With a special session of the Legislature looking increasingly necessary to address budget shortfalls, the state’s leading transparency group is urging lawmakers to open all meetings to the public.
“The impact of the budget decision will be felt all over the state, and the public can’t be shut out of the process,” Gregory P. Williams, president of the N.M. Foundation for Open Government (FOG) Board of Directors, said. “New Mexicans need to be able to participate, and not just read about the result in the newspaper.”
Williams’ comments come as FOG, this reporter, and others have called on legislative budget committees to open their meetings to the public. In the past, those committees have done much of their work behind closed doors. The N.M. Open Meetings Act requires that the public be let in to those meetings, FOG says.
State government ended the last fiscal year on June 30 in the red, largely because of falling oil and gas prices. New Mexico is facing a shortfall in the current, 2017, fiscal year that some say could be as high as $500 million. The Legislative Finance Committee predicts another “gloomy” fiscal situation during the 2018 budget year.
Additional funding cuts and tax increases, in addition to taking money from existing surplus funds, are among the proposals some want the Legislature to consider to address the shortfalls.
Gov. Susana Martinez has suggested that lawmakers meet to address the 2016 and 2017 shortfalls in one four-hour special session. “We walk in and walk out,” the Albuquerque Journal quoted her as saying.
FOG balked at that idea. “Should the Legislature and the New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez determine that a special session is necessary, that session must be as transparent and open as possible,” a FOG news release states. “It has been suggested that party leaders may pre-negotiate solutions to the budgetary issues, and then rubber-stamp them in a very short session. These types of back-room negotiations would effectively shut the public out of the process.”
Williams said FOG is “sympathetic to the cost of a special session, but these critical budgetary decisions cannot be made behind closed doors.”
Shortfalls are ‘the result of the problem’
Martinez has rejected calls to raise taxes in the past. Many Democrats say the shortfalls must be addressed without cutting education spending, which accounts for more than 50 percent of the state budget.
Meanwhile, in a commentary NMPolitics.net published Friday, Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, suggested that the budget shortfall “is not the problem; it is the result of the problem.”
“We must set aside political rhetoric and honestly discuss potential solutions, seek compromise, and take a long-term perspective to fix what ails us,” Campos said. “Hiring freezes and layoffs and diverting money from one account to another may start the discussion, but they will do little to solve our underlying problems.”
“We need to make education, public safety and health care our top priorities and ensure that we have a reliable revenue stream to pay for them,” Campos wrote.
Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, agreed, tweeting that Campos “shares a path we know must be taken.”
“Needed — the courage and a partner,” Cervantes tweeted.