Senate approves new rules after clash over masks - Albuquerque Journal

Senate approves new rules after clash over masks

House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, left, talks with House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, before the start of a Legislative Council meeting at the state Capitol. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Mask wearing is required, eating food on the chamber floor is forbidden and remote participation will be allowed in some circumstances under a pandemic-related rule approved Wednesday by the Senate.

After being approved via a 32-7 vote, the rule will be in place for the current 30-day session and any special sessions called by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham later this year.

But before it was adopted, several Senate Republicans did not wear face masks on the chamber floor during the first two days of the session. That prompted criticism from some Democrats.

“I’m just so disappointed this rule is even needed,” said Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, who described wearing a face mask around other senators as a courtesy.

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, who was wearing a mask, responded by saying he took offense at the criticism.

“While other people were in a bubble, I was on the front lines,” said Moores, who is a partner in a state medical laboratory and helped conduct COVID-19 testing during the early stages of the pandemic.

Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, an ear, nose and throat doctor who did not wear a face covering until the rule was approved, called masks “harmful,” saying they have not been effective at slowing the spread of COVID-19 and claiming they have worsened speech delays for some individuals.

But Sen. Martin Hickey, D-Albuquerque, who is a retired physician, disputed Schmedes’ assertions.

“Wearing a mask reduces the transmission substantially and in many cases, as we’re seeing now, saves lives,” Hickey said.

In addition to the mask requirement, which will remain in place as long as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the practice, the rule allows senators to decide whether to participate remotely or in-person at the Roundhouse during committee hearings.

During floor sessions, senators can choose to be either in their Capitol office or on the chamber floor in order to debate and vote on bills.

But senators isolating because they contracted COVID-19 – or those at high risk from the virus – could participate remotely from their homes or other locations.

The remote participation allowance, which was not in place during a special session on redistricting last month, led to debate about hypothetical scenarios – such as the possibility of a senator filibustering a bill remotely from the comfort of their own home.

“If somebody is at home, we’re hoping they don’t have the energy to do that,” quipped Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque.

The Senate rules are somewhat different than those approved in the House, where all committee meetings will be held virtually to reduce the possible spread of the virus.

House floor sessions will be held in-person, but members who test positive for the virus, are experiencing symptoms or are isolating due to possible exposure will be able to participate and vote remotely.

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