Law-making doesn’t need secrecy

By Dana Bowley: Guest columnist

Anyone who pays attention to the Legislature has had this experience: Differing versions of a bill pass the House and Senate; the bills go to a conference committee; then the bill that comes out is substantially different from the two that went in.

What happened? Hard to tell. Why? Because New Mexico is among a handful of states that close conference committee meetings to the public.

The perception is that conference committees “reconcile” differences between versions of the same bill. In fact, they have considerable power to craft legislation. While joint legislative rules say the conference committee can’t alter the bills that come to it “unless the item has been the subject of a legislative committee hearing during the session,” that’s pretty broad language. Nearly anything discussed during a committee hearing can become part of a conference committee’s final bill, including ideas that were rejected or ideas brought up solely for the purpose of preserving them for later use in conference.

But when the final bill comes out of conference committee, the House and Senate must adopt or reject it as presented — no changes.

That’s how conference committees can and do make law in secret, circumventing the democratic process.

Conference committees keep no minutes and the whole process is conducted in anonymity. The only people who know what happened in the locked room are the three senators and three representatives on the committee, and they’re not talking lest they face retaliation.

All we know is horse-trading occurs, but we don’t know what horses were traded or who traded them.

Opponents argue that opening conference committees to the public would drive that horse-trading further underground, that