Legislators grapple with new virus exposure in committees

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The state Legislature won’t revert to remote, online proceedings despite close encounters with the resurgent coronavirus and at least one new infection among lawmakers.

Leading state lawmakers on Monday weighed whether it was still prudent for legislative committees to hold in-person hearings across the state in the waning days of summer and early autumn. Current rules exclude participation by legislators by videoconference.

Members of a health policy committee were compelled to quarantine after coming into close contact with a coronavirus-exposed presenter at a public hearing in Las Vegas, and at least one legislator is grappling with infection.

Democratic state Rep. Liz Thomson of Albuquerque said legislators are missing committee meetings because of exposure to the virus at some prior committee meeting.

“I think we really need to think about having virtual participation for members because we are going to have folks quarantine,” said Democratic state Rep. Liz Thomson of Albuquerque. “We’re going to have people test positive. We already do.”

But top legislators including Democratic House speaker Brian Egolf of Santa Fe held fast to current coronavirus-safety provisions, highlighting the importance of meeting face-to-face with constituents and experts in far-flung reaches of the state. New Mexico requires face masks in most indoor public venues when not eating.

Those provisions allow only in-person participation by legislators at committee meetings in the lead-up to legislative sessions in December and January. At the same time, committee leaders can switch from a cramped or ill-equipped meeting venue where airborne virus can propagate to large hearing rooms in the Capitol building in Santa Fe as a safety precaution.

The January-March 2020 legislative session allowed legislators in some instances to participate in deliberations and votes via videoconference from isolated rooms in the state Capitol and even at home. At the time, the state Capitol building was off limits to the general public and lobbyists.