A House Republican said Tuesday he would likely shake hands with or hug fellow legislators from Southeastern New Mexico during the special session — prompting criticism from House Speaker Brian Egolf, who said he was worried such a practice could jeopardize the health of others later this week.
Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said lawmakers from his part of the state plan to wear masks and use hand sanitizer during the upcoming meeting in Santa Fe and would keep their distance from legislators from other areas of New Mexico.
But when it comes to interacting with members from his area of the state, Nibert said those representing the southeast intend to engage in physical contact with each other at the Capitol because their area of the state has not been heavily affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“When I see David Gallegos for the first time, I can pretty well guarantee you he’s going to stick his hand out to shake my hand and probably give me a hug,” Nibert said, referring to the Republican legislator from Eunice. “I’m not going to be offended by it and he’s not going to be offended by it because in our community that’s where we’re at.”
The comments came as a House committee is set to debate proposed rules changes on Wednesday that would allow the chamber to take greater health precautions during the session, such as allowing members to participate virtually. The special legislative period is scheduled to begin Thursday.
Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said he didn’t understand why some Republicans would not be more circumspect.
“It’s not appropriate for one member to want to put the health of everyone at risk,” said Egolf, adding he recently spoke with Nibert about the issue. “They’re stomping their feet for reasons that make no sense.”
Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said Republicans declined to sign a memo he planned to send out to all legislators specifying certain health measures that will be observed during the session.
“I don’t know what to do,” Egolf said. “I guess they’re mad they’re in the minority and they don’t like that the governor will put a bill on absentee voting on the call. But that doesn’t mean you can burn the place down.”
Matthew Garcia-Sierra, a spokesman for the House Republicans, charged Egolf was being “disingenuous,” noting GOP leaders had been cooperative in preparations for the session.
Nibert said Republicans did not intend to flaunt social distancing rules at the Capitol and planned to “respect and probably be over respectful of members from other parts of the state.”
He said Republicans plan to cooperate with the proposed rules change allowing remote participation, as well as with a plan outlined by Egolf to spread legislators out on the floor of the House chamber.
During the session, about 18 House lawmakers will sit in the House gallery because the seats in the back rows of the floor are not six feet apart, Egolf said. Some 10 legislators will not be present in Santa Fe and will participate remotely, while another 15 will take part from their offices in the Roundhouse, he said.
Still, Nibert said legislators from his part of the state would shake hands because their communities have returned to normal social customs and are now observing fewer social distancing rules.
He also criticized Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s public health orders, saying they should not treat the entire state uniformly because there are far fewer COVID-19 cases in areas like his.
Chaves County has reported 59 cases, while Lea and Eddy counties in the southeast corner have had 49 and 48, respectively, according to the state Health Department. That compares to Bernalillo County’s 1,733 total cases and McKinley County’s 2,949.
Egolf also criticized a proposal by House Republicans to fix the state’s budget by decreasing spending to much lower levels instead of using federal stimulus funding.
“They’re not serious proposals,” Egolf said. “They’re acting like we have no reserves and we’re recklessly spending. It’s just wrong.”
Minority Whip Rod Montoya said Monday that instead of relying on the federal funds, the state should fix its shortfall by keeping fiscal year 2021 spending at the same level as fiscal year 2020 outlays.
Egolf responded that it was justifiable for the state to plan to use some $700 million in federal funding to shore up the budget shortfall because members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation have said the federal government will allow states the flexibility to do so.
Egolf said GOP legislators’ motivation for criticizing Democrats’ budget proposals weren’t hard to follow.
“The endgame is they want to make us look like we’re doing a bad job and that they would do a better job, so that they can try to defeat us and win the majority,” he said. “It’s all political.”