Sunshine in government

by Morgan Smith, FOG member

Back on November 7, 1972 Colorado’s voters passed Colorado Initiative 9, better known as the Colorado Sunshine Law, a citizen approved statute that requires that any state or local governmental body that meets to discuss public business or to take formal action do so in meetings that are open to the public. The vote was 491,073 in favor and 325,819 opposed. A 60.11% versus 39.89% victory for openness. To quote two Colorado leaders on its effect.

“Before its adoption, one could attend a committee hearing and observe that the committee members had already met and decided what to do; thus, a hearing was a charade.”

Jean Dubofsky, first female Justice appointed to the Colorado Supreme Court. 1979-1987.

“Colorado was early in the Sunshine movement and we can be proud. Government should not operate in the dark and it has been a great reform.”

Richard D. Lamm , Governor of Colorado 1974-1986.

I was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives that same November day and had a chance to participate in the implementation of that law when the 1973 session began. There was grumbling at first. “Why can’t we just meet over drinks at the Shirley Savoy ( the long gone Denver hotel where many rural legislators stayed during  the legislative sessions.) and get all these bills taken care of? “ some would complain.

Quickly, however, it became the way of life. This was how business was done. I served in the legislature for six years, then headed four different state agencies under two governors and cannot remember one instance where having open meetings was a problem. During my last four years in the House, I was on the legislative Joint Budget Committee (JBC). Composed of the Representatives and three Senators, this was the committee that drafted the state budget. We had a hearing room on the third floor of the state capital and it was always packed – state agencies and their advocates, other legislators seeking funds for projects in their districts, the press corps and interested citizens.

Our budget debates were exhausting and sometimes explosive. Once, a member threw all his papers at me in frustration, gave the other members the finger and stormed out. One day a high school classmate, ragged, alcoholic and homeless, suddenly appeared to ask me for $20.

In my opinion, we legislators were the great beneficiaries of this Sunshine law. Why?

First, because all of our work was out in the open. No one could claim that we hypocrites, arguing one way and voting another.

Second, those who came to observe could get a taste of the difficulty of legislating. Each and every one of us has a stash of “brilliant ideas” that, if enacted, would immediately transform society. Transforming those brilliant ideas into a piece of legislation that can gain the support of a majority of House and Senate members as well as the Governor can be an extraordinarily difficult task, however. To see legislators struggle over these issues is humanizing.

Third, functioning in the open would eliminate many bad ideas. Take New Mexico’s capital budget, for example. Months ago, the Journal rightly criticized some of the capital items that were being funded in this secret process. Would the legislators who proposed those projects have dared to do so if they had known they would be named?

The upcoming June 18 special session will bring up another issue – fairness. State budgeting is almost always about increasing funding or adding programs. This session will be very different because enormous cuts will be required. Everyone knows that this will be necessary but unless the process is opened up, how will we know that the process has been fair?

My best wishes to those New Mexico legislators who will struggle with these issues. I hope that they will do so in the spirit of Sunshine.

Santa Fe resident Morgan Smith is a member of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. Previously he served in the Colorado House of Representatives and as Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture.