To hear House Speaker Brian Egolf tell it, public participation in this year’s largely virtual legislative session has been robust even if the doors of the state Capitol have been closed to everyday New Mexicans.

In the second and third weeks of the 60-day session, more than 6,100 residents from 32 of the state’s 33 counties have voiced their opinions during committee hearings in the House of Representatives — up from the 2,400 who tuned in the first week.

Egolf’s office touted the numbers Tuesday in a news release, declaring virtual participation “continues at a record-setting pace” in the House.

But how many New Mexicans have been shut out?

“It’s hard to quantify,” Egolf said. “But what’s not hard to quantify is the public health risk that comes with having the building open to the public. This is a decision that was made primarily to protect public health. … It’s not possible to have the public in here in any safe way, so we’re trying to do the best we can given the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

While legislators conduct most lawmaking over Zoom due to the contagion risk that spurred the decision to keep the public out of the Roundhouse — a building that in past sessions was filled with hundreds, sometimes thousands of people on a daily basis — the end result has proven challenging for regular people who want to weigh in on legislation, not to mention for advocates and lobbyists accustomed to face-to-face interactions.

Miranda Viscoli, co-president of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, said advocating for a bill that would expand the so-called red-flag gun law has been difficult without being present at the Roundhouse.

“It’s very hard to get that attention when we can’t be in the building,” she said.

“We sit there for five hours at a time to get 10 seconds, and that’s a win of the day when we get 10 seconds with someone, and they say, ‘Yes, thank you for these talking points. I will read them, and we are behind this bill,’ ” Viscoli said. “That lets us know where we are. Right now, we’re just blind, like we are flying blind without any sense of what is going on.”

The alternative? Emails and texts, Viscoli said.

“We can text them a little bit, but you don’t want to bother them. We try to be respectful of that,” she said. “You can send emails, but when the NRA [National Rifle Association] is sending 5,000 emails from all over the country to New Mexico, their emails blow up.”

Khal Spencer said he sent lawmakers on the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee an email Thursday to chime in on a separate firearms bill. Only one lawmaker, Sen. Stuart Ingle, a Republican from Portales, responded, he said.

Under normal circumstances, Spencer said he would’ve gone to the Capitol to testify.

“I think there’s something to be said in government for being there,” he said. “I was chair of the county Transportation Board for a long time in Los Alamos, and I would be in council chambers testifying and taking questions and looking people in the eye. I think that kind of person-to-person contact makes a big difference.”

In normal times, the Roundhouse can accommodate hundreds of people in committee rooms. According to the building superintendent, there are about 926 seats for the public.

But Egolf said that even without the ability to be in the building, more people have been testifying at committee hearings, at least in the House, than ever.

“In the last two weeks, 6,100 people have logged in to House committee Zoom meetings … so we’re talking 600 people per day,” he said. “In terms of numbers, I think that is way more than we would normally see participating.”

In the Senate, Democrats haven’t been keeping track of the numbers.

Nonetheless, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said the largely virtual session has closed the door for some but created new opportunities to participate for others.

“We’ve opened this process in a way that has never happened before, allowing people to testify from anywhere,” he said. “There is some frustration, people saying they are not allowed to testify.”

Members of the public are also frustrated about not being physically present.

“The flip side is a whole bunch of people not being allowed in the room are being allowed in the Zoom room,” said Wirth, who also acknowledged “some challenges with technology.”

Wirth said the question of how much public testimony to take isn’t unique to this year’s legislative session.

“That’s the prerogative of the chairs,” he said.

As such, each committee chairperson has developed their own set of rules.

Take Friday, for example.

In the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, limited public testimony to two minutes per person — and his Zoom operator enforced the time limit.

“She’s very polite, but she cuts people off at two minutes when that happens,” Soules said.

In the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee, Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, gave opponents and proponents of a controversial firearms bill a total of 15 minutes each to make their arguments. As a result, seven people spoke against the measure while 10 testified in support.

In a letter to the editor, Stephanie Haan-Amato of Las Cruces complained about feeling “silenced” when she didn’t have the opportunity to comment on an environmental bill.

“I feel disenfranchised,” wrote Haan-Amato, who declined an interview.

Ben Shelton, political and policy director for Conservation Voters New Mexico, said he thinks public testimony is playing a smaller role this session.

