New Mexico legislators look for solutions to hobbled economy

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) – Daunting challenges await the New Mexico Legislature as it convenes a 60-day session amid an unrelenting pandemic and concerns of violence at a Statehouse building guarded by troops and encircled by fencing, barricades and mobile security cameras.

Proposals aimed at reviving the economy are at the top of political agendas for lawmakers in the Democratic-led House and Senate, as Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham pushes for a budget deal that would increase state spending on pandemic relief, education and health care.

Lightning-rod initiatives also have been drafted that would allow recreational marijuana sales, shore up abortion rights and reform oversight of police forces.

The session is scheduled to begin by statute at noon on Tuesday amid warnings from federal authorities of possible insurrection attempts at statehouses.

Protesters last gathered outside New Mexico’s Capitol building on Jan. 6 in Santa Fe to peacefully dispute Joe Biden’s presidential victory while a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol building in Washington.

Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf on Monday praised troops and law enforcement for safeguarding the state Capitol at the direction of legislative leaders.

“We will be seeing in House Bill 1 tomorrow a substantial appropriation to them to cover the costs of all the additional work,” he said.

Republican House whip Rod Montoya said the security measures in Santa Fe have left no room for any kind of public protests and weren’t knowingly approved by House Republicans.

The Capitol building is closed to the public and lobbyists indefinitely. Lawmakers hope to use their first day to decide on ground rules for videoconferencing and new leadership roles in the Senate after the ouster of several top Senate Democrats in 2020 elections.

The governor’s traditional State of the State speech at the opening of the legislative session has been postponed.

Leading Democratic lawmakers have placed economic relief at the top of their agenda – including aid aimed at front-line, low-wage workers.

Republican House leaders were the first to propose the aid to front-line workers, but they are vowing to fight major Democratic initiatives on taxes, abortion rights, medically assisted suicide and policing reforms.

“Most troubling is this progressive agenda will be adopted without the public’s active participation, will be done without the traditional debate our legislative system relies upon,” House Republican leaders including Jim Townsend of Artesia said in a statement.

For major policy reforms, all eyes are on the state Senate and a new vanguard of progressive Democrats who campaigned on efforts to tap more education money from the state’s $20 billion permanent fund.

Sen. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque is the Democratic nominee to serve as Senate president when it comes to committee appointments and leadership posts – a crucial fulcrum on power. Sen. Peter Wirth of Santa Fe, an attorney and professional mediator, will continue to channel legislation through Senate committees and floor votes as Democratic majority leader.

About 1 in 5 legislators are first-time state lawmakers. Democrats hold a 45-25 majority in the House and 27-15 in the Senate.

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