Legislature shines light on itself

The Legislature concluded today, which also happens to be the final day of Sunshine Week, so it’s only fitting that we review a couple of transparency measures taken up by the Legislature. 

In short: it’s a mixed bag. One prominent measure five years in the making passed, and if the governor signs the bill, lawmakers will no longer be able to allocate public works dollars in secret. But another measure that sought to fix a loophole in campaign finance disclosure laws was dead in the water. 

Lawmakers shine light on themselves

Once a contentious measure among lawmakers, a bill that requires a list of how lawmakers allocate public infrastructure dollars be published on the legislative website sailed through the 2021 session. It’s momentous, considering the long history of secrecy surrounding how lawmakers decide what projects to fund. The public list will only pertain to projects this year and in the future.

New Mexico Senate passes capital outlay transparency bill

The Senate passed a measure Wednesday that would enable New Mexicans for the first time to see how each lawmaker spends public infrastructure money under their control. 

Should House members agree with Senate amendments, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham sign it into law, the measure would require legislative staff to automatically publish a list 30 days after the session ends that details how individual lawmakers spend millions of dollars in most years — a far cry from the secrecy that has surrounded such decision making at the Roundhouse for as long as people can remember. 

House Bill 55, sponsored by Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, sailed through the Senate after some debate, a much different outcome than in previous years. 

In 2015, New Mexico In Depth discovered that such information was a secret after filing a public information request for a list of individual lawmaker’s infrastructure spending allocations and finding out that information wasn’t subject to public scrutiny. That’s because of a long established statute that makes confidential any communication between individual lawmakers and legislative staff. That statute still stands, but now, if the measure becomes law, details about lawmakers’ individual spending choices will be exempt from the rule. 

During the February House floor debate on the bill, McQueen said it’s important to make the information readily available to everyone who’s interested. Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said during Wednesday floor debate in the Senate that making the allocations public was long overdue and “fundamentally the right thing to do.” He listed three reasons: it’s public money that the public has the right to see; making it public prevents fraud; and transparency will result in money better spent. 

Since 2016 when the first bills were introduced by McQueen and former senator Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, the transparency measure has been hotly debated, with opposition largely hinging on the political costs to lawmakers if their spending decisions are known to the public. This concern has been voiced largely by rural lawmakers who represent multiple counties, who say they must juggle many more funding requests from their constituents than they can possibly fill. 

But a 2019 investigation by New Mexico In Depth found the issue wasn’t a cut-and-dried example of a so-called rural/urban divide. 

That year, we asked every lawmaker to give legislative staff permission to share their capital outlay allocations with the public.

Lawmakers running for Congress don’t have to disclose fundraising during session. We asked them to.

Legislators are barred from soliciting campaign contributions while the Roundhouse is in session– unless they happen to be running for Congress. 

During the state’s prohibited fundraising period, lasting from January 1st to the end of the session, lawmakers may not solicit any campaign contributions and lobbyists may not donate to any state campaigns. But federal campaigns aren’t subject to state law. This means four Democratic state lawmakers running for an open congressional seat may fundraise at the same time they’re conducting state business during the 2021 legislative session. New Mexicans won’t officially know who contributed to them until after the session. 

“The original intent of having a prohibited period for state lawmakers was so that the public wouldn’t have the perception that lobbyists were literally giving our elected officials money for their state campaigns while they’re in the middle of a legislative session,” said Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico. On Wednesday, the Senate Rules Committee unanimously endorsed a bill sponsored by Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, that would require state elected officials running for federal office to disclose their donors every ten days during the prohibited period.

Lawmakers will again push for capital outlay transparency

Legislators will make another push this year to make public how individual lawmakers divvy up capital outlay money. 

