Reserved seating for speech sparks complaints

Steve Terrell
The Santa Fe New Mexican
A seating pass for the opening day of the legislative session is pictured.

SANTA FE — Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez said Friday he will propose a rule change intended to give the general public a better chance of getting a seat in the House Gallery during joint sessions of the New Mexico Legislature -- such as the one held on the opening day of each legislative session to hear the governor's State of the State address.

Sanchez wants to prohibit any seats from being reserved, so that any empty seat in the gallery would be available to anyone when both the Senate and House convene in the House chamber in the Capitol for a joint session.

His proposal came after Republicans, who control the House, decided to issue color-coded passes that allowed certain guests to have reserved seating in the audience for the governor's speech.

"The Capitol is the people's building," Sanchez said in a news release Friday. "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, D-Belen, also brought up the subject earlier this week at a news conference immediately after Gov. Susana Martinez's speech. "It's my understanding that members of the public were not allowed up there unless they had a pass," Sanchez told reporters Tuesday. "And never, in all the years I've been in the New Mexico Legislature, ever seen people denied access to their house."

House sergeant at arms Steven Shaw said that before the speech, sections of the House Gallery, which has 296 seats, were sectioned off. A number of tickets, he said, were given to House Republicans, House Democrats, the Governor's Office and the Secretary of State's Office to distribute to guests who wanted to attend the speech.

Some seats were left open for the general public, Shaw said, but he didn't know how many.

Spokesmen for the Senate Democrats said they didn't receive any passes. Neither did Senate Republican Leader Stuart Ingel, R-Portales. "But I'm not upset either way," he said.

The reserved seats had color stickers on the back to go along with the color of the pass given to the various offices. If a reserved seat wasn't claimed by 11 a.m., Shaw said, that seat could be used by someone without a pass. The speech was scheduled to start about 1:30 p.m., though it actually started even later.

Shaw, who became sergeant-at-arms last year, said this is the first time he has used a color coding system.

Another change from previous years is that nobody was allowed to stand in the area at the back of the chamber behind the seats. "Last year it was hard to get in and out because of all the people standing," he said. Not allowing standing in the aisle made it safer, Shaw said. Another first: the doors of the House gallery were locked until about 10:30 a.m., Shaw said.

Marcella Diaz of the immigration rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido, who said she has attended every State of the State speech in the past six years, was turned away at the door Tuesday. "At first [a sergeant-at-arms] told me it was full. Then another asked me if I had a pass," she said. "I've been coming all these years and nobody's ever asked me for a pass."

Diaz said it seemed wrong to her because "the gallery is a public place."

It wasn't clear Friday how the passes were divvied up.

A spokeswoman for the House Democrats said her office received 70 tickets but used less than half of those. Her House Republican counterpart said she didn't know how many passes her office received. Michael Lonergan, a spokesman for the Governor's Office did not answer a reporter's question about how many passes the governor received.

But Lonergan, in an email, said, "It's disappointing that Michael Sanchez is spending more time worrying about seating arrangements than passing legislation that cracks down on repeat violent offenders and tackling other important issues before the Legislature."