It took members of the House Rules and Order of Business Committee about four hours Friday to lay out the rules for how the House of Representatives will run this year’s legislative session. But it only took 90 minutes for Republicans and Democrats to accuse each other of launching attacks.
The final 11-5 vote went along party lines, with Democrats voting to approve House Rule 1 and Republicans voting against it. The rules set up new procedures for working virtually in the age of COVID-19. The conflict began when Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, questioned why Democrats want to require everyone participating in House floor debates to communicate via Zoom on computers, even if they are sitting in their chairs on the floor.
Townsend said it was because the majority party is concerned about viewers at home watching the event and seeing Republicans on-site in the Capitol debating while Democrats take part virtually from their offices or homes — which is what happened, to a large degree, during last year’s brief special sessions. “The majority is hesitant for the public to see the optics of the minority on the House floor doing what they were elected to do and the other side of the chamber empty,” Townsend said.
Speaker of the House Brian Egolf will introduce a bill that would amend the New Mexico Civil Rights Act. The bill would have two components. One is to allow citizens the ability to sue for compensatory damages and attorney fees against the state when their rights have been violated. Currently, while a citizen can sue if they experience a violation of their rights, they cannot receive a damage award. According to Barron Jones, senior policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, this creates an unjust system.
The 2021 legislative session begins Tuesday at noon, against a bizarre backdrop that’s never been contemplated, much less seen. The Capitol building remains surrounded by fencing, concrete barriers and blocked roads. On Monday, it was guarded by state police officers and at least a dozen National Guard soldiers, who were seen patrolling the facility and manning entrance checkpoints. The annual State of the State speech, which usually highlights the opening day of the session, is off, at least on Tuesday. A spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said it eventually will be delivered, “likely remotely,” due to ongoing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.
A group of local leaders touted New Mexico’s work towards addressing climate change during a recent webinar on public health and climate change. But speakers such as Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat, and New Mexico Department of Health (DOH) Sec. Kathyleen Kunkel tip-toed around the state’s recent record oil production and its contribution to climate change. Fossil fuel combustion is the chief driver of carbon dioxide emissions that are causing climate change. While many states have begun transitioning to renewable energy sources to replace coal, oil and natural gas, New Mexico is the only state to adopt a 100 percent clean energy mandate while also producing record levels of oil.
“For the [Gov. Michelle] Lujan Grisham administration, environmental issues are public health priorities,” Kunkel said in her remarks, adding that DOH is part of the governor’s climate change task force.
On Friday afternoon, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed three pieces of legislation from the special session which ended earlier this week: a bill to create a state civil rights commission, a bill to aid in voting amid a pandemic and a solvency bill related to the budget. Other pieces of legislation, including the revised budget, remain on her desk. The governor can issue line-item vetoes of bills that include an appropriation, including the budget. She has until July 12 to decide on those, though the new fiscal year begins on July 1. The civil rights commission bill was one of the pieces of legislation aimed at police reform that passed the Legislature this year.
This year’s special session wrapped up on Monday and the state now has a balanced budget. But as with many special sessions, legislators were tasked with considering other law changes, including those aimed at holding law enforcement officers more accountable. Those bills included issues like mandatory body cameras for police officers, new processes for reporting police use of force and creating a civil rights commission. It was a mixed bag on what types of reform proposals passed and there were mixed feelings from civil rights advocates.
One of the bills that made it to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk is SB 8, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces. The bill would require all police in the state, regardless of jurisdiction, to wear body cameras.
A scaled-back election overhaul lacking a key provision that would have allowed clerks to mail every registered voter a ballot for the November general election is on its way to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk following a dramatic revote after first failing to pass the House. After three hours of debate, the House rejected Senate Bill 4 in a 38-32 vote Saturday that included many Democrats opposing the measure despite it being a priority of Lujan Grisham and other Democrats. But a subsequent vote to “reconsider” the legislation passed, and after hours of closed-door caucus meetings, a second vote on the legislation cleared the House floor 44-26 without any amendments, rescuing the bill from the legislative graveyard. House Speaker Brian Egolf and other Democratic leaders persuaded fellow Democrats to support legislation they opposed just hours earlier byreminding them of other provisions in the bill that are meant to help ensure a safe election during the pandemic. “We basically decided to [prioritize] a safe election, an election where absentee ballot programs can be meaningfully done without late-arriving ballots, without vendors and processing being such a problem like in the primary we just went through,” Egolf said in an interview after the House adjourned.
ByRobert Nott & Jens Gould, Santa Fe New Mexican |
A House committee charged with creating rules for running the special session got an earful Wednesday when some telephone callers into the meeting criticized social protests and uttered racial epithets. The scene, legislators on both sides of the aisle said, pointed to the challenge of running a nontraditional session of the Legislature. Members of both political parties expressed outrage at the calls, which effectively ended any effort to take public comment by phone during Wednesday’s meeting of the House Rules and Order of Business Committee at the Roundhouse. “What we just heard is pretty disgusting,” said House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe. Rep. Jim Townsend, the minority leader in the House, agreed.
“I am the strongest proponent of public involvement that there is, but when I hear comments like that … that’s uncalled for,” said Townsend, R-Artesia.
A House Republican said Tuesday he would likely shake hands with or hug fellow legislators from Southeastern New Mexico during the special session — prompting criticism from House Speaker Brian Egolf, who said he was worried such a practice could jeopardize the health of others later this week. Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said lawmakers from his part of the state plan to wear masks and use hand sanitizer during the upcoming meeting in Santa Fe and would keep their distance from legislators from other areas of New Mexico. But when it comes to interacting with members from his area of the state, Nibert said those representing the southeast intend to engage in physical contact with each other at the Capitol because their area of the state has not been heavily affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic. “When I see David Gallegos for the first time, I can pretty well guarantee you he’s going to stick his hand out to shake my hand and probably give me a hug,” Nibert said, referring to the Republican legislator from Eunice. “I’m not going to be offended by it and he’s not going to be offended by it because in our community that’s where we’re at.”
The comments came as a House committee is set to debate proposed rules changes on Wednesday that would allow the chamber to take greater health precautions during the session, such as allowing members to participate virtually.
The New Mexico Senate’s conservative-leaning Democrats long have been the gatekeepers — the ones who ultimately decide if legislation backed by the governor and the House of Representatives can become law. Of course, the control they wield has an expiration date after a number of their most influential members lost primary elections this month to more progressive challengers. Those lawmakers will be leaving the Legislature at the end of the year. Even so, they’ll have one last hurrah to exercise their power — the upcoming special session — and they could use it again to block bills backed by their colleagues. This time, they might do that by leaving town.