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House passes rules to run a session during the COVID-19 pandemic

Republicans on Monday tried to battle against changes to to the way this year’s legislative session will run in the House of Representatives, but were stymied by a Democratic majority.

Democrats hold a 45-25 advantage in the 70-member House of Representatives and voted to table or defeat several amendments proposed by Republicans during a three-hour-plus debate on the issue.

Democrats also led the charge Monday in a 48-22 vote to approve House Rules 1, legislation ensuring a mostly virtual session in the House against the backdrop of COVID-19 concerns.

Monday’s discussion, in a rare floor session, once again outlined the differences between the two parties on conducting the 60-day session, which began a week ago with a state Capitol building closed to the public, lobbyists and many others.

Republicans continue to argue a virtual session has the potential to cut the public out of the process and separates lawmakers from legislative aides and policy experts.

Democratic leaders counter the health concerns related to the coronavirus necessitate a change.

“Do I think it is dangerous for us to be on this floor, even with masks on? Yes, I do,” said Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Albuquerque, who introduced the rules changes.

Ely said even with an in-house requirement to wear masks, some members still lower them below their noses for a moment to speak or eat or drink “without thinking about it. It happens, it’s human nature.

“I’m not casting aspersions on anyone,” he added. “When they do that, the virus is released in the air.”

With the rules for operating in the House now set, committee hearings will play out online. As for floor sessions, members have the option of participating in person or remotely.

But if members do show up at the state Capitol to debate legislation on the floor, the rules require them to remain in their seats and communicate on Zoom. That’s a departure from the traditional method of having members stand and use their microphones to make their points, argue and debate.

Some Republicans blasted the rules, calling them an obstacle to productive exchanges.

“All I have to work with is debate, persuasion, the rules of procedure and the ability to question,” Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, said during the debate. “These new rules inhibit that.”

Referring to the possibility  lawmakers could be reduced to debating important pieces of legislation on “a one-by-one square of computer screen,” he said minority members of the House need the ability to consult with other members and introduce amendments to legislation if need be.

He added that by allowing lawmakers to work from home, there is nothing to prevent them from conducting legislative business from their kitchen table while clad in pajamas.

Then, he said, they could push a virtual button to cast their vote “and go back to watching I Love Lucy reruns.”

Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, said he took exception to that description.

“I do not watch reruns of I Love Lucy,‘” he said. “I watch reruns of Star Trek: Voyager.”

Though portions of the debate were impassioned at times, lawmakers maintained a civil tone throughout — a contrast to the fiery, combative back-and-forth that has taken place in partisan debates in the chamber in past years.

Still, following the vote, newly elected Rep. Luis Terrazas, R-Silver City, incurred the anger of Rep. Elizabeth “Liz” Thomson, D-Albuquerque, when he suggested the virus is “not airborne.”

“It is airborne,” Thomson retorted, saying one way to limit its spread is by avoiding large groups of people in one space, such as the state Capitol.

And while legislators present on the floor for Tuesday’s hearing wore masks most of the time, Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, briefly took hers off following the debate to make a point to House Speaker Brian Egolf. When he told her to put it back on, she said has had trouble breathing and talking with a mask on.

“Whenever I fall over here because I can’t breathe, it’s gonna be on you,” Ezzell told Egolf.

This article was originally published on House passes rules to run a session during the COVID-19 pandemic

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