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Thursday, February 27, 2003

Conference Meetings Could Open

By Loie Fecteau
Journal Politics Writer
    SANTA FE The public and news reporters would be allowed to attend meetings of legislative conference committees, with some exceptions, under a measure approved Wednesday by the House on a 58-8 vote.
    House Minority Leader Ted Hobbs, R-Albuquerque, sponsor of the legislation (HCR 1), told lawmakers it was time for them to open up the closed-door negotiating sessions, where lawmakers often make critical decisions on major legislation, such as the budget.
    Hobbs said conference committees are "the last remaining closed committee in this Legislature."
    "People wonder what legislators are trying to do if they go behind closed doors," Hobbs said. "All other committees are open."
    Opponents of opening conference committee meetings contend the privacy of closed-door discussions helps legislators reach compromises on difficult and often contentious issues.
    Rep. Edward C. Sandoval, D-Albuquerque, argued in favor of keeping conference committee meetings closed, saying, "Just like in talking about a family matter, you don't bring in the neighborhood."
    Sandoval said legislators need to be able to meet in private "to really get 'round to the nitty-gritty and get down and dirty."
    Sandoval said the issue was not about open government. "It's a matter of getting things done."
    Hobbs countered, "The public has a right to know how we make our decisions."
    Under the proposed legislative rules change, conference committee meetings would be open to the public unless legislators decided to close them for "good cause" or to discuss personnel or legal matters, Hobbs said.
    Robert Johnson, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, called the proposal to open conference committees "long overdue."
    However, Johnson said the House-passed measure is "weak" because legislators "just built in excuses to close it (conference committees) if they felt like it."
    "But it's better than nothing," Johnson said in an interview.
    The measure now goes to the Senate.