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Panel OKs rule change that sheds light on ‘tabling’ votes

Votes on motions to “table” bills in House committees could soon be made public, under a proposed rule change adopted Thursday by the House Rules and Order of Business Committee. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – What happens in the Roundhouse sometimes stays in Roundhouse committees.

But that could change in at least one respect in the state House, after a committee approved a rule change Thursday that would require votes on “tabling” motions to be posted on the Legislature’s website.

Currently, lawmakers’ votes on whether to table a bill in committee – a motion sometimes made to effectively kill a bill – are not made public.

“I think it’s pretty simple: The voters across New Mexico expect their Legislature to be totally transparent,” said House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, sponsor of the proposed rule change.

The proposed rule, House Resolution 1, would not take effect until the 2021 legislative session, as top legislative staffers said they would need time to train staff and figure out technical logistics to implement it.

It passed the House Rules and Order of Business Committee 12-1, with House Democratic floor leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton of Albuquerque casting the only “no” vote.

She said most people don’t understand how the legislative process works, suggesting the rule change would not necessarily bring more clarity. “‘Transparency’ is a great word. Everybody uses it these days. It’s the biggest buzzword out there.”

However, most top Democrats have voiced support for the change, with House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, saying earlier this week that he didn’t have any concerns about tabling motions being posted on the legislative website.

Before being sent to the House floor, the proposed rule change was amended to exempt two committees – the House Appropriations and Finance Committee and the Taxation and Revenue Committee – from the reporting requirement. That’s because bills sent to those committees are regularly tabled, often to be revived later as part of larger spending and taxation packages.

“It’s going to be confusing if we’re talking about appropriation and tax (bills),” said Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, who proposed the amendment, which passed on a party-line vote, with Democrats voting in favor and Republicans in opposition.

At least one GOP lawmaker suggested an explainer could simply be added to the legislative website, instead of exempting the two committees. And other lawmakers suggested more changes could be implemented to shine more light on the Legislature’s workings.

“We have to get better at making our website more transparent,” said Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Los Lunas. “I don’t think many people understand how the process works.”

Melanie Majors, executive director of New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said, “Any effort to create more transparency and accountability is a step in the right direction and a win for the taxpayers of our state. FOG applauds today’s action by the members of the House rules committee.”

Both the House and Senate have adopted changes in recent years in response to complaints about transparency, by making it easier to track amendments to bills and launching live webcasting of committee hearings and floor sessions.

The rule change passed Thursday is one of three transparency-related proposals being pushed by Townsend in this year’s 30-day session. The other two are scheduled to be debated next week.

If approved, the rule changes would apply only in the House. It would be up to the Senate to decide whether to adopt similar rule changes of its own.

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