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Proposal for virtual session heads to House floor

Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, uses her computer to listen to cabinet secretaries and legislative economists go over the state’s most recent revenue projections in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee meeting Thursday. She was the only member physically present in the room as the others participated remotely. The green ribbons on seats indicate which places people can sit to maintain social distancing amid the pandemic. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — The state House began mapping out rules Friday to conduct the rest of the 60-day session almost entirely online through a webconferencing program rather than in person — a move Democrats in the majority said would protect against the spread of COVID-19.

The House Rules Committee voted along party lines — Democrats in favor — to send the proposed rules to the full chamber for consideration next week.

But before the vote, the rules triggered almost four hours of bitter debate as Republicans repeatedly raised legal questions about the measure and accused Democrats of trying to stifle their rights.

At one point, Democratic Rep. Deborah Armstrong of Albuquerque — presiding over the committee hearing — urged both sides to take a breath and focus on the questions at hand, not engage in emotional debate.

The rules would require almost every member of the House to participate in floor sessions through electronic means, such as the webconferencing program Zoom. Even members who opt to sit at their desks inside the chamber would have to wear headphones and use their computer.

But members would be free to sign in and participate from anywhere, even from their home, miles from the Capitol.

Democratic Rep. Daymon Ely of Corrales took the lead on crafting the proposed rules. He cited statistical modeling by Los Alamos National Laboratory that estimated how many new coronavirus cases would be generated by normal in-person operations under a variety of legislative scenarios.

“The more members that are on the floor, and the longer they are on the floor, the more dangerous it becomes to members and staff and those outside the building who have contact with members and staff,” Ely said. “We need to be cognizant of that, so we’re not a super-spreader event.”

But Republicans assailed the proposal as an unconstitutional attempt to make the session easier for the Democratic majority. They pointed to a constitutional provision calling for legislative sessions to be held sessions at the seat of government, in Santa Fe.

They questioned the fairness of making rank-and-file members participate electronically — even if they opt to be physically present — and said it will be harder for the minority party members to raise points of order and question House procedural decisions.

“My constituents have asked me to be on the floor and represent them,” Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, said. “I think my microphone is their voice.”

The state Senate, by contrast, is proceeding with more of a hybrid format. Its members generally have the option of debating and voting from inside the chamber, or choosing to participate remotely from elsewhere inside the Capitol complex, such as their office.

House Democrats said the online format they’re proposing is warranted, in part, because their chamber has almost twice as many members as the Senate — 70 vs. 42 — and they wanted to ensure everyone had an even playing field to participate.

Under the House plan, only a handful of legislators would participate in person — the speaker of the House and leadership of each party, who would be present on the House floor.

Ely said the proposal would meet the constitutional requirement to meet at the seat of government. The courts typically defer to the Legislature’s interpretation of its own rules, he said, and the Supreme Court itself has held online hearings similar to what the House is proposing.

For committee hearings, the proposed rules give the committee chairpersons discretion over how to accept public comment. They are expected to invite people to testify through a Zoom link or by telephone.

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