Transparency progress being made

In recent years, there has been a push for transparency in government throughout New Mexico. The Rio Grande Foundation and the Foundation for Open Government, along with a large and bi-partisan group of legislators, have generated some major successes.

This initiative has been driven in part by new technologies that make information more accessible to the average citizen and easier for governments to disseminate. It has gathered particular support in New Mexico because of rampant corruption and the realization that “sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

So, coming in July of 2011, New Mexicans will have access to a new “Sunshine Portal” that will create a publicly accessible, online database of financial information from government agencies in New Mexico. The database will include the names and salaries of exempt employees (but not the names of classified employees) and will allow average citizens to scrutinize the state’s checkbook in an easy-to-navigate, online format.

In 2010, the New Mexico House finally joined the New Mexico Senate and the rest of the country in posting its floor votes online; the Legislature began webcasting floor proceedings; and just recently the legislative council decided to start webcasting legislative interim committee meetings.

So progress has been made. But, as the Rio Grande Foundation put together its new public website — www.newmexicospending.com — which is designed to further enhance open government and citizen engagement in determining how their scarce dollars are spent, we discovered government-run, taxpayer-financed school district bureaucrats are often unwilling to part with supposedly public information.

Even if they are willing to part with the information, they often demand exorbitant amounts of money even for electronic documents.

First, the specifics of our requests: these included payroll and vendor information for the last three years. The idea is that this is all taxpayer money and that taxpayers should have specific information on how their money is being used. Also, there is the opportunity — once this information is public across several school districts — for some comparison and for districts to learn from each other to wring out further efficiency.

While Roswell, Hobbs, Alamogordo, Carlsbad, Clovis and Farmington were relatively cooperative and their information has been uploaded to our site, Santa Fe and Rio Rancho were inconsistent. At times they cooperated by providing needed information, but at other times they demanded upwards of $1,200 for information.

Worse still were Albuquerque Public Schools and Las Cruces Schools, which refused to part with any information. Tactics included not returning phone calls and corresponding only via U.S. mail as opposed to via telephone or e-mail. Ultimately, we were unable to obtain any information from either district.

Thus, taxpayers in New Mexico’s two largest school districts are left in the dark about the specifics of how their money is spent.

The good news: Efforts to shed light on the way school districts spend your money has captured the interest of a bi-partisan group of legislators who are now considering legislation adding school district salary and vendor transaction information to the Sunshine Portal.

This is more important than ever as New Mexico continues to struggle with budget cutbacks.