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Editorial: State ‘sunshine portal’ more cloudy than bright

Contact information is out of date. Financial data is missing. Entire categories of contracts are empty. Six years in, the online database that was supposed to be the state’s searchable “sunshine portal,” shedding light on how the state of New Mexico does the public’s business, is obscured by the clouds of underfunding and overwhelming data.

But state law dictates that state government get its transparency act together.

Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, a co-sponsor of the portal, says a lot of its information is outdated, missing or incorrect and needs to be made current and properly maintained. “This is law. This is supposed to be done. It’s not a wish list,” he says. As it stands, the current portal is “an embarrassment.”

A spokesman for Republican Gov. Susana Martinez blames part of the problem on a contractor, and Darryl Ackley, Cabinet secretary for information technology, told lawmakers last week that his staff is doing the best it can with limited resources.

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The amount of “data we have as a state is staggering,” Ackley said during a meeting of the Legislative Finance Committee. But “I agree there’s a lot more we can do.”

Regardless of the excuses, the database needs to stay current and accurate to meet its mission of bringing critical transparency to state government. Especially given the scandals that have put more than one state official in federal prison, taxpayers are entitled to nothing less.

When the searchable portal went live in 2011, it listed all state expenditures and contracts of $20,000 or more for the previous fiscal year. It has been expanded over the years to include things like capital outlay projects and expenditures; open meetings by date or governmental body; salaries of exempt state employees; state statutes and regulations; information about public schools; and raw data from various state agencies.

So yes, the portal’s mission has grown. But having an up-to-date portal should dramatically slash the number of public records requests and the time state employees spend tracking them down, assembling and then disseminating them. As Peter St. Cyr, executive director of the government watchdog organization New Mexico Foundation for Open Government points out, “We support the public’s ability to search for records and information online at their own convenience – because too often their records requests are delayed, deferred or denied, and this is a great way to take the burden off of records custodians.”

Anyone who has tried to find something on the portal understands what Rue is talking about when he says it is less than user-friendly. Perhaps the contractor charged with maintaining the website could look into that – or be replaced by a more efficient competitor.

Legislative staff and NMFOG are reviewing the sunshine portal to determine what is required by law to be available on the website, whether it’s all there, and how accurate the information is. St. Cyr says the review should be completed soon. That should provide a good indication of just how much “sunshine” the portal is actually letting in.

Then, the funding should be appropriated to ensure that it truly is a “Sunshine Portal.”

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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