The public would have better access to and could gain more understanding of the state government under several bills making progress this session.
Certain committees that are now closed would be open while government documents would become public sooner under the measures originating in the House.
The House Appropriations and Finance Committee today is expected to consider a measure that would open conference committees to the public. They are some of the last meetings legally closed to the public — and to lawmakers who are not members of the committees.
Rep. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, is carrying the bill, HB 393.
“For me to do a good job as a legislator, I need to be able to participate in the full process. It’s very difficult for me to represent my district well when I can’t attend the budget meetings from beginning to end or when I’m excluded from certain parts of the budgetary process,” he said. The meetings are to hammer out differences in the similar legislation passed by both chambers, such as the budget.
Supporters for at least 10 years have pushed for the measure.
A bill that would make it clear that e-mail requests should be acknowledged as official requests under the state Inspection of Public Records Act was approved Tuesday by the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee. The measure comes after a few state agencies in past years have refused to recognize an e-mail as a written request under the law.
“I respond to e-mails all day long and it seems to me they are all in writing,” said Rep. Al Park, D-Albuquerque, who presented the bill in the committee. That bill (HB 598) now goes to the House Judiciary Committee.
A separate measure (HB 600) also sponsored by Cervantes would criminalize the act of not producing public records as required under the law.
Under the measure, a person who “knowingly and willfully withholds public records subject to inspection is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than $500 for each offense.”
Cervantes said the proposal aims to send a serious message about denying records requests.
“We are seeing almost every day issues relating to this law and whether government agencies or officials are going to respect the law allowing public access to its own records and documents,” he said.
Gov. Bill Richardson’s office has refused to release documents requested by The New Mexican regarding its dealings with CDR Financial Products, the Los Angeles firm at the center of a federal grand jury investigation. The office did release a subpoena in the case sought by reporters.
Cervantes said the issue isn’t just about the press.
“Because the press wants access and is being denied access, the public is being denied access,” he said.
The consumer and public affairs panel temporarily tabled the measure after concerns about people being punished for withholding information that’s exempt from the act or people being prosecuted for following a supervisor’s instructions to withhold information that falls under the exemptions allowed by the act.
Another bill (HB 652) would speed up the time frame for the public release of government audits. Under current law, audits become public record after 10 days after being reviewed by the state auditor. The bill would cut that time in half and even allow an agency to waive the five days.
The House Business and Industry Committee approved the measure Tuesday.
A separate Martinez bill (HB 507) would speed up the response time for agencies to produce records under the records act.
Currently, agencies have three days to respond to a request for records and 15 days to produce the information unless they need more time. The bill would give an agency 10 days to produce records.
Contact Kate Nash at 986-3036 or firstname.lastname@example.org.