June 18, 2020

Technical delays, long debate over new House rules as session starts

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The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

If the world ends with a whimper rather than a bang, the House began Thursday with a sputter.

For hours, Republicans in the state House debated new rules on whether lawmakers should be allowed to vote remotely — a debate that was delayed because of trouble with the webcast, in turn delaying committee hearings scheduled for that afternoon until after representatives’ 6 p.m. dinner.

Complying with state rules on open meetings, lawmakers paused the debate for close to 30 minutes as the tech team scrambled to get the internet video feed back online before resuming.

The resolution passed the House 43-24 along party lines. But not before prolonged debate about the rules within the resolution and other, tangentially-related topics.

Republicans continued debating whether to allow representatives to vote remotely for another two hours after the video feed was restored, arguing that it ran afoul of the constitutional requirement for lawmakers to be present in the Roundhouse during a session. They worried aloud that House Resolution 1 would set a new precedent in which votes could be cast in the infinite ether of the internet.

The resolution lays out a series of rules for House lawmakers during the session meant to maintain social distancing. Allowing lawmakers to vote remotely is especially timely after news that Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez is self-isolating in a hotel following possible exposure to the novel coronavirus.

Still, Republicans argued against allowing remote voting.

“What we’re proposing today has ramifications beyond what we are doing today to vote,” said Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, the House minority whip. “If we now define presence [as being able to vote remotely] … are we now setting a precedent where the governor could leave the state, leave the country, as long as there is a cellphone in her purse? I know that’s not what this addresses, but that is the precedent that we’re setting here.”

House Republicans also used the three-hour debate limit as an opportunity to relitigate arguments already made by an attorney on behalf of many of them in a New Mexico Supreme Court case this week. On Tuesday, justices denied a petition from two dozen mostly GOP lawmakers that sought to open up the Roundhouse to the general public for the special session.

Democrats defended the decision to keep the Roundhouse closed to the public and extend digital access to legislative proceedings.

For the first time, people from across the state can witness the democratic process and even offer public comments during committee hearings from the comfort of their homes, said state Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales.

“We’re trying to respond to the pandemic,” Ely said, while still allowing everyone to “participate in an equal and fair fashion” including the public, which will be allowed to make comments during committees remotely via a Zoom meeting.

“This does not keep people out,” said state Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque. “This brings people in.”

But the technological difficulties and the drawn-out debate that delayed discussion on other key legislation lawmakers have on their agenda also highlighted the pitfalls and tension underlying a special session during a pandemic.

Montoya and Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, both argued they believe the new rules will set a precedent for the next session, although Ely assured them that it would not during the extended debate on HR1.

Republicans also talked at length about the disparity in internet access between some of New Mexico’s poor, rural communities and the more affluent, urban Santa Fe. That fact had nothing to do with HR1, however, and the closed-session was upheld by the New Mexico Supreme Court and was not up for debate on the House floor Tuesday.