Legislature closes Capitol to public for budget rewrite
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The state Capitol will be off limits to the public as a health precaution against the coronavirus as the Legislature gathers next week to plug a hole in the state budget, lawmakers decided Tuesday.
In a meeting by videoconference, a panel of House and Senate lawmakers approved safety restrictions for a special session starting on June 18.
The Democrat-led Legislature is meeting to rewrite the state’s spending plan for the fiscal year that starts on July 1 as state government income falls sharply.
Live and recorded webcasts will provide a view of legislative deliberations, and media can attend without access to the House and Senate floors or underground corridors.
Legislative staff must undergo coronavirus testing — an optional precaution for legislators. Senate Democratic majority leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe encouraged his colleagues to set an example for the public by taking every available precaution including testing.
Lawmakers will be allowed to draw on a daily expense allowance of about $160 as they attend online committee meetings from home in advance of the special session. The payments usually help offset lodging and meals in Santa Fe.
Three Republican lawmakers — including House minority leader Jim Townsend — opposed that new payment option. The state has the nation’s only nonsalaried Legislature — a vestige of frontier-era tradition that is a source of both pride and consternation.
State Rep. Patricia Lundstrom of Gallup said the expense payments offset lost private income.
“I feel like it’s a lost-opportunity cost,” she said.
Also on Tuesday, Republicans questioned whether Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham overstepped her authority in approving $35 million in response to the coronavirus pandemic — without legislative approval.
The special session is aimed at re-balancing a $7.6 billion general fund budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. That could mean backtracking on a $500 million increase in general fund spending — and planned 4% pay increases for state workers and public school staff.
Concerns also loom about the financial health of local governments. Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the lead state budget-writing committee, said that municipalities and counties are being swept away in the “economic tsunami” of the coronavirus pandemic as gross receipt taxes on sales and services drying up.
“Given its own financial crisis, New Mexico state government will be hard-pressed to find the resources to help. But it must,” wrote Smith, who will oversee special session budget negotiations one more time after losing a June 2 Democratic primary to progressive political rival Neomi Martinez-Parra of Lordsburg.
In other budget matters, financial analysts are warning that the trust fund that underwrites unemployment benefits could be depleted by October if spending continues at the current rate.
The fund’s balance fell from $458 million in mid-March to $322 in mid-May, according to staff at the nonpartisan Legislative Finance Committee.
The unemployment insurance trust fund is sustained by contributions from employers. The federal government offers loans to depleted unemployment funds at zero interest to sustain benefit payments.