February 16, 2020

House minority leader takes issue with special process for medical cannabis bill


New Mexico State Senate.

An unconventional process for a somewhat controversial medical cannabis bill provoked the ire of the House Republican floor leader Sunday afternoon. 

House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, told acting Speaker of the House Daymon Ely, D-Albuquerque, he felt like House Democrats have been changing rules for the majority’s benefit. 

The bill in question, SB 139, would change state law to only allow New Mexico residents to enroll in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program. The problem is, the bill is also directly tied to a state Court of Appeals case where Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, represents the appellees. In attempt to eliminate the perception of a conflict of interest, Egolf said in a letter last week, he would remove himself from the legislative process for that bill. Egolf’s letter asked leaders from the House majority and minority to make the decision about what sort of House committee assignments the Senate bill would get. 

Ely, who Egolf assigned as Speaker Pro Tempore for the assignment process of the bill, told the body on Sunday afternoon that Townsend declined to take part in the process. 

“There was a process proposed that the minority leader and majority leader would try to reach an amicable arrangement as to what committee or committees Senate Bill 139 would be referred to,” Ely said. “The minority leader, as is his right, has decided not to recommend that, so I as the presiding officer will make the referral.”

Townsend took issue with how Ely characterized the letter.

“I don’t think there’s anything in that letter that said that we should reach an amicable decision,” Townsend said. “So, adding that to the verbiage is not representative of what the letter said. The letter said it would be left in our decision to decide what should occur.”

Townsend didn’t address any specific concerns with SB 139 or the specific process of its committee assignments. Instead, he recounted instances that he saw as disregards of the House rules.  

“If you’re wanting to change the rules because you didn’t get the answer that you wanted I’m going to take great exception to that,” Townsend said. 

The minority leader then brought up SB 5, a so-called red-flag bill that was not heard by the House Judiciary Committee and Townsend’s attempt at forcing all House members into the chambers for a vote on a grid modernization bill, which was denied by Egolf. Townsend’s attempt is legislatively known as a call of the House and requires all members to stay in the chambers until the call is done. It’s commonly used by both Democrats and Republicans to force members to vote on controversial issues. 

“Clearly, it was an effort to force, once again, a result outside of the rules,” Townsend said of Egolf’s call of the House denial. “If your decision here today is to change the rules again because you didn’t get the answer you wanted, I will take great exception to it.”

Ely referred SB 139 to just one committee, the House Health and Human Services Committee and the House quickly moved onto the next item on the agenda, but not before Townsend objected. 

“I would ask you to reconsider that and I would ask that that ruling be questioned and have a roll call vote,” Townsend said. 

“That motion is out of order, we are now on announcements,” Ely shot back. 

Townsend did not specifically say if he objected to the committee assignment process, the committee SB 139 was or was not assigned to or both. A spokesman for he House Minority office did not offer any explanation for why Townsend chose not to engage in the proposed committee assignment process.

Instead, House Minority Office spokesman Matthew Garcia-Sierra pointed to the Townsend’s comments on the floor.

“House Republican Leader Jim Townsend’s comments in the Chamber speaks for itself,” Garcia-Sierra said in an email.

Update: Added comment from the House Minority Office.