The results of a statewide survey of 2020 Legislative candidates conducted by the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government show overwhelming support among respondents for greater government transparency in both the state budgeting process and public records access.
While closed-door meetings have been part and parcel of budget negotiations for decades, the practice was brought into sharp relief when a special session of the Legislature was called in June to patch COVID-19-related budget holes. That session was closed to the public due to concerns about spreading the novel coronavirus, even after last-minute legal challenges to open the Roundhouse came before the state Supreme Court.
Melanie J. Majors, executive director of the Foundation for Open Government, described the motivations behind the survey. The Foundation conducts similar surveys each election cycle to help inform their legislative agenda for next January’s session.
“Our goal is that the public understands a little bit more about how their legislators or legislative candidate feels about the budgeting process and how they feel about transparency and accountability,” she said.
The survey was funded by a grant from the Thornburg Foundation in Santa Fe. The questions were developed over several rounds of revisions by the Foundation.
The results are intended to help constituents with “making their selections for the folks that they want to send to Santa Fe to do the State’s business,” Majors said.
“I think it’s not only telling by the individuals who completed the survey and returned it, but also the candidates that did not return the survey,” she said. “Everyone talks about transparency until it comes to their own private issue.”
According to a press release from that organization, “Of the 197 candidates for the House and Senate seats, 94 responded to the survey for a 47.7 percent participation rate.” 59.6 percent of respondents identified as challengers, with the remaining 40.4 percent being incumbents.
“Of note, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth did respond to the survey, yet the only members of the Senate Finance Committee to provide input were Sen. Jacob Candelaria (D-Albuquerque); Sen. Sander Rue (R-Albuquerque) and Sen. Pete Campos (D-Las Vegas),” the press release states.
“House Speaker Brian Egolf did not respond to the survey nor did House Appropriations and Finance Committee Chair Rep. Patty Lundstrom (D-Gallup). The only members of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee to respond were Rep. Harry Garcia (D-Grants) Rep. Christine Trujillo (D-Albuquerque) and Rep. Susan Herrera (D-Embudo).”
In response to the question, “Would you support action to change House/Senate rules to eliminate any closed meetings and backroom budget negotiations ensuring that all budget negotiations are open and transparent?” 85.1 percent of candidates said they would strongly support such changes.
Additionally, 90.3 percent say they would strongly support “additional measures to strengthen compliance with the Inspection of Public Records Act”.
Out of four proposed policy changes to implement these opinions, the most popular was to mandate that advisory committees and task force groups be subject to the Open Meetings Act, with 88 percent of respondents in support.
Increased funding for government agencies to set up electronic portals and searchable websites for the public to access public records was the second most popular solution, with 79.3 percent of respondents in favor.
Similarly, 77.2 percent of respondents supported levying fines against individual public officials who are found to be in non-compliance with the Inspection of Public Records Act.
The least popular policy suggestion was to eliminate fees for records requests, but it still garnered majority support with 56.5 percent in favor.
As of yet, there’s no indication that these policy suggestions will be considered or implemented for the 2021 Legislative session.