How lawmakers spend public money found “not germane” in a budget session

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New Mexico’s every-other-year legislative sessions are, by definition, short. Just over four weeks. There’s a lot of legislation to cram in, including the state budget, and this year the governor is pushing for no less than legalization of recreational cannabis and free college tuition. 

But somehow, in a session in which only items pertaining to public money are allowed unless the governor indicates otherwise, shedding light on how some lawmakers spend that money has been found  “not germane.” And so far, the governor hasn’t included greater government transparency among the shortlist of issues she added for debate this year, or “on the call.” Her predecessor, Gov. Susana Martinez, championed some transparency initiatives. And in both the 2016 and 2018 short sessions, legislation to disclose publicly the capital outlay funding decisions of individual lawmakers was greenlighted for debate. 

This year, there are two sets of lawmakers pushing to lift the veil of secrecy about how lawmakers spend money for infrastructure projects. Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Santa Fe, and Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, are teamed up to shepherd House legislation. Because Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham hasn’t greenlighted the bill, so far, they’re asking her to do so. In the Senate, Sen. Bill Tallman, an Albuquerque Democrat, is pushing a similar bill with Republican Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences. 

Both bills are simple, requiring a list be published on the legislative website of the projects individual lawmakers funded, including the amounts of each allocation and the lawmaker’s name. Right now, that information is withheld. It’s up to the lawmaker whether the information becomes public. 

As New Mexico In Depth found last year, the vast majority of lawmakers — representatives and senators, both rural and urban alike — readily hand over the information to those who have the time and energy to ask each and every one of them and do the follow-up required to assemble a list. Just 15 of 112 lawmakers refused or didn’t respond to multiple requests for the information. It’s a far cry from a similar effort in late 2015, when just a handful of lawmakers responded to our request, indicating that most lawmakers buy into the idea that open government equals good government. 

But neither bill, so far, has been found germane by the respective House and Senate committees that make those decisions. So if either bill is to progress, it’ll need a message allowing it from the governor.

“On the call.” “Germane.” “A message from the governor.” What does this lingo mean? 

In short budget sessions, the only bills allowed to proceed through the legislative process are those having to do with how state money should be spent. The only exceptions are issues that the governor puts “on the call,” or in a “message” she sends down to the Legislature from the fourth floor. The Senate Committee on Committees and the House Rules & Order Committee decide whether bills address those specific issues, i.e. whether they are “germane” and allowed to proceed through the committee process. 

So, we’re asking how shedding light on how some lawmakers spend money isn’t “germane” during a session dedicated to spending public money. And since those legislative committees have shut down transparency issues about public money, will the governor take them up?

This piece originally appeared in New Mexico In Depth’s weekly Friday newsletter. Don’t miss out, sign up for the newsletter here.

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