“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when adults are afraid of the light.”
– Attributed to Plato (428 BC — 348 BC)
As the 54th New Mexico Legislature enters the homestretch of crafting, revising and passing legislation, it is vital for public trust those laws embrace openness and thus accountability. There are multiple bills in play that address transparency. Here are a few that rise to the top – the good and the bad.
First, bad bills that support secrecy
• Looming large is Senate Bill 619, the State Ethics Commission Act . Things go precipitously downhill after the bill’s title. In Albuquerque Democratic Sen. Linda Lopez’s version, the ethics commission that voters overwhelmingly approved last fall would conduct its hearings and meetings in secret, keep all documents including complaints hidden from the public, require complainants to sign away their First Amendment rights, and impose harsher fines on a complainant going public than on the elected official accused of misconduct. Lopez’s Orwellian tactics should make SB 619 a non-starter, yet it is in her Senate Rules committee and may be heard today. A better version, HB 4 by Rep. Damon Ely, D-Corrales, passed the House and sits in Rules as well. It needs tweaks but comes closer to balancing the public’s right to know and elected officials’ concerns. To retain public trust, committee members should kill SB 619 and let Ely’s move forward.
• As damaging to public trust is House Bill 370, the Criminal Record Expungement Act, which would erase criminal histories of those charged but not convicted as well as those convicted after a certain amount of time. Wrapped in the guise of giving offenders a second chance, the bill means employers, employees, landlords, neighbors, etc., would have no way of knowing if the person they are hiring, working for, renting to or living next to has been arrested for aggravated battery, convicted of theft – the list is as long as the criminal code and includes first-degree felonies.
Everyone deserves a fresh start, but HB 370 would wipe away public record of arrests and convictions in a dangerous precedent – and how would Democratic sponsors Andrea Romero of Santa Fe and Bill O’Neill and Antonio “Moe” Maestas of Albuquerque explain to a family whose loved one was attacked at a nursing home why the home had no way of knowing its new employee had a history of sexual assaults? HB 370 lets those charged or convicted ask a judge to erase such criminal records, public safety be damned.
• Then there’s SB 259, Disclose Finalists For Appointive Positions. Sen. Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, would hide much of the hiring process for top government jobs, including school superintendent or c ity manager, from taxpayers – the very people picking up the tab. Instead, the public would get the names of the three finalists for appointed executive positions. Over the years, supporters of this tactic say it’s needed to get the best folks to apply for jobs – but the N.M. Court of Appeals has soundly rejected that claim. And given our state’s issues with cronyism and nepotism, it’s essential the public know if better qualified, minority or female applicants were shut out.
Now, good bills that add transparency
• House Bill 26, Fees for Public Documents, would limit fees the government can charge you for your public records to 10 cents a page or $10 for a CD or flash drive. Sponsor Rep. Bill Pratt, D-Albuquerque, has the Attorney General’s Office backing and is right, “records are only public if they are affordable to the public.” These prices bring the charges more in line with private copying companies. Then-candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham was asked if the government should be allowed to charge prices higher than a copy shop. She answered with a resounding “no, I don’t think state government entities frankly ought to be able to charge anything.”
• HB 29, IPRA Requirements for Certain Entities, takes aim at foundations and backs up a court ruling on the UNM foundation that it acts on behalf of a public entity and is subject to the state records law. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Abbas Akhil, D-Albuquerque, also has the AG’s support and should move forward, although there is room to protect a donor’s privacy regarding things like estate planning while respecting the public’s right to know who’s bankrolling a trip.
• HB 131, Post-Session Lobbying Reports, would require lobbyists and their employers to disclose bills they have worked on – meaning the public would finally know who is pushing what. Sponsored by Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, and Albuquerque Democratic Reps. Elizabeth Thompson and Dayan Hochman-Vigil, the bill should join one the governor has signed requiring lobbyists to disclose how much they cumulatively spend on meals, etc., that cost under $100.
• HB 262, Publication of Capital Outlay Info, would let taxpayers know which lawmaker(s) is funding which project, be it a road or robotic dinosaur. Remarkably, that is secret unless the lawmaker releases it. S ponsored by Democratic Reps. Matt h ew McQueen of Santa Fe and Natalie Figueroa and Joy Garratt of Albuquerque, it passed the House unanimously 68-0 and would bring state bricks-and-mortar spending out from behind closed doors. I t ‘ s in Senate Rules, which tabled Senate version SB 144. This time members should respect the public’s right to know .
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.