Group questions secret budget talks

Justin Horwath
The Santa Fe New Mexican
The doors to Room 307, where the House Appropriations and Finance Committee was holding a budget discussion on Feb. 1, were locked. The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government is calling on lawmakers to change the state Open Meetings Act's conflicting language on whether it is legal for lawmakers to meet behind closed doors when no official decisions are made.

SANTA FE — House Republican and Democratic lawmakers have held a series of private committee and subcommittee meetings over the last two weeks to discuss how to allocate more than $6 billion in state money, without the public scrutiny that comes with most committee hearings.

Bill Valdez, chief of staff for the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said the secret meetings were not unusual and within the law because the committee made no official decisions. The committee members decided to meet behind closed doors "for everyone's protection," he said.

"There was a need to be able to talk turkey," he said of the closed-door budget talks.

But the meetings have caught the attention of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, an open-government group, which is calling on state lawmakers to change the state Open Meetings Act's conflicting language on whether such secret discussions are legal.

"Why can't the committee 'talk turkey' in front of the public?" said Susan Boe, executive director of the group, known as NMFOG. "That sounds like some actions were in fact taken."

Attorney General's Office, which enforces the public meetings law, said Thursday that it agrees with the group that the law is ambiguous but did not offer an official interpretation of the law.

Boe attempted to get inside a room Feb. 1 where the House Appropriations and Finance Committee was holding a budget discussion. The doors of Room 307 were locked. The committee did not publish an agenda that would allow the public to see what members were discussing, who was in attendance or why the meeting was held behind locked doors.

"This is pretty troubling," Boe said in an interview at the time. "I can't think about a more important topic than the budget and the allocation of limited resources."

She said in a followup email this week that there's "an ambiguity in the Open Meetings Act that applies to the Legislature."

The state's Open Meeting's Act states that "all meetings of any committee or policy-making body of the legislature held for the purpose of discussing public business or for the purpose of taking any action" are "declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times."

But two paragraphs later, the law defines a legislative meeting as being "held for the purpose of taking any action with the authority of the committee or body."

Boe said this conflicting makes it unclear if legislative committees may meet behind closed doors if they do not take actions.

"The language about discussing public business is not included" in that second section, Boe said.

"FOG urges the Legislature to (1) fix the problem and (2) in the meantime follow the interpretation of the Open Meetings Act that maximizes transparency," she said in her email. "Locked doors of a committee meeting sends the wrong message to the public that lawmakers serve."

Valdez, who has been a staff member on the committee for 27 years, said there has seen heated closed committee meetings in the past as lawmakers hammered out state budgets.

"There could be some F-bombs thrown around," he said, adding, "That's no good for anyone," if such meetings are public.

"In all those years, there's always a time when you really have to get down and dirty and to try to formulate some general guidelines for us to put together packages for them," he said.

In the past, he said, the House Appropriations and Finance Committee appointed subcommittees consisting of legislative staffers who met with executive officials "to try and make a way of making fit within a dollar amount what changes could be made to make everybody as happy as they can be."

"They would provide recommendations to the full committee for action," he said of subcommittees. "There's no action taken other than that. And once it comes to the full committee, those are adopted or not in full committee in public, OK?"

This year, in addition to staffers, lawmakers also met in closed-door subcommittee meetings.

A health and human services subcommittee, for instance, met to discuss the Human Services Department's "very complex budget," Valdez said.

He said the lawmakers on that "ad hoc" subcommittee are: Rep. Conrad James, R-Albuquerque; Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-Kirtland; Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup; and Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos.

He said the House Appropriations and Finance Committee has four other subcommittees: public schools, higher education, computer systems, and a supplementals and deficiencies.

The subcommittees, which meet with Cabinet secretaries as well as other state and legislative officials on agency budgets, can also call lobbyists into the meetings, Valdez said, "if they feel it's necessary."

Members of the public have a chance to provide such input to the state budget at least three times during the committee's public meetings, Valdez said.

He said the committee's lawmakers decide to meet out of the public eye "when you get down to the point where you have to decide what to put together in a package and how you're going to pay for it."

Asked if there were subcommittee records detailing who met and what they said, Valdez said, "No." He also said he did not know how many times the committee and subcommittees had met in private this session.

"The problem we ran into this year, we dropped the amount of new taxpayer revenue ... by millions," forcing legislative and executive officials to come up with a new budget in the middle of the session. "Everything changed, and we had to come up with methods, and it became very, very difficult, and there was difficult decisions that need to be made."

If the meetings had to be held in public, he said, "I don't think we could finish a session in 30 days."

Monday marked at least the second time the committee, chaired by Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, suddenly closed its scheduled 1:30 daily meeting.

Asked if the full committee membership was in attendance, Larrañaga said, "For the most part it was."

He said the committee did not take any action but rather was gathering information.

In response to The New Mexican's inquiries on the issue, James Hallinan, a spokesman for Attorney General Hector Balderas, said in an email the office will update its guide on the Open Meetings Act that explains the law.

He said that while the office was not offering an official interpretation of the law, "a meeting of a legislative committee held to discuss public business but not for the purpose of voting or otherwise 'taking any action' would not be a 'public meeting.'"

The Open Meetings Act allows lawmakers to meet in private to discuss personnel matters and investigations into members. Lawmakers may also caucus with members of their political parties behind closed doors.

Generally, the Open Meetings Act provides for public legislative committee meetings but contains a provision that says "unless otherwise provided by joint House and Senate rule."

Yet the 2016 Joint Rules do not contain any provision that would allow a full committee to meet behind closed doors and no such rule has passed during this session.

"All sessions of the legislature shall be public, and each session of the House and Senate and the committee meetings of each body shall be webcast pursuant to House and Senate rule," the joint rules book says.

Larrañaga's committee suddenly turned off the webcast early in its hours-long discussion on Monday.

The House Appropriations and Finance Committee has been meeting in public this week as lawmakers cast critical votes on the state budget. But details about its private meetings have been difficult to come by.

Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richards, D-Los Alamos,was not talkative when she stepped outside the room.

"I've been told that it's advisory," she said when asked about the closed nature of the meeting.

When Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, briefly stepped outside the committee room, she declined to answer a question about what officials had been discussing.

"No I can't say," she said.