June 18, 2020

Offensive phone calls disrupt House rules committee meeting


New Mexico State Senate.

A House committee charged with creating rules for running the special session got an earful Wednesday when some telephone callers into the meeting criticized social protests and uttered racial epithets.

The scene, legislators on both sides of the aisle said, pointed to the challenge of running a nontraditional session of the Legislature.

Members of both political parties expressed outrage at the calls, which effectively ended any effort to take public comment by phone during Wednesday’s meeting of the House Rules and Order of Business Committee at the Roundhouse.

“What we just heard is pretty disgusting,” said House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe.

Rep. Jim Townsend, the minority leader in the House, agreed. 

“I am the strongest proponent of public involvement that there is, but when I hear comments like that … that’s uncalled for,” said Townsend, R-Artesia. “We gotta put an end to that.”

Townsend and other Republicans said the use of racial epithets and gripes about protests, which came at the end of the meeting, spotlight the difficulties of making sure the public has input during this year’s legislative session, set to begin Thursday in a closed Capitol building. 

Lawmakers said they want to give members of the public access, even if just by phone, during committee hearings that may take place during the weekend session.

Committee Chairman Daymon Ely, a Democrat from Albuquerque, said close to 30 people had queued up to phone in with their thoughts on the proposed rules. But after the first couple of callers seemed to fail at connecting, several in a row began immediately criticizing the wave of Black Lives Matter protests taking part across the nation and state.

Legislative aides cut them off, one after another, until Ely halted the calls. 

Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said the call-in problems  — some of which hinted at technical difficulties — reflect the challenges in ensuring members of the public have a voice. 

“It’s probably a good thing we had this meeting today to see this obvious gap in our thinking,” he said. “We might want to think about how we address this [Thursday].”

Ely and other committee members said they would set up a way to first screen calls before putting them through.

“Both Republicans and Democrats will not put up with this,” Ely said after the meeting. “We will not accept inappropriate, disrespectful or racist activity going on during the session.”

The committee did not plan to vote on the new rules, but Ely said he hoped members of both parties would accept them. Townsend said he would review the new guidelines with members of his party during a caucus meeting Thursday morning.

Meanwhile, the Senate Rules Committee met to debate proposed changes to the chamber’s procedures aimed at safeguarding legislators’ health during the coronavirus pandemic.

There were fewer fireworks than on the House panel, except for a kerfuffle between two Democratic senators. 

A draft prepared by the Legislative Council Service in conjunction with Sen. Linda Lopez, chairwoman of the committee, called for modifying the rules to allow senators to debate and vote on bills virtually from their offices in the Capitol if they choose. 

However, Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto put forward an amendment striking that change, and the majority of the committee voted in favor of his proposal.

“We’re preserving the sanctity of the floor of the Senate,” said Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque.

Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, harshly criticized Ivey-Soto’s motion, saying it would jeopardize the well-being of legislators during a health crisis.

“You may be preserving the sanctity of the Senate floor, but you may be putting individual Senate members’ health at risk,” Ortiz y Pino said.

The committee did approve a rules change that would allow the Senate to have a quorum even with its members in their Capitol offices, meaning they can follow the floor debates electronically but won’t be able to directly participate from their offices.

The panel also approved a change limiting public participation in Senate hearings, only allowing people to submit emails to committees. 

Ivey-Soto cited the “expletive- and epithet-laden” public comments taken Wednesday in the House as a reason the Senate should not allow public comment by phone. 

The Senate Rules Committee’s vote Wednesday was mostly a formality, as the panel will need to vote again on the measures Thursday, once the special session has formally started. The entire Senate will then need to approve the changes.