New Mexico In Depth discovered back in 2015 that those decisions were exempt from the Inspection of Public Records Act, after submitting a request for a list detailing how lawmakers individually allocated infrastructure money that year. We wrote about what we’d found, and several lawmakers promptly introduced bills in 2016 to make information available to the public about how individual legislators steward capital outlay dollars. Here’s a recap of the issue:

Each year, the state Legislature passes a capital outlay budget that sends millions of dollars out to New Mexico communities to pay for infrastructure projects. To figure out how to spend that money, lawmakers divide the money three ways. The governor controls a third, state agencies control a third, and lawmakers control a third. 

How do lawmakers decide how to spend their portion?

Children and pregnant women no longer allowed in solitary confinement in NM

A long-sought set of reforms to the way New Mexico jailers and prison officials use solitary confinement kicked in July 1, barring the practice for certain populations and starting the clock on what civil rights advocates and lawmakers hope will lead to unprecedented transparency on the controversial practice in the state. Effectively immediately, pregnant women and children can no longer be held in solitary, and beginning in November prisons and jails around the state will start publicly reporting how many people are being held in solitary. Insufficient data has for years frustrated lawmakers’ and others’ ability to understand the scale at which solitary confinement is used in the state’s jails and prisons. 

State Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, co-sponsor of  House Bill 364 during the legislative session that concluded in March, sent a letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration and officials who run the 33 county jails across New Mexico, reminding them of the new statute’s requirements. Among the changes is the state’s first universal definition for solitary confinement: holding someone in a cell alone for 22 or more hours a day “without daily, meaningful and sustained human interaction.”

Previously, jails and prisons were using a patchwork set of labels and standards to categorize solitary confinement, often frustrating lawmakers’ and others’ efforts to snap a true picture of how the tactic was used in New Mexico. The measure required prisons and jails to stop keeping children and pregnant women in solitary — except in extremely rare instances — on July 1.

Bringing sunshine to human rights settlements nears finish

A bill that would make information about state agency settlements involving sexual harassment and other discrimination claims more accessible to the public is a step away from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk after clearing an important committee

The House Judiciary unanimously passed SB 317 after a short discussion Wednesday. The legislation would require posting to the state Sunshine Portal amounts of taxpayer dollars paid out in individual settlements related to human rights, including sexual harassment and discrimination based on disability, sexual orientation and race, and the state agencies that are involved. Currently, it is difficult to find out about such complaints across the many agencies in state government or to know when information about individual settlements become public. The bill does not require names be published on the Sunshine Portal, so as “to not discourage anyone from filing claims,” said Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, co-sponsor of the bill, “but we do want to know when those claims are being paid out.” Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, co-sponsor of the bill, said that the bill speeds up when the information is made public.

Legislature fleshes out details of ethics commission in 2019

Three-quarters of voters in November supported enshrining an independent ethics commission in the state Constitution, making New Mexico one of more than 40 states with similar oversight bodies. Just getting an ethics commission took more than a decade and contentious year-in, year-out legislative debates. But the most the difficult year may be 2019. State lawmakers over the next 60 days will make big decisions about the seven-member commission: how much power it has, how much funding it gets, and, perhaps thorniest of all, how open and transparent its work will be. These questions will revive old battle lines from the past nearly 15 years when a bipartisan collection of supporters in the Legislature annually squared off against an equally bipartisan coalition of opponents.

As immigration debate rages, private prison operators spread cash to NM pols

Two of the nation’s largest private prison companies have given nearly $33,000 to New Mexico’s congressional representatives and state lawmakers over the past year and a half, a review of campaign finance records by New Mexico In Depth shows. The two operators — the GEO Group Inc. and CoreCivic, which have maintained a major presence in New Mexico for decades — have come in for criticism over the years from immigration attorneys and advocates for warehousing immigrants under multiple presidential administrations. The focus has sharpened as the nation debates the Trump administration’s stepped-up immigration enforcement policies at the border. Across the country the two private prison operators have spent considerable money to influence government policy and have made sizable profits from detaining immigrants in their facilities, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The institute is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide.