NM House approves plan for virtual session

 Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, left, and Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, talk on the House floor Monday during debate over rule changes that will allow representatives to work and vote from a remote location. Most Republicans were in the room, but most Democrats were participating remotely. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The state House adopted new rules Monday that call for conducting the rest of the 60-day session almost entirely online – changes that go much further than the procedures adopted by their colleagues in the Senate.

The new rules, House Resolution 1, won approval 48-22 after about 3½ hours of debate – interrupted occasionally by computer trouble – largely along party lines.

Four Republicans joined Democrats in favor of the measure, and one Democrat voted against the legislation.

Rep. Daymon Ely, a Corrales Democrat and sponsor of the measure, said the changes are necessary to limit the spread of COVID-19 and protect lawmakers, their staff and family members.

“We’re setting the example for the public that this is the real deal,” he said.

Ely cited a study by Los Alamos National Laboratory to support the plan. And on a personal note, he said, his wife survived lung cancer, putting her particularly at risk if he were to bring the coronavirus home after exposure at the Capitol.

Republican lawmakers vigorously argued against the changes, which they said will make it harder for the public to follow along and run afoul of a constitutional requirement to meet in Santa Fe.

Reinforcing their argument, they said, were delays in the debate Monday when a computer server at the Capitol went down, preventing proposed amendments to the resolution from going online immediately.

The House paused its work a few times until the problem was fixed.

Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said the House risks violating the state Constitution, which calls for the Legislature to meet at the seat of government, by allowing members to participate and vote online from their homes, perhaps miles from the Capitol.

“We are potentially jeopardizing all the actions this body would take during this entire session,” Nibert said.

The rules generally require House members to participate in floor sessions through electronic means, such as the webconferencing program Zoom. Even lawmakers who sit at their desks inside the chamber are to wear headphones and use their computer microphones to speak.

There are exceptions for the House speaker and leadership of each party.

The state Senate, by contrast, is giving its members the option of participating in-person from the chamber or remotely from elsewhere in the Capitol, such as from their private office.

Four Republicans – Alonzo Baldonado and Kelly Fajardo, both of Los Lunas, and Jason Harper and Joshua Hernandez, both of Rio Rancho – joined 44 Democrats in support of House Resolution 1.

Democratic Rep. Willie Madrid of Chaparral joined 21 Republicans in voting against the measure.

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