Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Watchdog group calls for webcasting of Senate panel

The Roundhouse in Autumn. (Eddie Moore/)

SANTA FE — The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government is asking the state Senate to make it easier for the public to follow the work of a committee that will help determine which bills to include during the 30-day session.

The Senate Committee is the rare legislative body that doesn’t broadcast its work online or post agendas — a barrier, the foundation says, that keeps the public from scrutinizing its work.

“It is imperative for transparency to broadcast all legislative discussions and actions online,” FOG Executive Director Shannon Kunkel said in a letter to the Legislature. “Not to do so is unacceptable and double-dealing.”

In an interview, Senate Speaker Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said she has taken steps to make the committee’s work more transparent but sees no reason to broadcast the sessions.

The committee of committees used to meet in the Senate Lounge, where public access is restricted, but Stewart moved the meetings to a regular committee room this year so the public could attend in person.

The committee, she said, is a procedural body that doesn’t edit or amend bills like other committees, and Senate rules don’t allow its work to be streamed online.

In 30-day sessions, the panel determines whether a bill falls into one of the legal categories that allow lawmakers to deal with it during the session. The legislature can consider budget and tax bills, governor-approved bills, constitutional amendments, and certain other proposals only in the 30-day sessions held in even-numbered years.

“The public isn’t going to want to hear that,” Stewart said. “These are boring legal norms we talk about and we don’t talk about them very much.”

The committee processes about 40 bills a day, she said, to determine whether they are “German” or fall within the legal scope of the session.

The Committee of Committees also helps determine membership of Senate standing committees, including who chairs each committee. As President pro tem of the Senate, Stewart chairs the Committee of Committees.

Kunkel said there was no reason not to broadcast committee meetings.

She noted that a similar panel in the House of Representatives, the Rules and Order of Business Committee, is streamed online.

“The FOG is very concerned that a public body would secretly conduct the public’s business, but it is particularly egregious that the Committee of Committees should do so as it is entrusted with the vitally important task of relevance to the 30-day session to determine,” said Künkel.

The body should “act with the greatest possible transparency and enable the greatest possible participation of the public”.

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