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Thursday, February 20, 2003

House Passes Emergency-Response Measures

By Susan Montoya Bryan
The Associated Press
    SANTA FE A package of four bills that would revise government powers and procedures for coping with public health emergencies and terrorist attacks passed the House without much debate Wednesday.
    The legislation maps out procedures for responding to public health emergencies, gives the governor power to issue evacuation orders and protects the civil rights of people who might be quarantined or isolated during an emergency.
    It also amends the Public Records Act to provide an exception for certain information that could be used to plan or carry out a terrorist attack.
    The bills, which go to the Senate, were developed in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
    Officials from the state attorney general's office, the health department and the department of public safety worked on the legislation during the past year and conducted public hearings across the state.
    Rep. John A. Heaton, D-Carlsbad, said officials from the three agencies reviewed existing laws and determined that New Mexico has extensive emergency response provisions.
    "What we don't have are the processes whereby people's civil liberties can be protected," said Heaton, who sponsored two of the bills.
    The legislation takes care of that concern by providing for due process for people who are quarantined, including the right to an attorney and a hearing, as well as to access to families, media and spiritual advisers.
    The legislation also provides for job protections for people who are quarantined and unable to go to work, and compensation for health facilities that might be involved in a public health emergency.
    House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. W. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, said the legislation prepares the state for potential doomsday scenarios.
    "These are the types of things no one wants to think about, and it involves all facets of society," he said.
    Robert Johnson, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said in an interview that many of his concerns about the legislation have been addressed, including narrowing language pertaining to the public records act.