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Legislature reins in election reform proposal

June 19, 2020 GMT
Republican state House members including Rep. Gregg Schmedes of Tijeras, standing, voiced objections to procedural rules at the opening of a special legislative session on Thursday, June 18, 2020, in Santa Fe, N.M. The legislature met for the first time since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in New Mexico, without public access to the state Capitol. Leading Republican lawmakers objected to rules allowing legislators vote participate remotely from home. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
Republican state House members including Rep. Gregg Schmedes of Tijeras, standing, voiced objections to procedural rules at the opening of a special legislative session on Thursday, June 18, 2020, in Santa Fe, N.M. The legislature met for the first time since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in New Mexico, without public access to the state Capitol. Leading Republican lawmakers objected to rules allowing legislators vote participate remotely from home. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
Republican state House members including Rep. Gregg Schmedes of Tijeras, standing, voiced objections to procedural rules at the opening of a special legislative session on Thursday, June 18, 2020, in Santa Fe, N.M. The legislature met for the first time since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in New Mexico, without public access to the state Capitol. Leading Republican lawmakers objected to rules allowing legislators vote participate remotely from home. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
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Republican state House members including Rep. Gregg Schmedes of Tijeras, standing, voiced objections to procedural rules at the opening of a special legislative session on Thursday, June 18, 2020, in Santa Fe, N.M. The legislature met for the first time since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in New Mexico, without public access to the state Capitol. Leading Republican lawmakers objected to rules allowing legislators vote participate remotely from home. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
1 of 9
Republican state House members including Rep. Gregg Schmedes of Tijeras, standing, voiced objections to procedural rules at the opening of a special legislative session on Thursday, June 18, 2020, in Santa Fe, N.M. The legislature met for the first time since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in New Mexico, without public access to the state Capitol. Leading Republican lawmakers objected to rules allowing legislators vote participate remotely from home. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A proposal to distribute absentee ballots directly to registered New Mexico voters without a request or application was rejected by a state Senate panel on Thursday at the outset of a special legislative session aimed primarily at shoring up state finances.

Absentee ballots will continue to be available only by request in New Mexico. An amended election reform proposal advanced to the Senate floor that would allow additional time before an election to request an absentee ballot, more explicit instructions on mail-in deadlines and bar code tracking to trace ballots through the mail.

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Bill sponsor Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto expressed disappointment that ballots won’t be distributed automatically at the discretion of county clerks.

“I think in some counties this is what those voters wanted and we removed that option,” he said.

The state Republican Party has fought in court to ensure that ballots are available by request only, citing concerns about faulty mailing addresses on voter registration records. The Supreme Court in May rejected a request to automatically distribute absentee ballots in response to the pandemic to encourage remote voting.

The New Mexico Legislature met Thursday for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic struck. House lawmakers began their session with a moment of silence for people who have died from COVID-19.

Democratic House speaker Brian Egolf described an urgent need for a “clear framework for the recovery of our state” and said other proposed legislation is designed to “uproot and uncover institutional racism.”

Lawmakers are confronting a 25% decline in estimated state government income for the coming budget year. Solvency proposals from a leading lawmaker and the governor would diminish but not do away with increased spending on public salaries, education and heath care.

First-term Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham also wants legislators to enact policing reforms such as mandating body cameras and to streamline mail-in balloting procedures. She is hoping for legislation that extends a lifeline to local governments and small business by providing low-interest loans from a state trust fund.

Other new bills would tap federal recovery funds to support state government services, create a nine-member state civil rights commission and allow retail deliveries by liquor stores.

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House Republican legislators are arguing for a more cautious approach to state spending and warning that sustained general fund budget increases now will eventually require tax increases as financial reserves dry up.

The Statehouse was closed to the general public, with interactions limited to interactive video and teleconferencing services.

Senate and House lawmakers hammered out new rules to allow remote voting by lawmakers, in a concession to the risks of mass gatherings as a member of the Senate went into self-isolation after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

Democratic Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez of Albuquerque said she was notified of the contact the night before the special session.

“I’ve requested that I be allowed to participate and vote remotely,” she said. “You’re supposed to behave as if you have it, and that’s what I’m doing right now.”

Sedillo Lopez said that her contact with the virus carrier happened before and after giving a news conference this week on a policing reform bill. She says she’s glad she wore a mask to the meeting and never took it off.

Legislators took note of intermittent interruptions in video access to the proceedings throughout the day. A least one committee vote was postponed while video was restored, and emails from the public about legislation were read aloud.

“We will not take any action if the webcast is down,” Democratic Senate majority leader Peter Wirth vowed.

Many lawmakers have objected to the decision to shut off public access to the Capitol building. The state Supreme Court overruled legal objections to the arrangements on Monday.