Rep. Andy Nuñez said last week, during a nighttime hearing on reinstating the death penalty, that it was OK for Republicans to hold a hearing that essentially excluded the public because Democrats had done the same in the past.
“When I was in the majority on that side, nothing different happened than is happening now,” Nuñez, R-Hatch, who used to be a Democrat, told House Speaker Don Tripp. “I support your decision [to hold the hearing at night] because we need to do the same thing.”
That statement caught the attention of Heather Ferguson, the legislative director for the good-government group Common Cause New Mexico. She said Nuñez’s logic is “nonsense.”
Voter turnout is dismal. Polling done for Common Cause reveals that trust in government is too, Ferguson said. Justifying a hearing that effectively shuts the public out of the legislative process because the other side has done the same is exactly why trust and turnout are poor, she said.
“Frankly, many of those voters are parents, and we teach our children that two wrongs do not make a right,” Ferguson said.
When Tripp brought up the death penalty bill shortly before 1 a.m. on Oct. 6, 19 of the House’s 33 Democrats spoke in protest of the hearing. Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, told Tripp, R-Socorro, that the hearing “sends a terrible, terrible message to the citizens of New Mexico — that they can wake up to huge changes in public policy without anybody knowing what happened.”
Only Nuñez spoke in defense of the hearing, which continued as Tripp planned after Democrats were done protesting. The House passed the death penalty bill shortly before 6 a.m. The bill later died because the Senate refused to consider it during a session focused on the budget crisis.
Ferguson wasn’t the only activist to blast Republicans, who control the House’s agenda. Susan Boe, executive director of the N.M. Foundation for Open Government, said the death penalty hearing “violates the spirit of transparency.”
“As a practical matter, this meant the public could not participate or even witness deliberations by its elected officials,” Boe said. “Capital punishment is too important an issue to be determined outside of public view.”
The comments from Ferguson and Boe add to the firestorm of criticism of the way House Republicans handled the death penalty legislation. The hearing was the third during that special session on the high-profile, controversial legislation to be held after dark and with little or no notice to the public.
Walt Rubel, the editorial page editor for the Las Cruces Sun-News, responded to Nuñez’s comments with sarcasm. “That’s right. Shady government should be met with more shady government,” Rubel wrote.
The Santa Fe New Mexican weighed in too.
“Political polls might show support for the death penalty,” the newspaper wrote in an editorial. “But voters also want a say in important legislation. They want laws that are thoughtful and deliberate, not legislation passed without thought or consideration. Most of all, voters know when they are being hoodwinked.”
The process matters, Ferguson and Boe said.
“Democracy is the process we honor and follow in making decisions,” Boe said. “New Mexico lawmakers violated that process.”
Ferguson agreed with Nuñez that Democrats have also, in past years when they controlled the House, pulled their share of political stunts that excluded people from the process.
“Just because it has been happening in the past does not mean it should continue,” she said. “I think this is an opportunity for New Mexico to evolve.”
Common Cause’s polling shows that people want greater transparency and disclosure and more participation in the legislative process. Those issues, Ferguson said, “are critical to getting their vote and putting you in office.”
“We hear over and over that they do not trust the people that they put in office,” Ferguson said.
Every state legislative seat is up for grabs in the Nov. 8 election. Early voting started Tuesday. Republicans and Democrats are locked in a tough battle for control of the House, which Republicans currently hold by a narrow margin.
Ferguson said now should be the time to act transparently.
“On the eve of an election, now is the time to try to rebuild some public trust, not further destroy it,” she said.