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Don’t let lawmakers put democracy in darkness

When the Washington Post paid up to $10 million to run a Super Bowl ad, many argued against the morality or propriety of spending that much money on advertising rather than on reporters’ salaries, paid leave and medical benefits, but social media was not atwitter with an argument against the Post’s powerful tagline, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

You know when else democracy dies? When the charges for people exercising their rights, or the hoops one has to jump through to obtain public information, become too high or too onerous! Democracy dies when restrictions are placed upon the information the public can receive about the actions of its public institutions and public officials – when the “sunshine” long advocated for is diminished or blocked to accommodate special interests or government officials, not the public.

A 2016 Seattle Times editorial, noting a report from the state of Washington’s Auditor’s Office that state and local governments spent $60 million to fill more than 285,000 public records requests during a 12-month period, argued that the report should not be used to shut down public access to government records. Rather, the editorial board noted, “the state of Washington should be celebrating this important way of helping citizens keep track of their governments.” The board suggested one way to cut costs of responding to record requests is to post more information online automatically – to “disclose information before it is asked for and organize records for easy search and retrieval.”

No similar report could be found on costs to N.M.’s state and local governments.

“Public records requests costs are surely justifiable expenditures of public money – this is the fair cost of democracy and liberty,” opined former New Mexico Supreme Court chief justice and New Mexico Ethics Watch Board Chair Richard Bosson.

The Albuquerque Journal’s Feb. 3 editorial highlighted proposed legislation that would “chip away at transparency and the public’s right to know.” As these bills are heard in committee and on the floor, there will be persuasive arguments made for the restriction of information and for increasing the costs of obtaining information. The bottom-line inquiry: Are we willing to trade away our right to the transparency that is essential to democracy, that allows us to keep track of government action, because it costs too much? Are we going to allow New Mexico’s democracy to die – or even languish – in darkness?

Take a look at the legislation highlighted in the Journal’s editorial, whether it be providing the government the right to charge “market rate” for public information, allowing public officials to question those making IPRA requests about why they are requesting records, or making government executive position applicant pools secret except for three finalists. Ask yourself, and legislators, “Does this proposal benefit the public? If not the public, whom does it benefit? Is this decreased access to information currently provided to the public worth us losing the ability to find out about government actions?”

As ethics commission enabling legislation is introduced, we will be needing to ask the same questions about transparency tradeoffs and whether the public/you, who approved of the commission overwhelmingly, is going to benefit from the commission’s roles and processes as much as you would like. N.M. Ethics Watch participated in the drafting process of enabling legislation during the interim as a member of the Ethics Commission Working Group. That group did not even try to reach consensus on transparency issues, due to strong and differing opinions amongst the legislators involved.

NMEW urges legislators and the public to come down on the side of transparency on all proposed legislation. Democracy is sometimes untidy. Democracy is sometimes costly. Are you willing to live in darkness? That’s where democracy dies.