The Sandoval County Commission voted to adopt a resolution supporting referendum petitions on bills passed by the 2023 Legislature at its Sept. 13 meeting.

Discussion about the vote became heated during the nearly four-hour meeting, which ended with District 2 Commissioner Jay Block calling the actions of two of his fellow commissioners “unconstitutional.”

The referendum was brought forward by the Referendum Project, a group effort led by Better Together New Mexico, Change Course New Mexico, The Library Guild, New Mexico Election Integrity Network, Right to Life and One Name One Banner.

The project aims to stop the enactment of six bills that were passed during the 2023 legislative session. Instead, they’d like to put the bills, HB-4, HB-7, SB-13, SB-180, SB-207 and SB-397, on a ballot for voters across the state to have a say. The bills cover protections for abortion patients and providers, elections, gender-affirming care and school-based health centers.

Before the vote on the resolution, state Rep. Kathleen Cates pleaded with the commission to vote against the referendum. Cates talked about HB-7, which is known as the Reproductive and Gender-Affirming Health Care Act, and prohibits public bodies, including local municipalities, from denying, restricting, or discriminating against an individual’s right to use or refuse reproductive health care or health care related to gender.

“There is definitely a mental health epidemic right now. And I’m sure COVID and anxiety, the isolation, has not helped with that as well. What has been brought to our attention is the need for children to be heard. We at this legislation passed HB-7 because we wanted to make sure that the children have a safe place to be heard in a medical or school setting to talk. We know that representation matters. We know that about women in the workplace, we know as we integrated our military. We know that as our society progresses, representation matters. And these individuals, which are only 0.67% of our state, who are born transgender. They are not feeling heard. They need a safe place where they can come and they can talk. HB-7 does not does not prevent parents from providing any kind of consent or any sort of medical procedures. As you all know, 9-year-olds cannot access insurance without their parents, 9-year-olds don’t have the cash to have operations. This is a bill so that they have a safe space to be able to talk about what they are feeling and that they do not have people around them, representation, to be able to know that they are not alone.”

The referendum petition resolution reads: “The Board philosophically supports the right of any person residing within the county to participate in the referendum process as guaranteed by the Constitution of the State of New Mexico. The Board recognizes, applauds and supports the participation and efforts of Sandoval County residents in the petitions (known as the Referendum Project), which is comprised of six (6), separate pieces of legislation, that were passed without voice of the electorate, and are determined to be clear and direct usurpations of parental rights over their minor children, threats to the integrity of election outcomes and violations of individual rights to free speech.”

Before the vote on the resolution, which was requested by Commission Chair Dave Heil, Block asked why Heil brought the resolution forward.

“Well, because it is a constitutional right,” Heil responded. “And I think there’s a sincere effort by members of the public that are asking to have certain legislative actions reviewed and placed on the ballot in 2024.”

Block agreed with Heil and said the vote was not about agreeing or disagreeing with the bills; it’s about the constitutional right of the referendum process.

“I would also just like to thank some of the public for their comments, whether I agree or not, it’s not the point. It’s their constitutional right in this country, at least until the governor declares another public health emergency to take away free speech like she’s tried to take away the Second Amendment. That being said, I appreciate that Representative Cates coming here, and I thought I heard her say she doesn’t support this because children need a voice. No one’s arguing with that. I think some of the bad bills out there, there’s five or six bills on the referendum that citizens of New Mexico said, ‘Hold on; now that we looked at this, stop. We want to relook at it.’ We have every right to go ahead and sign that referendum and go back to Santa Fe and say, ‘Stop that particular bill or those particular bills.'”

District 1 Commissioner Katherine Bruch then spoke out against the referendum, saying the bills were passed and there’s no need to revisit them.

“Many of us believe that all of the Legislature was duly elected by the majority of the people that they serve. And in each of those districts, whether Senate or House, these bills were passed and were signed into law,” Bruch said. “Referendum opportunities do exist, and I cannot deny that there should be an opportunity to do that. But our role and weighing in on this particular petition is not something that I will support. I do very strongly believe that HB-7 is about protecting our children and it is not about reducing parental consent or rights. So everyone who is reading into these laws, what they want to see, are sadly misinformed.”

Block then asked Heil for clarification on what exactly the commission was voting on.

“So I’m voting that it’s constitutional for citizens to do this referendum in accordance with the laws, is that correct?,” Block said. “And as commissioners, we do take an oath to support the Constitution of the state of New Mexico. So if we’re not voting for this, basically, we’re saying we don’t believe in this particular right of the people that’s within the Constitution?”

“We’re saying that we believe in the right of referendum as part of the Constitution in the state of New Mexico,” Heil said.

“If you vote no, that means you don’t believe in that, you don’t favor that?” Block said. “That’s rather fascist.”

Block, Heil and District 3 Commissioner Michael Meek all voted in favor of the resolution. District 5 Commissioner Joshua Jones voted no. Bruch left her seat after her comments and did not return for the vote.

Block had more to say about the vote as the meeting neared an end, saying Bruch and Jones violated their oath as commissioners by not voting for the resolution.

“Here we are trying to pass a simple resolution. You’re voting no against the Constitution of the state of New Mexico that you swore to,” Block said. “All we’re asking is that you agree that the board supports the right of any person residing within the county to participate in the referendum process as guaranteed by the Constitution of the state of New Mexico. And you say no, you say no. That goes against your oath. You’re going against the Constitution of the state of New Mexico, which you took an oath to. When you start putting your party over the Constitution, that’s a problem. And I ask you, please, while we might have disagreements, don’t ever do that again. Don’t ever do that again to your oath. You disrespected your oath, you disrespected your constituents and you disrespected your office as commissioners. Please, don’t do that again.”