When several reform-minded legislators were elected last year — and several old-guard lawmakers lost — many open-government advocates thought there was a good chance of finally opening up what has been called the “last bastion of secrecy” in the Legislature: conference committees.
The public has long been barred from conference committee meetings at which small groups of House and Senate members hammer out the final language of legislation before it’s sent to the governor.
But that optimism about ending the closed-door sessions recently has been dampened by lack of support from a high-profile official: Attorney General Gary King.
Although King has been a long-time advocate of open government, he said in an interview Wednesday: “I’m not in favor of a blanket rule that conference committees have to be open all the time. There are times when it’s appropriate to have closed meetings.”
This is the same official whose office has held workshops across the state informing city, county and state officials about the state Open Meetings Act and the Open Records Act.
“I’m in favor of openness,” said King, who served as a state representative from Stanley for a dozen years. “But the public also is served by a process that gets you to a conclusion.” Keeping conference committees closed helps speed up the legislative process, he said.
Most big-money bills, such as the state budget, end up in conference committees.
King stressed that he believes changing the rule about conference committees is a concern of the Legislature and that he won’t be lobbying hard against any move to open the meetings.
But Leonard DeLayo, director of New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said this week he’s afraid many new legislators might be influenced by the attorney general to not support ending the secrecy of conference committees.
“This year, because of the economic crisis, the budget bill really is the most important bill,” he said. The public, DeLayo said, deserves to know why some things were funded in the budget and other things weren’t.
Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, who is sponsoring a bill in the Senate this year to open conference committees, downplayed the importance of King’s position on the issue.
“I don’t know how close the new members are to the attorney general,” she said in a Wednesday interview. “Too bad he’s not supporting it, but that doesn’t deter me.”
Feldman has sponsored several bills in the past. The last time a conference committee anti-secrecy bill made it to the Senate floor, in 2007, it was defeated by one vote. The House in recent years has passed several bills to open conference committees.
King, who is pushing an ambitious package of ethics reform in the Legislature this year, said he’s suggesting two changes that would make closed conference committees less objectionable.
One, he said, would limit the budget conference committees funding decisions to items that already were in the Senate and House bills that passed. This he said, would eliminate surprises — projects and programs added at the last minute by conference committee members in closed-door sessions.
However, Feldman said the Senate already has such a rule, “and it’s broken all the time.”
King’s other proposal is to require 24 to 48 hours from the time the conference committee crafts the final budget before the House and Senate can vote on it. This, he said, would give members time to read the bill — a luxury frequently impossible in the current system.
But Feldman said that’s impractical because of the deadline of getting a bill to the governor’s office at least three days before the end of the session in order to force him to act on it before the end of the session.
Contact Steve Terrell at 986-3037 or email@example.com. Read his political blog at roundhouseroundup.com