NM legislators to keep meeting in person — at least for now - Albuquerque Journal

NM legislators to keep meeting in person — at least for now

House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, left, talks Monday with House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, before the start of a Legislative Council meeting at the state Capitol. Lawmakers may reconsider in-person meeting requirements for interim legislative committees amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

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SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers will continue to hold in-person meetings at the Roundhouse and around the state amid a recent surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

However, some legislators said Monday that remote participation in interim committee meetings should be allowed in some circumstances, such as when lawmakers test positive or quarantine after possible exposure to the virus.

A group of top lawmakers did not vote on any changes to the in-person meeting requirement that has been in place since July, but signaled it could be revisited if the recent spike in cases due to the highly contagious delta variant persists.

“Realistically, we’re going to need to deal with this,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who specifically cited the concerns of some lawmakers with children who are too young to be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Legislative committees reimposed an in-person attendance requirement for members starting July 1 after a year full of virtual meetings, with many legislators participating remotely due to the pandemic.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, referred to the state’s elevated COVID-19 vaccination rate – 66.5% of state residents ages 18 and older were fully vaccinated as of Monday – and said legislators can safely hold in-person meetings.

But some lawmakers said some recent interim committee meetings – or those held in between legislative sessions – have taken place in settings without enough space for ideal social distancing.

Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, cited one recent meeting in a cramped space in which lawmakers were forced to share microphones and try to disinfect them between uses.

“That was not a good situation,” said Brandt. He said he would like for committee hearings to be held at the Roundhouse to ensure adequate space for legislators and members of the public alike.

In addition, some legislators cited a recent legislative committee hearing in Las Vegas during which legislators and others were unknowingly exposed to the virus by a presenter.

“If we don’t allow members to participate (because they’re in quarantine), I think we’re doing a disservice for our communities,” said Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque.

The in-person attendance requirement for interim committees applies only to legislators. Cabinet secretaries in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration have been told to use their discretion when it comes to testifying in person or remotely, a spokeswoman for the governor said Monday.

Concerns about hospitals

The highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 has caused New Mexico’s infection rate to reach its highest level since January and renewed concerns about hospitals being stretched beyond their capacity.

State health officials on Monday reported more than 2,200 new virus cases statewide during a three-day period. And 352 people were hospitalized in New Mexico for COVID-19 – up from 106 a month earlier.

While New Mexico has avoided the widespread COVID-19 outbreaks at the state Capitol that some other states have experienced, several lawmakers have acknowledged testing positive for the virus.

During Monday’s meeting of the Legislative Council, a meeting of top-ranking lawmakers, Egolf at one point asked House GOP Whip Rod Montoya of Farmington to join other legislators in wearing a face mask.

Montoya ultimately did so, but said he was only obliging in response to the request, not in response to a mask mandate for indoor public settings reimposed last week by Lujan Grisham’s administration.

He said many New Mexicans are feeling frustrated over the state’s mask and vaccine mandates and “want to have final say over their bodies.”

Capitol likely to remain open

The debate over remote participation comes as lawmakers are preparing for a special session on redistricting this fall and a 30-day legislative session that will begin in January.

Legislative Council Service Director Raúl Burciaga said he expects the state Capitol will remain open for those sessions, after being closed to the public during this year’s 60-day regular session and for two special sessions in 2020.

Virtual testimony through Zoom, an online platform, is also expected to be offered for lobbyists and members of the public, as it was during this year’s regular session.

Remote public testimony has not been offered at interim committee meetings this summer due to technical limitations, and webcasting of the meetings has been complicated by broadband problems and, in one instance, thick adobe walls, Burciaga said.

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