Inside the Capitol

Sunday, March 12, 2006

3-20 Open the Door

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- If our state legislators can work together as well behind closed doors as they claim they do, why don't they also do it in public? Think how proud we'd be of them.
Wouldn't it be great to see all 112 of our state lawmakers acting like statesmen? Don't you suppose that New Mexico could truly begin to move forward with people like that representing us?
But for some reason they can only work efficiently when we can't see them. When they get out in the open, they start "pontificating and posturing," according to a senator arguing against opening conference committees to the public and press.
Conference committees are composed of members appointed by both houses and both parties to iron out differences in bills passed by both houses. Usually each house appoints two members representing the majority party and one from the minority party.
Despite being outnumbered 2-1 in conference committees, Republicans have argued on the floor of both houses that their rights are better protected when working in secret.
Does that mean that Democrats start thinking like Republicans when no one is watching? Or does it mean that Democrats really are nice people in private, but get them out in public and they start abusing the rights of the minority party?
It doesn't make a great deal of sense to me, but it seems to be happening.
As usual, this year, bills were introduced in both houses to join 43 other states in opening conference committees of the legislature. And as usual, the leaders of both parties in both houses found numerous reasons to oppose the idea of open government.
None of those reasons are very good. After all, state lawmakers have seen fit to require all meetings of all local public bodies to be open. But the good reasons for requiring that become bad when applied to themselves.
The bottom line is that legislators have the power to exempt themselves from abiding by the laws they impose on everyone under their control. And because they can do it, they will do it.
It doesn't make the public think highly of legislators. If asked, a vast majority of the public will say they think government should be open. How else can they be an informed electorate?
But closed conference committees aren't something that hundreds of people will come to Santa Fe to demonstrate about. The press and good government groups always endorse legislation to open conference committees, but it isn't enough pressure to do the job.
Most lobbyists and special interest groups also would like to see open conference committees. It is frustrating when five out of six members appointed to a conference committee say they will support your side of an issue, but somehow it fails.
It would be nice to know who said and did what because the stories coming from committee members don't always match up. In other words, there is no accountability for actions taken in a conference committee.
But interest groups and lobbyists usually don't make too big a deal out of opening conference committees because the people who appoint those committees also have a strong hand in controlling the destiny of all issues.
The only lobbyists who wouldn't want open conference committees would be those who feel they might get something out of a closed conference committee that they couldn't get out in the open. But there are very few lobbyists with those kinds of connections.
Fundamentally, it is committee chairmen and vice-chairmen who control actions of a conference committee. They are usually the ones appointed to those committees.
This year, when an open committee action didn't go his way, a committee vice chairman said it didn't really matter because when the bill got to a conference committee he would amend it back the way he wanted.
That's being honest, but ii isn't exactly democracy in action.
MON, 3-20-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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