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Make NM’s public data, records open by default

It’s only been a few months since Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asked New Mexicans to “Aim High,” declared an end to the state’s status quo, and vowed to dramatically re-imagine the state and to build something better.

We accept the governor’s challenge.

Sunshine Week logoAnd not a minute too late. It may be the Land of MaƱana, but there is no excuse for New Mexico to be nearly two decades into the 21st century and lack the infrastructure or political will to freely publish catalogs of government datasets online in an open and usable format.

During National Sunshine Week, we’re asking the governor to make transparency the framework of her administration.

It should be a no-brainer. A year ago, during a gubernatorial candidate forum focused on open government issues, then-Congresswoman Lujan Grisham pledged to “create an atmosphere where all information is readily available to the public.”

Even better, as a candidate, she promised to reduce the burden of sorting through records by putting more digital records online.

Yes, that is a good start. Just don’t look at some of the bills still working through the Legislature, including proposals to increase fees, shield applicants’ names and reduce government transparency.

In 2015, as stewards of open government, we were embarrassed when the state got a big fat “F” for the public’s access to government data and records. The state’s declared state policies are good, but the laws are often ignored or unenforced.

It’s a shame that four years later nothing has been done to close the enforcement gap or adopt best practices from other states like Washington. Even President Donald Trump signed the Data Act.

It’s more than disappointing that New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, who promised to develop training requirements for records custodians and work with legislators on proposals to close the gap, is now taking a bow for simply taking baby steps and proposing to reduce fees on electronic copies that are already free in other states, and being applauded for a proposal to codify a court decision.

No bueno. It’s not the bold changes we expected from Balderas and we shouldn’t settle for incremental steps. For example, in the attorney general’s bill, introduced by Rep. William B. Pratt, state agencies do not have to export a data file in a standard format the public can use. Instead, they can charge up to $10 and provide a proprietary file that most personal computers can’t open. Not many citizens can afford to buy a $20,000 program.

During the current legislative session, we’ve seen folks debate spending money on students’ books and seen another bill rejected that would make capital outlay budgets more transparent.

Forget about taking a moon shot. Aim High may just mean that policymakers need to lift their eyes past the horizon, and look at what other states and public entities have in place.

There are scores of online educational resources offering electronic books, study guides, curriculum and test materials at no cost. Several states have interactive budgets where citizens can drill down and view how taxpayer money is spent on government programs and hold bureaucrats accountable when money is not used efficiently. In Seattle, city residents can view the status of every capital-funded project.

During the Sunshine Forum broadcast a year ago, Lujan Grisham said government transparency is an issue of leadership at all levels of government.

“Knowledge is power, and if we don’t provide that knowledge to the public, it subjects itself to real abuses in the system,” Lujan Grisham stated.

So let’s show the world that New Mexico can take the next step. No, let’s jump and spend the next year or two making access to government records and data open by default.