State legislators for the East Mountains and Estancia Valley outlined their priorities for the session as the Legislature convenes Jan. 19 with restricted access due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Rep. Matthew McQueen, representing District 50, said he has three priorities for the session. “Education is one, economic development is one, and of course right now, economic recovery,” he said. “All those things, those are to me, the most important and I certainly think they affect the East Mountains just like they affect the rest the state.”
Gregg Schmedes, who served in the House, representing District 22 until being elected to the Senate’s District 19 in November, said his top priorities are protecting small businesses and public safety, along with funding “shovel ready” projects. He’ll be sworn in to his new position this week.
“There has been a little bit of small business relief that has come out of the special session, but we really need to do more to support small businesses,” he said. “That’s really first and foremost on the minds of both legislators I think on both sides of the aisle, but in particular, this district is really looking at that as a priority.”
Sen. Liz Stefanics, representing District 39, said her top two priorities are Covid and its effects on people’s health, and the economy.
She said she’s working on a few bills this session, including a bill that would waive renewal fees for alcohol licenses for restaurants, bars, and other places; a bill that would allow a more community-type solar plant structure; a bill that would take away noncompete clauses for physicians’ assistants, pharmacists and other groups, adding to the list of other healthcare providers; vouchers for senior citizens and children and their families to buy from farmer’s markets; a bill that would require one nurse for every school district; standardizing public health clinics; and providing broadband to communities that don’t have access.
Democrats, who hold the majority in both houses, along with the governor’s seat, laid out priorities in a press conference last week.
“This session, House Democrats are introducing legislation aimed at helping families and small businesses get back on their feet and aimed at lifting our state up and creating opportunities for generations to come,” said House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams. “Our House Democratic priorities are to quickly deliver additional pandemic relief and legislation that supports our small businesses such as expanding our small business recovery act. Restaurants and hospitality industry, frontline essential workers, and unemployed who have endured a year like no other.”
Stefanics said the first 20 bills in the Senate would be related to Covid relief and helping people as fast as possible.
“We’re hoping that those bills that would address the virus and the economy could happen in the Senate and then the House and get up to the governor within like three weeks,” she said.
Stefanics also said that the Legislature is trying to wait and see what the federal government is going to send to the states, and they’ll know pretty quickly what it plans to do. If the federal government doesn’t come through, the state Legislature will pick up the slack, she said.
Schmedes said New Mexico has had arguably the strictest Covid shutdown in the nation, and that some families and businesses have already left for other states. For those that are still here, he said, they’re struggling, and the best thing for them is to open the state back up and stop the “absurd and unscientific” lockdowns.
Schmedes also said the rollout for vaccines is mostly being handled by the executive branch, and the Legislature hasn’t been asked for help.
“I have not heard from the executive that there is a funding shortfall.” he said. “I know they have had a staffing shortfall.”
McQueen said that while the vaccine rollout on a national level has been a “disaster,” New Mexico is doing a better job at getting them to people. “If the governor and the health agencies need any help from the Legislature, whether it’s additional funding or authority or anything, I’m sure the Legislature would be happy to provide that,” he said.
Stefanics said the reason for the different phases of vaccine rollout is due to shortages.
“There’s not enough vaccines in our state or other states to just say, ‘everybody come lineup we have enough for you,’” she said. “That’s why there is this rollout, and in fact I am in listening to national news and people have wondered if there’s even enough production to really get to everybody this year.”
Also expected to come up again is legalization of recreational marijuana, which McQueen and Stefanics said they support, while Schmedes opposes it.
“I have voted for [legalization] in the past. I think every time they bring back a bill, they make it a little better, so I would anticipate voting for that again in the future,” McQueen said, adding, “I support it if it’s done right, and my concerns have always been keeping cannabis out of the hands of youth, dealing with impaired driving, and providing clear rules for workplaces. I think the legislation does a lot to address those concerns.”
Stefanics said she also supports the legalization of recreational marijuana, but “the devil is in the details.”
“Can cities and counties opt out of growing and selling, and prohibit it?” she said. “If so, then that means they wouldn’t get any of the revenue that comes from it. How [much] revenue would come in and what kind of taxes will there be on it? What kind of public safety measures have to be put into place? At what age can people access it? There’s a lot of details. You can have a lot of people that like the idea, but will we all agree on a bill with all these things in it? I don’t know.”
Schmedes said he opposes legalization because law enforcement are not equipped to bring charges against or to enforce drugged driving; a lack of specific training for officers and blood tests that don’t hold up in court; fears that people self-medicate with marijuana; and the effects on youth.
