The 2021 legislative session will be conducted a lot different this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The threat of spreading the novel coronavirus has forced lawmakers to spend much of the 60-day session online.
Members of both the New Mexico House of Representatives and Senate said this year’s session, which began on Tuesday, Jan. 19, is being conducted both online and in-person at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.
The mostly-remote session will limit personal interaction among legislators, the public, media, lobbyists and others in an effort to limit the potential spread of the respiratory virus.
Sen. Liz Stefanics (D-District 39) said while there will be some days spent on the floor, most of the committee meetings will be held virtually through Zoom or a webcast.
“The public will have the opportunity to call in to testify on bills,” Stefanics said. “Also, we’re going to be all scheduling office hours by phone and Zoom … People will still have the opportunity to get in touch with us. The public will need to be patient because we’re going to have to be patient.”
Rep. Kelly Fajardo (R-District 7), who was first elected to the New Mexico House of Representatives in 2013, said this year’s session is going to be a lot different.
“In a lot of ways, the House is going to work like the Senate,” Fajardo said. “We have to change the rules to accommodate for a virtual session.
“All committee hearings in the House will be virtual,” she said. “After Tuesday, we’ll be dismissed and we won’t be back until the third week and will be conducting committee hearings virtually.”
Around week three, the bills will work their way to the floor, and legislators will be allowed on the House floor but will still have to debate through Zoom, Fajardo said.
While some legislators have opted to participate in all legislative activities online, Fajardo said she will be at the Roundhouse as often as possible.
During the first day of the session, Senate Republicans unanimously opposed the new rules, citing the need for greater transparency during the “virtual session.”
“Traditionally, we have been one of the most accessible legislative bodies in the nation, but this year, we have locked the doors to the people’s house.” said Republican leader Sen. Greg Baca (District 29) in a press release. “The very least this body can do is give the public ample notice when bills will appear before the virtual committees.”
The rule changes in Senate Resolution 1 ultimately passed the Senate on a 26-15 vote.
Bills sponsored by local legislators
Fajardo plans on carrying several bills, but because of technical and connection difficulties, she said there has been a “huge delay” in drafting bills.
Much like year’s past, Fajardo will once again be introducing a bill which would create a Child Welfare Ombudsman Office. The office would give anyone involved with CYFD a forum to report a concern and have that concern investigated.
She said this year, she’s taking a different approach regarding this legislation.
“This is bipartisan legislation and we’re getting more traction every year,” Fajardo said. “Judges have signed on to support it and we have Democrats supporting this bill. This is my passion and it’s really exciting.”
Because of the constraints of this year’s legislative session, House members are limited to submitting only five bills. One other bill Fajardo will be offering is a transparency bill.
“The Legislature has the ability to create taskforces, but there have been some problems where they meet but they’re not public,” Fajardo said. “This bill would require all taskforces to be subject to the Open Meetings Act.”
One bill new to the representative is a pharmacy bill she will put her name on. Fajardo said currently, drug manufacturers offer rebates on certain medication, but some pharmacies aren’t passing that rebate on to its customers and are keeping it for themselves.
“It allows people who are lower income to save money and stay on medications,” Fajardo said. “It’s basically a protection bill.”
Stefanics, along with Reps. Deborah Armstrong and Bill O’Niell, will be introducing House Bill 47, the Elizabeth Whitefield Ending-Of-Life Options Act, in this year’s session.
“We’ve introduced this bill in prior years, but what this does is allow a terminally-ill person to work with their health care provider to concur they are terminally ill, and that condition is getting worse,” Stefanics said, “And that person is of sound mind to request medications to ingest by themselves to end their life.”
Stefanics says the bill requires a second health care provider to concur that the condition is terminal and the person is of sound mind to make the decision.
“It has checks and balances,” Stefanics said. “Currently, suicide is a crime, and a physician is not allowed to assist. We are basing our bill on other states that have passed similar legislation.”
Stefanics said when she was in the Legislature back in the 1990s, she remembers a couple who came to her saying they wanted to have that option. The husband had either multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease, and he was a vice president of a bank.
“He thought it was very important that he be in control of when he left this world because of his condition, and because of what it was going to be doing to his family and quality of life,” Stefanics said.
“What we do know from research in other states, sometimes people will ask for it but never use it, but they want to have that option.”
Stefanics said she will also be a prime sponsor for a community sponsor bill, which would allow cities, counties, tribes and nonprofits to work with solar developers to create solar fields.
“Businesses and residential neighborhoods could be part of it,” the senator said. “The requirement is that 30 percent of the people receiving the benefits from the solar be low to moderate income people.
“Right now, people who have a very low income would never be able to afford putting up solar panels on their roof or in their yard,” she said. “Having a solar community project would allow people to subscribe to the energy of that project.”
Another bill Stefanics will be introducing in the 2021 legislative session is having a nurse in every school district in New Mexico.
