Tech Problems During Closed Special Session Raise Transparency Concerns

Jun 19, 2020

The New Mexico Legislature encountered many technical hurdles during its first day of the emergency special session called to patch up a budget thrashed by coronavirus. But the Roundhouse is also closed to the public due to concerns about viral spread; lawmakers, staffers and the media are the only ones allowed in the building. The doors are locked. There was a small group of protesters outside on Thursday wanting to go in and see their lawmakers in action. KUNM’s Nash Jones spoke with Khalil Ekulona, host of Your New Mexico Government, about a session that’s hard to access in every way.

NASH JONES: I did see one legislator during the opening House floor meeting, say, you know, “I have constituents outside. I just went out there and checked in with them. They're not being allowed to use the restroom. You know what's going on with that?” Nothing really came of that, that I know of. I wasn't there at the Roundhouse. What I saw of the protests came from other reporters who were on the ground and permitted to be in the building, and folks posting thing on social media.

KHALIL EKULONA: Speaking of social media, I believe the Legislature made some changes to public comments. Can you tell me a little bit more detail about that?

JONES: As you can imagine, not allowing the public to access the Roundhouse is creating some challenges. Those challenges started before even the session kicked off. So the day before the session kicked off, a House committee was having a meeting where they were kind of establishing rules for the session. And they ended up taking public comment towards the end of that meeting by Zoom. And this was on speakerphone for everybody at the meeting to hear aloud, and Representative [Kelly] Fajardo, in the moment, called the situation "chaotic." And I would say that's to say the least. The public comments, not only were none of the comments during the public comment period on topic, right – they were soliciting public feedback on the rules that were being discussed – but more than that, I mean, several of the comments were overtly racist. Like, horrifying stuff. And so what came of that was the two chambers ended up changing their plans for getting public input during the committee meetings.

EKULONA: Did any of the representatives have statements to make against or about the racist comments that were made?

JONES: Oh, yeah, definitely. Everybody in attendance that I'm aware of, that I've seen comment from, basically said, like, that was awful, and we cannot allow that to happen in this body.

EKULONA: Talk to me about some of the challenges of following and attending the session remotely. I heard that there were technical difficulties, which pretty much made yesterday null and void.

JONES: I definitely was able to get information throughout the day. You know, I was reporting on the session yesterday remotely, but it gave me a good sense of what it's like for the public who aren't permitted, right? As a member of the media, I would be permitted to go in person, but the vast majority of the public isn't able to go so it kind of gave me that perspective. And even for folks who don't want to actively participate and provide comment in these sessions, people who just want to go listen – they want to keep track of what's going on, they want to read the bills, they want to know what's happening in their legislature – there's barriers for them to for sure. Like, for instance, as I was just getting my bearings yesterday on, you know ,what to expect in the first day of the session, what it was going to look like, what bills were going to be talked about, which committees were going to be meeting… I was just kind of trying to figure out my plan for the dayhat was next to impossible as I logged in to the Legislature's website. The vast majority of bills were not available before the session started. But even after they were introduced on the House and Senate floors that morning, it took over an hour for those bills to be posted online and accessible to the public.

You know, that's not only an issue for the public – it very much is – but Republican House leaders on the floor also expressed concern that morning about not having sufficient time to review these proposals before needing to actually discuss them in committee and make decisions on them. Each party only has two analysts, apparently, available to them to help support that work of reviewing this language and making sure that they're really wrapping their heads around what these bills say before they're making decisions on them for all of us.

Your New Mexico Government is a collaboration between KUNM, the Santa Fe Reporter and New Mexico PBS. Tune in at 7pm on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays for the show, or find it wherever you get your podcasts.