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SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers are investigating some unusual ideas as they prepare to convene a special session this year amid the coronavirus pandemic.
One question: Could they meet without even entering the building?
The feasibility of a virtual session – with members connecting online to cast their votes and debate bills – is one option legislative leaders and staff members are exploring.
Other possibilities include convening a session with just a bare majority of legislators, or allowing extra time for voting so only a few lawmakers are on the floor at one time, the rest waiting or watching from their offices throughout the Capitol complex.
But no one disputes the need for a special session amid a virus outbreak that has forced businesses and schools to close, sickened dozens of New Mexicans and played a role in plunging oil prices.
Some lawmakers say the state could face $1 billion in lost revenue if the crisis continues through this year and into 2021, with state finances squeezed by the combination of an economic downturn and plummeting oil prices.
A special session agenda is expected to include budget adjustments, economic relief and other emergency measures. The timing and scope of the session are largely up to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
To slow the spread of the virus, public health experts across the globe are urging people to stay at home or, if they must leave their homes, to avoid large gatherings and maintain their distance from other people. Older adults are especially at risk.
The Lujan Grisham administration issued new orders Monday directing people to limit their gatherings to five people or fewer.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said he asked legislative staff members to research the possibility of meeting through an online program that allows for seminars over the web.
Companies and families throughout the globe are now using videoconferencing programs such as Zoom to meet safely without the risk of infecting one another.
“If we feel comfortable about the constitutionality of not meeting in person,” Egolf said, “I think the way we’d do it is through Zoom or something like it.”
Another option, he said, would be to convene the session with just, say, 36 members in the House, giving the chamber the minimum needed to pass bills and limiting the number of people in the building. That would require lawmakers to have substantial agreement beforehand, Egolf said, about what bills to act on.
There are 112 members of the Legislature – 70 in the House, 42 in the Senate. Democrats hold substantial majorities in both chambers.
House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said flatly Monday that a web-only session wouldn’t be legal. He said he was frustrated by the lack of communication with Democrats about how – and when – to proceed with a session.
“We don’t have anything in our Constitution that allows us to do a virtual meeting,” Montoya said. “That’s not something we can do. (Egolf) doesn’t seem to care what the Constitution says.”
The speaker, for his part, said the possibility of a “webinar” is just one idea, and that Democratic and Republican legislative leaders will talk more specifically about how to meet safely once the scope of the virus and the prospect for federal aid become clear.
Montoya suggested lawmakers convene a session soon – before primary election ballots are mailed to overseas voters in April – and approve rule changes that would allow members to rotate on and off the floor to cast votes. When a vote is called, he said, members could agree to leave it open for a certain period of time so everyone has a chance to come down in small groups or one by one to make their decision.
The state Constitution grants the Legislature emergency authority “to guarantee the continuity and effective operation of state and local government” during a disaster. But one of the requirements for that authority is a state of martial law, or military control over the civilian functions of government.
The Constitution also calls for the Legislature to hold its session at the seat of government, typically the capital city. The House and Senate are also to be called to order “in the hall of” each chamber.
Raúl Burciaga, director of the Legislative Council Service, said it appears to be technologically possible for lawmakers to meet remotely through an online program. The legality is less clear.
“Logistically, it’s feasible,” Burciaga said. “Constitutionally – that’s a question above my pay grade.”
Democrats and Republicans also appear to be at odds over when to convene a session.
Montoya favors a meeting before mid-April. Egolf suggested June.
And Lujan Grisham said July might be the appropriate time.