“A couple of years ago, I had a bill to that effect, but I was told it would cost too much,” she said. “So instead of having a nurse in every school, it says there should be a nurse in every school district. We actually have districts that don’t even have one nurse.”
Stefanics wants to raise the level of health care for children, and not just physical health, but nurses can evaluate situations of abuse, mental health, drug abuse and so on.
“A nurse could be the first stop in a child’s life in getting help,” Stefanics said.
While not the main sponsor of the bill, Stefanics is a cosponsor on the amendments to the Energy Transition Act, which sets the renewable energy goals for the state.
“Our first purpose gives back the authority (of utilities) to the (Public Regulations Commission), and take away the 100 percent responsibility of the ratepayers of the old coal plants, and redoing the standardized language about hearings and rules,” she said.
Other bills she’s been asked to sponsor include on cage-free eggs, and as chairwoman of the Land Grants Committee, she’s be carrying a couple of bills for them.
“I’m going to be carrying a couple of bills on health care because I serve on the Health and Human Services Committee,” Stefanics said. “One of them is a study on what we would like our public health clinics to actually be. Another is an advisory bill that looks at rates that insurance companies and pharmacies charge for certain drugs, because we don’t want people to be hurt by having to pay high costs.”
Baldonado said he is very concerned about the public not being allowed in the capital building during the session to give feedback to legislators.
During the session, Baldonado plans to carry a resolution that would create road easements for the village of Los Lunas’ Interstate 25 interchange project.
“That’s coming together. The department of transportation and department of corrections, they’re in the conversation as well as general services and surveyors,” Baldonado said. “I’m not 100 percent sure what that will actually look like, whether it’s an easement or the land will be given to DOT, but that’s a high priority.”
The I-25 interchange project will create a second exit off the freeway near the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility and follow the Morris Road alignment east to N.M. 314 and across the Rio Grande to N.M. 47.
Baldonado said he is also sponsoring a constitutional amendment to ensure people’s right to hunt and fish.
Baldonado is also proposing legislation for an election night audit system that would require county clerks and the New Mexico Secretary of State to provide the public information about how many ballots have been counted and how many remain.
“This will try and avoid over the next five to 10 days more ballots being added and the public not being aware of how many ballots are left to count,” he said.
A freshman senator, Sanchez is carrying legislation this year that focuses on education and the health of children.
“I’m working on some bills for vocational training, getting kids into businesses, boots on the ground,” Sanchez said.
He is also working on a bill that would make sure children entering kindergarten receive vision exams.
“It’s already mandatory for hearing tests and shots but we don’t do anything about vision,” he said. “A kid can see the chalkboard but the textbook is blurry; I think there is a step missing. If we are already doing hearing why not eyes?”
With five pueblos in his district — Isleta, Laguna, Acoma, Alamo and Zuni — Sanchez is hoping to co-sponsor legislation that will address the lack of broadband infrastructure on Native lands and in rural areas.
“I live in a rural area and have had to do a lot of online meetings. If we kicked off between 8:40 a.m. and 3:20 p.m., if it’s more than 30 minutes we start to lose signal and connection because everybody is on at the same time,” he said.
Many senators on both sides of the aisle are working on bills to address the impact of COVID-19 on small businesses. Sanchez said he wants to work with his fellow legislators to include legislation that would make sure small businesses are never closed.
“We have to have a percentage — 10, 25, 50 — for all small businesses, especially in rural areas,” he said. “In my mind, all businesses are essential, but we’ve not had a crisis like this before either.
“We’re all learning to adapt and stay safe — wash hands, keep a distance, wipe things down — and business can practice that too and stay open.”
McQueen said the Legislature must focus on economic recovery, economic development and economic diversification.
“In addition, I’ll be working on ethics bills, education reform and conservation of our natural resources,” McQueen said.
Armstrong has already filed the five bills she will carry for the session. One would give nurse practitioners the right to dispense medication.
“Right now, they can only dispense medications if they are in a bubble pack,” Armstrong said. “It also deals with (license) reciprocity across the state and state to state.”
She is also hoping to find a way this session to create better reciprocity for councilors in the state.
“It might be fixed in rules committee, otherwise I will be sponsoring legislation,” Armstrong said. “We have problems with councilors moving from other states who can’t get licensed in New Mexico.”
Armstrong is again sponsoring a bill to make sure state fire funds are used for what they were originally intended — stipends for rural, volunteer fire departments.
She is also carrying an update to the state’s prescribed burn bill.
Saying there were already “enough rules to go around,” Garcia said he typically doesn’t introduce legislation.
“I support education, No. 1. I support early childhood education. I support law enforcement people, our teachers need to be taken care of and all our state workers need to be taken care of,” Garcia said. “We need to take care of these people that are taking care os us. For instance, transportation — they are the backbone of our state.”
(Editor’s Note: Sen. Greg Baca (R-District 29) did not return calls for an interview for this article before deadline. Baca is the Senate minority leader, and sits on the Senate judiciary and rules standing committees.
Read next week’s News-Bulletin for additional coverage of the 2021 legislative session.)
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