One of the Iron Laws of Politics is, anything you do, anything you say, is going make somebody mad. Which is why so many politicians speak softly, even sweetly, and why, when they wield their version of Teddy Roosevelt’s Big Stick, they’re prefer you not see who gets whacked, or benefited.
When it comes to transparency in government, New Mexico has a long history of sweet talk — laws that promise governmental openness, easy public access to public meetings and public documents — but deliver less.
Back in 2015, when HERE & THERE was just starting its second year, the fine New Mexico journalist Gwyneth Doland detailed her report for the Center for Public Integrity on the state’s performance on open records and public access laws, which, she said, fell far short of what the laws allowed.
One particularly sensitive secret the state legislature kept hidden in 2015 was how members allocated public money for various public infrastructure projects. Who spent how much on what bridge, highway or ball field?
Since these “capital outlays” were selected from among a much longer list of possibilities, each allocation winner could produce disappointed losers. But if no senator or representative’s allocations were made public, no one would know who they were mad at. This is legislative logic and so is this.
The potentially dangerous secret choices were made by incumbents; keeping the allocations secret helped incumbents keep their seats. Which helps explain why every year, starting with 2016, state legislators from both parties proposed to open the capital outlay list to public scrutiny. And every year through 2020 the reform proposals failed.
Not this year. In its 2021 session the New Mexico Legislature passed, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed, into law a requirement that a list of each legislator’s allocations for capital outlay projects be publicly posted online within 30 days of the end of the legislative session.
Which raises at least two questions — what took ’em so long? and does the new law mean public spending in NM has become transparent?
Marjorie Childress is the managing editor for New Mexico In Depth. She’s covered New Mexico politics and policy issues since 2008, first with the New Mexico Independent, the state’s first digital nonprofit news outlet, and then with New Mexico In Depth. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of North Texas and a Master’s degree in community planning from the University of New Mexico. She has held management positions in both the private and nonprofit sectors, leading financial management and program teams.