“Until we adopt those rules, everyone’s kind of working on the honor system,” Wirth said.

He also said a face mask mandate for present members would be more strictly enforced, with those violating the policy being asked to go to their offices.

Several Republican lawmakers did not consistently wear face coverings on the Senate floor during a special session last summer, though a previous rule required them to do so.

Meanwhile, the 60-day legislative session will also begin amid heightened security due to reports of possible civil unrest at state capitols nationwide.

A chain-link fence was erected around the Roundhouse in recent days, concrete barriers were installed and more security cameras appeared to have been set up outside the building.

That prompted questions during a Monday meeting of a bipartisan legislative committee, with House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, asking why such steps had been taken without a vote.

“Anything that happens here, the Legislative Council should vote on it,” Montoya said during the remote meeting.

In response, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said lawmakers had, in fact, voted to authorize the Legislative Council Services Director Raul Burciaga to make and carry out decisions about securing the state Capitol during the session.

He also said top lawmakers – both Democrats and Republicans – had also met recently and asked the New Mexico National Guard and State Police to monitor the Roundhouse.

“They’re here at our invitation,” Egolf said.

When lawmakers, legislative staffers and approved media members arrive for the start of the session Tuesday, they will have to pass through checkpoints, and Egolf requested patience and courtesy from legislators in their interactions with those running the checkpoints.

Once the session gets started, 23 newly elected lawmakers will be sworn in – 12 in the House and 11 in the Senate – and both chambers will hold votes on leadership positions.

Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, was nominated last month by majority Democrats to serve as the next Senate President pro tem, although the entire 42-member chamber will have to vote on the post.

Under the Senate’s structure, the pro tem plays a fundamental role in determining committee assignments and chairmanships, which could also be completed Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Legislative Council also voted Monday to spend up to $150,000 on a rural infrastructure study that would be completed by this summer.

The study could then be used as a blueprint for future state spending on broadband connectivity, roads, water systems and other projects.

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