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NM opens special session in closed Capitol

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

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Around 50 people protested outside the locked Roundhouse on Thursday. They want the State Capitol open during the special session that starts at noon. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

 

SANTA FE – Behind locked doors, New Mexico lawmakers plunged into a historic special session Thursday only to run into repeated technical problems that interrupted their work.

It was a strange start to what’s expected to be a fast-moving session.

The Capitol itself was nearly empty as legislative leaders banged the gavel about noon calling the session to order.

One lawmaker – Democratic Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez of Albuquerque – was quarantined in her office after having been exposed to COVID-19, the respiratory disease that has killed 456 New Mexicans.

Throughout the day, meanwhile, lawmakers periodically halted floor sessions and committee hearings because the public video stream went offline. Both legislative chambers stopped work for the night at 11 p.m. because of technical problems.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, started the day by saying lawmakers had a chance to aid in the state’s recovery in what he called New Mexico’s first legislative session amid a pandemic. His chamber voted 43-24 to adopt temporary rules allowing members to vote from home, their office or other remote locations to protect their health.

“This is a heavy moment,” Egolf said, “but I know everyone here is up to the task ahead.”

The unusual session did nothing to ease tension inside the Roundhouse.

House Republicans assailed their Democratic colleagues for moving forward with an ambitious agenda even though the legislation, for the most part, wasn’t available ahead of time. The bills were published online about 2½ hours after the session started.

“We don’t want to ask people to vote on something they haven’t seen before today,” said House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia.

Battling challenges

Unexpected challenges surfaced almost immediately.

Sedillo Lopez, a retired law professor whose district covers the university area in Albuquerque, isolated herself inside her Capitol office after the state Department of Health notified her that she’d been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

She said she fears the quarantine will damage her ability to advocate for legislation she believes is vital for the state.

“It just makes it very difficult,” Sedillo Lopez said in a telephone interview.

She is sponsoring legislation, Senate Bill 17, aimed at strengthening and standardizing the procedures for investigating police shootings or use of force resulting in death or great bodily harm.

Sedillo Lopez said she doesn’t have any coronavirus symptoms. She was tested Friday and the results came back negative.

But since then, Sedillo Lopez said, the state Department of Health called to notify her that she had come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.

Consequently, she asked the Senate for permission to vote and participate in the session remotely from her office. Each chamber sets its own rules on what it means to be “present.”

The Senate late Thursday agreed to allow remote participation – from the member’s Capitol office – in limited circumstances. Any member who tests positive for the virus or knows they were exposed to it may vote and fully participate from their office.

Sedillo Lopez said state health officials directed her to quarantine for 14 days, but that she received permission to stay in her Capitol office or hotel because of the nature of her work.

The exposure, Sedillo Lopez said, didn’t come at a legislative event. She added that she had been wearing a mask in public and maintaining her distance from people even before she was notified of the exposure.

The proposal for remote participation triggered much debate.

“Some of us may have been exposed to the virus this morning and we don’t even know it,” said Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales.

Somber mood

Inside the Roundhouse, the mood was somber – a contrast to more typical opening days, when the building is crowded with lobbyists, school kids and activists.

Almost every lawmaker wore a mask Thursday. Some House members sat in the public gallery to accommodate social distancing instructions.

About 50 protesters gathered outside to oppose the closing of the Capitol to the public, business restrictions and the requirement to wear masks in public settings.

Earlier this week, the state Supreme Court upheld the decision of top-ranking lawmakers to close the building to the public because of the health emergency.

Lawmakers pledged to ensure their work was broadcast online to allow people to monitor the session. Public testimony will also be allowed, though committee chairs have the authority to limit such comments.

Each legislative chamber halted its work periodically Thursday when the public video stream went down.

During one outage, members of the House took turns telling bad jokes as they paused debate and waited for approval to begin again.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, also vowed to halt legislative proceedings when technical difficulties interfere with legislative webcasting.

“We will not take any action on the floor if the webcast is down,” Wirth said at one point.

That pledge was quickly put to the test as the Senate had to halt its business for about 10 minutes due to webcast problems. It was just the first of multiple delays throughout the day.

Nine proposals

Legislative leaders say they hope to wrap up the session by Saturday, but there’s no formal end date – other than a constitutional provision that caps special sessions at 30 days.

Egolf warned late Thursday that the session may stretch beyond Saturday because of technical difficulties.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who controls the session agenda, issued a proclamation Thursday directing lawmakers to take up nine proposals, including budget-balancing measures and economic relief.

The agenda included emergency procedures for this year’s general election – to allow voting by mail – and police legislation requiring officers to wear cameras, banning chokeholds and guaranteeing public access to disciplinary records.

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