House sends business relief bill to governor

A bill extending financial relief opportunities to those hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic is on its way to the governor’s desk for a signature. The House of Representatives on Thursday voted 51-17 to approve Senate Bill 3, which offers long-term, low-interest loans up to $150,000 to eligible New Mexico businesses and nonprofits. The loans can be used for capital expenses, including making alterations to property to adapt to the challenges of the pandemic, such as building an outdoor dining area at a restaurant. The money will go to businesses whose net revenue was $5 million a year or less based on 2019 figures. The first year of the loan is interest free.

Public ‘flying blind’ in New Mexico’s largely virtual legislative session

To hear House Speaker Brian Egolf tell it, public participation in this year’s largely virtual legislative session has been robust even if the doors of the state Capitol have been closed to everyday New Mexicans. In the second and third weeks of the 60-day session, more than 6,100 residents from 32 of the state’s 33 counties have voiced their opinions during committee hearings in the House of Representatives — up from the 2,400 who tuned in the first week. Egolf’s office touted the numbers Tuesday in a news release, declaring virtual participation “continues at a record-setting pace” in the House. But how many New Mexicans have been shut out? “It’s hard to quantify,” Egolf said.

New Mexico Dems respond to GOP lawsuit over House rules

As the New Mexico Legislature enters its third week, the back-and-forth wrangling over whether the House of Representatives is following constitutional rules in running a virtual session is still playing out. 

Lawyers for House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, and the Legislative Council filed a response over the weekend asking the state Supreme Court to dismiss a lawsuit filed by House Republicans that claims rule changes allowing House members to participate remotely violates the New Mexico Constitution. The reason, they argued in a 31-page response, is that it’s not the court’s purview to intervene in legislative affairs, such as how lawmakers choose to run the annual session. 

Nor can Egolf or the Legislative Council be considered parties in the complaint, the response says, since it was up to the full House of Representatives to vote to approve the temporary rules giving lawmakers the right to take part from their offices or homes via Zoom. “At the core of the legislature’s ‘essential function’ is the exclusive power granted to each chamber to fashion rules under which the legislative body will function,” lawyers for the defense wrote in their response. 

“The Court has traditionally respected the procedures adopted by the legislature and has declined, based on separation of powers concerns, to consider constitutional challenges to those procedures,” they wrote. 

The response goes on to say the petitioners have not made it clear how participating remotely — which is an option, not a requirement — restricts their rights. It also says the decision to set temporary rules to offer House members the chance to avoid the state Capitol during the COVID-19 pandemic protects those lawmakers and reduces the chance of spreading the virus. “The risk of an outbreak at the Capitol is a far greater threat to members ‘full participation rights’ than allowing members to attend the session via a videoconferencing service,” the lawyers wrote. 

House Republicans contested the rule changes even before they were imposed, charging that members of the public have a right to be present for the session.

New Mexico justices decline to temporarily block House pandemic rules

The state Supreme Court has temporarily denied a request by House Republicans to prohibit the enforcement of pandemic-related rules for this year’s legislative session. While the court continues to consider a final ruling, the current procedures for the 60-day session remain in place. After a contentious week that included a COVID-19 outbreak involving one Republican legislator and others who work at the Capitol, House Republican leaders filed a lawsuit Saturday with the Supreme Court, contending the new rules — passed by the Democratic-controlled House and adopted early in the session — are unconstitutional. 

House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, and Reps. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, and Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, filed the lawsuit, which names House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, and the Legislative Council as defendants. The Supreme Court, in a news release issued Monday afternoon, ordered “an expedited response” to the court petition by Feb.

GOP leaders in New Mexico House sue over rule changes

Republican leaders in the state House of Representatives filed a lawsuit Saturday with the New Mexico Supreme Court, charging rules changes adopted early in the 2021 session are unconstitutional. House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, and Reps. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, and Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, filed the lawsuit. It names House Speaker Brian Egolf and the Legislative Council as defendants. The lawsuit asks the Supreme Court to issue a stay prohibiting the defendants from enforcing the rules until a final decision is rendered.

House leaders trade jabs after positive COVID tests

A day after revelations of several people with ties to the Roundhouse testing positive for the novel coronavirus, including a Republican lawmaker, House leaders in both parties traded accusations and verbal jabs, creating more strife in their already rocky relationship while also politicizing COVID-19. House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said some members of the GOP are consistently flouting the rules and putting others at risk. He said he is “constantly having to remind members to put on a mask” and “physically locking committee rooms as the only means to prevent certain Republican members from congregating.” “I had one member who was in a room with other Republican members not wearing a mask,” Egolf said during a virtual news briefing Friday morning. “I instructed him to follow the rules and put the mask on.

Republican House member, four others test positive for COVID-19

A Republican lawmaker in the New Mexico House of Representatives and four others at the Roundhouse have tested positive for the coronavirus. The new cases at the state Capitol come just two weeks into a 60-day legislative session that required everyone but lawmakers to receive weekly nasal COVID-19 tests to be admitted into the building. In an email late Thursday, House Republican spokesman Matthew Garcia-Sierra  wrote that he had been “informed one of our members tested positive, and I am also aware that there were four other positive cases,” he wrote. House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, said by phone Thursday the infected lawmaker, a man, is asymptomatic and doing fine. 

Townsend said a Department of Health doctor told him earlier in the day that there were at least four other cases in the state Capitol. Townsend said he spoke about the issue by phone with House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, Thursday night. 

He said Egolf also wants to limit in-personal participation in future House floor sessions.

Rep. Lewis will end reelection run, retire at end of term

State Rep. Tim Lewis announced he will retire at the end of his current term and will not continue his run for reelection. The Republican from Rio Rancho was unopposed in the Republican primary and has no opponent in the upcoming general election. 

The schoolteacher said in a statement that he is leaving the Legislature after ten years to spend more time with his family. “Serving these last ten years has been a privilege and great honor, and I will always be grateful for the support that the people of Rio Rancho have given me over the years,” Lewis said. “The decision to withdraw now has not been an easy one for me. My family is the primary reason, but I also recognized early on that the office is best served by those who do not make a career out of politics.” 

House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, praised Lewis’ time in the Legislature.

Bill requiring police to wear body cams while on duty heads to governor

Amid calls for increased scrutiny of law enforcement, the House of Representatives voted 44-26 to approve a measure that would require all New Mexico police officers to wear body cameras. 

The legislation, passed by the House two days after the state Senate concluded its business and departed a special session that focused on shoring up the state budget, now heads to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk. Lujan Grisham praised the work of the Legislature during the special session, but noted it is only the start as New Mexico looks to the 60-day session in January amid a severe economic downturn brought on by falling oil prices and the COVID-19 crisis. “Let me be clear: The work of rebuilding our state economy has only begun,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “But we will, I have no doubt, construct a more robust and inclusive economy than ever before as we continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic with everything we’ve got. “And the work we’ve begun on civil rights and public safety reform and election accessibility and small business relief will remain a chief priority of my administration,” she added.

Offensive phone calls disrupt House rules committee meeting

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.