Haussamen: Committees should let in the public

Heath Haussamen
Heath Haussamen

New Mexico’s state lawmakers scrambled to rewrite the budget earlier this year when revenue estimates worsened in the middle of their session. During closed-door meetings, a group of legislators decided to place much of the burden on public universities by cutting their funding.

They did so without real opportunity for public input or scrutiny. Which gives us a good illustration of why keeping the public out of budget discussions is wrong.

Most state universities, including the University of New Mexico, raised tuition to cover their resulting budget shortfalls. New Mexico State University has instead been making cuts, including eliminating jobs, to cover an estimated $12.1 million shortfall. To be fair, NMSU’s problems were created by a combination of factors including state cuts and declining enrollment – not entirely caused by policymakers in Santa Fe.

How did lawmakers make the decision to shift the burden for the state’s budget woes onto the backs of college students and employees? We don’t know. Was the Legislature’s decision correct? We didn’t get a genuine chance to weigh in.

Budget committees don’t only shut the public out. They often close the doors on other lawmakers. Some legislators view that as an intentional attempt to control the outcome.

That’s not good government. And it’s inconsistent with the New Mexico Open Meetings Act, which recognizes that public scrutiny and debate helps our legislators and local governing bodies make better decisions.

“In recognition of the fact that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be public policy of this state that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them,” the Act states.

Such transparency is so important as the state grapples with the effects of lower oil and gas prices. Our state government ended the last fiscal year on June 30 in the red. We’re facing a shortfall in the current 2017 fiscal year that some say could be as high as $500 million. The Legislative Finance Committee predicts another “gloomy” fiscal situation during the 2018 budget year.

I don’t understand why some lawmakers – Democrats and Republicans – view transparency as something to work around, rather than a tool that helps them make better decisions.

These are tough times. We need the Legislature at its best.

The N.M. Foundation for Open Government, or FOG, has been pushing the House Appropriations and Finance Committee and the Senate Finance Committee to do their work in full view of the public. Past closed-door meetings violate the Act, according to FOG.

Budget decisions, FOG Executive Director Susan Boe told me, “touch on every area of state and local government – from schools to art museums.”

“The public needs to hear how our elected leaders are making the hard decisions dividing up the pie,” she said. “What competing factors are being considered? What trade-offs are being made?

“It makes no sense that the public is being shut out of the most critical problem facing the state – the economy,” Boe said.

New Mexico is at or near the bottom of too many important lists. Our budget woes threaten to worsen the situation. All New Mexicans have a right and responsibility to be involved in finding solutions.

We must demand that policymakers give us a seat at the table so we’re there to remind them who gave them their seats. It’s time to open legislative budget committee meetings to the public.

Haussamen runs, a news organization devoted to hard-hitting, fair exploration of politics and government that seeks to inform, engage and build community. Reach him on Facebook at /haussamen, or on Twitter @haussamen.