Legislation that would let voters decide whether to curb the governor’s authority over emergency orders slipped past its second hurdle Wednesday when the House State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee voted to move it forward.
Committee members, who were divided on House Joint Resolution 6, initially stalled it on a 4-4 vote.
However, at the urging of a sponsor, Democratic Rep. Daymon Ely of Albuquerque, the committee then voted 7-1 to move it to the House Judiciary Committee with no recommendation for approval.
Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, the committee’s chairwoman, cast the lone vote against the move.
Under HJR 6, voters would decide whether they want to add a new section to the state constitution to set limits on the length of time a governor’s emergency order can remain in effect without legislative approval. Under the measure, a governor’s emergency declaration would expire after 90 days unless the governor called for a special session of the Legislature. The Legislature could then decide to halt or restrict the declaration.
If the Legislature took no action, the governor could extend the order for another 60 days. Subsequent extensions of up to 60 days each would require the governor to call another special session.
Voters would decide on the amendment in the next general election in 2022.
The governor’s executive authority over her nearly year-old COVID-19 emergency declaration has rankled some lawmakers and New Mexico residents. Critics say her restrictions on business operations, schools and gatherings have caused emotional and economic grief.
The governor has said the orders are necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, voiced her objection to the bill on the grounds that a citizen Legislature that convenes only once a year would be hard-pressed to react quickly to a governor’s emergency decision.
“I don’t believe this Legislature has the structure to act in a manner that is efficient and responsive enough because of the way we are structured,” she told the committee Wednesday. “We have a part-time Legislature. We have no staff except when we are in session. We simply don’t have what we need to be able to weigh in on a public health emergency.”
Plus, she argued, allowing the resolution to move forward likely would result in a “free-for-all” of criticism among lawmakers eager to take Lujan Grisham to task for her response to the pandemic.
Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, a co-sponsor of the resolution, said it was not designed as a reflection on Lujan Grisham’s actions.
“My effort moving forward is not to look in the rearview mirror, not to cast any aspersions on any decision made,” he said. “This is a recognition that we believe the legislative branch of government has a constitutional role to play in good times and bad.”
He added, “I hope we don’t see another emergency that doesn’t last beyond 90 days for the rest of my life.”
He said the Legislature has given the governor too much authority in such times and it needs to be “clawed back.”
A similar piece of legislation, Senate Bill 74, introduced by Republican Sen. Greg Baca of Belen, is awaiting a hearing on the Senate floor. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said last month she would veto that measure.