Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A top Democrat in the state Senate wants to shut off public access to the names and résumés of job applicants at public agencies statewide, a proposal already drawing strong opposition from transparency advocates.
The bill is one of hundreds expected to be debated as the Legislature begins its 60-day session today.
Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, has pre-filed a bill that would carve out a new exception to the state Inspection of Public Records Act, which guarantees public access to public records and says the public is entitled to the greatest amount of information possible about its government.
Her proposal would exempt from disclosure any records that reveal the identity of applicants for public employment in New Mexico, except for the name and résumé of the finalist for a job to head a public agency, institution or local government.
Currently, all applicants and their résumés are subject to IPRA. The only exception is in university presidential searches, in which only the top five finalists are required to be made public.
Papen said the goal is to encourage people to apply at government agencies without fear of jeopardizing their current employment, unless they’re named a finalist.
Papen said her intention is for more than one finalist – perhaps three or four people – to be made public a week before a final decision is made on who gets the job, though the bill itself mentions only one finalist in its present form.
“This legislation is encouraging the highest caliber of applicants for positions in our government,” Papen said in an interview Monday.
Her bill calls for the finalist to be made public in an online posting seven days before he or she is hired.
The legislation already faces intense opposition.
Peter St. Cyr, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said the bill “would create an environment ripe for cronyism.” Fighting any attempt to weaken the state’s sunshine laws will be the foundation’s priority this session, he said.
“This bill is outrageous,” St. Cyr said in a written statement. “Taxpayers have a vested interest in reviewing government sector job candidates to determine if the best qualified professionals are being selected from a diverse pool of applicants to work for them.”
Jeff Walter of the New Mexico Press Association, an advocacy group for newspapers, said the association has opposed past efforts to curtail public information.
“Transparency is always the best policy as far as open government goes,” Walter said.
Papen disagreed that cronyism is at issue. She simply wants to ensure that applying for a government job, she said, doesn’t cost someone their ability to work elsewhere.
Especially for a university president, Papen said, “people don’t want their names out there unless they’re a finalist.”
The University of New Mexico is searching for a new president, and regents say they hope to have one in place by this spring.
Two years ago, New Mexico State University planned to propose similar changes to the state Inspection of Public Records Act. Garrey Carruthers, NMSU’s president and a former governor, said at the time that the effort stemmed from the university’s experience hiring a new athletics director. Some qualified candidates pulled out, he said, when they knew their names could be made public.
But he praised the person the university did hire as exceptionally well-prepared for the job.
The current status under which all applicants and their résumés are public, except in university presidential searches, followed years of court battles between the news media and transparency groups on one side and government agencies on the other.
Shoring up the state budget, in any case, is likely to be the focus of attention during much of the session that begins today. Gov. Susana Martinez and lawmakers have to address not only a projected deficit in this year’s budget but also settle on a spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Both chambers will also have a change in leadership. Democrats won a 38-32 majority in the House of Representatives after two years of Republican control.
They will also maintain control of the Senate – where they picked up to two seats for a 26-16 advantage – and chose Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, as the majority leader.
He succeeds Michael Sanchez, a Democrat from Belen who often clashed with the governor. Sanchez lost his re-election campaign in November.
Rep. Brian Egolf, another Democrat from Santa Fe, is in line to become the next speaker of the House.
Besides the budget, lawmakers are expected to take up a host of anti-crime legislation, including tougher penalties for drunken driving; creation of an ethics commission; increasing the minimum wage; and legalizing recreational use of marijuana.
It’s also the last 60-day session of Martinez’s second term as governor. Next year’s legislative session, just 30 days, is dedicated to budget matters.
Journal Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Boyd contributed to this article.