Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Remote public testimony appears here to stay – though it will be limited this summer – as New Mexico interim legislative committees prepare to start holding their meetings with an in-person requirement for members starting July 1.
The changes come following a year of virtual meetings featuring many legislators participating remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a historical first, thousands of New Mexicans testified via Zoom during this year’s 60-day session that was conducted in a largely online format, with the Roundhouse closed to the public and lobbyists to reduce the risk of virus spread.
While the remote public testimony option will not be offered during most interim legislative committee hearings this summer and fall due to technology limitations, a top legislative staffer said Tuesday that such testimony on bills would likely be allowed during regular sessions going forward.
Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, said he prefers in-person legislative meetings, but added he would push for the remote public testimony option to be provided during a special session on redistricting this fall and during the 30-day legislative session that will begin in January.
“We learned valuable things from Zoom, including the fact that it is incredibly helpful to people in the remote areas of the state,” Ely told the Journal. “I want people involved in the political process.”
While lawmakers have disagreed about letting legislators vote and debate on bills remotely during the pandemic, a top-ranking Republican said he also supports the idea of remote testimony for members of the public.
“I think they’re not as effective as in person, but I think being remote is better than nothing at all,” said House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia.
But Townsed said he supports the requirement that lawmakers attend committee hearings in person, saying, “I am a big proponent of legislators being in their seats.”
During the session that ended in March, slightly more than 19,000 people used online technology to participate remotely in House committee hearings, according to the House Democratic caucus.
While some individuals – and some lawmakers – struggled with the online format, backers of the system said it allowed an unprecedented number of New Mexicans to weigh in on proposed legislation.
Valarie Bellson, a Zuni Pueblo resident, said she was able to testify on multiple bills dealing with health care access and abortion during this year’s session.
“This year was the first time it felt like I was being heard,” said Bellson, who said trips to Santa Fe in previous years typically required planning travel logistics and taking time off work.
Legislative Council Service Director Raúl Burciaga said Tuesday it is not yet feasible to feed in a Zoom public comment period to live webcasting of interim committee hearings due to technical issues that include a timed delay and varying internet speeds outside of the Roundhouse.
But he said remote public testimony could be implemented for interim committee meetings held at the state Capitol, as well as for future regular legislative sessions.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said Tuesday that “Zoom is not going anywhere in the House,” adding those who complained the most about the online format of this year’s 60-day session were lobbyists who did not have the access to legislators they were accustomed to.
“It made public participation a real option for thousands of people who were never able to do so before,” Egolf said.
He also said majority House Democrats had not yet held discussions about whether remote participation by legislators might still be allowed in future regular sessions.
Meanwhile, a survey of lawmakers, lobbyists and citizens conducted by the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government after this year’s 60-day session found support for the remote public testimony option that allowed New Mexicans to testify on legislation from their homes – instead of having to drive to Santa Fe.
But survey participants expressed dislike for the virtual session format, with specific concerns raised about technical proficiency and transparency issues, such as making proposed amendments to bills available publicly.