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Governor says she would veto emergency powers bills

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, shown in this September file photo preparing to deliver a COVID-19 update, said Friday she would veto bills dealing with the governor’s emergency powers if they pass the Legislature in their current form. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE — If they make it through the legislative labyrinth, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Friday she would veto bills that would curb the governor’s emergency powers by giving the legislative branch a greater role in decision-making.

The first-term Democratic governor said she does not take offense at the proposed measures, which have drawn bipartisan support but also some opposition during the 60-day legislative session.

But she said the legislation could make it more difficult for a governor to respond quickly to emergency situations, such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has killed nearly 3,600 New Mexicans.

“New Mexico’s successes with COVID have largely been because we’re a centralized public health state,” Lujan Grisham told reporters during a news briefing Friday, adding states with more fragmented health systems have faced more challenges in seeking to slow the spread of the virus.

At least two bills dealing with the governor’s emergency powers have advanced during the session that ends March 20, as has a proposed constitutional amendment that would bypass the governor but require approval from New Mexico voters.

One bill that would require a governor to seek legislative approval to extend an emergency declaration beyond 90 days has cleared one House committee and is awaiting its second hearing.

A separate bill sponsored by Senate GOP floor leader Greg Baca of Belen has passed two committees with bipartisan support and is awaiting a Senate floor vote.

Backers of both measures say lawmakers have largely been left out of crafting the state’s strategy in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“What should be recognized is a tremendous amount of power is being held by a single person,” Baca said during a committee hearing on his bill, Senate Bill 74, this month.

Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, a co-sponsor of the House measure, said Friday he supports the governor’s handling of the pandemic but believes a change to the current system is necessary.

“The Legislature has checked itself out and we have a system with three equal branches of government,” Ely told the Journal.

However, skeptics have questioned whether New Mexico’s citizen Legislature — the nation’s only unsalaried legislature — is structured to respond quickly in emergency situations.

If either of the two bills were to be ultimately approved this year by the Legislature and vetoed by Lujan Grisham, lawmakers could try to override the governor’s veto.

Veto overrides are rare in New Mexico though, in large part because overriding a veto require a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate.

The last time a legislative chamber voted to override a New Mexico governor’s veto was in 2017, when the Senate voted to override a veto by then-Gov. Susana Martinez of a teacher sick leave bill. But the override attempt fell short of getting enough votes in the House.

Lujan Grisham suggested Friday she does not think either of the emergency powers bills proposed during this year’s session will ultimately be passed by legislators, saying, “I don’t think I’ll have to veto any bills — I don’t think they get upstairs.”

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 since the pandemic hit the state in March 2020. 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 also used emergency powers to enact a 14-day mandatory travel quarantine for those entering New Mexico, with some exceptions for business-related travel, though that order was recently phased out.

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