Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – After a cannabis legalization bill fizzled in the final hours of this year’s 60-day legislative session, a small group of New Mexico lawmakers have been working in recent days to plant the seed for a possible bipartisan breakthrough.
They will have that chance after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Friday she will call lawmakers back to the state Capitol for a special session starting Tuesday.
In addition to the proposal to legalize recreational marijuana for adult users, the governor also said she would add to the special session agenda a bill dealing with the expansion of a state economic development program.
“I am grateful to those legislative leaders and members who have expressed enthusiasm about returning to the people’s work so soon after a challenging 60-day session,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “The unique circumstances of the session, with public health safeguards in place, in my view prevented the measures on my call from crossing the finish line.”
A House-approved cannabis legalization bill stalled in the Senate in the final days of the session that ended March 20, with Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, opting not to bring it up for a vote that could have prompted a lengthy debate and blocked other measures from winning final approval.
But Lujan Grisham said shortly after adjournment she would take the rare step of calling an immediate special session to get the legalization bill across the finish line.
In an interview this week, Wirth said he’s hopeful the special session can be wrapped up in just a couple of days – or perhaps even in a single day.
“I continue to remain optimistic we’re going to get this done,” Wirth told the Journal.
He said the inclusion of social justice provisions – including expungement for past cannabis-related convictions – in the House-approved legalization bill was a “roadblock” to getting the bill through the Senate in the final hours of this year’s 60-day session.
“I think that message has been heard and there may be more than one bill,” Wirth said.
Since taking office in 2019, Lujan Grisham has touted cannabis legalization as a job-creation measure and a way to bolster New Mexico’s economy.
“While I applaud the Legislature and staff for their incredible perseverance and productivity during the 60-day session in the face of these challenges, we must and we will forge ahead and finish the job on these initiatives together for the good of the people and future of our great state,” the governor said Friday.
Not all lawmakers are enthusiastic about the prospect of returning to the Roundhouse after a two-month session that was for the most part conducted remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Specifically, Republican legislative leaders have blasted Lujan Grisham for calling a special session in the week leading up to Easter.
“Marijuana legalization does not constitute a public emergency and a special session is not a tool for a governor to extend a legislative session,” three top GOP senators said in a statement Friday, adding the timing was “disrespectful” to New Mexicans of faith, including many legislators.
But backers of cannabis legalization say they’re hopeful a deal can be all but brokered before the special session begins.
And a bipartisan group of lawmakers has been holding talks with one another and the Governor’s Office on the issue since the 60-day session ended.
“We’re not starting from scratch – we’ve got a good framework,” Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, a sponsor of the House-approved legalization bill, said in a recent interview.
In addition, Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, said he’s been in communication with the Governor’s Office and top-ranking Senate Democrats about finding common ground on cannabis legalization.
He unveiled a reworked bill draft this week that, among other things, would bar state agencies from limiting how many marijuana plants a licensed producer could possess or manufacture.
As for the other issue in the special session mix, the economic development proposal would authorize some tax revenue generated by large-scale construction projects to go back into a state “closing fund.”
Such an arrangement would require approval by local governments that participate in the Local Economic Development Act, which has been used to help offset business relocation and expansion costs, such as Netflix making Albuquerque its national production hub.
$50K a session
The special session will be the third called by Lujan Grisham in her 27 months in office.
The Democratic governor called two special sessions last year – one in June and one in November – to deal with budgetary issues, and financial relief for New Mexico businesses and workers amid the pandemic.
And another special session could be called later this year for the once-a-decade task of redrawing political boundary lines.
Legislative Council Service Director Raúl Burciaga said Friday that security fencing erected around the Roundhouse in advance of this year’s 60-day session will be taken down before next week’s special session begins.
The fencing was put up after a violent insurrection in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 and threats of political violence at state capitols nationwide.
However, Burciaga said the Roundhouse will remain off-limits to lobbyists and members of the public during the upcoming special session due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
As during this year’s 60-day session and the two 2020 special sessions, only lawmakers, legislative staffers and media members will be allowed in the building.
Meanwhile, there will be a sense of urgency to conduct the cannabis special session quickly as the daily cost of recent special sessions has averaged about $50,000.