SANTA FE – Days after a key New Mexico legislative committee met behind locked doors at the Roundhouse to talk about details in a $6.3 billion spending plan, the director of a government transparency group expressed concern about the practice.
In a letter given Friday to House and Senate leaders, New Mexico Foundation for Open Government Executive Director Susan Boe said the committee hearing should have been open to the public.
“To prohibit citizens from attending meetings where important public business is discussed is inconsistent with a representative government,” Boe wrote in her letter.
The meeting in question took place Monday as the House Appropriations and Finance Committee was in the midst of crafting a budget bill – a must-do task for lawmakers every year – amid a worsening state revenue situation. The spending plan was vetted the next day in an open committee hearing.
In an apparent oversight, at least part of the closed-door hearing was publicly webcast on the Legislature’s website.
The House finance committee’s chairman, Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, defended the decision to keep the doors locked, saying no action was taken during the hearing.
“It’s a matter of an in-house process to provide direction to staff,” Larrañaga said in a Friday interview, adding that the talks among lawmakers and legislative staff during the closed-door hearing included where in the 200-plus page budget bill to place certain spending line items.
“I don’t think the public would want to speak about directions to staff on how to put the bill together,” he added.
However, at least one lawmaker who sits on the budget-writing committee, Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, told the Journal she was uncomfortable about the meeting being held behind closed doors.
“What I’m concerned about is, if you’re going to announce the meeting, it better be open to the public,” Lundstrom said.
The state’s Open Meetings Act has different rules for the Legislature than it does for city councils, school boards and other public bodies.
Under the law for legislators, all committee meetings held for the purpose of “discussing public business” or taking action on an issue delegated to the committee are required to be open to the public. But it also allows the Legislature to pass its own rules granting exceptions.
In her letter to House Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro, and Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, FOG Director Boe said the group acknowledges the law is somewhat ambiguous and urged lawmakers to clarify it.
But she said it can be interpreted to mean all committee meetings should be open.
“The touchstone of democracy is full and open discussion by public officials before the public they serve,” Boe wrote in her letter.
Lawmakers do frequently meet behind closed doors for caucus meetings, but that’s specifically allowed under legislative rules. No such rule is in place for budget talks, according to the Legislative Council Service.
But New Mexico Capitol insiders say closed-door hearings for budget-crafting talks have taken place for years in both the House and Senate.
Lawmakers also met behind closed doors for years in legislative conference committees – where House and Senate members meet to hash out differences in competing bills – but those hearings were ordered opened to the public under a 2009 bill.
Meanwhile, Larrañaga, who has served in the Legislature since 1995, said he’s willing to review the practice of closed-door budget talks.
“We will review that and look at it,” he said.
A House floor vote on the $6.3 billion spending plan for the coming budget year is expected to take place today at the Roundhouse.