The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a 3-2 decision that the state Legislature can hold a special session without allowing in-person attendance from the public.
The decision was a result of a petition filed on behalf of a long list of state lawmakers by Albuquerque-based attorney Blair Dunn. The petitioners argued that this week’s special legislative session should be physically open to the public, not just online. With the backdrop of the current COVID-19 pandemic, legislative leadership announced earlier this month that the state capitol building would be closed to the public, with some exceptions for members of the press.
The high court issued a written order, but no written opinion. Chief Justice Judith Nakamura, the only Republican on the court sided with Justices Barbara Vigil and Michael Vigil. Justices Shannon Bacon and David Thomson dissented.
That was Gov. Susana Martinez talking to a police dispatcher in December 2015 after hotel employees called in a noise complaint. Many of her critics focused on her slurred speech that night. But Martinez’s demand for what she deemed a public record grabbed the attention of journalists and open records advocates because of her administration’s history of delaying or outright denying public records. When she first ran for governor in 2010, Martinez vowed to be more transparent than her predecessor, Bill Richardson.
A legislative committee gave its backing Wednesday to a bill that would allow Spaceport America to exempt many of its business dealings from New Mexico’s open records law as the state’s major open government advocacy group dropped its opposition to the measure. The publicly owned facility, which cost more than $200 million to construct, has been pushing for the legislation, arguing the bill would allow it to attract more aerospace companies to New Mexico from a highly competitive and secretive industry. And while critics had argued the measure would diminish the public’s oversight of the facility, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government said it would not oppose a revised version of the bill put forward by a top Republican lawmaker Wednesday evening. “It’s a very difficult balance,” Rep. Nate Gentry, an Albuquerque Republican, told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday evening, summing up how lawmakers have been torn this session between arguments for transparency and arguments that the facility already has cost the state too much money to pass up any opportunity to attract business. As a public agency, Spaceport America’s own finances will still be audited.
NM Political Report’s third News & Brews event featured NMFishbowl.com’s Daniel Libit and New Mexico Foundation for Open Government Board President Greg Williams. Reporter Andy Lyman interviewed the two about Libit’s recent public records lawsuit against the University of New Mexico Foundation and transparency issues related to the university’s athletics department. “I’m a curious observer much more than I am a fan,” Libit said of the Lobos. Libit has filed over 150 records requests under the state’s Inspection of Public Records trying to understand how the UNM Foundation makes its decisions and raises its money. Last November, Libit launched his website with a story raising important questions about the WisePies naming rights of The Pit, the university’s arena that hosts basketball games. Libit now lives in Chicago but grew up in Albuquerque.
The Society of Professional Journalists gave the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission the dubious honor of its sixth annual Black Hole Award, which goes to “government institutions or agencies for outright contempt of the public’s right to know.”
The nomination came from NM Political Report reporter Laura Paskus, who has reported on the agency for years. “Making these sorts of heavy decisions and citing data to back those decisions but refusing to produce this data is ridiculous. Agencies should be transparent in their effects on publicly owned bodies, land or water” Gideon Grudo, chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee, said. “They certainly shouldn’t be this aggressive to the press, either. Hats off to Laura Paskus for being persistent.”
Related: Effort to make college research secret stalls over fears it goes too far
From the SPJ announcement: “The agency has been sued for Open Meetings Act violations, gives me plenty of hassles about releasing public documents, and for years now, has refused to answer my questions.
Katherine Duncan is the Communications Assistant at CREW and previously worked as a corporate editor. Walker Davis is a Research Associate at CREW where he researches campaign finance and lobbying issues. In case it wasn’t already clear, having accountability measures in place for elected officials is crucial. Unchecked power is a formula for corruption. Perhaps nowhere has this been more clear recently than in state-level politics in New Mexico and Mississippi, both of which lack appropriate accountability systems and both of which have faced local scrutiny and public outrage after widely reported ethical issues, including public officials using campaign funds for personal expenses.
Lobbyists may end up reporting far less of their spending on lawmakers under a bill lauded for improving the state’s campaign finance system. House Bill 105, signed into law by Gov. Susana Martinez on Monday, aims to make it easier for the public to access information about campaign contributions and lobbyists’ reporting. But the bill also ends a requirement that lobbyists report cumulative spending on lawmakers, and increases the limit for reporting from $75 to $100 per event. The original legislation struck the cumulative total requirement. The House Government, Elections & Indian Affairs Committee increased the reporting limit, a change that made it through two more committees as well as the full House of Representatives and Senate.
The New Mexico Department of Health announced on Monday that they were offering licenses to 12 more non-profits to grow medical marijuana. New Mexico now has 35 licensed medical marijuana providers, though the process is not complete for the approved non-profits. If you want to know who these non-profits are, you will have to keep waiting, because the department kept the veil of secrecy that surrounds the program up. Open government advocates and journalists have sought more information on the applicants and past approved non-profits to little effect. DOH did release some information about the non-profits, including which counties the non-profits will operate in.
The latest in a long line of public records accusations have come down, this time with the Republican Party of New Mexico criticizing the State Auditor for using a Gmail account. Tim Keller has been at the center of headlines, and in the crosshair of Republicans, for months. His office says it has to do with his investigation into Taxation and Revenue Department Secretary Demesia Padilla. The Santa Fe New Mexican first reported on the criticism from the political party. Concerning Keller’s use of the Gmail account, GOP spokesman Patrick Garrett said Tuesday, “Tim Keller’s obvious disregard for the law and transparent government is the epitome of hypocrisy.
The editor-in-chief of the state’s largest newspaper and an independent journalist are among the recipients of the Dixon First Amendment Awards annually handed out by the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. Kent Walz, the editor-in-chief of the Albuquerque Journal, will receive the lifetime achievement award from the organization while Peter St. Cyr received the award for journalism. The other two recipients are Dr. Chad Painter for education and Mark Leech for government. The four winners will be honored at the annual FOG luncheon in October.