Legislation aims to open up political process

By Kate Nash: The New Mexican

For Rep. Joe Cervantes, getting his bill that would open conference committees through the state House on Monday was a breeze.

The measure to unshutter some of the last legally closed meetings flew through in about a minute, without a question or any debate on the floor. It was the first time it cleared the chamber unanimously.

But Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, knows his work won’t be that easy on the other side of the Roundhouse, in the Senate.

“The House has consistently supported this initiative both in committee and on the floor,” he said. “I’ve got my work cut out ahead of me to try persuade the Senate that this is ultimately part of good government.”

The House in the past has approved the measure, but it has traditionally met its demise in the Senate. Advocates for more than ten years have pushed the proposal.

The measure, (HB393), must stop in the Senate Rules and Judiciary committees before the full Senate can consider it.

While there are supporters in the Senate — including Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, who also is carrying a measure that would open the committees — at least one key leader is against it.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said last week, as he has in the past, that he doesn’t support the measure.

But, supporters say Sanchez himself has said he thinks this could be the year for the measure to pass. The committee meetings happen when each chamber passes a similar version of the same bill and a handful of lawmakers meet to work out differences. The budget is a common conference committees topic.

Cervantes said he hopes the momentum created by other changes in the Capitol this session will carry the committees bill through.

“This year, we’ve made some very positive strides in terms of public access to the Legislature, this is the first year we have audio, this is the first year we have some video,” he said.

“We’re probably a few years behind the technology curve, but we’re finally reaching a point where the political process is accessible to many New Mexicans and I’m hoping that opening the committee process to the public and to legislators has finally reached a point where this bill can succeed.”

Meanwhile, an open government bill that aimed to bolster the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act by making it easier and faster for the public to request and obtain documents has a new incarnation.

The original bill, sponsored by House Majority Leader Ken Martinez, D-Grants, would recognize e-mail requests as official requests under the records act and would speed up the amount of time state agencies have to turn over public documents.

But a committee substitute floated last week would have added a list of exemptions to the records act, something Martinez opposed.

Rep. Dennis Kintigh, R-Roswell, said he was approached by Paul Ritzma, the general counsel for the Human Services Department, who asked him to carry the substitute measure with the exemptions.

Kintigh signed on to the measure, but on Monday called his move a “rookie error” for doing so without knowing what was in it. He opposes that version of the bill.

“I don’t like the way it ended up. That’s counter to what I was trying to do, make (government) more transparent,” he said.

Ritzma didn’t tell Kintigh who he was seeking the exemptions on behalf of.

Martinez said Ritzma only said that he had been chosen to speak on behalf of other executive agencies as well, but Ritzma didn’t say which ones during that meeting last week.

HSD spokeswoman Betina Gonzales McCracken said Ritzma spoke on behalf of the department to “address legitimate concerns we had about the bill.”

She said the department wants the exemptions in state law to mirror those in federal law.

“There are exemptions in the federal level that we don’t have at the state level,” she said. “We want to make it more clear what the exemptions are,” she said.

Gov. Bill Richardson said Friday the exemptions should be removed. His office has said it is not seeking them.

Martinez since then has crafted another committee substitute that almost mirrors the original bill.

It wouldn’t speed up the response time agencies have to produce documents, but it keeps the e-mail provision. In addition, it calls for the supervisor of an agency’s public records custodian to review information that is withheld to make sure it complies with state law.

The bill is pending in the House Health and Government Affairs Committee.

Kintigh, a freshman, also is carrying a measure that would put the state budget online, making it searchable by key words.

The measure (HB452) was pending Monday in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

In the meantime, Kintigh is joining the growing ranks of people who are webcasting various meetings on the Internet this session, a trend kicked off by Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones, R-Albuquerque.

Meanwhile, another open-government bill won approval by the Senate over the weekend.

The measure (SB128) sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, that mandates candidates to file campaign finance reports twice in non-election years. Currently, in non-election years, candidates are only required to file one report in May. The bill now goes to the House.

Contact Kate Nash at 986-3036 or knash@sfnewmexican.com. Read her blog at www.greenchilechatter.com.