Recent bipartisan efforts in the N.M. Legislature to better inform the public of the inner-workings of state government are encouraging, although lingering opposition to transparency shows work remains to be done.
• A state House committee last week approved a rule change requiring votes on “tabling” motions to be posted on the legislative website, nmlegis.gov. The rule change would not take effect until next year, as top legislative staffers said they would need time to train staff and figure out technical logistics to implement House Resolution 1. Here we go again with bureaucracy’s entrenched opposition to change and transparency. How long does it take to record the “yeas” and “nays” and post them on a website? It’s already done with floor votes.
The transparency measure passed the House Rules and Order of Business Committee by a 12-1 vote, with House Democratic floor leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton of Albuquerque casting the only “nay.” She said during debate “‘transparency’ is a great word. Everybody uses it these days” and most people don’t understand how the legislative process works.
But that’s exactly the point: to help them understand.
Currently, lawmakers’ votes on whether to table a bill in committee are not made public in the House or Senate. A vote to table a bill often is effectively a vote to kill it. House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, says it’s pretty simple – the public is informed or it isn’t. He says voters expect their lawmakers to be totally transparent, and he’s totally right. Hiding votes can never instill confidence in government. Leader Stapleton should have more faith in her constituents.
Before being sent to the House floor, the proposed rule change was amended on a party-line vote to exempt two committees because bills sent to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee and the Taxation and Revenue Committee are regularly tabled, often to be revived later as part of larger spending and taxation packages. But a simple explainer could be added instead of exempting the two committees. Why revert back to secrecy? Voters are much smarter than some of our lawmakers seem to think.
House Speaker Brian Egolf says he doesn’t have any concerns about posting the roll calls on tabling motions. That’s good news. The House should pass this, and the Senate should consider a similar rule change.
• Another impactful effort at good government comes in funding the new State Ethics Commission. In 2018, voters by a 3-to-1 margin approved the creation of an independent ethics commission to investigate allegations of wrongdoing against state officeholders and others – allegations that could lead to a settlement paid by taxpayers.
The Ethics Commission was allocated $500,000 in this year’s budget to begin operations, although analysts projected it needed almost $1 million to operate for a full year. Consequently, the commission has requested an extra $385,000 to help carry out its work this fiscal year.
The executive director says the agency will struggle to handle even a moderate volume of ethics complaints through June if it doesn’t get the requested money. Adequate funding is critical for the commission to do its job, and we encourage lawmakers to show their support for it by properly funding it, as well as the Ethics Commission being required to account for how it spends the public’s money.
Funding the Ethics Commission and revealing tabling votes are steps in the right direction to a more accountable state government.
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.