The COVID-19 threat is pushing lawmakers closer and closer to the online world — and away from the Roundhouse and Santa Fe Community Convention Center — as the 2021 legislative session approaches.
Members of both the state Senate and House of Representatives said the upcoming 60-day session, scheduled to begin Jan. 19, is going to be predominantly conducted remotely via Zoom.
They say the online option will cut back on personal interaction among lawmakers, the public, media, lobbyists and analysts — thus limiting the potential spread of the respiratory virus.
Still, it’s likely lawmakers from both chambers will at times debate bills in person on the chamber floors.
“It’s gonna be a hybrid for sure,” said Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe and Senate majority leader.
However, the public will have to participate virtually, long an issue for open-government advocates concerned about spotty or nonexistent broadband service in remote areas and people who cannot afford internet.
Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation For Open Government, sent a letter to the state Legislative Council Service last month asking lawmakers to “use any and all options to allow the citizens of New Mexico to fully observe and listen” to the session.
She said some parts of the state go without sufficient broadband coverage to allow residents to observe remotely.
“There are issues for people who are not computer savvy or electronic savvy — and that includes members of the Legislature,” she said by phone Tuesday.
Among other points, she wants the Legislature to ensure all bills are available to the public and media for review at least 72 hours in advance.
On Wednesday, legislators from both parties will convene during an afternoon Legislative Council committee hearing to further discuss the proposals for the session.
The question of whether the public is being left out of the legislative proceedings has dogged lawmakers for weeks as they grapple with running the session safely. It’s a concern that came up often in the summer when the Legislature convened a short special session.
House and Senate Democrats say the public will have just as much access to the session online, and that it will be easier for many who do not live near Santa Fe to watch the proceedings. But Republicans have echoed Majors’ concern about access to broadband service around the state, making it difficult if not impossible to track legislation.
“We are severely restricting public’s access to participate in the process and that’s really concerning to me,” said Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen and minority leader in the Senate.
“Is it doable … yes,” he said. “In my opinion, is it the optimal way to go? I would have to say no. I think we should be attempting to do things much closer to normal than we are.”
It seems unlikely the Legislature will use the Santa Fe Community Convention Center to hold hearings and allow some live public participation. That idea, which had gained some traction late last year, would have cost the state $250,000.
Raúl Burciaga, director of the Legislative Council Service, said that barring some unexpected development, “It doesn’t look like we will use the convention center,” since the session will be mostly done virtually.
With said the Senate has put together a tentative schedule that would require members to take part in floor sessions just 10 days out of the first six weeks of the session.
“The rest of the time we will be doing our committee work virtually with members not attending committee hearings in the building,” he said.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said his chamber will work in a similar fashion.
“Committees will be virtual,” he said. He said the plan is to have committees work on legislation “for several weeks” and then have members “come in [to the Roundhouse] to do a third reading of legislation.”
House members will retain the option to participate in chamber floor debates live, though they will be asked to stay at their desks and do so online, via Zoom, rather than use the House floor, said Rep. Damon Ely, D-Albuquerque and chairman of the House Rules and Order of Business Committee.
He said COVID-19 is “100 percent” the reason for the change in routine. He said the goal is to have lawmakers work remotely as much as possible.
Both Wirth and Ely said the final rules for running the session must be approved by a majority vote of their respective bodies, an action that cannot take place until the session convenes.
“The longer you go without rules in place, the more uncertainty there is,” Wirth said.
Though some lawmakers in both parties brought up the idea of postponing the session until the COVID-19 threat subsides, Wirth said there is no such plan.
“I don’t think it’s going to be much different if we take 30 days off,” Wirth said. “We will be dealing with just as many issues with just as much to do in a shorter period of time.
“By spacing it out, prioritizing floor sessions and making sure our members are not in Santa Fe for committee hearings ... we’ve come up with a plan that, if we strictly adhere to it, will address the mitigation of the health risk.”
Whether Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will deliver the annual State of the State speech, which traditionally kicks of each year’s legislative session, from the Roundhouse remains unclear. A spokeswoman said the format and timing for the speech has not yet been determined.