SPJ Rio Grande has created the Access-O-Meter to alert New Mexicans to bills that could impair journalists’ and the public’s ability to see what’s going on in local governments and hold public officials accountable.
1 = troubling 10 = extreme chilling effect
SB 149: Score=3
Sponsor: Sen. Jacob Candelaria (D-Bernalillo)
Problems: This bill would expand what the government can withhold from the public under the law enforcement exception to the Inspection of Public Records Act — perhaps the most broadly abused, most frequently misinterpreted exception in the state sunshine law. Its well-meaning intent — to protect witnesses to and victims of certain crimes — notwithstanding, the bill would further limit the public’s ability to see how law enforcement officers do their jobs and hold them accountable when they go too far.
Unique to this bill: As originally conceived, SB 149 had the potential to keep entire law enforcement records, long understood to be public, from disclosure in cases involving a broad range of commonly committed crimes. It also could have allowed the government to shield law enforcement officers who were “witnesses” to certain crimes from public scrutiny. Finally, the bill is in some ways redundant, both in law and in practice: Many law enforcement agencies already redact crime victims’ names from police reports under the existing law enforcement exception, and lawmakers would be hard-pressed to find a news organization that reports the names of, for example, rape victims. Some of the bill’s most egregious portions have been rolled back through the committee process. The Rio Grande Chapter appreciates that Sen. Candelaria listened to the concerns of transparency advocates and amended the bill. However, the chapter believes there should be more transparency on the activities of law enforcement, not less. This bill does not serve the public or the people it purports to protect, but it could have been worse.
SB 299: Score=6
Sponsor: Sen. Jacob Candelaria (D-Bernalillo)
Problems: The bill would cut contractors from protections under the state’s Whistleblower Protection Act. It also makes vague references to “exhausting all administrative remedies” before someone can blow the whistle and makes it so there have to be “tangible changes” to someone’s employment before they can enjoy the protections of the law. The bill also gets rid of public malfeasance in office as something one could blow the whistle about; essentially protecting only those who blow the whistle on people who break the law.
Unique to this bill: While we’re focused this session on bills related to transparency, IPRA or OMA, this one causes alarm among journalists, too. If anything, we’d like to see protections strengthened for those public employees and contractors who speak out about fraud, mismanagement and law-breaking within the agencies they serve.
SB 158: Score=7
Sponsor: Sen. Bill Tallman (D-Bernalillo)
Problems: The bill would exempt from the Inspection of Public Records Act outgoing checks that haven’t yet been cleared by the bank. Only once the check clears the bank would an agency have to produce it as a public record. We don’t support carving out exemptions from IPRA and making documents—especially financial documents—from any state agency less transparent and accessible to the public.
Unique to the bill: The bill’s fiscal impact report notes that the Department of Finance and Administration receives “numerous” IPRA requests each year for outstanding unpaid warrants from companies that sell their services to people who haven’t been paid. However, access to this information is important to journalists and members of public who are trying to determine whether state government is paying its contractors and other companies in a timely manner. The bill might also muddy the already difficult process of determining how companies managing Medicaid spend the advances paid to them each month to cover Medicaid patients. The timing of this bill to exempt outgoing checks not yet cleared by the bank raises questions about the state’s fiscal health.
HB 58: Score=8
Problems: The bill includes a “secret sunset” for regulations. That is, an automatic sunset for all regulations every 12 years. Our read is that literally any state regulation could undergo a significant overhaul, and no one would know it happened. It also restricts agencies that have more transparent rule-making processes from keeping those in place—and gives agencies inclined toward statutory secrecy cover.
Unique to the bill: It appears as though state regulations could be repealed during that 12-year time period without public notice.
SB 218: Score = 6
Sponsor: Sen. Linda Lopez (D-Albuquerque)
Problems: The ethics commission would conduct much of its work in secret. Plus, the Open Meetings Act would be amended to keep commission meetings behind closed doors.
Unique to this bill: Anyone who disclosed material that was deemed confidential would face a fine of up to $10,000, a civil penalty of $25,000 and a misdemeanor for each act deemed a violation.
HB 10: Score = 8
Problems: The ethics board would conduct much of its work in secret. Plus, the Open Meetings Act would be amended to keep board meetings behind closed doors.
Unique to this bill: It makes this new board responsible for enforcing the civil penalties in the state’s public records law. As things stand, the state’s attorney general enforces those provisions, and when those complaints are filed with the AG, they are public record.
It also appears to take enforcement of the state’s Campaign Reporting Act away from the Secretary of State’s Office — where complaints are public when they’re filed — and put it with the board.
SB 93: Score = 8
Sponsor: Sen. George Muñoz (D-Gallup)
Problems: It would exempt the applications of prospective government employees from public scrutiny — in some cases, the applications would apparently be secret forever.
Unique to this bill: The bill would publish the name and resume of any “finalist for the head of any agency, state institution or political subdivision of the state … prominently on the entity’s website no fewer than seven days prior to the final decision to hire the individual.” It does not define who would be considered a “finalist” for a job or spell out what would constitute the “head” of an agency. And publication on a government website a week before a “final” decision hardly gives citizens the time or access they need to weigh in on who might “head” an agency that affects their lives.
HB 267: Score = 4
Problems: It would make some research data and records held by colleges unavailable to the public, adding new exceptions to New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act.
Unique to this bill: This measure aims to protect trade secrets or proprietary information protected by confidentiality agreements. But it also hides data, records or proprietary info collected during medical or scientific research done by faculty and staff. While there may be some arguments for secrecy in this instance, the language here is dangerously broad.