Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – It’s been 331 days since Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham first declared a New Mexico public health emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some lawmakers have since chafed at their lack of involvement in the state’s pandemic response effort – which has featured more than 20 public health orders – and several bills pending at the Roundhouse would give the legislative branch a greater role in emergency decision-making.
One bipartisan bill cleared its first House hurdle Wednesday, setting up a possible showdown with the Governor’s Office.
“We’ve got to claw back our power,” said Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, one of the bill’s sponsors. “Our system of government works better when all three branches of government are involved.”
The legislation, House Bill 139, would require a governor to seek legislative approval to extend an emergency declaration beyond 90 days.
While the bill passed the House State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee on a 7-2 vote, skeptics questioned whether New Mexico’s citizen Legislature – the nation’s only unsalaried legislature – is structured to respond quickly in emergency situations.
“I would not want to tie the hands of the Department of Health or any other state entities that are trying to meet deadlines” in responding to a public health emergency, said Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, who voted against the legislation.
While one emergency powers bill advanced, two others hit roadblocks Wednesday at the Roundhouse.
A GOP-backed bill, House Bill 159, seeking to make it harder for state agencies to make rules during a public health emergency, was tabled in a House committee.
And a vote on a separate measure, Senate Bill 74, that would require legislative approval for emergency declarations to be extended beyond 14 days was put off after logistical questions were raised.
Billy Jimenez, a DOH deputy secretary and the agency’s general counsel, said the Senate proposal could restrict a governor’s ability to respond to emergency situations and inject more political dynamics into such situations.
In addition, a Lujan Grisham spokeswoman said Wednesday that the Democratic governor’s overall ability to respond quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic was critical in saving lives.
“With a part-time Legislature that convenes once a year, it is difficult to conceive the benefit of restricting an executive’s authority to respond with speed using evidence-based policies to protect New Mexicans in an emergency,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett told the Journal.
Under New Mexico’s 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.
New Mexico’s coronavirus restrictions imposed by the Lujan Grisham administration’s public health orders have been among the nation’s strictest. The current 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.
Among the specific laws that have been invoked by Lujan Grisham’s administration is the 2003 Public Health Emergency Response Act, which gives a governor the power to isolate or quarantine individuals – usually through a court order – to prevent or limit the spread of a communicable disease.
It also authorizes the state to take control over health care facilities, issue vaccine orders and exercise oversight over burials and cremations during declared public health emergencies.
Some lawmakers have argued that such laws were never meant to be used under a nearly yearlong emergency declaration.
“When emergencies go beyond a fairly short period of time, I believe strongly the Legislature has a role to play in crafting public policy,” said Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, a co-sponsor of the bill that advanced on Wednesday and now goes to the House Judiciary Committee.
He and other Republicans insisted during debate over the emergency powers bills that they’re not driven by partisan motives, despite steady GOP criticism of Lujan Grisham’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“What should be recognized is a tremendous amount of power is being held by a single person,” said Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen.
The 60-day legislative session runs through March 20, which is more than a year since Lujan Grisham’s initial COVID-19 emergency declaration.