Opinion: COVID crisis offers giant leap for NM legislature

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Since the 1970s, when Americans realized the dangers of government secrecy through Watergate and Vietnam, the value of transparency in public policy making has become increasingly evident. Bad things are more likely to happen in the dark, not only when it comes to crimes, but also when it comes to laws passed in secret or decisions made without public participation. This is why New Mexico enacted the Open Meetings Act in 1974.

As stated in the law itself, the legislature has recognized that representative government depends on an informed electorate, armed with as much information as possible about the affairs of government and the official acts of its officers and employees. The requirements for open meetings, prior notification and access to public documents, outlined in the law, all flow from this basic concept.

When the COVID pandemic hit our state last year, lawmakers were stymied. How do we respect the need for a public meeting of the Legislative Assembly, where citizens could make public comments, hearings of witnesses and committees, and have access to legislators and documents that may one day become law?

Within a fairly short period of time, lawmakers put in place a mechanism that combined legislative webcasts with zoomed-in committee meetings where the public could testify on pending bills and submit written comments. The public were barred from the Roundhouse with only a few masked and tested staff and media allowed. Contacts between legislators themselves have been minimized and the number of floor sessions reduced. Masks were compulsory. The reaction to the new system, with unheard-of restrictions, has been mixed.

After the session, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government hosted two focus groups, made up of lawmakers, lobbyists and media representatives, to determine whether the lack of face-to-face communication and the use of technology virtual increase or decrease transparency and accountability.

A quick consensus emerged. Never again.

Participants hoped that the 2021 session would be the last fully virtual. But at the same time, all agreed that public participation had increased, since ordinary citizens wishing to testify or contact their lawmaker did not have to travel hundreds of miles to Santa Fe.

The trend of increased public participation continued this summer as the Citizens Redistricting Committee combined remote testimony with 16 in-person sessions held statewide. Over 2,100 New Mexicans attended the hearings via zoom or in person, and the committee reviewed 700 comments and 80 maps, many of which were drawn by citizens themselves. It was an unprecedented level of civic engagement.

In the long run, standardizing the remote process will increase both transparency and accountability, and its use alongside in-person sessions and interim committee hearings, where lawmakers and voters can interact with each other, is a win-win solution.

Strangely, COVID has backed the legislature in a giant leap – now why not make it permanent? Improved and standardized use of video, zoom, and web technologies can complement our in-person, New Mexico-style legislative sessions and increase transparency, accountability and democracy.

– Heather Ferguson

Executive director

Common cause New Mexico


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