Speech Seating Prompts Rules Change Proposal
There was griping in the Capitol after some members of the public were turned away from Gov. Susana Martinez’s speech to the Legislature on Tuesday.
So Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, is proposing a rules change to prohibit reserved seating at future State of the State addresses.
The rules change, which could be introduced as early as Monday, would bar reserved seating in the House gallery when the House and Senate meet in a joint session.
Most of the 296 seats in the gallery were reserved this year, according to House Sergeant-at-Arms Steve Shaw.
He said 30 to 40 seats were kept open for the general public, although after 11 a.m. the public also was allowed into unclaimed reserved seats for the early afternoon speech.
This year, for the first time, tickets were required to access the reserved seats. Shaw said they were distributed to the Governor’s Office, the Republican and Democratic leadership offices in the House, and to the secretary of state.
But the Senate was not provided any tickets, the chamber’s Democratic and Republican leadership offices confirmed Friday.
House Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro, said that was because it was his understanding that in the past, senators’ guests have been seated on the House floor with the senators for the speech, and there hasn’t been demand from them for additional gallery seating.
“It’s just kind of the way it’s been done,” Tripp told the Journal. But he added, “We’ll certainly take a look at it. … We’ll be glad to do whatever we can to accommodate the Senate’s guests.”
Another big change in procedure contributed to the crunch Tuesday. In the past, visitors have packed a standing-room area behind the House gallery’s seats for the State of the State speech. This year, no standing was allowed.
Shaw, who began the job just a year ago when the House Republicans became the chamber’s majority, said he was appalled to see how crowded the gallery was.
“I went up there last year, and I could not believe it,” said Shaw, a retired Rio Rancho police officer. “This isn’t safe.”
He said the number of people who jammed the gallery far exceeded the authorized occupancy of 296, and they could not have been evacuated safely in the event of an emergency.
The gallery doors were locked — from the outside only — to prevent people from pushing their way in, he said.
“It’s a difficult balance to make. You’ve got to have control over occupancy. Once you’ve lost control, you’ve lost it,” he said.
“The Capitol is the people’s building,” Sanchez said in a statement issued today. “It is unconscionable to effectively deny the public an opportunity to attend and witness the opening day of the legislative session and the governor’s State of the State address.”
Sanchez’s statements drew criticism from House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, who said, “Instead of focusing on pressing issues facing our state, Michael Sanchez is focused on ‘assigned seating.’ ”