New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson deserves a round of thanks for something he did last week. He declared an interim legislative committee would review the issues surrounding the state’s intention to set up an electronic portal site so records could be made more accessible.
During the last New Mexico legislative session, the House rejected a bill that posed a great threat to open records. It was House Bill 291, designed to set up an electronic portal for all state information to be posted online.
Fortunately, the poorly worded and thought-out bill, which went nowhere the year before when it first surfaced, was killed for the second straight year. The House of Representatives blasted it on a floor vote and a companion Senate bill never made it out of committee.
The measure had many foes, not just in the media and the Legislature, but in chambers of commerce and several businesses that use state records, including resellers of public records. A top concern was that resellers would have had to pay a higher fee than the rest of the public for the same records, a violation of New Mexico’s constitution.
All this was lost on the state employees pushing the bill. They wanted their ePortal brainchild at all costs and brushed off most concerns, particularly the constitutional question. They also dismissed worries about how the bill gave information technology bureaucrats the control over when and what order to transfer public records online, and the power to judge if public entities were complying with public records laws., And they also ignored duplication arguments when people noted many agencies already put records online.
Naturally, these concerns resurfaced rapidly when the same bureaucrats declared recently that New Mexico has the legal standing to set up this ePortal without legislative approval, and Gov. Richardson applauded the move.
However, last week Gov. Richardson and his aides seem to have heard the concerns without the filter of his misguided IT folks. His aides put out a clarifying press release in which the governor reiterated the goal was to “…make state government, and public information handled by the state more accessible.”
The press release went on: “However, I do not want even the appearance that state government is limiting access to any legitimate public information. Therefore, I will ask the Legislature to assign this issue to an interim committee for consideration before moving forward. I will make state information services personnel and data, and whatever else is required, available to aid in this process. It is my goal that we can reach a consensus on a process and appropriately funding in time for the next Legislature.”
We applaud Gov. Richardson for taking this step. While he obviously did this somewhat out of the need for legislative backing to fund an ePortal, we believe he also did so out of knowledge and respect for the state constitution — unlike his information technocrats.
In fact, some of the same obstinate bureaucrats behind this bill avoided, despite their promises, to discuss the ePortal matter between the 2003 and 2004 legislative sessions with the interim Information Technology Oversight Committee. Instead, just before the 2004 session the IT gang presented the same old illegal bilge disguised as a more open government bill.
Like Richardson, we and most of the HB 291 foes believe an ePortal could be a good thing. Like Richardson, we know the most important thing is not setting any structure you want because you are the government, but setting up a structure that does not shred the state constitution and, ultimately, limit public access.
State lawmakers and the public, in testimony before the interim panel, can see that this happens. By clarifying the process, Gov. Richardson did the right thing.