A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
January 19, 2006
What has been called “the last bastion of secrecy” in the state Legislature is under attack.
Lawmakers once again will try to open up conference committees — panels made up of members of both houses to iron out differences in bills that have passed both chambers.
Conference committees are now held behind closed doors.
“Other public bodies have done this and they’re still able to get things done,” said Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, who is sponsoring such a bill in the Senate.
In the past, some senators who have opposed the change claim that real negotiations can’t take place if reporters and television cameramen are present.
Lawmakers, the opponents say, would tend to grandstand for the cameras and not seriously negotiate. They would dig in their heels and stick to their positions as not to offend constituents and interest groups instead of trying to work out reasonable compromises, the argument goes.
But, Feldman said, “After a month or so, I think all the grandstanding would stop.”
According to a report distributed by Bob Johnson, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, New Mexico is one of only eight states in which conference committees are closed.
Gov. Bill Richardson, at a National Freedom of Information Coalition Conference in Santa Fe, endorsed the idea of opening the conference committees. According to an Associated Press account of the May meeting, Richardson said he wasn’t aware the meetings were closed.
On Wednesday the governor sent a formal message that he had put the conference committee bill on his call — which is necessary for a nonbudget bill to be considered during a 30-day session.
In recent years, attempts to open the conference committees have made it through the House, but died in the Senate. In 2001, Sen. Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, now Senate majority leader, argued, “The institution needs some privacy.”
And then there were two: The Democratic race to choose a candidate to run against Republican incumbent Pat Lyons got a little less crowded Wednesday. San Miguel County Commission Chairman Leroy Garcia, who was the first candidate to announce last year, said he was stepping out of the race to back another candidate — Jim Baca, former land commissioner and former Albuquerque mayor.
That leaves just Baca and another former land commissioner, Ray Powell Jr., on the Democratic side.
Garcia said he’d already collected about 4,000 petition signatures — more than the approximately 2,800 needed.
But he said he was afraid that he and Baca would split the Hispanic vote.
Garcia, a former analyst for the state Transportation Department, said he has been offered a position with that department.
Speaking of state jobs, Baca, who was hired by Gov. Bill Richardson as state natural resource trustee, said Wednesday he’ll retire from his post on March 1.
More fun at the Land Office: Last week this column reported that Baca was criticizing Lyons for spending more than $100,000 on television advertising spots featuring Lyons himself. Baca’s argued that the ads were nothing but “political commercials paid for by taxpayers.”
This week Land Office spokeswoman Kristin Haase argued that the ads were not paid for by taxpayers.
“In fact, we don’t spend taxpayer money,” she said. “We save taxpayers money. The Land Office generates its own income. We don’t get any money from the general fund.”
Baca replied that it doesn’t matter if the money is from the general fund or not — it’s still state money. “It’s $100,000 that’s not going to the beneficiaries,” he said.
Roundhouse dementia: Senate Republican Whip Leonard Lee Rawson on Wednesday demanded that fellow Las Cruces senator, Mary Jane Garcia, who’s also the Democratic whip, apologize for calling former Doña Ana County Sheriff Juan Hernandez “demented.”
Hernandez was nominated by Richardson for a spot on the state Parole Board. The Senate confirmed the nomination, though Garcia voted no.
“Sen. Garcia calling Sheriff Hernandez demented on the Senate floor today is totally irresponsible, completely inaccurate and vindictive,” Sen. Rawson said in a news release. “I am calling on her to formally apologize to Mr. Hernandez personally and to the Senate publicly.”
Garcia, however, won’t apologize. In an interview, she pointed out that Hernandez resigned in 2004 because of “dementia.”
A Dec. 1, 2004 news release from Doña Ana County said that “Hernandez has been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, an untreatable disease of the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. His mental facilities are expected to deteriorate over the next 3-10 years.”
Hernandez’s supporters say that medication has helped Hernandez’s condition.
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