Bill seeks transparency on state spending

By Kate Nash: The New Mexican

State expenditures would be displayed online and searchable under a measure the Senate approved Tuesday, one of a few moves that would increase transparency in the Roundhouse this year.

Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, who is carrying the measure (SB159), said it would make it easy for people to follow the money in state government — including lawmakers.

“I’m doing this purely for selfish reasons: so I can better understand the budget,” he joked during Senate floor debate on the measure. “And if anyone else wants to follow after me, that’s fine.”

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, wondered why the bill didn’t apply to other government budgets as well, something Rue said he originally hoped for, and something he said could come later.

“This is something we can do right away with money that’s already available,” he said. The bill doesn’t carry any appropriation.

State Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, who said he supports the bill, wondered about the cost.

“We do need to have this type of transparency,” he said. “My overall question I’ve asked in every committee is what is the cost of that transparency.”

According to information provided by the Department of Information Technology for an legislative analysis of the bill, the cost could be between $25,000 to $1 million a year. The department also estimates it could cost between $1 and $3 million to implement the bill.

Deborah Martinez, spokeswoman for the Department of Information Technology, said “We support the concept of budget transparency, but this bill doesn’t have the resources with which to carry out the task.”

When asked whether the department is supporting the measure, Martinez said the agency “wouldn’t be speaking in favor of it.”

The Senate approved the bill 38-0 and it now goes to the House. However, a similar measure was tabled in the House Appropriation and Finance Committee earlier this session. The House on Tuesday approved a memorial that would study the creation of an online spending database.

Rue, a freshman, said the bill “is the right thing to do. I think the timing is right.”

“I’m hoping more and more people are beginning to pay attention and take a good hard look at what we do,” he said.

Many other states already put expenditure information online, including salaries and travel reimbursements and contracts.

Meanwhile, a few other bills that would open the Legislature a little more to the public have made progress this session. The House has approved a measure (HB393) that would open conference committees to the public. It is pending in the Senate Rules Committee. Another bill (HB507) would recognize an e-mail as an official written request under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act. It is pending in the House Judiciary Committee.

One other measure (SR3), which would allow webcasting of Senate floor debates, is stalled in the Senate after a weekend debate. Sapien proposed two amendments to the bill, one which dealt with which camera angles would be used for webcasting and another that would set up a webcast oversight committee.

In the House, two lawmakers are already webcasting some committee hearings, as is the state’s Web site, KUNM radio and New Mexico Legislative Reports.

Contact Kate Nash at 986-3036 or knash@sfnewmexican.com. Read her blog at www.greenchilechatter.com.