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Editorial: Legislature should keep 2021 session as open as possible

The 60-day legislative session that opens today (Tuesday) in Santa Fe – against a nervous backdrop of COVID and possible security concerns – will see a flood of controversial proposals that would affect virtually every New Mexican.

Whether it is legalizing recreational cannabis, requiring paid time off, removing an old statute that made it a crime for doctors to perform most abortions, raising taxes, making euthanasia easier, enacting a new state civil rights act that makes it easier to file lawsuits or dipping into the state permanent fund to add more money for early childhood at the expense of future budgets, it is hard to come up with a list of topics that would generate more public interest.

Unfortunately, given the desire of majority Democrats to push ahead ASAP, rather than wait a few months for widespread vaccine distribution, it will be a mostly virtual session that will severely limit meaningful public oversight and participation in terms of lobbying and testimony.

Trying to deal with a couple hundred pieces of legislation, handling all committee hearings remotely, allowing only remote testimony with a mix of live and remote floor sessions will be a significant challenge – to put it mildly.

There are significant questions about broadband capacity and, if the experience of last year’s special sessions done mostly by remote is any indication, we are in for a rough ride.

Mindful of that, House Speaker Brian Egolf and Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, both Santa Fe Democrats, have pledged to put things on hold if the public is shut out from even observing because of technical difficulties. It’s important they do just that, because public participation is significantly limited with this plan under the best of circumstances.

Meanwhile, the violent takeover of the nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6 by a mob protesting the presidential election results understandably has authorities here on edge.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a state of emergency last week, putting the New Mexico National Guard on standby. Some members of the Guard could be seen walking Friday through the state Capitol grounds along with local law enforcement. In addition to erecting fencing around the Roundhouse, officials have set up concrete roadblocks along roadways leading to the complex and security cameras and no trespassing signs have been installed.

A spokesman said that “FBI assets are on standby to support investigations and respond to any potential threats of violence to the state Capitol.”

While there will be significant disagreement over many issues, there is no mystery about who has the political muscle. Democrats control both houses by comfortable majorities and, perhaps more importantly, progressives managed to knock out several incumbent Senate Democrats who were of a more conservative stripe both fiscally and socially.

Republicans are gearing up to debate. They will have a new leader in the Senate, attorney Greg Baca of Valencia County, who is expected to take a more aggressive posture than his predecessor, Stu Ingle of Portales. Vigorous debate is a good thing. And voters should pay attention because they’ll be heading back to the polls in less than two years.

And, of course, legislators will also be required to pass a balanced budget, which should be a bit easier given improved revenue projections. There will be debate over public employee raises, and yet another increase in how much taxpayers pay into public employee pension plans.

While the fiscal forecast has improved, legislators will need to be especially mindful of a couple things: New Mexico has had nearly the slowest employment recovery in the nation since the onset of the pandemic, and total sales by New Mexico small businesses have dropped by an estimated 40% under COVID restrictions that have helped drive online sales. Translation: Amazon and Jeff Bezos are getting richer, and mom and pop down the street have either shut their doors or are just getting by.

New Mexico has a citizen Legislature. Its members are all volunteers who don’t get paid. They are aided by a capable legislative finance committee staff headed by David Abbey.

They deserve our thanks as they head into this unprecedented session. On the flip side, the public deserves every opportunity for meaningful participation as lawmakers deal with issues that will affect all of our lives and livelihoods.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.