By Matt Grubs, NMiF Producer
UPDATE: The House passed HCR 1 on Sunday afternoon by a vote of 48-16, sending the measure on to the Senate. The rules committee in the upper chamber will address the measure next.
Also, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government has formally opposed HCR 1.
By unanimous vote Friday morning, the House Rules and Order of Business Committee passed House Concurrent Resolution 1 (HCR 1), a measure that seeks to define the official custodian of record for public documents generated by the Legislature – and also to restrict just what documents are considered public.
The resolution sets the Legislative Council Service as the custodian and thus the agency responsible for gathering information relevant to requests for public records under the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA). That’s procedural, “nuts and bolts” kind of language and the resolution follows up with a section directing other legislative agencies to cooperate.
As stated by Speaker of the House and co-sponsor Ken Martinez, D-Grants, it sounds like this:
Speaker Martinez notes the hope is come to a conclusion “in an open meeting” such as the committee hearing. In reality, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to do it any other way. HCR 1 will have to pass the House and Senate with a two-thirds vote.
The speaker also notes that “we are a volunteer, citizen legislature coming from throughout the state.”
The statement illustrates an apparent divide in thinking among lawmakers. To Rep. Ken Martinez, an attorney, it’s clear he’s using the phrase “citizen legislature” to underscore the fact that most legislators don’t have a full time staff and some are worried they might have to bear the burden of public records requests that take a significant amount of time and effort to fulfill.
To much of the committee, though, including co-sponsor and House Minority Leader Don Bratton, R-Hobbs, the words “citizen legislature” seem to mean something closer to an exemption from IPRA.
The rubber meets the road in Section C of the resolution: “The House and Senate, and their respective committees, exercise authority collectively and not through the actions of individual members.”
Rep. Bratton explained what’s behind that wording in testimony:
The key phrase for Rep. Bratton and others thinking along his lines is that his job as an elected official “requires that we have confidential communications between ourselves and constituents.” That’s something akin to executive privilege, which is often asserted by governors of both parties to prevent the release of records that would otherwise be public. New Mexico law contains no specific provision for legislators to cite executive privilege.
Representative Dennis Roch, a Republican from Texico, was the only committee member to push back on the resolution, noting that committee assignments and appointments to boards and commissions could indeed be influenced by individual authority, as opposed to the collective authority cited in HCR 1. Rep. Roch’s observations were met with silence and he stopped short of offering an amendment to the resolution.
After the committee unanimously voted to send the measure to the House floor, both co-sponsors talked openly about what they believe is behind the legislation – and in doing so underscored the different views on what “citizen legislature” and “private communication” means.
To Rep. Bratton, the takeaway from the hearing seems to be that private emails – regardless of their content – are exempted from public records requests.
Speaker Martinez, however, acknowledged to reporters that, in his view, an email discussing public business would likely be a public record regardless of whether it resides in a private or public email account.
Here, the Associated Press’ Barry Massey digs deeper with the speaker on the issue of whether the Legislature is creating a more restrictive version of IPRA for itself relative to other lawmaking bodies such as city councils.
Again, the attorney sees this measure as more of a procedural resolution than one speaking on what would be subject to an open records request. However, it seemed a fair number of committee members thought they’d just voted themselves an exemption from IPRA.
The first sentence of Section C remains.
“The House and Senate, and their respective committees, exercise authority collectively and not through the actions of individual members.”
That phrase has drawn a close look from advocacy organizations like the New Mexico ACLU and the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. NMFOG has formally opposed the measure.
Gwyneth Doland, executive director of NMFOG (and a former NMiF correspondent), spoke after the hearing.