No surprise NM public officials prefer secrecy over transparency

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Trip Jennings is Executive Director of New Mexico In Depth

New Mexico In Depth has run into a wall of silence.

Secrecy, it seems, is an unfortunate byproduct of the way New Mexico pays for hundreds of local projects around the state each year.

Every legislative session, each of the 112 state lawmakers is allowed to allocate money for brick-and-mortar projects of their choosing.

But the public can’t view those lawmaker allocations unless the lawmakers give permission to a legislative agency to share that information.

See the problem here.

In short, you, me, the public can’t see how our representatives are spending public dollars unless they say we can. We must blindly trust they’re using public money prudently.

The secrecy is another surprising outcome of the perverse logic of the system New Mexico’s elected officials use to fund tens of millions of dollars each year for everything from new and renovated buildings to dam repairs.

As our organization has reported repeatedly, many critics, including scholars who study how U.S. states pay for brick-and-mortar projects, say New Mexico’s politicized process for selecting local projects is flawed. That is, allowing individual lawmakers to direct funding to projects of their own choosing is not the optimal way to spend public money – or to engender public trust.

But how are New Mexicans supposed to assess the performance of their elected officials without good information?

Over the past several months, New Mexico In Depth has tried to unravel the complicated, sometimes inscrutable, process officials use to fund projects around the state to give the public a better understanding of the process.

It was with this curiosity that reporter Sandra Fish recently asked the Legislative Council Service to provide information about legislative sponsors – the names of lawmakers who had allocated funding for projects over the last five years.

The agency told NMID it couldn’t release the information without permission from the lawmakers themselves.

NMID asked for that permission in an e-mail to all current state lawmakers Monday. So far, no one has given that permission.

It’s not really a surprise. New Mexico elected officials have never been big on sharing information compared to other states.

Unlike Colorado, New Mexico doesn’t require lobbyists to list what issues, let alone what bills, they’re working during each session. And unlike other states, New Mexico has weak campaign finance reporting requirements.

Now, add to the mix the fact the public can’t get information on how individual legislators allocate public money on local projects around the state.

As a result, we, along with the public, are left yet again unable to track whether there is an influence of money in politics and, if there is, what it looks like and who benefits.
As I write those words, a quote from one of my favorite TV shows bounces around in my head.

“You start to follow the money, and you don’t know where … it’s gonna take you,” Det. Lester Freamon of HBO’s The Wire counsels his colleagues.

Unfortunately, New Mexicans can’t follow the money given the current system. I’m beginning to think New Mexico’s public officials want it that way.

6 thoughts on “No surprise NM public officials prefer secrecy over transparency

    • You can find out what lawmakers included in their individual proposals, which in many cases amount to a long wish list. Only a fraction of those lists get funded, and it’s the actual funding advocated by lawmakers, not the wish list, we’re seeking.

  1. The terms of public in-servitude are the prerogative of people not of their servants. It is up to the people to decide what amount of secrecy they will tolerate, not up to pols and public servants to decide how much suits their needs.

    Nothing will change until enough of the people are upset enough to do something about it – arm themselves with torches and pitchforks, storm the roundhouse, and demand reform. Until then, we can only hope as hard as we can that legislators will provide for us what is not now, and what has never been, but will somehow come to be. I would advise; don’t hold your breath.

  2. There are two separate issues here. 1) Should the capital outlay (and all other) decisions of our legislators be fully visible to us? Clearly they should be.
    2) Is an element of decentralization in the capital outlay process inherently inferior to a fully centralized process? Here the answer is not obvious. A large number of “experts” opine on this question, but I have never seen the evidence. The Spaceport for example is a centralized project. If we apply any reasonable discount rate, the project is a failure, pure and simple.

  3. Keep digging, Mr. Jennings. There’s both a lack of sophistication on the part of our elected officials as to what the rules actually are/should be, and an utter sophistication on the “dumb” stares that reflect the “way things have always been done here.” It’s gonna take a great deal of grunt work to get NM into the 21st Century and your/NMiD efforts toward that are very much appreciated. It’s the lack of “good information” that has led many of these folks into the positions in which they continue to reside. Take every dumb stare as a sign you’re making progress. – Scot

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