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Session begins amid security, health restrictions

Lorraine Montoya-Vigil, chief of staff for the Senate Majority Office, walks across a lonely Rotunda before the start of the 2021 legislative session at the state Capitol on Tuesday. The historic session is being conducted without general public attendance. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers opened a historic legislative session Tuesday below empty galleries and under the protection of State Police and the National Guard.

The mood was sober – in contrast with the typical opening day, when the hallways fill with noisy schoolchildren and family members posing for pictures.

Instead, lawmakers plunged into their work almost immediately.

The House and Senate passed legislation authorizing about $2.2 million to cover security expenses at the Capitol, including the presence of about 200 police officers and members of the National Guard.

The Roundhouse itself was almost empty, the public barred as a precaution to limit the spread of COVID-19.

For lawmakers, it was an odd return to the Capitol.

Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, D-Albuquerque, was among those who participated partly through a video link, one of the health measures put in place to limit group gatherings.

“It’s strange because we’re here,” Hochman-Vigil said in an interview, “but we’re participating remotely, mostly from our offices. We’re all in this building, but we’re not together.”

The unusual session ran into technical trouble almost immediately. The Senate started its work about 45 minutes late because of a problem with its video board.

The House, by contrast, began about noon with a video of students from the New Mexico School for the Deaf and School for the Arts performing the national anthem. Roll call was handled with a mix of in-person and online participation, as House members registered their presence by speaking up from their desk on the chamber floor or through a video link.

First approvals

The first-day schedule included the adoption of rule changes intended to allow lawmakers to participate remotely through webconferencing programs, appointments to leadership posts and the swearing-in of 23 new members, or about 21% of the 112-person Legislature.

Among the first action items was passage of House Bill 1, which appropriates about $32 million largely dedicated to the expenses of operating the session.

It includes about $1.5 million for the Department of Public Safety and $674,000 for the Department of Military Affairs to cover Capitol security costs.

It won House approval 68-1 about five hours into the session and cleared the Senate 41-0 late Tuesday.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said lawmakers were meeting amid a time of tremendous hardship for New Mexicans, and he urged lawmakers to treat one another with respect.

The state has had nearly 3,000 coronavirus deaths since March, in addition to terrible economic damage. The deadly mob attack on Congress, meanwhile, has led to anxiety at capitols throughout the country.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Egolf said.

House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said he was sad to see the session start without in-person public access.

“We wish very much that these hallways were full of our constituents,” he said just before the session started. “I think it’s going to be wrought with challenges, and it will not be nearly as successful as it would be if we were face to face.”

The session may be slow-moving after Tuesday.

From left, Sen. Joshua Sanchez, R-Bosque, Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, and Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, along with other senators take their oath of ethical conduct at the start of the 2021 legislative session in the State Capitol Tuesday January 19, 2021. They are 3 of the 11 new members of the New Mexico Senate this year. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Legislative leaders in both chambers said much of the coming work will happen in committees – held online – for the rest of the month. Depending on the progress of bills, floor sessions to take up final passage of more legislation might happen around Feb. 1.

A House floor session is scheduled for Monday afternoon to accept introduction of bills and settle on more-detailed rules for the session. The Senate’s next floor session is expected Feb. 1.

Technical problem

The Senate started about 45 minutes after the House on Tuesday because of a technical issue with the chamber’s video board, which is used to display votes.

One senator sarcastically remarked on the chamber floor, “This has started out to be a smooth session.”

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, acknowledged some “hiccups” on the session’s opening day and said there could be more challenges in the coming weeks.

“It’s inevitable we will have some of those, so we ask for everyone’s patience as we navigate this new path,” Wirth said Tuesday.

But he said New Mexico residents’ ability to testify remotely on bills – through an online platform – could allow some members of the public who have not been able to travel to Santa Fe in past years the opportunity to weigh in on legislation.

Changes

Meanwhile, the Senate adopted rules to allow members to participate remotely in committee hearings. Senators generally would have to be present in the state Capitol – either on the Senate floor or in their offices – to debate and vote during floor sessions.

Senate Resolution 1 would also mandate the wearing of face masks by all senators while they are in committee or on the floor and bar the eating of food on the Senate floor.

The rule was adopted 26-15 late Tuesday, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. Republicans pushed to require at least 12 hours’ notice before a committee takes up a bill, but Democrats preferred to require agendas as soon as practical to allow for flexibility in the hectic final days of the session.

Coronavirus testing would be required weekly for legislative staffers and media members present in the Capitol, and senators would be requested – but not required – to also undergo such testing.

The rules would remain in effect only for the duration of the current emergency public health order due to COVID-19.

The House started the session with temporary rules for remote participation. Legislation to set the rules for the session is expected to be considered by the House on Monday.

The unusual nature of the session was clear well beyond the Capitol itself. Police officers, sheriff’s deputies and the National Guard established checkpoints around the building amid threats of protest and insurrection at capitols across the country.

Speaker Egolf called it “the most unusual opening day probably in the history of the New Mexico Legislature.”


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