Inside the Capitol

Thursday, January 22, 2009

1-30 More Transparency, Please

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- In keeping with the spirit of the times, this is a message of hope. After visiting several capitol buildings in other states and after talking with visitors to our Capitol, New Mexicans have good reason for pride.
A warm, friendly atmosphere permeates the gathering spaces of our Capitol, 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 several 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.
A week before this legislative session convened, Santa Fe New Mexican reporter Steve Terrell reported seeing a Capitol maintenance worker taking down cameras in the Senate gallery that had been purchased for the purpose of Webcasting Senate floor sessions.
Last year the Senate voted overwhelmingly to appropriate $30,000 for the cameras but Senate leaders somehow overrode their wishes. Terrell says New Mexico is one of only six states that don't Webcast at least some legislative proceedings.
New Mexico New Mexico lawmakers have much to be proud about but for some reason they don't want to share it with others. They blame the budget crunch but the cost isn't much. Many local governments manage to do it.
Here's hoping New Mexico lawmakers will see the light. Politicians sometimes fret about media bias. Here's their chance for you to watch and make up your own minds.
FRI, 1-30-09

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



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