Open government and transparency have become watchwords in public policy debates nationwide. Indeed, during the New Mexico legislative session, several bills aimed at transparency were considered. And while the session is not yet over and we don’t know which provisions will become law, it is important to step back and consider what transparency means and why it is important.
Real transparency means opening government up to the citizens. Whether that means access to information or access to the political and legislative processes themselves, it is critical that citizens have adequate information to be engaged in an informed manner.
Transparency does not mean subjecting individuals who wish to engage in the political process to undue scrutiny. In other words, transparency is about the government itself, not individuals who donate to causes related to government. That is a critical difference that is often lost.
Prior to the start of New Mexico’s 2015 legislative session, the Rio Grande Foundation urged legislators to consider allowing for remote testimony before legislative committees as a means of opening the political process to new voices outside of close geographical proximity to Santa Fe.
New Mexico is, after all, the fifth-largest U.S. state in land area making it difficult for interested parties to make their way to Santa Fe for committee hearings during legislative sessions.
Washington State’s Legislature recently allowed for its first remote testimony while Nevada has been doing so for years. In Washington, those wishing to testify remotely before the Legislature in Olympia can make their way to a local community college that is set up with the basic technology needed to testify before a legislative committee. Needless to say, this saves tremendous travel time, opens up the process, and is good for the environment.
The technology needed for remote testimony has been around for years. Allowing for remote testimony would enable those who want to participate in the process, but can’t afford a lobbyist or can’t get away from their business or family to have their voices heard in Santa Fe. It is time for New Mexico’s Legislature to step into the 21st Century by making remote testimony a readily-available option at community colleges across the state.
Unfortunately, remote testimony was not enacted in New Mexico during the 2015 legislative session.
Another transparency-enhancing measure supported by Rio Grande Foundation is to archive testimony from all legislative hearings online. This change was proposed during the 2015 session and passed the House Appropriations and Finance Committee on a unanimous vote. Having this information truly public is critical to improving transparency in New Mexico government.
Lastly, by way of transparency, it is time for the Legislature to make transparency a reality on New Mexico’s Sunshine Portal. The Rio Grande Foundation worked tirelessly to help create the Portal in 2010.
The first thing to do is to make sure all state employee salaries are available on the Portal. This is, after all, public information already, but due to pressure from New Mexico’s government unions, the information was removed from the Portal.
Secondly, New Mexico’s government employee pensions should be added to the Sunshine Portal. California has done this at that State’s equivalent of our Sunshine Portal known as Transparent California.
According to a recent “meta-study” by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, New Mexico’s public pensions are arguably the most under-funded among the 50 states. Our pension system is certainly among the most troubled in the nation. Yet, voters and taxpayers are given little in the way of information in terms of which government workers are receiving the most generous pension payouts and what, if any, abuses might be taking place.
New Mexico’s taxpayers are paying the bills. It is time to give them the information they need to understand how their money is being spent and to engage intelligently in the political process.