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Governor curbs legislative panels’ access to information

SANTA FE – Gov. Susana Martinez has clamped down on the Legislature’s watchdog committees in what some lawmakers consider an attempt to limit their oversight of the Republican governor’s agencies.

At the direction of the governor, administration agencies are telling the Legislative Finance Committee and the Legislative Education Study Committee that their requests for information must be sent first to the governor’s chief of staff, Keith Gardner, for his approval before the agency will respond.

The committees and their staff typically are in direct contact with agencies to seek data and documents.

“She’s drawing the battle lines, I guess,” said Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, chairman of the finance committee that oversees budget issues and regularly asks agencies about their spending.

Martinez personally called the committee’s staff director, David Abbey, this month to tell him of the new policy.

Varela said the governor’s directive to agencies is an unprecedented move to control the flow of information that the LFC is entitled to under state law.

The Governor’s Office won’t say whether a specific request from a committee or some other dispute with the Legislature prompted Martinez to implement the policy. Lawmakers, particularly Democrats, have been sharply critical of the administration’s decision to suspend Medicaid payments to more than a dozen mental health providers and replace them with Arizona companies.

“Executive agencies and departments will continue to provide requested information to the Legislature consistent with state law,” a spokesman for the governor, Michael Lonergan, said in a statement in response to questions from The Associated Press.

“The governor is responsible for numerous agencies in the executive branch, so it is important to address those requests across all agencies to ensure that state government is functioning collectively, in a cohesive manner and not compartmentalized,” he said.

Lonergan declined to comment further.

In an email last week to the staff directors of the two legislative committees, Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera said the agency was complying with “a directive from Gov. Martinez” on information requests and “PED will not respond until the governor’s chief of staff has approved the request.”

House and Senate GOP leaders said they’re puzzled by the administration’s actions.

“In this day of movement toward greater and greater transparency with regard to what we do with the people’s money and how we’re accountable for the use of those tax dollars, it makes more sense to be more open rather than more restrictive,” said House Minority Leader Donald Bratton of Hobbs. “By making all the requests go through one individual, then you create a bottleneck, and I’m not sure you get the transparency that you’re after for the public.”

Senate GOP Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales said the LFC has the power to seek subpoenas to compel an agency or government official to provide information.

“I hope we don’t get that far,” Ingle said. “The Legislature has a right to get reports from the executive’s agencies. I don’t really see where there is a problem there.”

House Majority Leader Rick Miera, an Albuquerque Democrat and vice chairman of the education study panel, said funneling information requests through the governor’s chief of staff will hamper the Legislature’s oversight of programs.

“To think they all have to go through a filter. And that’s the way I am looking at it. It’s not just, ‘Well we have to keep track of them.’ No. No. No. They’re filtering them. That puts us at a disadvantage,” Miera said.

Varela speculates that politics are behind the governor’s decision.

“I recognize that the governor is circling the wagons because she is running for re-election and she doesn’t want to get too severely criticized,” Varela said.