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Saturday, February 22, 2003

Public May Get To Attend Legislative Committee Talks

By Loie Fecteau
Journal Politics Writer
    SANTA FE The public and news reporters would be allowed to attend meetings of legislative conference committees under a measure scheduled to get its first hearing Monday in a House committee.
    House Minority Leader Ted Hobbs, R-Albuquerque, is sponsoring the legislation (HCR 1) to open up the closed-door negotiating sessions, where lawmakers often make critical decisions on major legislation, such as the state budget.
    "This is the last remaining closed committee in the Legislature," Hobbs said. "I don't know why, when the rest of committees are open to the public, we can't just go all the way and open this one up too."
    The proposal is scheduled to be heard by the House Rules and Order of Business Committee on Monday, beginning at 8 p.m. in Room 309.
    Similar measures sponsored by Hobbs have been approved by the House during the last two regular legislative sessions, only to die in the Senate.
    "We came very close to getting it done last time, it just didn't get through the Senate," Hobbs said. "We think there's plenty of time this year because we're just at the halfway point (in the session)."
    Under the proposed rules change, conference committee meetings would be open to the public unless legislators decide to close them for "good cause" to discuss issues such as personnel or legal matters, Hobbs said.
    Opponents of opening conference committee meetings contend closed-door discussions help legislators reach compromises on difficult and often contentious issues.
    "They (opponents) always argue that you shouldn't watch sausage being made in public," said Robert Johnson, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.
    "The fact is when I was a boy on the farm we used to make sausage and all the neighbors would come and help, and the ingredients were pure. These conference committee meetings should be open because that's where the most important financial decisions are made."