COMMENTARY: The first time I showed up to a meeting of a state legislative committee more than a decade ago, then-House Speaker Ben Lujan chased me down afterward to ask who I was. Participation in these important public meetings was that slim. I stood out just by showing up.
I introduced myself. Lujan glared at me and said something like, “Oh, you’re the blogger who’s been writing those stories about me.” Being watched sucks for those who are used to operating in the dark.
In the last decade, though, the culture has shifted at the Roundhouse. Just this month, the N.M. Legislature took important steps to give you greater access, which increases your ability to influence the actions of your government.
We’ve had live webcasting of committee meetings and floor sessions for several years. But the House of Representatives and Senate had resisted preserving video recordings of those meetings and posting them online for people to view at their convenience.
That changed in the 60-day session that began last week. Thanks to legislation that members of the House unanimously approved last year, you can now view recordings of House meetings at your convenience. And, in a surprise move, members of the Senate unanimously voted last week to allow archiving as well.
Now it’s easier to juggle busy schedules with participation in our government. We can watch what our legislators are doing in real-time or catch up after work is over, the kids are in bed, homework is complete, or whatever else is happening.
The added bonus: Lawmakers always know when they’re in meetings that someone might be watching. And if they pull any crap, a recording exists.
I sure wish I could have shown you video last October of House Republicans’ unscheduled, middle-of-the-night hearing on legislation to reinstate the death penalty. I’m glad I could watch it live on the Internet and write about it, but there’s even greater accountability now that you can wake up the next morning, pull up the archive, and watch their outrageous behavior with your own eyes.
Archiving webcasts online isn’t the only positive change this session. Members of the House also unanimously approved a rule change that gives people immediate access to amendments and substitutes presented on the House floor during debates on legislation.
In the past, when someone proposed a change to a bill on the House floor, people watching in person from the gallery or from a distance on our computers couldn’t read what was being proposed.
Sometimes an entirely new bill is substituted. Other times, important amendments change the intent of legislation. Now we’ll get to read what’s being proposed while lawmakers are debating it.
Let’s hope the Senate approves a similar rule change.
We have lots of people to thank for the Legislature’s slow but steady move to increase our access, starting with former Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones, R-Albuquerque, whose rogue webcast of a House committee meeting in 2009 forced the issue. This year’s transparency champions include Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe; Sens. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, and Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque; and House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque.
Now it’s on us to take advantage of these new tools. You arguably have a greater ability to access the work of the N.M. Legislature than at any previous time in its history. So get involved. In these tenuous times, participation in our government is more important than ever.
Heath Haussamen is NMPolitics.net’s editor and publisher.