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Two bills by Republican lawmakers seeking to give the Legislature more authority over the public health regulations implemented by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were rejected Tuesday, Feb. 2.
Senate Bill 74, sponsored by state Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, would have required legislative approval within 14 days after the filing of a public health order. The bill was wounded but not killed Wednesday, Feb. 3, in the Senate Public Affairs Committee. Instead of a vote to table, which would have stopped the bill, committee Chair Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, gave Baca a chance to make changes and come back next week.
As originally written, the bill called for a four-person committee, made up of two leaders from each party in the House and Senate, to make the decision during times when the Legislature isn’t in session, which is most of the year. Three of the four would need to agree for the emergency order to remain in effect.
That would have given control to the minority party, something the committee clearly wasn’t going to accept, and that Baca didn’t make much of an attempt to defend. “I hate to cast off 40 percent of the state because they’re the minority,” he said, before quickly adding that he would agree to whatever amendments were needed to get the bill through the committee.
Baca argued that the bill was about more than just the current situation and the ongoing disagreement over whether restrictions imposed on businesses in the state have been too restrictive. It was about the Legislature ensuring that people throughout the state had a voice in those critical decisions, he said.
“What we see a lot of times is we cede our power to other agencies. This (bill) re-enforces the people’s voice and allows them to have a say in the health orders and whether they continue or not,” Baca said. “This isn’t a partisan bill, I don’t feel like. Whether you agree or disagree, we all should recognize that a tremendous amount of power is being held by one person.”
An amendment was proposed to have a five-person decision-making committee, with both the president pro tempore and the majority leader from the Senate included. That would have given majority power to both the Democrats and the Senate, which would likely have made for an interesting debate if the bill were ever to reach the House.
Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said if Baca’s proposed four-person committee had been in place last year, it would have meant far more deaths in our state.
“If we had done that in this pandemic we would be in much worse condition than we are now,” she said. “So many positive things have been done by the governor, and to have one individual have the power to stop her does not seem balanced.”
An amendment to add the fifth member was defeated 4-3 on a mostly party-line vote, with Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, joining with Republicans in voting “yes.”
Ortiz y Pino then suggested that the Legislative Council Committee, which meets each month and includes numerous leaders from both parties, be the deciding body. But that would require extending the time period beyond 14 days.
In the end, Baca was given the opportunity to make changes to the bill and come back next week.
Sponsors of House Bill 159 were not as fortunate. It was tabled Wednesday in the House State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee.
The bill would have required the governor to issue an executive order accompanying any public health emergency explaining what the impact would be on businesses in the state and demonstrating that it is the least restrictive way to achieve the intended public health objectives.
Sponsor Rep. Randall Pettigrew, R-Lovington, said the bill was not intended to restrict the governor, but was merely a means to provide more transparency.
“The intent here is to make sure that before any public health order goes through we acknowledge what’s happening in our state with respect to business and industry and how this impacts us,” Pettigrew said. “The whole thought process behind this is to make sure every aspect is taken into account, not just the specifics with the public health order. We need to get to the point where we have transparency and it’s communicated to the people.”
But Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, said the amount of information being demanded would not be manageable during a public health crisis.
“You’re asking the Governor’s Office and the Department of Health to implement a rule, and it not be evaluated on public health outcomes but on business outcomes,” Chasey said. “I don’t think anybody on either side of the issue has ever wanted to hurt businesses. It’s an absolute health emergency.
“The way we can resurrect businesses and save them is to provide aid from the federal government and the state government, as much as we can provide,” she added. “When we have vanquished the virus, that’s how we resurrect businesses. We don’t create more burdens for the executive (branch) that could later be challenged in court.”
The bill was tabled on a 6-3 party-line vote.
Other legislation in the hopper includes House Bill 139, which would limit the emergency declaration to 90 days; House Joint Resolution 6, which would amend the state Constitution to limit emergency declarations to 90 days; and Senate Bill 295, which would restrict the transfer of state funds during a declared emergency.
Walter Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.