March 1, 2021

Tempers flare in New Mexico Senate after lawmaker stalls bill

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

Tensions boiled over on the normally cordial Senate floor Monday after an Albuquerque Democrat used a legislative maneuver to stall a bill he opposes.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria said his move prompted the typically mild-mannered majority leader Peter Wirth to drop an F-bomb.

Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat known for his easygoing demeanor, confronted Candelaria at his chair after the third-term senator asked for “a call of the Senate” — a procedural move that requires every member of the chamber to be physically present in the Roundhouse, Candelaria said.

He said Wirth, who was furious he had forced debate on Senate Bill 71, which would create the Patients’ Debt Collection Protection Act, asked, “Why don’t you just [expletive] off and put an amendment on like the rest of us?”

Candelaria contends that as the bill is written, it wouldn’t provide protections for the poor.

Wirth declined a request for an interview but issued a statement through a spokesman that didn’t refute Candelaria’s version of events.

“This was a conversation between legislators on the floor, and we won’t be commenting on the specifics of the interaction,” wrote Chris Nordstrum, a spokesman for Senate Democrats.

“I’m sort of heartbroken,” said Candelaria, who sat slouched in his chair in tears after the confrontation. “This is a low day for the New Mexico Senate.”

Candelaria said he filed a complaint against Wirth with the Legislative Council Service.

After the incident, Wirth approached Candelaria’s chair again and appeared to ask him to accompany him out of the chamber. Candelaria said Wirth apologized. But Candelaria said the apology didn’t “change things.”

One of the sponsors of SB 71, Sen. Katy Duhigg, also an Albuquerque Democrat, said the bill “protects low-income patients and patients in general in New Mexico by instituting a ban on collections for medical debt” for patients whose income is at 200 percent or less of the federal poverty line.

Duhigg said the bill also institutes “pricing parity.”

This bill also seeks to protect medical providers in New Mexico by decreasing rates of uncompensated care, Duhigg said.

“It does this by instituting a screening provision so that patients are screened for eligibility in both public and private insurance and also any patient assistance programs that the facility might have in place,” she said.

Candelaria objected to the bill, saying it “imposes new levels of bureaucracy but doesn’t actually provide a real solution to the people it’s aiming to protect.”

While Wirth may disagree with the issues he was raising, Candelaria said he didn’t deserve to be cursed at by the Senate leadership.

“Our job is to debate bills and make good policy,” he said.

Candelaria had indicated his opposition to the bill Monday morning on Twitter. He tweeted sponsors had refused any amendments “despite numerous efforts at compromise to ensure indigent persons are actually protected.”

In the same tweet, Candelaria vowed to filibuster the bill on the Senate floor “until changes are made to actually protect the poor.”

After he asked for a call of the Senate, which delayed the floor session momentarily and prompted the chamber doors to be closed and members to be escorted to the restroom, Candelaria asked whether he would have the floor once the call was complete. He was informed he would.

“The filibuster will begin at that point,” Candelaria told the chamber, though the Senate moved on to other bills because members were missing from the chamber.