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Editorial: Roundhouse ’18 should embrace transparency bills

While this year’s legislative session is focused primarily on budget matters, there are a handful of transparency measures that lawmakers are grappling with that could expand – or restrict – the information available to the public.

And that public is who pays for that government, which is why transparency should be the rule, not the exception.

Taxpayers should take note of the proposed changes and whether their elected officials are embracing transparency and its partner, accountability; and, in cases where confidentiality is warranted, whether the exemptions being considered are as narrow as possible to achieve the desired goal.

Two proposals deserve serious consideration, although one appears dead on arrival.

Gov. Susana Martinez asked lawmakers to adopt a bill making their emails and other communications subject to disclosure under the state’s public records law. That proposal appears to have gone nowhere. In fact, lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a rule in 2013 aimed at keeping their documents and emails private. Passing it would send the message that lawmakers are adhering to the same rules they’re asking other state entities to follow. The proposal appears to have garnered no sponsor.

The Senate, meanwhile, has unanimously approved Senate Bill 52, which would shine a light on the governor’s contingency fund, an off-the-books account that pays for social events like dinners and receptions at the Governor’s Mansion. The legislation calls for the fund – which usually has about $80,000 a year – to be subject to state rules on audits, procurement and disclosure of public records. If enacted, the law would go into effect Jan. 1, after Gov. Martinez’s term.

Taxpayers deserve to know how that money – their money – is spent and to what end.

Arguably, the biggest change to our public records law would involve Spaceport America. Senate Bill 98 – whose sponsors are Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, Sen. William Burt, R-Alamogordo, and Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences – has the backing of Gov. Martinez, a Republican. Dubbed the Commercial Aerospace Protection Act, the bill would effectively create a new exemption. Under the bill, cyberinfrastructure and security information would be considered confidential and thereby exempt from the state’s public records law. That makes sense.

But the bill, as originally written, would create a broad exception for “customer information.”

Taxpayers have spent $220 million on construction of the Spaceport, located in a remote area near Truth or Consequences. For the coming budget year, the Spaceport Authority has asked lawmakers to increase its annual base funding from about $375,000 to $1 million.

There’s little argument that the state needs to do what it can to protect taxpayers’ investment, and proponents of SB 98 say that that’s exactly what the legislation does by protecting customer information and encouraging investment.

We understand the need to make New Mexico’s Spaceport competitive so that it can be successful, and it makes sense for companies to be allowed to keep their internal information and details of their experiments or planned flights confidential. But what a private company is paying the publicly funded Spaceport shouldn’t be shrouded in secrecy. All state agencies, including the Spaceport, should be held accountable to taxpayers – and that requires knowing where their revenues come from.

The proposed bill is continuing to be fine-tuned, and we hope a compromise can be reached that protects both the competitive viability of the Spaceport and the public’s right to know.

Another measure – House Bill 218, sponsored by Rep. Kelly K. Fajardo, R-Los Lunas, expands information required to be posted on the state’s Sunshine Portal. Overall, it’s a bill that supports transparency. But it contains a loophole the size of the Sandias allowing a state agency head to not post information “for which, because of confidentiality, safety or privacy concerns, there is a public interest in not publishing that information on a public website.”

Such an exception could allow department heads to withhold pretty much anything they choose from the portal. That’s not in keeping with the spirit of the Sunshine Portal. We need uniformity in these rules. Lawmakers should remove that provision and embrace transparency.

For lawmakers who may be on the fence we offer up the words of Judge Damon Keith, of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals: “Democracy dies behind closed doors.”

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.