Mischief is no stranger to the waning days of the New Mexico Legislature. This year’s version? The vaguely worded House Concurrent Resolution 1, designed to exempt the state Legislature from provisions of the Inspection of Public Records Act.
That’s right, some in our Legislature think they deserve a cloak of secrecy — unlike other government officials, lawmakers’ emails could remain secret. Resolution co-sponsor Rep. Don Bratton, R-Hobbs, believes that his and other legislators’ email deserves confidentiality. “For me, email is no different than a telephone conversation I have with another person. They’re personal,” Bratton said last week in committee testimony. This, evidently, is a bi-partisan view. Democratic Rep. Eliseo Lee Alcon, D-Milan, believes that as a citizen legislator, “I think it’s up to me to decide if you can have my record.” House Speaker Ken Martinez also is sponsoring the resolution, which seemingly floated out of nowhere last week and passed the House on a 48-16 vote over the weekend. Despite what appears like a wide margin, that vote was actually close — the measure needed a two-thirds vote to pass, or 47 votes. The 16 legislators who voted “no” deserve citizen thanks — including Santa Fe-area Reps. Brian Egolf and Stephanie Garcia Richard.
The resolution makes the Legislative Council Service — the Roundhouse body that helps lawmakers research and draft legislation — the clearinghouse for IPRA requests. Such requests for information come from journalists and other citizens and inform the people about what their government is up to. However, there is language in the resolution that indicates the House and Senate act collectively, rather than through individuals. It’s that wording designed to exempt lawmakers from IPRA requests. Legislators find this exemption in this portion of the state constitution: “ … Members of the legislature shall, in all cases except treason, felony and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the sessions of their respective houses, and on going to and returning from the same. And they shall not be questioned in any other place for any speech or debate or for any vote cast in either house.”
The lawmakers’ reading of the constitution is overly broad. No questions about debate is a far cry from, say, Legislator B from Portales disclosing his dealings with a fat-cat oil lobbyist, or Legislator Z from Las Vegas answering questions about discussions he has had with interests who want to bring fracking to San Miguel County. The public has a right to know about the communications of legislators, just as it has a right to know what emails the governor or a city councilor is sending out to discuss public business. Attorney General Gary King’s opinion that the emails of officials, even on their private accounts, are public when public business is involved, is exactly right.
As the government watchdog group Foundation for Open Government states, the constitution does not give state lawmakers a special “right to privacy.” We love, too, that this insult of a resolution could be adopted during national Sunshine Week, a celebration of the public’s right to know about the inner workings of its government. This resolution is exactly the kind of policy we do not need. More sunshine, not less. New Mexico Senate, it’s up to you to stop this shuttering of the public’s right to know in its tracks. Legislators, despite their inflated sense of self, are not above the same laws by which every other government elected official must abide.