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An empty start to 2021 legislative session


Today I can report that the state of our state is … to be determined.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham broke with tradition last week and skipped the state of the state address, which has always been given by the governor a couple hours after the start of each legislative session. And I’m not sure why.

If you go to the governor’s website and look at the recent press releases, as of Monday, there was one on the inauguration of Joe Biden, but nothing on the start of the session, her decision to skip the traditional speech or what she would have said if she had delivered it.

The governor was reportedly concerned about both the threat of civil unrest and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. One of those threats turned out to be overblown, but you can’t blame the state, or the federal government, for being over-prepared after such a woeful lack of preparation at the U.S. Capitol building Jan 6.

We don’t need a speech to know what the governor’s top priorities are for this session. She laid out her agenda in a press release weeks before the session started. Those bills have been introduced, and we can follow their progress throughout the 60-day session.

And, obviously, a traditional state of the state address - where both senators and representatives squeeze into the House chambers, along with family members, friends, dignitaries, former dignitaries and working staff members - wouldn’t be possible this year.

In last week’s column, I wrote about how much I disliked all the ceremonial hoopla that takes place in a typical legislative session. In past years, I treated the state of the state address with mild disdain. The self-congratulatory oratory and insincere pledges of bipartisan cooperation can be a bit much.

And so, I’m not sure why I was disappointed this year when it didn’t happen. It’s just one more thing that we can’t do in a year full of things we can’t do.

Opening a legislative session without a state of the state speech is a little like opening a baseball game without singing the national anthem, followed by the umpire shouting “Play ball!” You can do it, but it just feels wrong.

The state of the state is more than a speech; it’s a big, noisy, happy, exciting event, where people reunite with old friends they only see at this time each year. It’s filled with hugs and kisses and handshakes and all the other physical gestures of human affection that we can’t express anymore.

The House of Representatives has set its rules for this year’s session. And, as expected, it will conduct all its business on Zoom. The Senate sets its own rules, but it also will rely heavily on communications over the Internet.

Nobody can say for sure what impact that will have on the process. It is certain that both constituents and lobbyists will have to find new ways to make their voices heard. My fear is the pros who already have well-established connections will find it easier to get through.

But I don’t know what I would do differently, given the current conditions. The safety of both lawmakers and paid staff has to be the top concern this session.

And, I’m looking forward to this year’s State of the Union address more than any of the past years. Not because I expect Biden to give a dazzling speech, but just because it will be a little bit of normalcy.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.

Walt Rubel