Editorial: We need more sunshine at the Capitol
When the New Mexico Legislature passed the state’s open meetings and open records laws several years ago, they ensured that the new transparency requirements would cover every board, council or commission in the state conducting public business. Almost.
The one big, glaring omission is the Legislature itself.
There is some defense to that during a legislative session — especially in the closing days. The agendas are, by necessity, incredibly fluid, with committees meeting on short notice to rush bills down to the floor. Clearly, we can’t expect the same kind of advanced notice for a committee meeting called hastily on the final morning of the session as we can for a regular meeting of the local city council.
But, legislators have long had a do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do attitude toward the open meetings and open records laws the goes way beyond the necessities created by New Mexico’s unique 30-day and 60-day sessions. The latest example of that came last week when the House Finance and Appropriations Committee met behind closed doors to work out the final details of this year’s $6.3 billion budget.
Susan Boe, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, has sent a letter to leaders of both the House and Senate calling for an end to secret committee meetings.
“On Monday afternoon, February 1, the House Appropriations and Finance Committee locked the doors to its committee room and barred the public from attending the discussion about HB 2, the General Appropriation Act of 2016,” she wrote. “It is our understanding that a quorum of the committee was in attendance.”
The letter was sent to the Senate because FOG has learned about similar secret meetings in that chamber, Boe said.
Unfortunately, this is a continuation of what is becoming a disturbing trend at the Legislature. Last year’s session ended without a capital outlay bill for spending on bricks and mortar projects. Legislative leaders who had been unable to resolve their differences in open meetings went to work after the session ended behind closed doors. They then emerged from the closed room, announced that they had a deal and called their colleagues back to Santa Fe for a one-day meeting in which $295 million was spent with nary a word of public debate or discussion.
This is not how the process is supposed to work.
“The touchstone of democracy is full and open discussion by public officials before the public they serve,” Boe argues in the letter sent to legislative leaders. “To prohibit citizens from attending meetings where important public business is discussed is inconsistent with a representative government.”
We understand that budget decisions are hard. That is undoubtedly true this year when a decline in oil and gas prices has eliminated hundreds of millions of dollars in anticipated new revenue. Tough cuts will have to be made, and nobody wants their fingerprints on them, especially in an election year.
But that is the challenge faced by elected officials in every big city or tiny village in the state. If we expect the local school board or soil and water conservation district to work out their budgets in public, we should have the same expectation of the state Legislature.
This editorial was written by the Las Cruces Sun-News.