A five-bill limit for each member of the state House of Representatives won’t be hardwired in the rules but will be informally enforced during the upcoming 60-day legislative session, which will be conducted primarily over the internet.
With less than two weeks before the start of the session, lawmakers met over Zoom on Wednesday to discuss processes and procedures for a safe and transparent assembly amid the ongoing threat of the coronavirus pandemic, which continues to loom large over legislators.
“If we have a full floor, we’re going to have a COVID outbreak,” said state Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales.
“It’s as simple as that, and it’s likely people will die,” added Ely, chairman of the House Rules Committee.
No votes were taken during Wednesday’s two-hour meeting of the Legislative Council, which is composed of members of both parties. Rather, the purpose was for representatives of each chamber to discuss their respective proposals.
The idea of limiting the number of bills that each of New Mexico’s 70 state representatives could introduce was pulled off the table. But lawmakers were urged to abide by it anyway and told that a five-bill limit would be “informally enforced.”
“We’re asking members to prioritize,” said House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe. “We’re asking members to introduce legislation that they think is the most important and to try to exercise some degree of restraint on legislation so that we don’t compound a difficult situation.”
Though the session, which begins Jan. 19, largely will be virtual, some matters will be conducted inside the Roundhouse. Officials want everyone who goes into the Capitol to be tested weekly for COVID-19. While testing will be mandatory for legislative staffers, lawmakers can’t be mandated to undergo testing, and some expressed stiff opposition at the notion.
“If you think I’m a threat, folks, stay away from me,” said state Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell. “But I’ll be damned if I’m going to allow somebody to jab a Q-tip up my nose every five days.”
Spence Ezzell said she washes her hands regularly and intends to wear a mask.
The wearing of face coverings will be strictly enforced, Egolf said.
“We are not going to be tolerant of noncompliance,” he said.
While repeat violations will be grounds for “immediate termination” for employees, Egolf said “the rule will state that a member who fails to wear a mask while in the building will be subject to rule violation and investigation by the House Ethics Committee, with sanctions ranging from reprimand to censure to expulsion.”
Raúl Burciaga, director of the Legislative Council Service, asked lawmakers “first and foremost” for their patience.
“Things are not normal,” he said. “Ninety percent of our staff is working from home, and they’re working as hard and as fast as they can, but it still takes time.”
Burciaga said the Roundhouse will remain closed to the public throughout the session. Only lawmakers, legislative employees, credentialed media and Capitol tenants, such as the governor and her staff, will be allowed inside the Capitol.
“There will be no vendors allowed. No lobbyists. No displays. No members of the public,” he said.
Burciaga also said the Legislature will not use the Santa Fe Community Convention Center to hold hearings “unless directed otherwise.”
“Part of the reason of looking at the convention center was a possibility of allowing … a small number of the public in,” he said. “But based on the most recent public health orders, as soon as you get 10, 12 committee members and a handful of staff in a space, you’ve already gone beyond the limit that is under the public health orders.”
Burciaga told lawmakers he couldn’t talk enough about how hard state employees have been working to get ready for the session.
“I still stay up at night wondering how we’re going to pull it off,” he said.