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

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.

For some, hand-shaking is on tap at special session

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.

Human trafficking bill with broad support moves forward

A bill that would increase penalties for human trafficking received bipartisan support in the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. HB 237, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Georgene Louis and Liz Thomson, both of Albuquerque, passed 10-1. Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, voted against it. Louis and Thomson invited victims of trafficking to speak on behalf of the bill.

Bill to stop serial sexual harassers at work advanced Monday

A bill that advocates say would reduce serial sexual harassers in the workplace passed by a 9-3 vote along party lines in the House Judiciary Committee Monday, and at least one Republican legislator worried the bill goes too far. Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, opposed HB 21, which prohibits a private employer from enforcing a nondisclosure act when the employer settles a sexual harassment case with an employee. Nibert said he didn’t like the fact that the bill meant that the government is regulating private business, especially since the government is excluded from the bill. But Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, D-Albuquerque, who is sponsoring the bill, said Sen. Sander Rue, D-Albuquerque, is carrying a bill that would address government employers. Nibert continued to express opposition to the bill.

Dems back bill prohibiting state funds for private school books

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee closed ranks Wednesday behind a bill that would prohibit public money from being spent on textbooks for private schools, perhaps putting the lawmakers at odds with a state Supreme Court decision. The committee voted 10-4 along party lines for House Bill 45, which would require timely state funding for textbooks for public schools. The measure also would exclude private schools from receiving public money for books or other instructional materials. Republican lawmakers say the bill defies a Supreme Court decision. The justices found in December that providing textbooks to private schools, a long-standing practice in New Mexico, is permissible under the state constitution.

House rejects Roundhouse ban on openly carrying guns

New Mexicans will be free to continue walking the halls and galleries of their state Capitol with guns in hand or strapped to a hip. The House of Representatives on Friday night rejected a bill that would have prohibited openly carrying firearms in the Roundhouse. Backers had argued that Senate Bill 337 was a compromise that would continue allowing anyone with a proper license to carry a concealed firearm but end what some say is the intimidating sight of people holding guns during tense committee hearings. House members voted down the bill 35-31 after nearly 90 minutes of debate that reflected the conflict between security and openness in a building known as the people’s house. Several Republicans said the bill would be a step toward limiting access to a state Capitol where the public is free to come and go without passing through metal detectors.

Bill establishing protections for pregnant workers heads to Senate

The House approved a bill to establish workplace protections for pregnant workers Tuesday afternoon on a 51-14 vote. The bill would require workplaces to provide “reasonable accommodations” to pregnant workers who ask for them. Sponsors and proponents of the bill have given examples of reasonable accommodations such as allowing pregnant women breaks to walk or to or drink water at their desks. Some of the legislators who raised concerns about the proposal during debate, such as state Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, ultimately voted for the measure. Dow said she worried about businesses being held liable to new damages.

House passes bill criminalizing false reports on utilities’ water quality

Spurred by a Four Corners-area water company that for months provided phony information to state regulators, the state House of Representatives has unanimously approved a bill making it a crime for owners or operators of public water systems to knowingly give false reports to the Environment Department. House Bill 511, sponsored by House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, passed on a 66-0 vote Monday night and now goes to the Senate. There was virtually no discussion about the reason for the bill during a brief floor hearing. Complaints last year from customers of the Animas Valley Water Co. eventually prompted the state to order thousands of households to boil their water.

House revisits crackdown on false water quality data

It was not necessarily a crime under New Mexico law for a utility in the Four Corners area to tell regulators its water was fine even as turbid, odorous liquid flowed to customers’ taps. But a measure to make lying to state regulators about water quality a fourth-degree felony is a step closer to becoming law. A committee in the state House of Representatives revived the issue under a new bill with a new sponsor and narrower scope, ending an impasse that had prompted finger pointing over the influence of special interest groups and had upended the usual tough-on-crime dynamics at the Capitol. On Saturday, the new House Bill 511 won bipartisan support in the House Judiciary Committee, which elected 10-2 to advance it to a vote by the full House. Republicans blocked a similar bill last month, even though it was sponsored by a GOP colleague and had the backing of the state Environment Department.