New COVID Rules In The Roundhouse Raise Partisan Tensions In Santa Fe

Feb 1, 2021


Coronavirus has infiltrated the Roundhouse, where New Mexico’s legislators are in the early weeks of a 60-day session. Since mid-January when the session began, at least three people in the capital have tested positive for the virus, including one GOP lawmaker. On Friday, Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf announced new rules, restricting participation in committee meetings to Zoom, and closing the House floor to most lawmakers. KUNM spoke with Matt Grubs from New Mexico PBS.

MATT GRUBS: We know at least one lawmaker has contracted the virus so far. This is a male member of the House Republican caucus. The Republicans revealed that last Friday. We also discovered that there were two other staffers who had tested positive, one of whom tested positive just two days after everyone came to the Roundhouse. We just found out about it last week. So that sparked immediate concern about notification procedures.

 

The Legislative Council Service would be the body to do that. For folks who aren't familiar, they kind of handle the ins and outs of running the capital, specifically during the legislative session, and then also in the interim. They were worried about HIPAA. So I spoke to the head of the Legislative Council service, that's Raul Burciaga. He had said that their standard practice was to notify the agency head and I kind of asked him,OK, so what's an agency in the context of the legislature? And he said, Well, we have, you know, the House clerk, the Senate clerk, and then we have three standing committees. And so those five agencies that would notify these people and then kind of do their contact tracing from there.

 

Well, the problem is that, you know, they're limiting access to the capital already. A lot of lawmakers are working from home. They didn't know that someone in the building had tested positive, and that makes everyone nervous. So they are now looking at their procedures, and perhaps broadening that. Bottom line is you get a lot of nervous people who have to go to the capital for one reason or another and want to make sure that they're safe.

 

There are testing protocols in place, specifically for media and staff. But there are not testing protocols for elected representatives. So if you don't want to be tested, you don't have to. We don't know who's on that list, though some specifically House Republican lawmakers have said that they're not wild about the idea of being tested, at least with a nasal swab every week,

KUNM: The state House, they adopted new rules for the 60 day session, but it wasn't really easy. How does this newfound news, of a member coming down with Coronavirus, how does that complicate this adaptation of the new rules?

GRUBS: In a word, tremendously. The House Republicans and the Speaker of the House Brian Egolf already had a fractious relationship. This has made it worse. Egolf's response was to call out Republicans for having what he perceived as a catered luncheon, where they were all eating in an enclosed space together. Republicans said, 'We just had boxed lunches brought in from one of the local restaurants, and as far as we know, that's allowed.'

 

So Egolf responded by using the power that he has as speaker to crack down even further, meaning most of this is going virtual. Republicans bristled at this right away. They actually filed suit over the weekend with the Supreme Court, saying that this violates the state Constitution. It's not likely that Republicans will have success, but this is sort of how they're airing their grievances. 

KUNM: Is this going to hold up them conducting the people of New Mexico's business? 

GRUBS: That's a good question. And I think it would really depend on who you ask. If you ask the House Republicans they would say heck no—in fact, the rules for Zoom and having people interact with committees remotely, that interferes more than taking this issue to court. Daymon Ely, an Albuquerque representative and an attorney, he has said this does nothing of the sort, there's no constitutional provision preventing us from meeting the way we're meeting. This is a public health emergency, and what's more, we figured out a way to do this remotely in June, and we figured out a way to do it remotely in December. It doesn't mean the Republicans were cool with it in either of those instances. But he's just saying, like, Look, if you guys wanted to file suit you probably should have done that way back when we started changing the rule.

 

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Your New Mexico Government is a collaboration between KUNM, New Mexico PBS, and the Santa Fe Reporter. Funding for our coverage comes from the New Mexico Local News Fund, the Kellogg Foundation and KUNM listeners like you, with support for public media provided by the Thornburg Foundation.