January 18, 2022

Legislative session to start amid COVID surge

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

If you plan to attend this year’s 30-day legislative session at the state Capitol, here’s a piece of advice: Don’t forget a mask or proof of vaccination and a booster shot.

The Roundhouse will be open to the public when the Legislature convenes Tuesday, but with safeguards designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as the threat of the virus continues to hang over New Mexico nearly two years after it arrived.

The open doors stand in contrast to the tightly shuttered New Mexico Capitol during last year’s 60-day session, when both the pandemic and fears of violence erupting in response to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol prompted state lawmakers to increase security measures.

Another change from most previous sessions: Weapons are prohibited, though small pocket knives will be permitted.

Lawmakers voted last year to prohibit the carrying of guns into the building after decades of allowing New Mexicans to exercise their open-carry rights in the Roundhouse. In the past, gun-rights activists have shown up to protest any legislation restricting the carrying of guns on the property.

While in-person participation will be allowed, the public also will be able to participate virtually.

Lawmakers who test positive for COVID-19 are expected to be allowed to participate remotely, too, after both chambers of the Legislature adopt their procedural rules.

Raúl Burciaga, director of the Legislative Council Service, told lawmakers Monday there will be vaccination screenings, as well as screenings for weapons with metal detectors.

“We have done everything possible to get ready for this session,” Burciaga said.

“I certainly had hoped a year ago that we would all be meeting in person without masks and without having to resort to virtual [meetings],” he added. “Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. But I do appreciate the Legislature’s patience, the support of all of you in doing what we need to do to get through this.”

Not all lawmakers are on board with the protocols.

The COVID-19 booster shot requirement triggered a tense exchange between Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, and House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe.

“I’m confused why we added boosters,” Brandt said. “I know that we’re really a fan, in this state at least, of moving the goalposts every time everyone reaches the goalpost. But I’m not seeing the scientific data. … I’m very confused as to why we are requiring an additional shot with the booster even though the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is not requiring that to be considered fully vaccinated.”

Brandt said New Mexico was ignoring “natural immunity” and “taking up all the vaccines and not sending them to other countries that can’t afford vaccines.” He also said new COVID-19 variants keep materializing “from countries like Africa because they don’t have as many people vaccinated because we’re using up all the vaccines.”

He called the booster requirement “ridiculous.”

Egolf countered he was happy to send Brandt “any one of numerous studies” showing the effectiveness and necessity of a booster.

“It’s just not accurate, sir, to say that there isn’t any data or any science to say that the booster is not required,” he said. “That’s just not the case.”

Brandt told Egolf he would be glad to send him studies as well.

“What you’re saying isn’t true, and I don’t appreciate you calling me a liar,” he told Egolf, who denied doing so.

At least one Republican quipped he was happy to see the absence of chain-link fencing around the Capitol, installed as a safeguard last year after the U.S. Capitol uprising.

“I’m glad to see that legislators are not caged in today for this session as we were last year, so to whatever degree your legislation lays an egg, they’ll be coming from free-range legislators,” joked the House minority whip, Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington. He was referring to an unsuccessful bill last year that would have prohibited large commercial egg producers from selling eggs in New Mexico if they came from caged chickens.

“Purely out of sympathy, I will laugh at that,” Egolf responded.

The back-and-forth between Republicans and Democrats is not unusual in the Capitol during a legislative session, but it won’t be business as usual as the pandemic continues to grip New Mexico.

“Displays, booths, presentations, performances [and tours] are not going to be allowed in the rotunda or elsewhere in the Capitol,” Burciaga said, adding he’s asked school officials “that they not send busloads of kids here,” which they’ve agreed to.

The halls of the Roundhouse were empty Monday, for the most part, though some visitors wandered in to look at art hanging on the walls. Few lawmakers, except those attending meetings held in advance of the session, were in the building.

Committee hearings held Monday were primarily to discuss potential legislation on a number of fronts, including bills that would raise the salaries of public educators, state judges and elected public officials. 

A noon rally of over 200 environmental activists brought a sudden and brief burst of activity to the Roundhouse. Some participants carried signs with such slogans as, “Buried in plastic,” and “No Earth, no life!”

Speakers urged attendees to call their state representatives and push for passage of several climate justice bills on the docket, including House Bill 6, the Clean Future Act, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, among other measures. 

Camilla Feibelman, director of the Sierra Club’s Rio Grande Chapter, said the rally’s goal was to remind people “the power of their voices” can help move some of that legislation through in a “fast-moving 30-day session.”

The session is focused on legislation dealing with budget and tax issues, but the governor has the authority to place any item on the agenda.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.