No constituents roaming the hall looking for their senators. No lobbyists hanging around the representative’s office. No crowded committee rooms. It won’t look like any previous normal session of the New Mexico Legislature this year.
That’s because the 60-day session that starts at noon Tuesday won’t be anywhere near normal — for two reasons, not one. Both the COVID-19 pandemic and projected security threats dictate changes to the opening of the session.
“We’ve never had this situation before,” said long-term Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, whose district includes part of northern Lea County. “It’s going to be the most different session in my 36 years that I’ve ever been involved in. We’ve never had a situation like this where we had a virus that’s concerned all the folks in the United States, New Mexico and the world.”
Ingle added, “We’ve never had to build a fence around the capitol anticipating there might be some kind of storming of the state capitol of New Mexico. There have been threats and marching, but there seems to be more fear this time that there’s something really bad that could actually happen. So, the capitol has a big chain link fence all around it now.”
While the state has endured almost a year of learning how to do ‘remote’ meetings due to the pandemic, the security issues follow an FBI warning that extremists are planning attacks on all 50 state capitols around the Wednesday inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.
The state’s constitution requires the Legislature to convene in Santa Fe at noon on the third Tuesday of January.
Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, said one of the first debates he expects will involve rules changes that would require all committee meetings to be virtual.
“My plan is to stand in opposition to the rule changes that allow purely virtual participation because I believe that hinders my effectiveness to stand in opposition a lot more than it hinders the (Democrat) majority,” Scott said. “The only thing I have to work with is debate, persuasion and procedural rules and the ability to introduce amendments, which requires me to be in the vicinity of legislative council.”
Newly elected Rep. Randall T Pettigrew, R-Lovington, said he’s concerned about possible loss of witnesses, expert and otherwise, in committee meetings and the potential inability of keeping track of legislator participation.
“It’s going to be challenging. From my perspective, our constitution requires that we have an open government,” Pettigrew said. “There’s a really good chance that no expert witnesses, no witnesses, will be allowed to speak in committees.”
Pettigrew suggested written testimony may be required.
“I have concern how they will be able to show attendance all the time, in committee or on the floor,” Pettigrew added. “Everything will be in Zoom. Just because somebody’s computer screen is on doesn’t mean, necessarily, that they’re in attendance. That concerns me because, we’re a citizen legislature and we’re not paid to be there, but we do have an obligation to the communities that elected us to represent them.”
Sen. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, moving to the Senate this session after serving in the House of Representatives, agreed with Pettigrew’s concern about attendance.
“The first part is going to be interesting to see if the WiFi at the capital will be able to handle it. I don’t know if it will. It’s all going to be virtual,” Gallegos told the News-Sun. “The kicker is if I set up my computer and turn off the camera, you don’t know if I’m really there or if I’m watching TV in the living room. We need to be able to make sure our members are there and paying attention and doing what’s right by the state.”
Also in the Senate, Hobbs Republican Gay Kernan agrees with concern about public involvement.
“I think it’s going to be very different. With the COVID situation, the plans are much will be done virtually. That’s of concern to me mainly because of the lack of participation from the public,” Kernan said. “Currently, the public will not be allowed in the building. With regard to committee work, it will be an online platform. So that’s going to be a huge difference.”
Kernan is also concerned about the lack of ability of New Mexico’s minority Republican Party to rein in some progressive legislation.
“I do think we have seen a very significant change in the make-up of the Senate with regard to the election in November where we lost four what I consider moderate Democrats,” Kernan said. “So, it’s going to be very difficult to have the support we need prevent some legislation, from my perspective, that I’d hope we could stop. That’s another big difference, the make-up of the Senate.”
On the issues, Rep. Phelps Anderson, R-Roswell, told the News-Sun, “My first priority is to unlock our school doors and get our students back in class. Beyond that, we must write a balanced budget for next year and the current proposal is on the table at $7.3 billion. That would be a 4% increase over the year we’re in right now.”
Economic recovery concerns Anderson who believes all parties agree.
“We must get our New Mexico workforce fully employed again and I believe it begins with reopening our schools,” Anderson concluded.
Scott listed numerous issues he anticipates standing against during this session.
“Tax increases, the legalization of recreational marijuana, the permanent fund increase in distributions, the formation of a state bank, the legislation to facilitate a single pay health care at the state level will all be on my radar and I don’t think I can support any of that,” Scott said.
Looking at a budget less dire than anticipated, Scott said, “The reason our budget is in better shape than we thought it would be is all a consequence of two issues. One, the oil and gas business did not fall as far, as fast or as hard as was originally predicted. Then, the influx of federal dollars as a consequence of COVID-19 relief efforts has been a big help also.”
