Inside the Capitol

Friday, March 02, 2007

3-9 Lawmakers Unwilling to Become More Transparent

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- Does New Mexico have an open, transparent government? Comparisons with other states say we don't. But enough legislators think we do that attempts to further open government seem doomed to failure once more in the 2007 Legislature.
The issue is whether the public views elections as honest, interactions between lobbyists and public officials as above board and legislative deliberations as free from back room deal making.
Former GOP gubernatorial candidate John Dendahl left New Mexico declaring our state the most corrupt in the nation and its residents accepting of that behavior by electing the same candidates again and again.
That's probably overstating the case, considering recent developments in other states and at the federal level. But state lawmakers, mainly Senate leaders of both parties, are just as far off base in claiming no further light need be shed on their actions.
Attempts to make our government more open and transparent began in high gear as the 2007 Legislature commenced. Bills were introduced to implement recommendations from an ethics commission that labored for a year on a package of election reforms and limits on contributions and gifts from lobbyists.
Those measures moved quickly through the House but stalled in the Senate, which claimed a lack of time in last year's short session but changed its tune this year to claim no changes are needed.
When reminded of the scandal in the treasurer's office, Senate leaders countered that that was only one guy and they shouldn't be punished for his actions.
At this point, the ethics package is staggering in the Senate, weakened by body blows that have it on its last legs. Two Senate bills to open conference committees between the House and Senate to public view have died on the Senate floor. Two more bills headed over from the House seem destined to the same fate.
Last year, after previous tries, the Legislature agreed to televise its sessions, as most other states already do. But this year, there were no cameras. Legislative leaders explained that there are many technical problems to be worked out.
Somehow in the cradle of scientific technology, we suffer from severe handicaps. Legislative leaders say they may not even be able to have the system up and running by next year. What do they want to hide?
If it somehow is true that the treasurer's office is the only problem in state government that needs fixing, a constitutional amendment to make it appointive instead of elective would be very appropriate.
Gov. Bill Richardson's appointment of Doug Brown, a retired Albuquerque businessman to take over the post from elected treasurer Robert Vigil turned out to be a great move. Brown made improvements in the office that had been needed for years.
Actually, other down-ballot executive offices could stand to be eliminated. The oft-troubled Public Regulation Commission would be a great place to start. There's no big reason to have the state Land Office as an independent entity.
Good arguments can be made for having the attorney general and state auditor independent from the rest of state government. The bureau of elections and ethics administration functions of the secretary of state's office might best be separate from the rest of state government, but the other functions of the secretary of state's office might just as well be a part of state government.
For those concerned that this would consolidate too much power in the governor's office, please consider that we elect only one executive officer at the federal level. The president gets to appoint everyone.
People do like to elect as many public offices as possible. It gives us a little greater feeling of control over the system. But how many of those office holders do we really know?
We get to know the gubernatorial candidates fairly well. Somehow I would rather have the governor interview candidates for these now-elective positions and hold him responsible for their performance.
FRI, 3-09-07

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



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