Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

NM lawmakers weigh job candidate secrecy

Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – This year’s legislative session could bring a dose of sunshine to lobbying inside the Roundhouse.

And it could curtail public scrutiny of applicants to serve as school superintendents, county managers or other high-level government positions.

The ideas – for more government transparency and for less – are among the hundreds of bills introduced in the first eight days of the 2023 legislative session.

The push for more secrecy in the hiring process for top government jobs gained momentum Wednesday as it cleared its first committee on a 7-2 vote and moved forward in the Senate.

By contrast, the proposals to shed more light on lobbying in the Capitol are just getting started. They were introduced Wednesday and are awaiting their first committee hearings.

The proposal to limit disclosure of applicants, Senate Bill 63, would create a new exemption in the state Inspection of Public Records Act, allowing governments to withhold the names of all but three finalists for an appointed executive position.

Sen. Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, on the Senate Floor, Friday February 7, 2020. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Democratic Sen. Bill Tallman of Albuquerque – a retired city manager sponsoring the bill – said it would broaden the pool of applicants for high-level jobs because some candidates wouldn’t want their names disclosed. He dismissed objections it would allow cronyism.

“If the press are doing their job,” Tallman said, “they can ferret out this information.”

Representatives of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, Albuquerque Journal and New Mexico Press Association tested against the bill.

They said the public shouldn’t have to rely on the word of public officials that they’ve selected the best finalists for a high-level position.

“Secrecy is not necessary to get excellent candidates,” Melanie Majors, executive director of the Foundation for Open Government, told lawmakers.

Tallman’s measure now heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee, potentially its last stop before reaching the full Senate. A similar proposal was blocked in the 2021 session.

Lobbying disclosures

Lawmakers are also weighing additional transparency.

A $6.4 million supplemental spending bill moving forward in the Senate, for example, contains a provision requiring the publication of which lawmaker sponsored each appropriation in the bill. For years, legislators didn’t disclose how they allocated some of their discretionary spending, but they’ve moved toward more transparency in recent years.

A pair of bipartisan proposals in the Senate also aim to better disclose the work of lobbyists in the Capitol.

Paid lobbyists are incredibly influential in New Mexico legislative sessions, sometimes serving in a role akin to unofficial staff to lawmakers. They help vet bills and amendments and, of course, represent the interests of their employers.

The bipartisan legislation introduced Wednesday would require lobbyists to disclose their compensation and what positions they’re taking on bills.

“Really, what we’re asking for is just to shed light on all the interests and players involved in shaping the legislative process, so that they’re not concealed from public view,” Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, told theJournal.

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said he is hopeful lawmakers will have an increased appetite for transparency this session.

“Our generation over the last decade has been more open to trying to reform the legislative process in a bipartisan manner,” Moores said.

Senate Bill 217 – sponsored by Steinborn and Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras – would require lobbyists to report their compensation from each employer.

Senate Bill 218 – sponsored by Steinborn and Moores – would require lobbyists to report what bills they’re lobbying on and what positions they’ve taken on them.

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