McQueen, Schmedes and Stefanics said they expect to have capital outlay funding this session, but are still unsure of how much that will be or where they might allocate it.
All three said they like to work with other legislators to pull funds together to pay for projects in full.
“I like to focus on water and sewer,” Stefanics said. “It doesn’t sound glamorous but lots of times people’s health depends on it.”
She said she also likes to spend capital outlay funds on rural broadband and roads.
Stefanics said she is aware of a water bill proposed by Rep. Melanie Standbury, which would involve regional water planning.
“When you think about regional, I think in my mind Santa Fe County, Torrance and Bernalillo, and how could those three counties together work on the water needs of all the communities that don’t have water,” she said.
Overall, McQueen said he expects this legislative session to be very different than others, with much happening virtually, and with expanded security.
Daniel Marzec, Communications Director to House Speaker Brian Egolf, said the House and Senate will follow different guidelines, with the House going “primarily virtual.”
In addition to the ongoing pandemic, the attack on the Capitol Building in Washington DC last week—along with threats made against capitols in all 50 states—mean additional security along with virtual access to the Legislature.
Area legislators broke along party lines when asked about both security measures and Covid-safe measures being enacted as the session readies to begin.
“I know there are people, both legislators and leadership, and people on staff who are really busting their asses trying to figure out all these details because it’s doing it completely differently and we don’t know exactly how it’s going to work,” McQueen said. “A couple times I’ve seen online, some of my Republican colleagues complaining that the website is down or there’s some glitch in the bill listing. It’s just like, you need to be patient, things are going to happen, and there are really good people working on this and they’re doing the best they can, and I personally think they’re doing an excellent job.”
Schmedes said he worries some people may have technology issues with the new method of public comment, and said he is not concerned about security for the session.
“I have not seen any or heard of any threat of violence in my own everyday life,” Schmedes said. “I’m thankful that our law enforcement agencies are working overtime right now to ensure our safety and to ensure the law-making process can continue as scheduled.”
Stefanics said she was “totally sad” about what happened in DC, but hopeful that it wouldn’t happen in Santa Fe. “I don’t think the citizens of New Mexico will do that,” she said. “I don’t think they’ll hurt people. … I don’t think they really want to be held accountable for hurting a person or helping a person die.”
McQueen is concerned about security and potential disruptions of the process. “The attack on the United States Capitol was egregious and I think the same sort of mentality would attack our state capitol,” he said.
Security measures include fencing around the Roundhouse, and deployment of the National Guard.
“The people that mean us harm can be called by no other name than domestic terrorists,” said House Speaker Brian Egolf in a press conference last week. “The threat is being taken seriously, and we will continue to monitor through social media and other means of gathering intelligence their activities and their plans so that we can be as prepared as possible.”
“The majority of the members of the House will convene on opening day in person to go ahead and pass Covid-19 rules that will then allow them to go ahead and participate in votes virtually,” Marzec said. “We’re expecting that all committee hearings and much of the floor sessions for individual members will be done virtually.”
Chris Nordstrum, Communications Director to the Senate Majority Office, said members will still have to be in the building for floor sessions, but can Zoom in from their offices.
“The way I’m picturing it, is there will be a combination of people on the floor and people up in their office, but nobody will be Zooming in for a floor session from Las Cruces,” Nordstrum said. “They’ll be in the building. For committee meetings it will be hundred percent virtual and members can attend from anywhere, they don’t have to be physically in the capitol building. They can log into the committee meeting from their hotel room, from their home office, from wherever they are.”
The Roundhouse will be closed to the public due to the pandemic, so there will be new ways for citizens to have their voices heard, Marzec said.
“We will be providing public comment numbers for committees so people will be able to call in,” he said. “They will also be able to Zoom into committee hearings and provide public comment that way as well. We will also be broadcasting live all the committees and floor sessions via our website at nmlegis.gov. … We will also be providing public comment numbers and things like that for the public to chime in, join in.”
“I think for a lot of people, that will make it actually easier to provide input rather than having to take a day off work and drive up to Santa Fe and sit around all day waiting for a bill to be heard,” McQueen said. “You’ll be able to do it from your house or your workplace.”
The 2021 legislative session will begin at noon on Jan. 19 and will run for 60 days, when it ends at noon on March 20.
Newly elected Rep. Stefani Lord, replacing Schmedes in District 22, had not responded to requests for comment by the time this story was published.