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House Republicans sue to override session rules

The State Capitol In Santa Fe. Republican members of the House are suing to halt rules implemented due to the pandemic that limit public access and allow lawmakers to do much of their work remotely. (Eddie Moore/ Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Republican legislators in the state House are challenging the chamber’s plan to conduct much of this year’s session virtually from outside the Capitol.

Reps. Jim Townsend of Artesia, Rod Montoya of Farmington and Larry Scott of Hobbs filed a lawsuit Saturday over “unconstitutional” rule changes to the legislative session that allow House members to participate from outside the Capitol – even from home – and a separate ban limiting the public.

The lawsuit asks the state Supreme Court to issue a stay prohibiting the rules from being enforced until a final ruling on the petition.

House rules differ from those of the Senate, which ensure legislation from “the seat of government,” according to a House GOP news release issued by spokesman Matthew Garcia-Sierra.

The release said that previously, “both sides of the aisle” voiced concerns on holding the session and a desire to push it to spring when COVID-19 cases could be down and vaccines more readily available.

“Delaying the session could have also avoided making these unconstitutional rule changes and could have allowed greater public participation in the legislative process,” the release said.

According to the lawsuit, the changes violate the constitutional requirements that all sessions be public and that members of the House be physically present. The suit also says the changes violate the right to due process by failing to all give New Mexico residents – particularly those who lack phones or computers – a way to participate in the session.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said he would not comment on pending litigation, but Democratic Rep. Daymon Ely of Corrales, chairman of the House Rules Committee, weighed in on what he called “an attempt to derail government.”

“This is a continuing effort on the part of the Republicans to stop the Legislature from doing its business to help New Mexicans,” he said. “We are trying to do this in a transparent, safe and constitutional manner, and we think we’ve achieved that, and frankly, they’re just wrong.”

Ely said that there’s no provision that requires House members to be on the floor and that furthermore, a recent outbreak of COVID-19 cases at the Roundhouse is a reminder that going remote is the right move.

“What they want to do, I think, is they want to make people be in the building, which is unsafe, and what does it accomplish?” he said, “Here we are trying to get relief to the citizens of New Mexico … and they just want to stop it, and I think that’s irresponsible.”

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