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Halfway home: Lawmakers hit crucial stretch

The podium inside the Rotunda sits unused as New Mexico legislators reach the halfway point of an unusual session, held amid strict public health regulations. The center of the Roundhouse is usually the host of rallies, news conferences and other public events. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico hit the halfway point of its unusual 60-day session Thursday with abortion-rights legislation and pandemic relief measures speeding toward passage.

But hundreds of other proposals – ranging from cannabis legalization to restricting the governor’s emergency powers – hang in the balance as legislators begin the crucial back stretch of the session.

“There’s plenty of time still,” Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said Thursday. “The last few days is when most of the action happens, unfortunately.”

It’s already been a strange session. The Rotunda at the center of the Capitol – usually the site of boisterous rallies – is now either empty or operated as a COVID-19 testing site.

Typical for this year’s 60-day session, the House floor on Thursday featured little in-person participation as lawmakers work to limit the spread of COVID-19. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Legislators are doing much of their work as faces on a screen, with public health regulations and temporary rules thrusting them into online work.

Members have offered mixed reviews on the pace of the session so far. Some say the format is speeding things up, while others say it’s slowing things down.

What’s clear, nonetheless, is that an early salvo of bills is about to hit the governor’s desk.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said he expects his chamber to vote Friday on legislation repealing a 1969 anti-abortion law that makes it a crime to terminate a women’s pregnancy, except in narrow circumstances. The measure has already passed the Senate, so House approval would send it to Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has made the bill a priority.

Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, walks through the empty halls of the Roundhouse on Thursday, the official halfway point of the 60-day session. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A package of economic relief measures is also near passage. Proposals to offer $600 tax rebates to lower-income workers, overhaul a small-business loan program and waive liquor license fees for one year have all passed at least one chamber with broad, bipartisan support.

“When we started this session,” Egolf said, “we were talking about recovery, recovery, recovery. We are well on our way to delivering on that promise.”

Not everyone shares that outlook.

Some New Mexico business groups have sounded the alarm over Democratic-backed bills advancing at the Roundhouse on paid employee leave, the minimum wage, environmental regulations and legal liability for hospitals and businesses.

A coalition of roughly 20 business groups started a new campaign this week urging lawmakers to focus instead on economic recovery. The campaign was launched with advertisements in nine different newspapers, including the Journal.

“We’re just concerned a lot of these regulatory bills are going to make us less competitive as we try to diversify our economy,” Rob Black, the president and CEO of the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce, said Thursday.

But James Jimenez, the executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, a nonprofit group that advocates for health care access and economic security, said he’s optimistic about the session’s final outcome.

He also said changes to New Mexico’s tax code could bolster the state’s economic diversification efforts, adding that concerns raised by business groups are not new.

“We think a lot of the bills they’re complaining about would actually be really good for New Mexico,” Jimenez told the Journal.

Virtual session strange

The unusual nature of the session is at the center of plenty of debate, too.

The Capitol is closed to the general public, though lawmakers, legislative staff and some media members are allowed inside. New rules call for conducting committee meetings virtually, with public participation through an online platform or by phone. Full meetings of the House and Senate have been handled with a mix of in-person and remote participation by members.

The goal is to limit the spread of COVID-19. At least one legislator tested positive early in the session, but no outbreaks have interrupted legislative work since then.

The shift to online work has reshaped the culture of the Roundhouse – a place where lawmakers usually would share meals together, offer friendly hugs or huddle in hallways with lobbyists or constituents.

“I’ve got some freshman members of the House where I’ve never shaken their hand,” Egolf said. “That’s strange. … I do miss the personal interaction, for sure.”

House Republicans have gone to court – unsuccessfully – to change the House rules for online participation. They say the closed Capitol and array of Zoom meetings aren’t adequate for the proper vetting of legislation.

“Our constituents are unhappy and incapable of participating in the legislative session in what they believe is a meaningful way,” House GOP floor leader James Townsend of Artesia said Thursday.

Lawmakers, he said, should be doing more to rein in the governor’s emergency authority and ensuring children return to classrooms.

“We’re hopeful the last half of our session is more productive,” Townsend said.

807 bills filed by deadline

As of Thursday, just one bill had been passed by both the House and Senate and sent to Lujan Grisham’s desk for final approval: the annual “feed bill” to pay for the session’s expenses.

But several dozen have passed at least one chamber so far, including a bill authorizing up to $200 million in grants for New Mexico businesses that employ 75 or fewer employees.

That bill, House Bill 11, passed the Senate on Thursday via a 41-1 vote, with Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, casting the lone dissenting vote.

But the bill must go back to the House before heading to the governor’s desk, as the Senate tacked several amendments onto the legislation before approving it.

In all, 807 bills were filed before Thursday’s bill introduction deadline – 353 in the House and 454 in the Senate. That’s far fewer than in some past 60-day sessions, as 1,370 bills were introduced during the 2019 session.

This year’s session ends March 20. Any bills not yet approved by that date die upon adjournment.

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