Anderson added he also would like to “gain a better understanding as to how and where $9.3 billion of federal money, general CARES money, has been spent here in New Mexico.”
All the legislators representing Lea County anticipate the votes will be there to legalize recreational marijuana this year, even though they will vote against the bill.
“New Mexico has not gained control of medical marijuana and there is no reasonable justification for expanding medical marijuana to include recreational marijuana,” Anderson said.
Several legislators outlined the social woes and expenses suffered by the State of Colorado after legalizing recreational marijuana.
“They are predicting we’re going to sell $700 million of that stuff in a year, which will be $90 million to the state. Nobody ever wants to talk about the social consequences,” Scott said. “Everybody I’ve ever talked to represents that New Mexico is very poor, so the first obvious question is out of what budget is that $700 million going to come? If it’s going to come out of the beer money budget, that might be one thing, but my fear is it’s going to come out of the school kids’ clothing and lunch money.”
Continuing to oppose recreational marijuana, Kernan said, “I think the federal government will probably begin to address that from a federal standpoint. I would prefer that to have some consistency there.”
Revenue from tax on recreational marijuana likely would be offset by the costs, Kernan said.
“If you look at Colorado, so many mistakes were made as they moved in that direction,” Kernan added. “Hopefully, we will avoid those mistakes. It’s likely it will pass, so I hope that if it does there are significant safeguards in place with regard to employers employing individuals that could be using recreational marijuana on jobsites. I think there are just a lot of issues that need to be resolved before it’s done safely in New Mexico. I think it’s very likely that will pass and it concerns me greatly for our state.”
Pettigrew acknowledged he has determined there is a place for medical marijuana, but opposes recreational marijuana.
Ingle said, “My district that I represent, the folks I’ve visited with, are not for that. So, I won’t be voting for it. I will be a no vote.”
“I think we’ve got a good ground game started. We have some good answers against marijuana,” Gallegos said. “If we can get people to go and say why marijuana is bad for the state, look at what it did to Colorado, I think there’s going to be enough pushback. I would hope stop it, but I think we can at least change some of it so it’s not like it was in Colorado.
“I don’t know that we can totally stop it. If I had a magic wand, I’d try to stop it. We’ll keep trying to stop it, but I think without in-person at the capitol rallies, that and the abortion bill will be really hard to stop,” Gallegos said.
On an effort to shore up abortion rights, one of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s approved bills, Anderson said he thinks New Mexico’s abortion law is liberal enough.
Kernan believes New Mexico’s take on abortion is too liberal.
“My biggest concern with abortion in New Mexico is that we are one of three states that will allow late-term abortion to occur in New Mexico. We have tried several times to disallow that, as many states have done, and we have not been successful,” Kernan said. “So, when I think about abortion law in New Mexico, I’m extremely disappointed that those across the aisle do not recognize the significance of allowing late-term abortion in this state. I think it is an absolutely terrible thing for our state to permit that.”
On other issues, Pettigrew opposes House Bill 20, Healthy Workplaces Act, because it would add significant costs to employers who would have to pass the costs on to consumers and portions already are covered by existing laws.
“Anybody that’s a business owner, this impacts, from the chili growers to the grocery stores and anybody that shops at the grocery stores,” Pettigrew said.
Approving an effort to remove the state tax on Social Security checks, Pettigrew added, “I don’t believe we should tax people twice.”
Ingle wants to revisit requirements for law enforcement body cameras.
“I always watch for things that have to do with changing aspects of law enforcement,” Ingle said. “We passed a bill where all our officers now, most of them, have to wear cameras. We probably need to go back and adjust that now where if they’re just talking to you or I on the street their camera doesn’t have to be on. Keeping all that stuff on file for three months isn’t cheap.
“We need to make sure that law’s working the way it’s supposed to, to show what happened at a particular scene, make sure it backs up things the law officer says. It’s not for casual conversations and things like that,” Ingle concluded.
The 2021 session of the New Mexico Legislature begins at noon Tuesday.
Ingle concluded, “It’s hard to predict how it’s going to go. … The virtual stuff sometimes works pretty well and then sometimes it doesn’t seem to work well at all. I don’t know. Lots of questions are going to have to be answered and they’ll be answered one way or another in the next two or three weeks.”
Offering his website for continuous review of introduced bills, Pettigrew said, “This could pull off like clockwork and it could be the worst thing that’s ever done. I’m cautiously optimistic, but very cautiously optimistic. I’m going to go there and do my job. Unless they kick us out of Santa Fe, I will be there for the 60-day session. I will be on the floor. Committees are all held by Zoom, but I will be in the Roundhouse or in the annex doing my job every day.”