Transparency in the 2015 New Mexico Legislature

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IMG_6121Editor’s note: NMID recently asked columnists who wrote for our January legislative guide to summarize how, in their opinion, transparency and openness fared during the recently-ended 60-day session in Santa Fe. 

How did transparency and open government fare during New Mexico’s 2015 legislative session? Prior to the 2015 session, I urged legislators to consider a variety of reforms. Some of my ideas were discussed and acted upon while others were ignored completely. Change comes slowly in politics and that is doubly true in Santa Fe.

Prior to the session, I argued for a formal institutional process of recording and archiving committee hearings. Gov. Martinez’s office has handled this task with legislators taking varying degrees of umbrage at the Executive Branch’s seeming intrusion on Legislative priorities. Unfortunately, the very fact that the Governor’s office has handled this task became the latest excuse for some legislators to avoid taking it on themselves.

We hope that as Gov. Martinez moves into the latter part of her 2nd term in office (without guarantees that future governors will wish to record and archive committee hearings), that the Legislature will take action to formalize its recording and archiving procedures.

Unfortunately, the bad news is committee archiving was the only consideration that my pre-session recommendations relating to government openness and transparency received. Prior to the session, I approached some legislators urging them to address the onerous number of signatures required for 3rd party candidates to run for the Legislature.

New Mexico is the only state that forces the nominee of a qualified party to submit a petition to achieve ballot access and the signature requirement for Libertarians, Greens, and other third parties is several multiples that for Republicans or Democrats.

Lest you think these signature requirements are not onerous, according to Ballot Access News, New Mexico had fewer third party candidates on the ballot for the last 13 years than any other state. This, despite the fact that “independent” is the single-largest (and fastest-growing) voting bloc in our state.

Unfortunately, asking McDonald’s and Wendy’s to make it easier for Burger King to set up shop is just as difficult as it sounds. Legislation to make the ballot access process fairer for third parties was not considered in 2015.

Another transparency issue that other states are considering and adopting while New Mexico stands flat-footed is the allowance of remote legislative testimony. Two large, Western states, Alaska and Nevada, have allowed remote testimony before legislative committees for years. Washington State and neighboring Colorado have recently adopted remote testimony for legislative hearings.

Since New Mexico is the 5th-largest state in land area and among the least populous states, allowing witnesses to testify remotely After all, not everyone has the time or freedom to spend a day or two to drive from Hobbs or Las Cruces to attend legislative hearings. There are also plenty of expert witnesses around the nation whose schedules don’t permit them to travel all the way to New Mexico to spend between 5 and 30 minutes testifying on a bill.

Shouldn’t New Mexico legislators have the best information available to them from top experts and concerned citizens, not just from those who can get off from work for a day?

Lastly, prior to the session, I urged legislators to consider adding the names of all government workers to the Sunshine Portal listing of government employees and salaries. This was the case prior to a judge’s 2012 ruling (at the behest of the AFSCME government employee union) which required the names of non-exempt government workers’ names to be pulled off of the Portal.

As with these other issues, nothing happened with this issue during the 2015 session. Dozens of other states and literally hundreds of local governments post this (publicly-available) information online. Again, Gov. Martinez has taken it upon herself to post this information elsewhere on the Internet at: http://employees.newmexico.gov/. However, a judge ruled that the law did not provide for this public information to be posted on the Sunshine Portal. That should change.

On several other issues, the Legislature took important actions on transparency during 2015, but when it came to these priorities as outlined by the Rio Grande Foundation and other groups, not much was achieved.

Paul Gessing is the President of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility. The views in this column do not reflect the views or opinions of New Mexico In Depth.

3 thoughts on “Transparency in the 2015 New Mexico Legislature

  1. Gessing’s eagerness to see compensation of every state employee is at odds with logical corporate practice, not to mention common decency.

    No peeping-tom shareholder needs to see how each of Apple’s or Walmart’s individual employees is paid. If a business unit (or a NM department) is financially out of hand, that is properly addressed from top down. Not a new idea: a good one from a capitalist perspective.

  2. Mr Gessing is spot on with his recommendation that ALL State employees’ salaries should be published as I do think it is in the public’s interest to know. After all, their salaries are funded by tax payers and tax payers ought to know where, and how, their money is being allocated.

  3. Since I was a majority staffer at the NM House during the 2015 session, I’d like to comment on Mr. Gessing’s article:

    1. Recording committee sessions is a good idea. Gessing is correct
    that the Governor’s staff filmed many of the committee meetings. Many
    were also available live via webcast (but were not recorded). Recording
    was allowed at the discretion of the Chairman.
    2.The third party ballot access issue has nothing to do with transparency in Gov’t. I think Gessing needs to write a separate article on that.
    3. Remote committee testimony is a good idea but not as easy as Gessing infers. It should be looked at for future sessions.

    4. Regarding the Sunshine portal, I respectfully disagree with Gessing.
    State employees should have some degree of privacy, and publicizing
    their salaries is not in the public interest. Elected officials and
    senior state government managers salaries are already public. This is
    sufficient.
    5. I’m disappointed that Gessing did not give credit to
    Speaker Tripp’s outstanding initiative to require Committee hearings to
    begin on time as scheduled, and to stick to the published agenda. I
    heard multiple comments from lobbyists and the public of both parties
    about how much better House committee meetings were organized and
    managed compared with prior sessions. I think the Senate leadership
    should take a lesson from Speaker Tripp.

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