“Most of the pressure [committee] chairs get is to keep bills moving, not maximize testimony. So, over time, testimony is bound to lose out overall as the session wears on,” he said.

But a mostly virtual session also has leveled the playing field of advocacy, he said.

“The advantage that lobbyists and advocates have over the public is diminished,” he said, adding that people who are in the building full time have a leg up on public participants who must work.

“That’s gone now, really, as anyone with a phone and 10 minutes to spare can offer testimony,” he said.

Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said she had a call from a woman who told her she used to go to the library to tune in to the legislative session because she doesn’t have internet. Libraries are closed in the pandemic.

“If you don’t have access to a computer … you don’t know what’s going on because you can’t get a copy of the agenda, you can’t get a copy of the committee schedule, you can’t get a copy of the sign-in,” she said. “I think that a lot of people may have been kept out of loop this year just because of the limitations of internet in rural New Mexico.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she has heard less negative feedback about the changes than she expected. But it has been a source of complaints, she added.

“This is much harder, and I think advocates and lobbyists and the general public are struggling,” she said. “It’s not unlike the negative feedback that’s all fair that we hear about distance learning.”

But the governor said New Mexicans are making the best of a difficult situation.

“When we hear from people, they’re challenged — no question — and we’ve definitely heard from people, but I was actually surprised it wasn’t louder,” she said.

Egolf said the mostly virtual session has opened opportunities for people who live far from the capital.

“We have gotten a lot of communication, especially from New Mexicans in Silver City and Las Cruces and Farmington, places that are distant from Santa Fe, who like being able to offer testimony and participate in a hearing without driving 10 hours round trip to Santa Fe for the ability to speak for a few minutes,” he said.

On the House side, some committee chairpersons, like Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, tend to let members of the public speak longer than the prescribed time limit. Others stick to a strict one- or two-minute time limit rule, and speakers often find themselves cut off midsentence when the clock runs out and their audio feed ends.

Sometimes, too much public comment can impede the business of legislation, said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque.

“On some issues, there are a significantly larger group of people who want to speak because they don’t have to make the effort to drive to Santa Fe and be here. It’s more difficult to figure out, ‘Are we really getting the voice we need or the same six talking points on the same bill 86 times?’ ” he said. “Every single session I’ve been in, public comment has made a difference on certain pieces of legislation.”

He said public input can help legislators see a piece of legislation in a different way.

On the other hand, he said, “Sometimes we have 250 people who have logged in, and they want to speak about the bill, and that’s gonna take away time for us to debate that bill.”

House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, said he’s received dozens, if not hundreds, of complaints from people who tried to log into legislative meetings but couldn’t. Others have complained about time restrictions on public testimony.

“In my district, they’re not at all pleased, and I can tell you that I’ve had dozens of calls from Albuquerque that aren’t at all pleased,” he said. “They think that’s the people’s house, and they ought to be able to come and go.”

Majors, the open-government advocate, said the whole year has been hard on everyone.

“They’re trying to do the right thing on behalf of the citizens of New Mexico,” she said, referring to members of the Legislature. “Will they succeed? We’ll have to wait and see. Is it a hard job? You bet.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter

@danieljchacon.

(16) comments

Craig O'Hare

Lots of angry complainers on this article. Probably none of whom have bothered to write their Senators and Representatives or testify in committee on a bill. They'd rather whine on social media than actually participate in our democracy.

john young

That would be exactly my issue. I have telephoned my local senator as a constituent about a specific topic and got no response. So I then wrote an extensive letter to Sen. Lopez regarding her SB227. No, not just to 'whine' but to offer positive additions to HER flawed bill based on my extensive experience. NO RESPONSE !!! I dont know who these people think they are. I sure know what they think of us.

Khal Spencer

If I had a dollar for every letter I wrote to a legislator, I could buy another expensive bicycle today.

Khal Spencer

So do we still need all the armed presence around the Roundhouse, esp. given the massive Zoom utilization? Or is this just a ploy of the Democrats to keep making the Right look like a threat? Same with the Berlin style wall in Washington, D.C.

Craig O'Hare

Suggesting that having armed security around the State Capitol "makes the Right look like a threat" seems to be admitting that the Right might actually be a threat.

