Government needs Sunshine Portal

By Sarah Welsh: Guest columnist

Information is power, and right now the public has none.

Legislators and the public are rightfully outraged at Gov. Bill Richardson’s ongoing refusal to release information about his exempt state employees, including 59 positions that were supposedly cut last month.

What little information has emerged isn’t good — employees who were merely reclassified as non-exempt, or who were shuffled from agency to agency despite inadequate qualifications.

Unfortunately, this is only one outrage in a series of battles over access to public information, about everything from Medicaid fraud to state investment deals. Bureaucracies may be inherently secretive, but this administration has gone much further than routine evasion or delay tactics. This is a blatant snub of the public’s right to know.

It’s gotten pretty bad, but there is hope. We have a simple tonic in hand: Senate Bill 195, sponsored by Republican Sen. Sander Rue and championed by Democratic Lt. Gov. Diane Denish.

This simple, straightforward bill would create an online Sunshine Portal, which would publish detailed, up-to-date financial information from state government — tax revenues, agency budgets with monthly expenditures, investment reports and more.

The online database would be free and searchable. It would include the salaries of all state employees and an open-meetings tracker.

If we had it in place now, we could track down the mysterious 59 by close of business today.

Even in the absence of active obstruction, providing online data is the right thing to do. For those who have access to the Internet, an online Sunshine Portal could significantly ease the long, tedious process of requesting and inspecting public records.

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government fought to put that process into law, but we’ll be the first to admit it’s time-consuming and often difficult for both public employees and citizens. Hunting down and copying paper records takes time and money. For this and other reasons, the Legislative Finance Committee has estimated that an online Sunshine Portal could actually save the state money.

The Committee’s fiscal analysis states it plainly:

“Three of the states that have had a transparency portal/website (Texas, Missouri and Kansas) report savings from consolidating purchases, revising their business model, avoiding duplicate studies and contracts, renegotiating existing contracts or subscriptions and not having to respond to freedom of information requests because the information is readily available and free. Additionally, the portal provided lawmakers information about spending that they could then use to ask agencies probing questions.”

This important reform is within reach. The Senate has already done its part — the Sunshine Portal passed that body by a vote of 38-0. Now it’s before the House Judiciary Committee. From there it’s on to House Appropriations and the House floor. The clock is running, but there’s still plenty of time if lawmakers want to make this happen.

So say it with me now: We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore.

I urge the House to pass SB 195 and send it to the governor’s desk. It has been said that government transparency is like mother and apple pie — no one wants to go on record against it. Let’s give them a chance to prove it.