FOG sends letter to lawmakers urging transparency in the state budget process

Today FOG sent each member of the New Mexico Legislature the following letter, insisting that the state budget be discussed in public, allowing citizens to hear the debate and weigh in on critical decisions affecting our state.

We encourage you to contact your representatives and tell them you support an open budget process in accordance with the letter and spirit of the state’s Open Meetings Act (OMA).

June 30, 2016

By email to members of the New Mexico Senate and House of Representatives:

As New Mexico begins another fiscal year, this seems an appropriate time for the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government to urge your compliance with the Open Meetings Act (“OMA”) as it applies to the budgetary process.

The New Mexico Legislature usually does an admirable job in opening its doors to the public. No stringent security measures bar the public from attending floor sessions or committee meetings, either at the Roundhouse or throughout the state during the interim. At committee hearings, lawmakers listen attentively and patiently as citizens from all sides speak about proposed bills. It’s one of the great things about our state.

However, glaring exceptions to this commitment to open government are meetings of the Senate Finance and the House Appropriations and Finance Committees.

Preparation of the state budget is integral to every facet of state government. Especially during this period of decreased state revenues, the public needs to know how and why budget decisions are being made. After all, taxpayers of one kind or another are the source of the state’s money.

Locking the doors to finance committee meetings, barring attendance by the press and public and holding private meetings in the Capitol North Annex are antithetical to a democratic government. Even legislators who are not members of the finance committee complain about being kept in the dark on these issues.

FOG objected to this culture and practice of secrecy during the last legislative session in a letter dated February 5, 2016, to the Senate and House leaders. We did not receive a response from either chamber.

Our concerns about New Mexico’s budgetary process are shared by the Center for Public Integrity. In its investigation of all 50 states, the Center gave New Mexico 0 points out of 100 possible points on the question of citizen participation in the state budgetary debate process. See the full report.

FOG believes that under existing law, meetings of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee and the Senate Finance Committee should be open when a quorum of members is in attendance.

The Open Meetings Act, NMSA 1978 § 10-15-2 provides as follows:
A. Unless otherwise provided by joint house and senate rule, all meetings of any committee or policy-making body of the legislature held for the purpose of discussing public business or for the purpose of taking any action within the authority of or the delegated authority of the committee or body are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times…. (Emphasis added)

The discussion of budgetary issues is public business and therefore committee meetings must be open to the public.

In this election season and during the 2017 Legislative session, FOG will continue to shine a light on the need for sunshine in the budget making process. Expect to see this issue raised at candidate forums, on editorial pages, in the press and during public discussions.

The touchstone of democracy is full and open discussion by public officials before the public they serve. To prohibit citizens from attending meetings where important public business is discussed is inconsistent with a truly accountable representative government.

FOG appreciates the dedication and hard work of our legislators. We hope that, for the sake of New Mexico, you will join us in embracing open government.

Please call with any questions or let us know if we can be of any assistance to you.

Kind Regards,

Susan Boe
Executive Director

cc: David Abbey
Raul Burciaga