Inside the Capitol

Friday, June 04, 2004

Dancing the Samba with e-Gov

SANTA FE- recent column sought answers to why the e-government bill died in the recent Legislature. It was a promising piece of legislation that appeared to be good for the state and good for those of us who use its services.
The bill would have tied all state computerization together on one Web site, allowing those of us who use government services to one-stop shop. Many other states are doing this, but New Mexico is struggling with each state agency handling its own information and making its own interpretations of laws for providing that information to the public.
During the 2004 Legislature, a measure to provide the governing framework for this portal to state information was defeated by an unusual coalition of interests that employed an amazing variety of tactics to accomplish its goal.
Why were these interests fighting with such determination to stop the establishment of an e-government structure? Let's look at the players.
Samba Holdings of Albuquerque was represented by lobbyist John Chavez who is director of government services for the company. Chavez is a former secretary of the state Taxation and Revenue Department and also lobbies for the New Mexico Press Association. Chavez headed the effort because Samba had the most to use.
On September 8, 1998, less than two months before the election in which Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez challenged Gov. Gary Johnson's bid for a second term, John Chavez's department signed an agreement with Samba to provide the Motor Vehicle Division's database to the firm for $36,000 a year. That sweet deal evidently continues to this day, although it may be about to end.
Previously, the state had been selling the information for upwards of $700,000 a year. The state now proposes to sell that information for the current market price of several million dollars a year. In December, 2000, Chavez resigned from Gov. Johnson's cabinet and went to work for Samba the following month.
During the 2004 Legislature, ChoicePoint, one of the large, out-of-state companies that buys New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division records from Samba, was represented by lobbyist Mickey Barnett, who also is New Mexico's Republican national committeeman. Although it is unlikely, under the state's e-government plan, that ChoicePoint would have to pay more to the state than it already is paying Samba, Barnett is reported by some Republican House members to have threatened them with primary election opposition this year if they supported the e-government bill. .
Part of Samba's agreement with the state calls for it to implement and maintain an automatic audit trail identifying who got what information and to deliver a copy of the audits on a quarterly basis to the Motor Vehicle Division. Reportedly, Samba has not provided this information.
The data Samba receives on motor vehicle owners is highly sensitive. Information containing an individual's name and birth date can be used by unscrupulous companies to obtain any additional data they desire. For that reason, the state has to be very careful about who receives its data. Federal law imposes large penalties on states that are not watchful guardians of this kind of data. Without an audit trail, the state has little control over Samba or the MVD records Samba sells at whatever price it can demand.
Other opponents of the e-government bill included the New Mexico Press Association and the Foundation for Open Government. Their interest was in freedom of information. That is completely understandable and bill sponsors amended the e-government bill to meet those organizations' concerns. State information was made free to individuals and organizations, except when an entire database was requested.
But the NMPA and FOG continued to oppose the bill on the basis that no one should have to state a reason for requesting information. Normally, it would have been expected that the press, throughout New Mexico, would have been up in arms about Chavez's sweetheart deal with Samba, which later became his employer.
What's up?


Post a Comment

<< Home