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New Mexico Legislators Hampered by Internet Access Issues

Lawmakers have scheduled fewer interim committee meetings than normal and have held most virtually. Those developments have made it more difficult to get legislative work done ahead of next year’s session.

by Jens Gould, The Santa Fe New Mexican / September 21, 2020
The New Mexico House of Representatives chambers. Shutterstock/Nagel Photography

(TNS) — When Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena logs into virtual committee meetings from home, she knows she might only be able to stay on until 10 a.m.

That’s because her children start their online classes then and her Internet connection can’t support all the activity. Her video cuts out repeatedly, and the legislator either keeps trying to sign back in or gives up completely.

“I live in Mesilla, 10 minutes outside our state’s second-biggest city, and the only Internet I can get comes through a phone line,” the Democrat said, referring to her town near Las Cruces. “There’s no broadband, no fiber optics.”

Her struggles are just one example of the challenges legislators have faced as the abnormalities of life during the coronavirus pandemic in New Mexico have extended to lawmaking.

This year, legislators have scheduled fewer interim committee meetings than normal and have held most virtually. They say both of those developments have made it more difficult to get their legislative work done ahead of next year’s session.

“There is no question that trying to prepare a legislative agenda when everyone’s meeting virtually and meeting less is hard,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth.

In Lara Cadena’s case, after 10 a.m. she often resorts to calling into her meetings by phone instead of watching through videoconference, but that makes it harder to engage with panelists and fellow legislators.

During a recent meeting of the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee, she wanted to ask Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase a pressing question about Medicaid funding.

“But I couldn’t see them, nor could they see me,” she said later, “which also meant when I did engage, I wasn’t able to see any reaction or response from my colleagues.”

In a separate meeting of the Economic and Rural Development Committee, Lara Cadena wanted to ask panelists a question about the topic of broadband. But she wasn’t able to pose her question.

“I wanted to talk about Internet access, but I couldn’t because I was on the phone only and the chair didn’t know I wanted to speak,” she said.

In New Mexico, summer and fall are usually chock full of interim legislative meetings in which committees hear from state officials and experts as they begin crafting bills for the next session. Usually, the gatherings are held in different parts of the state, not just in Santa Fe.

This year, legislators significantly pared back the frequency of interim meetings and nearly all of them have been held virtually or at the Capitol.

“Most committees are close to one-third [the frequency] of last year,” said Raúl Burciaga, director of the Legislative Council Service. “No one has gone over half.”

Technical problems also have surfaced since early on in the pandemic, with some legislators struggling to use videoconference platforms or dealing with weak Internet connections.

During one of the first virtual committee meetings held in the spring, loud audio feedback occasionally drowned lawmakers’ voices. Some legislators had trouble unmuting themselves to vote, and they had to speak over the sounds of sneezing and barking dogs.

Difficulties have continued off and on over the summer, as rarely a meeting goes by without at least one complaint about videoconferencing.

In late August, the Cabinet secretary for the Department of Finance and Administration was only a few minutes into a presentation when a committee chairman interrupted her.

“Secretary, we’re getting complaints from the legislative members that are viewing this by video that the presentation is not showing up on the screen,” Sen. John Arthur Smith told Debbie Romero, who was participating remotely. “Is there anything you can do to assist them with that?”

“Let me see,” Romero responded, followed by several long pauses during the Legislative Finance Committee meeting.

“Hopefully that will work this time, Mr. Chair,” she eventually said.

“No, it hasn’t,” Smith said, cutting her off.

Perhaps legislative staff could help, Romero suggested, followed by another pause.

“We just need to go ahead,” said Smith, a Democratic senator from Deming. “It just reflects the flaws of totally relying on video.”

The complaints continued during other hearings the following day.

“I’m having trouble today with these kinds of virtual meetings,” Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said while asking the state’s early childhood secretary a question. “There’s been some disruption in our connectivity.”

The Legislative Council Service has offered one-on-one trainings with legislators to help them better navigate the various technologies.

Even when there aren’t technical difficulties, legislators say the virtual nature of most meetings makes it tough to spark the same level of debate and exchange they usually have when meeting in person.

“It’s just not the same interaction and personal time that you spend building legislation, working on things,” said Wirth, D-Santa Fe. “That’s the reality of legislating during COVID.”

The majority leader drew a contrast between the virtual interim meetings and June’s special session, when the Senate met in person. He said the physical proximity helped give form to the legislation that was ultimately passed.

“There’s lots of different moving pieces that you can’t move when you’re all looking at a screen,” Wirth said.

As far as the frequency of meetings, the change is notable.

By this time last year, the Indian Affairs Committee already had met four times, touring numerous parts of the state from Mescalero to Acoma Pueblo to Shiprock. During the interim this year, they’ve met only twice so far, both times at the Roundhouse with virtual access.

The Investments and Pensions Oversight Committee had held three meetings by mid-September 2019; this year, it’s only had one.

Having meetings over the Internet instead of traveling to different parts of the state takes away from meeting constituents and seeing firsthand how they’re affected by various issues, legislators said.

“I feel the greatest downside is not being able to travel the state to witness firsthand the topics of discussion and to hear directly from those affected,” said Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque.

Some legislators do see upsides to the changes, noting they believe there were too many interim meetings in the past.

“I’m a strong believer in reducing the number of interim committees to begin with,” Smith said.

Wirth also said he had a “long-term goal” of looking at which interim committees might be extraneous.

“We have such a large number of interim committees, and that’s an issue that’s been out there for a while,” he said. “That’s something we do need to look at.”

The decreased frequency of meetings also allows legislators to be more efficient with their time, Roybal Caballero said.

“If anything, having fewer meetings and holding them virtually has challenged us to be more succinct, clear, brief and prepared in the panel presentations and with our questions to allow everyone to have equal time and opportunity to be heard including, most importantly, the public,” she said.

Lara Cadena also noted that despite her connectivity challenges, it has been helpful not to have to drive several hours to Northern New Mexico from the Las Cruces area for a meeting, as she had to during last year’s interim period.

“The virtual environment sounds fantastic and can be because it takes out some of those driving times,” she said.

Wirth said a number of senators have told him they like being able to log in from home, too.

“But,” he added, “you lose a huge piece of the process by not being able to go visit and hear from constituents.”

©2020 The Santa Fe New Mexican, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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