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House members on Friday kicked off a special session.
Steven Hsieh

'Strange Process' At the Special Session

Crime bills lead the agenda on first day of a special session

September 30, 2016, 5:00 pm

“Strange process today,” said Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, the Democrat from Bernalillo, shortly after the House of Representatives convened the second special session of the state’s 52nd legislative cycle. 

The speaker of the house, Don Tripp, had just announced that two separate committees—Judiciary and Safety—would work on a bill to reinstate the death penalty, but only members of the former would get to vote or offer amendments. Stapleton, who sits on the safety committee, shot back, “Normally if you have a joint hearing, one is not there just to listen.”

“This is a special session,” replied Tripp, a Republican from Soccoro who has held his leadership role for a little more than a year.

Special, indeed.

Around dinnertime on Thursday, Governor Susana Martinez used her extraordinary power to call all 112 volunteer lawmakers to Santa Fe with less than 24 hours' notice.

Her official proclamation asked lawmakers to consider three crime bills and fix our budget deficits—$220 million for the fiscal year ending in June and a $430 million shortfall for the upcoming year. Legislators had spent the past couple months negotiating a mix of spending cuts and tax loophole closures to fill our state’s budgetary sinkholes. They never reached a deal.

When the House convened alongside the Senate on Friday afternoon, Democrats continued lobbing attacks on the governor and Republican leadership for making crime an issue during a session that was originally proposed for addressing the budget crisis. One bill would reinstate the death penalty. Another would enhance the state’s so-called “three-strikes” law. And yet another would mandate life sentences to people who commit child abuse that results in death.

Rep. Brian Egolf, the House Minority Leader from Santa Fe, criticized Republicans for the hasty manner in which these proposals came to light. Members of the public did not get adequate notice of a committee hearing held later in the day, he noted.

“I did not see a copy of the death penalty reinstatement legislation until this morning,” Egolf said. “This was a session to address an $800 million problem. It is very telling that the first thing this house seeks to do is to seek reinstatement of the death penalty.” He later told the SFR, “Legislating by ambush on such an important topic is shameful.”

Stapleton used simpler terms: “It’s a façade.”

But Republicans maintain that now is as good a time as ever to introduce crime legislation. “We have continued to introduce bills increasing penalties for child abusers and people who commit violent crimes. They continue year after year to die. The public demands we address these issues now,” says Monica Youngblood, the Republican from Bernalillo County who co-sponsored the bill to reinstate the death penalty.

“Okay,” says Nate Gentry, the Republican House Majority leader, when I approached him for an interview. I then identified myself as a reporter for SFR. “I need to go to my office,” he replied, before swiftly exiting through chamber’s double doors.

The Senate, meanwhile, made significant progress on the budget question, passing multiple solvency bills through the Senate Finance Committee. One would drain a pool of money called the Tobacco Settlement Permanent Fund to make up last fiscal year’s budget gap. Another will delay corporate income tax cuts.

"The state Senate is moving swiftly to address what's going on with the budget crisis," says Jacob Candelaria, a Democrat from Albuquerque.

The House will convene again on Saturday at 10 am. The Senate was still in session at time of publication.


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