Khal Spencer

You are begging the question. Goebbels would have a field day with you. Kinda like "The Poles attacked us, so we invaded Poland". There was never a right wing riot here storming the Roundhouse anyway. Just left wingers ripping down statues. Maybe we needed all those State Police vehicles surrounding the Plaza.

Mike Johnson

Just like Dear Leader's unlimited, indefinite emergency powers, where nothing is explained, justified, nor discussed, I am sure the legislators love this just as much. I suspect this kind of opacity and secrecy will be with us a lot longer than the pandemic. Power mad politicians do not give up power easily.

Craig O'Hare

Having trouble testifying in committee online or sending your State Senator an email on a bill, Mike? Or haven't you actually tried? Because you obviously have internet.

Mike Johnson

I wish I had a dollar for every email, every statement given in hearings, and every study I authored to present in various committees. The problem is that legislators and the Guv do not listen to average people, only the rich, elite special interests that line their pockets with money and feed them lavish meals and entertainment. They ignore every email, letter , or testimony not sanctioned and approved by their special interests. Now it just makes it much easier to do now by putting up ridiculous and unnecessary road-blocks to keep you silenced. You don't seem to understand how state government works, you should stand in our shoes for a while. Government is dysfunctional, any average, intelligent person knows this.

Jerrie Eaton

Miranda Viscoli has been flying blind for years. Her blind cultist fealty to the Bloomberg agenda is proof of that.

Mike Johnson

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup]

Francisco Carbajal

Seriously? If anything the New Mexico State Legislator's like Egolf, Ivey-Soto, and others should reconsider is to ask the Santa Fe New Mexican to amend the news story headline title to read as: "New Mexico State Legislature "Flying Blind" in New Mexico largely legislative session." The reality is that the public voice doesn't mean anything to these elected official's who claim to "equally and fairly" represent the "public" of all magnitudes relating to certain pieces of legislation that may or not have an adverse impact of their lives daily. Yet, Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque arrogance response, "Are we really getting the voice we need or the same six talking points on the same bill 86 times?" Regardless on how many times he hears the voice from the public a hundred times over and over again, the ownership of the voice is the public, not the elected official like him! Lastly, the House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe ignorant comment, "Every single session I've been, public comment has made a difference on certain pieces of legislation" is false. Currently, their are ten pieces of legislation bills (e.g., targets of anti-police legislation) pending on the "bills locator" that are "duplication relationship" driven and they know it. I don't see any of these self-interest state legislator's making a difference to ease and desist, "sometimes, too much "state legislator's" (delete "public" term) comment can impede the business-legislation, said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque. The distance learning and virtual reality that these state legislator's are defending due to this COVID-19 Pandemic is a poor excuse to benefit the special-interests groups and self-interests of specific state legislator's who should fit the "shameless" category of an incompetent policy-maker(s) at this time. They know on who they are, yet, who is holding each one of them accountable for the choices of words they chose to speak and actions they do?

George Welland

PUBLIC INPUT IS A FARCE! INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM ALSO LACKING!

To feign concern over the public's input in an age when "pay to play" access is reserved for well funded lobbyists and campaign contributors is a joke. This quaint but absurd notion of a citizen legislature gatherin'-round the court square to hear constituents every Winter is a fallacy that the SFNM is guilty of perpetuating with this type of a story. You could fill Isotopes' stadium in Albuquerque for the legislative session or make legislators telephone every voter in their district at least once during their term and it would make absolutely no difference whatever (except to give the politicians another way to spend more money).

Oh sure, there will always be the odd case where big eyed busy tailed critters or innocent children are trotted out as props to strike a blow for compassion, decency, and/or the American way and give us a new license plate design, tax, or restriction on our civil liberties ... but the reality is that politicians generally (not all) are simply looking out for themselves, the next revenue stream, and a free meal on the taxpayer's dime.

James Delgado

This is not a surprise. The evil leftists utilizing the COVID excuse, chain link fences, concrete barriers and our police force (are they still getting paid) to shut down our Capitol. NM: following along with the ways of the Godless world. I’m so proud of my native state!

Eugene Murski

Arrogant leftist progressives determining what is better for you.

Bonnie Cox

Looks like they are going to walk away again on lifting the tax on social security.

Wonderful to continue to be the poorest state in the nation. Fixed income people need that tax to go away. We are one of only thirteen states to tax SS.

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