As legislators prepare for a one-day special session designed to bring economic relief to New Mexicans reeling during the COVID-19 pandemic, questions remain about how it will be conducted and whether a day will be enough to get the job done.
Will it be in person? Virtual? A combination of the two?
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said Friday morning the answer could be any of the above.
However, he said he hopes both Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives agree to take a vote as soon as they convene Tuesday to go virtual, conducting business via computers from their offices in the Roundhouse, where the session will be held.
Senators have no need to take such an action, Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said. During a June special session also designed to shore up the economy during the pandemic, the state Senate voted to allow its members to take part either in person or online from their offices.
Wirth said Friday the plan is for senators to “come into the Capitol, go to their offices, turn on their computer and participate.”
Either way, Egolf and Wirth said the Roundhouse will be closed to the public as a preventive health measure.
And some Republicans are not happy about that.
“There’s a reason they call the Capitol ‘the people’s house,’ and that’s because it’s the people’s house,” said Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia and House minority leader.
He said many rural areas lack good broadband access and may not be able to watch the proceedings online, adding he has heard from many constituents who complained about having difficulty accessing online hearings and meetings during the June special session.
Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen, who was just elected floor leader for his party, said “ideally” he would prefer the Legislature be held live and the public allowed in the building. But he acknowledges the rules the Senate approved in June will allow members to take part online.
Baca, who did not wear a mask during the June special session, said he will do so Tuesday.
“If it makes other people more comfortable, I’m happy to wear a mask for them,” he said. “We can all see the rising COVID numbers.”
House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said he is concerned the public won’t get a chance to look at the lone bill to be discussed during the event — an economic relief initiative intended to aid struggling businesses, shore up weekly unemployment checks, and help with rental and housing assistance.
Montoya said he fears the bill will not be shaped until Monday, giving legislators and members of the public little time to digest it, particularly if it runs 100 to 200 pages.
“I don’t know even know what people would want to show up to take a look at, because it’s not even clear yet what is in the bill,” he said.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday the bill would allow legislators to draw from some $300 million in federal CARES Act funds to help flailing businesses and workers who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. The funds must be used by the end of the calendar year.
Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup and chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said the plan is to divide the $300 million into several separate funds, all of which would be channeled through existing agencies and programs to ensure they get distributed by the end of the year.
Ideally, she said, $190 million will go to adding a weekly stipend of $300 to unemployment checks for four weeks.
Another $100 million will go to creating a grant fund for small businesses.
“Those businesses associated with the hospitality industry, like restaurants, are taking a beating,” she said.
Lundstrom said she would also like to see $10 million funneled into the state’s Mortgage Finance Authority to offer money for rental assistance and mortgages. She also advocated to find another $5 million to resupply the state’s many food banks, which are running out of supplies because of the pandemic.
Democrats believe they can make this legislative package a reality in just one day, but Montoya said he’s concerned the bill will have no chance to be vetted by any legislative committees with such a short window for action. Townsend agreed, but said he was in talks with Egolf Friday about how best to process the bill.
Egolf said Friday he’s still not sure how the bill will be vetted — whether it will be approved just by the two main chambers or go through a committee process.
Townsend said if members of the House get a copy of the bill in time to study it and draw buy-in from both parties, “I think the approval process could move pretty quickly.”
If not, he said, he thinks the bill should go through at least one committee.