Open conference question comes to state senate

By Kate Nash: The Santa Fe New Mexican

To open conference committees to the public or not?

That seems to be a key question before the state Senate this session, one that’s nearing a vote on the chamber’s floor.

The Senate is considering two measures to allow the public and the media into conference committees, which are some of the last legally closed meetings of the Legislature.

The meetings occur when representatives of each chamber meet to hammer out differences in key measures such as the state budget. Only the small group of lawmakers named to the committee can attend.

One conference committee measure (HB 393) was narrowly approved Tuesday morning by the Senate Rules Committee. It is pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Another measure (SB 737) is pending on the Senate floor, where it has been on the agenda for several days.

Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor, said she’s growing tired of waiting for her bill to be heard.

“It’s just increasingly frustrating. I think the support for it is growing and I am sorry that we continue to close our doors,” she said Monday afternoon.

Feldman has another bill (SB150) that does the same thing, but it has been pending in the Senate Rules Committee for weeks. She used a procedural maneuver to get the similar measure to the floor.

That could be the reason Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez hasn’t allowed the bill to be heard.

Sanchez, who has said he’s opposed to the opening of conference committees, voted for the House version of the measure in the Rules Committee Tuesday morning.

Although he might vote against the bill on the floor, he said he wanted the bill to follow the Legislative process.

“Since there’s one already down here that came down here in a funny way, I wanted a bill that came down the right way,” he said.

Sanchez and two other members of the Senate Rules Committee voted 3-2 to send the House measure on to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sens. Dianna Duran and Linda Lopez also voted for the measure; Sens. Stuart Ingle and Tim Jennings voted against it.

House sponsor Rep. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said the bill would help him as a lawmaker, because if he’s not on the committee, he can’t attend its hearings.

“I’m excluded as a member from those legislative meetings, and I don’t think that’s the way the Legislature ought to work,” he said.

Jennings, who has opposed the measure in the past, said he is against the bill in part because members of the executive branch could find out who made a motion to cut a project the governor wants.

“They would make those motions and he would come back and get even with them for those motions,” Jennings said. “If anyone can’t see that, they are blind.”

Even though Jennings, the Senate president pro tem, opposes the measure, this could be the year the Senate approves the proposal. Several new members replaced staunch opponents of the bill, which has been introduced for more than a decade.

The Senate has also given other signals this session that it wants to shine more light on government.

The chamber on Tuesday voted 26-11 for a measure (SB263 and SB296) that requires prospective state contractors to disclose all campaign contributions worth more than $250 to a “state public officer” during the two years preceding the contract.

Feldman said the bill is “an effort to shine a little sunshine on the relationship between state contractors and contributions to political candidates,” she said.

And last week, the Senate took another step toward open government when it voted unanimously for a measure that would have created a searchable, online database of expenditures that would have started with the 2011 fiscal year.

On a party-line vote, however, Democrats in the House Taxation and Revenue Committee on Monday voted to table the bill; Republicans voted against that measure but lost 8-6.

Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor, said he was disappointed by the move.

“We wanted to demystify the state budget and bolster public confidence in their government. The purpose of this legislation is to invite the public to the negotiating table,” he said in a statement.

“By allowing all New Mexicans to read actual budget items, we allow the public a greater understanding and voice in future budget processes,” Rue said. “Now that this bill is tabled in the House, it will take at least another year to get the public this easy access to their budget.”