Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A push by Senate Republicans to force a vote on a bill curbing the New Mexico governor’s emergency powers was stymied Wednesday by majority Democrats.
The bill, Senate Bill 74, has been awaiting a vote on the Senate floor agenda for nearly three weeks after passing its two assigned committees with bipartisan support.
Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, who made the motion to force a vote on the bill, insisted the move was not driven by partisan animus against Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat whose handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted debate among New Mexicans.
“If we cannot debate the issue, then we are impotent and we have ceded our authority to another branch of government,” Baca said during Wednesday’s floor debate.
Lujan Grisham told reporters last month she would veto bills limiting the governor’s emergency powers by giving the legislative branch a greater role in decision-making.
Specifically, she said, measures such as the one requiring legislative approval to extend a public health order beyond 45 days could make it harder for a governor to respond quickly to emergency situations, such as the ongoing pandemic that has killed more than 3,800 New Mexicans.
But the governor also said at the time that she did not believe the emergency powers bills proposed during this year’s 60-day session would ultimately be passed by legislators. “I don’t think I’ll have to veto any bills – I don’t think they get upstairs,” she said.
After the GOP attempt to force a vote on the emergency powers bill was rejected Wednesday on a party-line vote, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, was noncommittal about whether it would be brought up for debate before the session ends March 20.
“It’s an important discussion about separation of powers that needs to happen,” said Wirth, who decides which bills are brought up for floor votes. “No decision has been made with respect to timing.”
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.
COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the Lujan Grisham administration’s public health orders have been among the nation’s most stringent. The current order requires the wearing of face masks in public settings and sets business occupancy limits county by county.
Several lawmakers have said a 2003 emergency response law, in particular, ceded broad authority to the governor, adding that they never expected public health orders to remain in place for a year – or longer.
“As it stands now, we’re on the outside looking in,” said Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque.