Veterans in covering the legislature say “Zoom fatigue” made for a more emotionally charged session.
Executive Director of Viante New Mexico Rhiannon Samuel and co-owner of KW Consulting LLC Jason Espinoza presented at the NAIOP Rio Rancho Roundtable webinar Thursday morning.
Viante is a nonprofit nonpartisan public-policy group that lobbies for legislation its leaders believe will benefit all New Mexicans. KW Consulting specializes in digital communication and government affairs.
To start the conversation on how a semi-virtual session affected the atmosphere in the Roundhouse, Samuel broke down the composition of each chamber.
The New Mexico House has 45 Democrats, 24 Republicans and one Independent. The New Mexico Senate is composed of 27 Democrats and 15 Republicans.
“The Democrats had a lot of control on how things were going to be done, and the conservative legislators wanted (the session) to be more open to the public, but we are in a pandemic,” Samuel said.
The Zoom format was accessible, which led to more public participation from around the state, Espinoza said. There were two narratives about the session in regard to public engagement, he said.
Over 6,100 residents from 32 countries participated in the second and third weeks of the 60-day session, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.
“You had the Democrat leadership, specifically in the House, with the speaker saying, ‘Hey, this was the most open session we have ever had. We had record-breaking numbers of public participation,’” Espinoza said.
However, there is more to public engagement than logging onto the Zoom session, he said. Part of engagement in the past was being able to walk down the hall of the Capitol and have conversations, take legislators to lunch and walk into legislators’ offices, Espinoza said.
Elected officials physically at the Capitol were able to have sidebar conversations about a bill or issue they had with policies, Samuel said. Those online could not interact with colleagues the same way.
With Zoom, there are challenges in reading social cues, causing participants to talk over each other, Samuel said.
“I will say it wasn’t all bad,” Samuel said. “But I am excited and looking forward to the day that we can rejoin the in-person legislative process and perhaps bring some of what worked from Zoom to that.”
Going virtual also highlighted how each committee had a different process to comment, she said.
“Even in my generation, mine and Jason’s, where we are supposed to be techy, it was tough,” Samuel said.
Espinoza believes legislators struggled in this regard as well.
“I will say legislators also struggled in the Zoom world, where I did not see the same type of meaningful debate amongst committee members that you typically see at the legislature,” he said.
Espinoza said he noticed a difference between the debates in the Senate versus the House. More Senate members were physically present at the Roundhouse, while a majority of House members were virtual.
“I don’t think there was as good of a debate because most of everyone was from home,” he said about the House. “We will be realistic, most of the folks watching the webinar today, I am going to assume that is not the only thing you are doing. You’re also working, you’re multi-tasking, you’re dealing with family if you are at home, and that is what the legislators were dealing with as well.”
In addition, Samuel said, the “drama in the Roundhouse” went beyond the technical issues.
“This always happens. If you have been up there, you know that tempers can get quite high, but this time, in my opinion, it was at a new level,” she said. “There were senators crying on the chamber floor; there were claims of sexism; there was a lot of frustration and also hot mics that happened in different committees. So, members of the public were saying things that they probably did not want to have on the record and some legislators took that and ran with it.”
Samuel was disappointed in the behavior of many legislators after the session, she said.
“To me it was really disappointing to see the reaction from our elected officials who are supposed to be the adults in the room and were supposed to rise above the pettiness and get things done,” she said. “I chalked it up to a little bit of Zoom fatigue, and they had a lot on their plate and they were juggling, too.”
Samuel said she hopes to see elected officials’ behavior improve in the next session.