NM lawmakers weigh job applicant secrecy

Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – This year’s legislative session could bring a dose of sunshine to lobbying in the Roundhouse.

And it could limit public scrutiny of applicants serving as school principals, district chiefs or other high-level government posts.

The ideas — for more government transparency and for less — are among hundreds of bills tabled in the first eight days of the 2023 legislative session.

The quest for more secrecy in the hiring process for top government positions gained momentum on Wednesday as it vacated its first committee by a 7-2 vote and advanced in the Senate.

In contrast, proposals to shed more light on Capitol lobbying are only just beginning. They were presented on Wednesday and await their first committee hearings.

The proposal to limit the disclosure of applicants, Senate Bill 63, would create a new exemption in the State Inspection of Public Records Act, allowing governments to withhold the names of all but three finalists for an appointed executive position.

Senator Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, in the Senate, Friday, February 7, 2020. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Democratic Senator Bill Tallman of Albuquerque — a retired city manager who supports the bill — said it would widen the pool of candidates for high-level jobs, as some candidates don’t want their names released. He dismissed objections that would allow nepotism.

“If the press does its job,” Tallman said, “they can track down this information.”

Representatives from the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, the Albuquerque Journal and the New Mexico Press Association testified against the bill.

They said the public should not have to rely on officials’ word that they selected the top finalists for a senior position.

“Secrecy is not necessary to find excellent candidates,” Melanie Majors, executive director of the Foundation for Open Government, told lawmakers.

Tallman’s action now goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee, possibly his final stop before reaching the full Senate. A similar proposal was blocked in the 2021 session.

Lobbying Disclosures

The legislator is also considering additional transparency.

For example, a $6.4 million additional spending bill moving forward in the Senate includes a provision that requires disclosure of which state legislature sponsored each appropriation in the bill. For years, lawmakers haven’t disclosed how they allocated some of their discretionary spending, but they’ve been moving toward greater transparency in recent years.

Two bipartisan proposals in the Senate also aim to better disclose the work of lobbyists in the Capitol.

Paid lobbyists are incredibly influential in New Mexico’s legislative sessions, sometimes playing a role akin to unofficial lawmakers’ associates. They help with examining bills and amendments to the law and, of course, represent the interests of their employers.

The bipartisan legislation introduced on Wednesday would require lobbyists to disclose their compensation and their positions on proposed legislation.

“What we’re really asking is just to shed light on all the interests and actors involved in shaping the legislative process so that they aren’t hidden from the public eye,” Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, told the diary.

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said he hopes lawmakers will have an increased appetite for transparency in this session.

“Our generation has been more open over the past decade to trying to reform the legislative process in a bipartisan way,” Moores said.

Senate Act 217 – sponsored by Steinborn and Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras – would require lobbyists to report their compensation from any employer.

Senate Act 218 – sponsored by Steinborn and Moores – would require lobbyists to report which bills they are lobbying for and their positions on them.