Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

2-1 Legislature Not Bad, But Could Be Better

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- As I begin this column, it occurs to me that most of what I say about the New Mexico Legislature is negative. There are so many things they need to do that they can't seem to get done.
But I must admit that after visiting other states' capitols and after talking with visitors to our capitol, we really aren't so bad., A warm, friendly atmosphere permeates the gathering spaces where amateur and professional lobbyists mix with those who have come just to take a look.
Access to legislators is extremely easy, especially if you happen to be a constituent. New Mexico's lawmakers are not full of themselves. They have not built an imposing Capitol Building. It is so unimposing, it is hard to find. But once inside, it turns into the most beautiful state capitol in the nation, full of artwork, all by New Mexicans.
Our capitol is user-friendly, with information booths, electronic kiosks for the younger generation, and good signage. Committee hearing rooms are comfortable, although sometimes crowded. And committee chairmen are nearly always gracious to guests. If you have something to say, chances are you will get to say it.
Our lawmakers also are nice to each other. They don't hurl accusations as you see on televised congressional hearings. But a word of warning, if you get an opportunity to say something, don't you make accusations either.
With so much to be proud of, then, why doesn't the New Mexico Legislature want to show it off? For three years lawmakers have been promising to televise legislative sessions, but every year it gets postponed.
For over a decade, bills have been introduced to open up conference committees, not to television cameras, just to the public and reporters -- and to other legislators.
That's right. Except for the six lawmakers who form a conference committee to iron out differences between the House and Senate, the other 106 lawmakers don't know what is going on behind those closed doors. They are as much in the dark as the public is.
Openness, disclosure and transparency give the public more confidence in the people they elect to represent them. More confidence, that is, in the ones who are playing it straight.
My experience from 30 years of representing school employees before governmental bodies convinced me that the vast majority of our elected officials are straight shooters.
So why don't ethics reform bills, as they are called, pass with similarly large majorities? There may be some valid reasons but it makes the good guys look like they have something to hide also.
The answer likely is that it is quicker and easier to work behind closed doors and reveal only what you have to. No one ever said democracy is simple. Dictatorships are much more efficient. The only question is "efficient at what?"
Our legislative chambers have large galleries where citizens, lobbyists, reporters and school children come to watch. So why not a television camera too? Lawmakers are well-behaved. They don't do anything to embarrass themselves. They are even given time to introduce constituents who have traveled to Santa Fe to witness the proceedings.
Some legislative leaders argue that C-SPAN has caused unfortunate changes in the operation of Congress. The reference usually is to members watching floor proceedings from their offices, rather than being present in the chamber. But there are ways that could be controlled in our statehouse.
Ethics reform has been a priority of Gov. Bill Richardson. He appointed a task force that has worked two years on ethics reform proposals of all shapes and sizes.
But not much has happened. New Mexico ranks down at the bottom in studies of government transparency. One of our few good marks is for requiring campaign financial reports to be submitted electronically so they can be quickly accessible to the public.
But the secretary of state's office has dropped the ball on its Web site disclosure section. And we're still in the dark.
FRI, 2-01-08

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



Post a Comment

<< Home