New Mexico legislators says virus shouldn’t delay their work
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Leading Democratic lawmakers pressed forward Monday with efforts to hold a legislative session in January 2021 as the coronavirus pandemic intensifies and members of a legislative committee were warned of possible exposure to COVID-19 from an individual who tested positive after attending a hearing in the Statehouse.
Some Republican lawmakers have suggested the session be postponed until the public can safely attend in-person.
A positive test for COVID-19 triggered contact tracing protocols Monday for people who attended a Nov. 10 committee hearing on the floor of the House of Representatives, according to two legislators and Raúl Burciaga, lead legal adviser to the Legislature.
The individual who tested positive was not identified. Separately, state Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil previously disclosed publicly that she and her husband tested positive to highlight the severity of the virus.
A panel of lawmakers Monday moved forward with negotiations for a lease option at a city-operated convention center several blocks from the state Capitol building — where spacious rooms might allow greater social distancing and public participation when the Legislature convenes in 2021.
At a planning meeting on Monday with legal counsel, leaders of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate said their members want to convene the Legislature within a 60-day window outlined by the state Constitution, starting on Jan. 21, 2021.
The committee left open the possibility that the 2021 session would take place entirely online with provisions for public participation by web conference and telephone.
The election defeat of several conservative-leaning Democratic senators has opened the possibility of progressive-backed reforms on abortion rights, recreational marijuana and greater spending on education from a multibillion-dollar state trust.
“There was a strong feeling that we needed to have the session during the 60-day window in the Constitution with the method to be determined,” said state Democratic Senate majority leader Peter Wirth, describing opinions among Democratic senators and seven senators-elect.
New Mexico is among several states that have imposed near-lockdowns since Friday in an aggressive response to the latest wave of coronavirus infections shattering records across the U.S.
Legislators aren’t covered by the governor’s emergency health orders, but Republican House lawmakers urged colleagues to postpone the bulk of the legislative session until later in the year when in-person participation might be safer, depending on uncertain prospects for vaccines development and distribution.
Republican House minority leader Jim Townsend of Artesia said it would be legally permissible but wrong for legislators to schedule a legislative session in the midst of public health order restrictions, noting that lawmakers may have been exposed to COVID-19 in the Capitol building last week. He says web conferencing isn’t a true substitute for public participation.
“It’s awfully disingenuous,” Townsend said. “We impose all of these rules on the population in general and then say, ‘This is not applicable to me.’”
Some Democratic legislators were warry of an in-person legislative session, even at a convention center with good air circulation.
Rep. Debbie Armstrong of Albuquerque said January was bound to be too soon for lawmakers to safely assemble. Sen. Michael Sanchez, D-Albuquerque said he already is helping isolated constituents find public wifi hotspots to participate remotely online.
In addition, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says she will convene a special session soon that could distribute $100 million in federal relief funds to support the unemployed and businesses that have been hard-hit by the pandemic and emergency health restrictions. It was unclear on Monday when that might take place.
A renewed statewide coronavirus lockdown began Monday and lasts through Nov. 30. People are being asked to stay home, and only essential businesses such as grocery stores, pharmacies and big box retailers will be open.
The seven-day rolling average of daily deaths in New Mexico has risen over the past two weeks from 7.6 deaths per day on Nov. 1 to 14.9 deaths per day on Nov. 15.
California, Oregon, Michigan and Washington state also have announcing renewed efforts to combat the coronavirus as more than 11 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the United States.