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Gov. Scrutinizes Meetings Bill

By Dan Boyd
Journal Capitol Bureau
       SANTA FE — The first opening of the doors to the New Mexico Legislature's long-closed conference committee meetings might have provided a glimpse into the future — and some lawmakers say that's a good thing.
    But whether Gov. Bill Richardson will sign a bill to routinely require the opening of those conference committees — where designated House and Senate members meet to hash out differences in legislation — is uncertain. A top Richardson aide said Tuesday the governor wants to carefully scrutinize several perceived "loopholes" in the bill.
    Despite resistance from Senate leadership, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly during the recently completed legislative session in favor of House Bill 393, which requires conference committees to be held in the open with reasonable notice of the meetings provided to the public.
    Members of the House voted 66-0 in favor of the bill by Rep. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, and the Senate later passed the measure by a 33-8 vote. The Senate passed the House bill after a similar measure sponsored by Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, a longtime advocate of opening conference committees, got bogged down.
    Richardson previously said he would sign the bill, but his spokesman said Tuesday that's not a sure thing.
    "The governor just wants to get everybody's opinion," said Gilbert Gallegos, Richardson's director of communications. "He hasn't changed his mind on the issue."
    Gallegos said Feldman met Tuesday with governor's staff members in an effort to dispel concerns.
    One potential loophole identified by Gallegos was a provision in the bill that the Legislature could move to close conference committees by adopting a rule change — an action, unlike the pending legislation, that wouldn't require the executive branch's approval.
    "It just seems like common sense that either you would open them or not," Gallegos said.
    Meanwhile, legislators gave Richardson and the rest of the state a sneak preview of what some open conference committees might produce just hours before the Legislature adjourned last Saturday.
    Though the meeting wasn't required to be open, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, announced the conference he and others had been assigned to would be open to the press and the public.
    The committee meeting was held to discuss Senate Bill 584, which would have expanded the list of projects eligible to receive money from the state's revolving fund. The bill had two House amendments, one of which Smith called suspicious.
    The amendment in question would have allowed for public bonds to be issued for a Santa Fe Railyard theater project. It was sponsored by House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, who had tried and failed to have the idea approved as a separate bill in the House.
    The amendment was shot down after representatives of the New Mexico Finance Authority said it seemed out of place. Lujan later confronted Smith, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, about his comment on the amendment, calling him a "racist S.O.B." in front of several members of the press. Lujan felt Smith had publicly impugned his integrity during the open-door conference committee session.
    Several other legislators assigned to the conference committee later said the developments of the Saturday session might have been a glimpse of things to come — if Richardson signs the open conference committee bill.
    "I think it worked exactly the way it's supposed to work," said Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, of the conference committee. "If there's going to be policy formulated it should be in front of the community, instead of some deal being cut up behind closed doors."
    Sen. Kent Cravens, R-Albuquerque, said the conference committee might have been more of an eye-opener for members of the public than lawmakers, who are used to blunt dealings during the session's final frantic days.
    "If you're going to do things that give rise to questions, you need to be able to explain why," said Cravens, who voted against the conference committee bill. "(With open conference committees), it won't be quite as easy to pass one by — not that that's what the speaker was trying to do."
    Cravens said the tiff between Smith and Lujan didn't shed positive light on the Legislature, however, and said lawmakers might have to ratchet down their emotions in future conference committees should Richardson sign House Bill 393.
    "We're just going to have to learn to adjust," Cravens said.
    Richardson has until April 10 to decide whether to sign the bill, as well as hundreds of other pieces of legislation passed during the final days of the session.

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