This year brings a landmark for the Sunlight Foundation. We’ve been hinting for some time that we’re going to make a serious play in state government, and New Mexico is one of the first where we’ll focus those efforts. As my colleague Noah wrote earlier this month, the state’s House of Representatives has voted to expand the presence of webcams in its proceedings. It was an early sign during the 2010 legislative session that New Mexico’s lawmakers are beginning to take open government seriously. It was a also welcome sign, but when the session ended last week it was clear that open-government advocates will remain busy in the 2011 session.
The state has been plagued by corruption and ethics investigations in recent years, and while the Sunlight Foundation doesn’t have a dog in that particular fight we do recognize (and support) the role transparency can play in helping citizens hold their elected officials accountable. From Sunlight’s perspective, there are a number of interesting questions raised by New Mexico’s legislature and the “state of transparency” there, some unique to the Land of Enchantment and some that will be applicable in other locales as well. For starters, the state legislature is part time—they just completed a 30-day session (every other year it’s 60 days). That’s true for many states, but in New Mexico legislators aren’t paid for their work in Santa Fe. It also means lawmakers have precious little time to consider legislation. As you’re aware, the Sunlight Foundation has long called on Congress to post legislation online for 72 hours prior to a vote. How would such a rule be feasible in a short legislative session like the one underway in New Mexico? On a more granular level, the state has a foundation of legislative transparency. Legislation has been posted online in the state for years, and that service includes versioning (a reader can see what language was struck and what language was added) as a bill progresses. The Legislative Council Service (similar to the Congressional Research Service) supports legislators, and the Legislative Finance Committee reports on bills in much the same way as the Congressional Budget Office. Documents from the LCS and the LFC are published online as well (and on the same page as legislation for related bills). However, none of this information is available in XML—plain text and PDF are the only options.
Again, as Noah noted, the New Mexico House will start to publish roll call votes online, but the Senate has yet to approve a similar measure. House Resolution 3, however, is vague in its wording, and there’s no legislative mandate that requires the vote data be released in a format that complies with the Principles of Open Government Data. Will developers, like my colleagues in Sunlight Labs or at OpenCongress, be able to build projects around that information?
As worried as we might be about access to information and data formats, the Sunlight Foundation’s mission is also to increase citizen participation in government. New Mexico’s geography and the part-time legislature make citizen participation difficult. Lawmakers make an effort to hold “interim” committee meetings in communities across the state while not in session, and it’s not uncommon for Senators and Representatives to host town hall meetings as well. But the sheer distances between Santa Fe and communities in the state preclude most ordinary citizens from engaging in the legislative process. The same effect was true for Congress before C-SPAN came along. In an attempt to remedy this situation, open government advocates have asked state legislators to stream committee meetings and floor sessions online. While the House has approved a resolution requiring streaming of some committee meetings, the Senate has not (both chambers stream audio and video from the floor).
There were some interesting developments during the session, and the Legislature sent several related pieces of legislation to Gov. Bill Richardson’s desk for signature. The first, HB 165, would establish whistle-blower protection for state employees who report or refuse to participate in an “unlawful or improper act.” The second, SB 44/211, sets standards of conduct for government and elected officials (for example, requiring disclosure of conflicts of interest). The third would create a “sunshine portal” where financial information for state agencies is posted online. In addition, the sunshine portal would feature information on lobbyists and open meetings. If Gov. Richardson signs SB 195, the portal would open by July 2011.
In addition, a piece out yesterday argues that a new law requiring open conference committees is at the heart of the Legislature’s budget impasse during the 30-day session.Walt Rubel, a veteran reporter, writes on the budget process:
This year the House came up with a third choice – do nothing. The Senate sent its revised bill over, and the House sat on it until the session ended. No conference committee was called. Forced to conduct the public’s business in public, lawmakers decided not to conduct it at all. And when the closed-door sessions failed to produce a compromise, the 30-day budget session ended without a budget.
Regardless, I feel like the session was an incredible win for open-government advocates, in part due to the work of the American Independent News Network and the New Mexico Independent. They asked us to sit in on several liveblogging sessions, where we experienced first-hand the concerns of New Mexican bloggers and citizens. They helped pioneer this type of coverage in the Roundhouse, and it will serve as a model for successfully interacting with readers. During the final hours of the legislative session, several lawmakers participated in the liveblog as well. That’s another welcome sign, and the sort of engagement the Sunlight Foundation likes to see.