Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers’ plan to allow remote public participation during a special session got off to an ugly start Wednesday – a day before the short session officially begins.
During a meeting of a House committee to discuss proposed rule changes, several members of the public uttered racial slurs after being unmuted to testify.
Although they were quickly muted, the racist comments prompted apologies from House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, who said he was “disgusted and shocked.”
The comments could lead to a change in plans regarding public participation in the special session that starts Thursday.
“We need to somehow protect this body from that type of commentary,” said House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia.
Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, the chairman of the House Rules and Order of Business Committee, said he would not put up with racial epithets but was still committed to allowing public participation despite the Wednesday incident.
“It’s discouraging, because we want public comment,” he told the Journal.
“I do think, as a result of that, there will be a constructive conversation about screening (those wishing to testify),” Ely said.
The jarring committee hearing was the latest headache encountered by lawmakers and legislative staffers as they grapple with providing public access during the special session.
Under a decision by top-ranking lawmakers that was upheld this week by the state Supreme Court, the Roundhouse will be closed to the public and lobbyists during the special session due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are planning to vote on rule changes that would allow for remote voting and participation by members once the special session gets underway Thursday at noon.
Proposed House rules debated Wednesday would allow members to participate remotely from any location inside or outside the state Capitol.
That means they could vote from their houses, cars or any other location, as long as they have an internet connection, Ely said.
“What we’re doing is really changing the definition of ‘present,’ ” Ely said.
The rules would be different in the Senate, as a tentative recommendation crafted Wednesday would prohibit senators from casting votes or participating in debate from a remote location.
But the proposal includes some flexibility that would allow senators to spend more time in their Capitol offices rather than on the chamber floor. Senators would count toward a quorum as long as they’re in their offices, meaning they would be needed on the floor only to formally cast a vote or debate their colleagues.
Members of the Senate Rules Committee debated the changes intensely for nearly three hours Wednesday.
Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, urged his colleagues to allow for remote voting, as long as the senator was participating through a video link from their office.
By requiring a physical presence in the chamber, he said, “you may be putting individual Senate members’ health at risk.”
But the committee ultimately voted against recommending remote voting.
Democratic Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto of Albuquerque and others said it was reasonable to expect someone to show up in person to vote – to avoid confusion or the odd spectacle of the Senate taking action with almost no one in the chamber itself.
“It’s a struggle,” Ivey-Soto said. “How do we promote safety and also try to conduct business under these circumstances?”
The committee is also recommending that family members of senators be permitted inside the building.
The senators didn’t outline a process for accepting remote public comment but said they expect Senate committees to take written testimony through email.
Under their respective proposed rule changes, both chambers would also require that members and staff follow social distancing guidelines. Face masks would also have to be worn under the Senate’s proposed rules, and House Republicans and Democrats have also agreed to wear masks, Ely said.
The rules would only be in effect for the special session, meaning they would have to be readopted for the Legislature to use them during a 60-day regular session that starts in January.