It turns out June’s special legislative session may not be the only one of the year.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Friday she wants the New Mexico Legislature to hold a special session “soon” to address the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on residents and businesses.
“My goal is to get a special session as quick as we can,” she said. “I can’t tell you exactly when, but we’re looking at days.”
The governor said the need for a session had become urgent amid the sharp rise in COVID-19 cases, which has led to heightened public health restrictions starting Monday that may put the economic survival of many employees and businesses at risk.
She added the session would be virtual due to the increased health risks posed by the pandemic.
“The state is at a breaking point where we can’t keep up,” Lujan Grisham said. “So this has to be done.”
While June’s special session was largely concentrated on shoring up a projected deficit in state finances, a new emergency session would appear to focus on ways to provide aid to residents and businesses heavily affected by the pandemic.
Specific actions legislators could take might include redirecting money provided to New Mexico as part of the federal CARES Act, the governor said, adding the state could access some $100 million and “really work to get that out quickly.”
Lawmakers may look at authorizing more unemployment benefits to residents as part of a “specialized state program” as well as providing loans for businesses, Lujan Grisham said.
Unemployment and business loan efforts that “would allow businesses not to lay off and furlough their employees seem to me to be the best ways to provide as much as we can in terms of financial security to New Mexicans,” the governor said.
While Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth said “nothing specific has been agreed to” regarding a special session, House Speaker Brian Egolf said one could occur before the end of the year and that it could be a one-day meeting.
“It’s her decision now when to call it,” Egolf said of the governor.
Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said New Mexico needed to act to “reduce the negative impacts of business closures and shelter-in-place orders” because Congress and President Donald Trump have so far failed to pass another COVID-19 relief package.
“We can’t wait on a second COVID package while Washington gets its act together,” he said. “Otherwise we could completely overrun our state’s health care system, which has repercussions beyond COVID.”
Egolf said legislators have been examining ways of using state funds to supplement unemployment checks.
Wirth, also a Santa Fe Democrat, said, “There have been discussions about repurposing some of the federal CARES Act money to help businesses and shore up unemployment funds to help displaced workers. But nothing specific yet.”
Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle said he did not hear the governor’s news conference Friday, as he was “out in the country,” but said he was already getting phone calls about it.
Lujan Grisham announced that starting Monday, all state residents will be ordered to stay at home except for essential activities for at least two weeks, while in-person services at nonessential businesses will be shut down during that period.
“We’ll just have to see what this means,” said Ingle, R-Portales. “We’re again going into a pretty much shutdown situation except the essentials.”
Regarding the possibility of a special session, Ingle said, “It’s on the governor’s call to do that.”
Lujan Grisham also spoke Friday about the upcoming regular 60-day legislative session, which is scheduled to begin in January.
She urged legislators to find a way to delay some or all of the legislative work for that session due to the health risks posed by COVID-19.
Lawmakers already have been arguing about that point in recent days, with House Minority Leader Jim Townsend calling for the session to be delayed and the House Speaker responding that the Legislature would not postpone its plans.
Townsend, an Artesia Republican, said in a statement Friday, “I cannot commit to any session that excludes the public. That is why I believe we should postpone the 2021 session, until public participation is guaranteed and satisfactory.”
Egolf said Friday “the vast majority of legislators want to start in January and work right through the 60 days.” He added the House would likely meet completely virtually.
Wirth said both Senate Democrats and House Democrats planned to meet on the issue this weekend.
“It’s really too early to have a definitive decision,” he said.
At a meeting of the Legislative Council last week, lawmakers debated a proposal to use the Santa Fe Community Convention Center, rather than the Capitol, for the 60-day session to ensure social distancing for the public.
The committee is scheduled to meet again Monday.