Amid pandemic, Roundhouse adjusts to online work - Albuquerque Journal

Amid pandemic, Roundhouse adjusts to online work

Senator William Soules, D-Las Cruces, on the screen, takes part in committee reports in the Senate Monday February 1, 2021. Soules and other legislators are working remotely during the session. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — The word of the session so far might be “mute.”

Citizen advocates, lobbyists and legislators are adjusting this year to the world of online public hearings — in which almost everyone’s first words are some version of, “Can you hear me, or am I on mute?”

The transition to Zoom webconferencing for committee meetings and other legislative work has hit some technical speed bumps this year as New Mexico moves through its third week of a session conducted almost entirely online.

Some residents and legislators have lost their internet connection or had trouble figuring out how to unmute themselves on the Zoom call. Others have raised concerns about inadequate notice for future meetings, especially critical now that Senate committees require people to register ahead of time to gain access to the webinar.

And a common complaint is the complexity — figuring out how each committee in each chamber handles public comment.

But the new system offers advantages, too, participants say.

At least one committee chairwoman in the House is using Zoom to set up quick online polls of the audience. Presentations by expert witnesses can also be shared easily on-screen for everyone to see.

And no one has to travel to Santa Fe only to be crowded into a small committee room — or stand in the hallway because of capacity limits — while they wait to testify.

Amanda Aragon of NewMexicoKidsCAN, an education advocacy group, has seen firsthand the strengths and weaknesses of the new system — imposed as the Capitol is closed to the public amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

She often testifies on legislation and has learned to navigate Zoom. She also encourages other advocates to take advantage of the opportunity to testify without having to travel to Santa Fe.

But people’s “eyes get kind of big,” Aragon said, when she starts explaining how the webconferencing program works.

“For someone who’s never been on Zoom before,” Aragon said, “it’s really intimidating. I think that inclination to not participate — because it feels overwhelming — is just a real problem.”

‘New for all of us’

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said the online committee hearings are going well. Some meetings have drawn over 120 participants in Zoom, he said, in addition to anyone who might be watching the regular webcast.

Egolf said he also has noticed a dramatic improvement in the decorum of testimony and debate in Zoom hearings.

In an ordinary session, it isn’t unusual for the sergeants-at-arms to repeatedly warn an audience to avoid outbursts, booing or clapping.

In a written statement, House Democrats said more than 2,400 residents have participated in committee meetings — with 31 of 33 counties represented — in the early days of the session. Egolf said he believes it’s a record for participation at this point in the session.

“I prefer the virtual committee meetings,” Egolf told reporters last week. “I feel like it’s much easier to focus on the presentations when they’re on the computer screens in front of us. Members of the public who are attending the Zoom get the exact same presentation that members of the committee do.”

But the technology is more challenging for some members.

Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said he had to repeatedly ask another senator to mute himself during a recent hearing because of background noise. Just like the public, he said, some members are more comfortable with Zoom than others.

And some technical trouble is outside everyone’s control. An internet outage hit the Roundhouse on Tuesday, pausing committee work for about 10 minutes.

“All those things have made it very hectic and difficult,” Brandt said.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said the new session format has received both criticism and praise over the session’s first two weeks.

He also asked for ongoing patience in dealing with technical issues, but he said he has received feedback from some New Mexico residents who have never testified in past years on bills but have already done so this year under the virtual committee hearing system.

“This is new for all of us,” Wirth said Monday.

Different rules

The House and Senate are each handling public comment a little differently.

In the House, a person just has to click a link in the agenda and enter their name and email address to enter the Zoom meeting.

The chairperson or legislative staff can ask people to raise their digital hands if they’d like to comment, then unmute the person so they can address the committee. There’s also a telephone line for people who don’t want to use Zoom.

The Senate system takes more planning. Its committees generally require people to email the committee ahead of time to obtain access to the Zoom meeting — either the afternoon before the meeting or the morning of the meeting.

Committee agendas are often released days ahead of time, but it’s common for the agenda to be updated repeatedly as the day of the meeting approaches, sometimes 12 hours before the start of the hearing.

The quick turnaround between agenda release and sign-up deadline “is an obstacle to participation by the public,” Melanie Majors of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, an advocacy group for transparency, said in a letter to Senate leadership.

She also noted that when a bill is on the agenda but postponed at the last minute, people who want to testify have to register again to get the new Zoom link.

Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, said the registration system has kept her from testifying on at least one bill already.

She said she can’t imagine how members of the general public who are unfamiliar with the Legislature are sorting out the procedural differences by chamber and committee.

“We have sympathy for everyone involved in trying to navigate this session,” Cole said. “It’s pretty difficult, and the notion that this is a transparent session — welcoming to the public — is just not the case.”

Legal questions

A lawsuit filed by three Republican representatives challenges the legality of rules adopted by the House for this session, arguing they deprive citizens of their rights to participate in the legislative process.

Democratic House members say the GOP suit is baseless.

The Supreme Court court denied the Republican request for an immediate halt to the new House rules but called for an expedited response from Egolf and the Legislative Council Service to further analyze the issue.

Even with online work, lawmakers are eligible to draw a $165 per diem payment intended to cover food and lodging costs.

Journal Capitol Bureau chief Dan Boyd contributed to this report.

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