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Transparency bills a casualty in legislative session

SANTA FE – A slew of measures that sought to shine more light on the inner workings of government in New Mexico ended up as casualties of the just-ended legislative session, leaving watchdog groups disappointed that the call for transparency was largely ignored.

Of about a dozen bills to boost transparency – from requiring independent groups to disclose campaign donations to a two-year break for former legislators before they can become lobbyists – only a couple of measures made it to Gov. Susana Martinez’s desk.

“It was not a great session for disclosure and transparency,” said Susan Boe, the executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.

The biggest disappointment, said Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, was a bill that required independent groups to disclose on what issues they are spending money. In previous years, the measure won unanimous approval from the Senate. This year, it was assigned to three committees, which advocates call a “death knell.”

Polls show an overwhelming majority of people in the state support the measure, Harrison said.

“New Mexicans are sick and tired of all these groups spending money and not knowing where it comes from,” she said. “This is ridiculous. This is a basic thing. If you spend more than a $1,000, people need to know” where the money came from.

Harrison expects the secretary of state and the Attorney General’s Office to create rules to regulate disclosure this year. She said both offices supported the bill, and yet it failed to make it to the House floor for a vote.

Harrison questioned if “there’s true political will” to make a change when it comes to campaign finance.

House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, said he voted for the bill when it got to his panel even though he didn’t favor a provision that called for raising the limit on contributions.

The freshman legislator saw his own bill calling for a cooling-off period for former elected officials before they can start lobbying get tabled in a Senate committee. The House approved the measure – which also garnered overwhelming support in polls – 57 to 10. Thirty-one other states have similar laws.

“Any time you have a change to the way business is being done, there’s going to be resistance,” Dines said. “It’s not something novel. For some reason, it has hit a bump on the road once it crossed over to the other side of the building.”

Government watchdogs nonetheless praised legislators for starting House committee meetings on time and giving people a voice in hearings, among other things.

A lobbyist-employer registration bill passed both houses, but not before lawmakers removed requirements calling for lobbyists to reveal what issues they’re working on and to list the recipients of their spending.