Session deal violated spirit of sunshine law, advocate says

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Lawmakers were celebrating quick passage of capital outlay and tax-incentive bills on Monday, but the head of a transparency group said their actions violated at least the spirit of the state’s Open Meetings Act.

A statue of children outside the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

Heath Haussamen / NMPolitics.net

A statue of children outside the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

The deal lawmakers and Gov. Susana Martinez announced Wednesday on $295 million in capital outlay projects, the tax incentives, and supplemental funding for two state agencies coasted to legislative approval in a matter of hours Monday afternoon.

The bills didn’t appear online for the public to read until Monday.

“The manner in which the compromise was hammered out left no opportunity for public input,” said Susan Boe, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. “The whole process gave the appearance of government being conducted behind closed doors, which is never good government.”

Other policymaking bodies in New Mexico probably wouldn’t have been allowed to make such a deal outside a public meeting. If more than half of the members of a school board, for example, agreed to fund projects behind closed doors, that act would violate the state’s Open Meetings Act.

But the situation with the Legislature is murky, Boe said.

With the House and Senate each having dozens of members, whether a quorum in either chamber agreed to the deal before the session is difficult to determine, she said. Even if a majority of House or Senate members did agree to the deal, that might not have violated the Open Meetings Act because Democratic and Republican caucus meetings can be kept secret.

Some said the secret negotiations were intended to save taxpayers money. A special session costs roughly $50,000 a day. FOG is “sympathetic” to the cost, Boe said, but dollars aren’t the only consideration.

“The general policy behind the Open Meetings Act is that government business needs to be conducted in the sunshine, and we also want to provide the opportunity for the public to have input,” she said. “That doesn’t seem to have occurred. At least the spirit of the Open Meetings Act, we didn’t seem to have compliance.”

Others joined Boe in complaining about a lack of sunshine in an article NMPolitics.net published before the session started. And in discussions facilitated by NMPolitics.net, criticism continued Monday.

“We do need a special session, but why the secrecy? I want my government to operate openly,” Barbara Alvarez of Las Cruces wrote.

“We must demand more sunshine from our elected officials,” wrote Harry Gordon of Rio Rancho. “They need to remember who they work for and who has the power to fire them!”

Celebrating

Transparency aside, lawmakers, the governor, and many lobbying groups were quick to applaud bipartisanship that led to the deal and job creation they claimed would result. Martinez praised the closed-door dealings Boe criticized.

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“We worked really hard before we called a special session to come to agreements,” the Associated Press quoted Martinez, a Republican, as saying.

“I’m not saying we agreed all the time,” Martinez said, “… but we thought, at the end of the day, once I called a session, that we had agreements that were really, really good for New Mexicans.”

Rep. Sarah Maestas-Barnes, R-Albuquerque, posted on Facebook that she was “proud” of the job creation, public safety upgrades and infrastructure improvements that would result. Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, called the passage of the capital outlay bill “great news.”

Rep. Doreen Gallegos wrote on Facebook that she had been focused on securing funding for projects in her district.

“At times compromise is difficult but when you look at doing good work for the people that sent you, politics needs to be set aside to complete the job,” the Las Cruces Democrat wrote.

Speaking of tens of millions of dollars appropriated for road improvements, Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, wrote on Facebook, “Working together, we have achieved something good for our state!” Lt. Gov. John Sanchez, a Republican, said on Twitter that he was “Honored to preside over the Senate and proud of the work accomplished today.”

Negotiations for a special session stemmed from lawmakers’ failure to approve the capital outlay bill in the regular session earlier this year. The New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry’s board chair, Dan Girand of Mack Energy, said in a news release that would have resulted in layoffs, so he was glad lawmakers approved capital outlay on Monday.

And, Girand said, it was “especially exciting that the tax package — which included proposals ACI helped create in response to the needs of New Mexico businesses — was not forgotten.”

John Hendry, president of the New Mexico Federation of Labor, called Monday “a good day for the good guys.”

“Senate and House members stayed laser focused on legislation that will put citizens to work, building and maintaining the commons,” Hendry said in a news release.

Explaining

Meanwhile, with many New Mexicans uncertain about what exactly lawmakers approved, some moved quickly to disseminate specifics. New Mexico In Depth posted a searchable database of all projects in the capital outlay bill and a graph showing funding by county.

A handful of Republican senators issued news releases detailing projects the capital outlay bill funded in their districts.

“The passage of the capital outlay bill provides for projects that improve our citizens’ safety and improves their quality of life,” Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, said in one of those news releases.

Sen. Bill Burt, R-Alamogordo, said the capital outlay bill “puts New Mexicans to work and provides needed infrastructure to the districts we represent.”

Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, explained the tax breaks and detailed funding for his district in a video he posted on Facebook.

In response to a question NMPolitics.net posed on social media about whether lawmakers had read the bills before voting, McCamley said he had read them and knew the details. He was the only lawmaker to respond by publication time.

Disclosure: As NMPolitics.net has disclosed in the past, McCamley is the author’s friend. Read more about that and NMPolitics.net’s ethical guidelines here.

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