Legislative Finance Committee, virtual meeting, Jan. 12, 2021

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The Roundhouse will be off limits to the public and lobbyists as New Mexico’s upcoming legislative session will feature many virtual committee hearings and floor debates due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Leading state lawmakers met Wednesday to discuss safety precautions as the Legislature prepares to convene Jan. 19 for its first lengthy session since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Both chambers will have to adopt specific rules for the session once it gets underway, and top-ranking Democrats warned that face masks will be required for any lawmakers present in the Capitol.

“We are not going to be tolerant of non-compliance,” House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said during a meeting of the Legislative Council.

Some Republican lawmakers and open government advocates have concerns about transparency and accessibility.

Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation For Open Government, sent a letter to the 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 insufficient broadband coverage in some parts of the state could prevent residents from observing remotely.

“There are issues for people who are not computer savvy or electronic savvy — and that includes members of the Legislature,” she told the Santa Fe New Mexican on Tuesday.

Democrat Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas of Albuquerque instead predicted it would be the “most accessible session in the history of New Mexico,” saying residents of rural New Mexico could benefit from not having to travel to Santa Fe to testify on hot-button bills.

Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell said she was flabbergasted that Democrats would forge ahead with the session. She said it should be postponed until lawmakers could meet safely in person.

The Roswell Republican also said she would not be tested for COVID-19 during the session. While legislative staffers will be required to undergo weekly testing, a top legislative official said lawmakers cannot be forced to do so.

“I have a right to say what goes in my body and I will not be tested,” Ezzell said. “If you don’t want to be around me, then don’t come close to me.”

The Legislative Council, a bipartisan group of top lawmakers, previously authorized Legislative Council Service Director Raul Burciaga to make decisions about the state Capitol for the upcoming session.

Burciaga said the Legislature’s administrative arm has made upgrades to its internal servers and worked with an outside vendor in an effort to avoid a webcasting outage like one during a special session in June.

The Legislature can broadcast committee hearings and floor debates via social media if the primary webcasting goes down.

This story is a staff report from The Paper.