February 18, 2022

Series of bombshells at the end of Legislature’s 30-day session

This year’s 30-day legislative session ended with a surprise.

Or, more accurately, a series of bombshells.

As the Legislature concluded its business at noon Thursday, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe — considered a key architect of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing and one of its most influential players — announced he is not seeking reelection this year. That was one one of the day’s rapid-fire shockers, as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced only an hour or so later she was rescinding New Mexico’s indoor mask mandate.

Though most legislators seemed wrung out by a difficult month, punctuated by a nearly daylong marathon in the House of Representatives, the session’s conclusion was anything but anticlimactic.

Egolf’s stunning departure set the tone.

“While I am excited by what is next, this is the last time I will speak to you from this rostrum during the conclusion of a regular legislative session,” Egolf told the 70-member House — some of whom gasped at the news.

“This decision, though recent, has been some time in coming,” he said. 

Egolf, a married father of two young girls, was raised in Santa Fe since he was in the sixth grade. He told the assembly he wants to spend more time with his family. 

His announcement added a last-minute touch of drama and sentiment to the final day of what had been an often acrimonious session, one that ended with a marathon flurry of legislation that passed — and failed.

House members stood and applauded as Egolf concluded his comments. 

Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, called Egolf’s announcement “stunning news,” later adding, “He’s a good man to say, ‘OK, I’m going to put my career on the back burner to help my daughters and help my wife.’ “

Just last month, Egolf, 45, said he was planning to seek reelection. Asked Thursday in a post-session news conference what changed, he said it was “a conversation I had at the dinner table with my family. I don’t like to talk too much in public about [what was said] between me and my kids. But the end result of that conversation was my decision that I needed to make this my last two years.” 

Egolf’s remarks came as Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, finished a dramatic, one-man filibuster on the Senate floor to stop the passage of a sweeping voting rights bill that House members had approved just hours before. It was a rare victory for badly outnumbered Republicans who complained the Democratic leadership would not listen to their concerns on key issues such as crime, voting rights and a massive increase to the state’s budget, by far the biggest in New Mexico history.

The two scenes — each showcasing a unique moment of political drama within the confines of the Roundhouse — neatly defined the unpredictable seesaw that was the 2022 session.

But even as after legislators started their trips home, there were more surprises. In a post-session news conference early Thursday afternoon, Lujan Grisham announced New Mexico’s mask mandate for indoor settings was being rescinded.

In the last few weeks, she said, “we’ve seen a 37 percent decline in hospitalizations. … I’m announcing that the mask requirement for indoor settings is gone.”

She encouraged anyone at the news conference who was feeling comfortable to take their masks off, though she cautioned, “If you’re not vaccinated, I don’t know that that’s the best idea.” 

In the session’s final two days, lawmakers moved quickly to get the main business at hand concluded: approving a record $8.48 billion spending plan, a sweeping tax relief bill and legislation to give the state’s public education teachers significant raises. They also sent to the governor’s desk a plan to battle New Mexico’s chronic and painful crime problem.

But other initiatives — some high-profile and pet projects of the governor — failed. A series of proposals to make New Mexico a hub of clean hydrogen production never got traction, and the voting rights legislation died on the vine as the clock on the session ran out. 

The final hours provided whiplash-like surprises in a month that had seen pomp, some circumstance, theatrical flair, grandstanding and, occasionally, public defeat or embarrassment.  

In the session’s final days, Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, was arrested on suspicion of aggravated DWI following a Super Bowl party Sunday. On Thursday, sometimes-controversial Sen. Jacob Candelaria, I-Albuquerque, announced his resignation by the end of the year.

“I’d like everyone to reserve statement — good, bad or indifferent — for another day when we can all just meet over a drink, a cup of coffee or some cannabis” after April 1, Candelaria said. 

Louis, who issued a statement taking responsibility for her action, took part in legislative hearings and debates virtually for most of the week, including Thursday. 

Most legislators appeared exhausted by Thursday morning as snow blanketed the Capitol building. House lawmakers who convened at 9 a.m. Wednesday worked through the night, debating a series of bills, until about 10 a.m. Thursday. 

Then there were about 70 minutes of quiet as the House recessed and representatives milled about, waiting to adjourn again before closing time at noon.

An hour before the session ended, Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Los Lunas, expressed a sentiment no doubt shared by many of her colleagues.

“We have an hour to go so there’s still a lot of anxiousness and anxiety,” she said as she relaxed with her schnauzer Buddy in the House Republican leadership room at the Capitol. “Anybody who has been here any length of time knows things can happen in the last 10 minutes. I’m tired but anxious to see what happens in the next hour or so.”

The pyrotechnics, or so most thought, were being provided in the Senate chamber, where Sen. Bill Sharer spoke for more than two hours and effectively killed a voting rights bill that had been a pet project of many in the Democratic Party.

“If all you have is a hammer,” Sharer told the Senate, “everything looks like a nail.”

Lujan Grisham’s announcement on masks came after most had cleared out of what had been a mostly vacant Roundhouse through the 30 days. Though New Mexico’s Capitol building was open throughout the session, few members of the public were seen in the halls and public galleries. 

Even the usual flow of lobbyists seemed thinner, though there was a diehard group of a dozen or so who turned out almost every day for this cause or that.

By Thursday, it seemed nearly everyone wanted to go home — mindful, perhaps, of Lt. Gov. Howie Morales’ observation the Legislature had been in near-constant operation since December, thanks to a contentious special session on redistricting.

Rep. Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park, popped into the media room overlooking the House — a rare move for lawmakers. Looking at her colleagues below, she said, “The view’s better from up here.”

Rep. Linda Serrato, D-Santa Fe, said while she’s proud of the work lawmakers did to create and approve the state budget, the session was “a lot” to handle — especially as she is about a week away from giving birth. 

“I’m tired,” she said. “I’m definitely going to go home and take a nap.”

Fajardo topped that plan.

As she prepared to gather up her dog and head to her vehicle, she said:  “I”m going straight home, and I’m going to sleep for a week.”

Staff writer Daniel Chacon contributed to this report.