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COLUMN: Conference Committess

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By The Staff

Anyone who pays attention to the Legislature has had this experience: Differing versions of a bill pass the House and Senate; the bills go to a conference committee; the bill that comes out is substantially different from the two that went in.

What happened? Hard to tell.

Why? Because New Mexico is among a handful of states that close conference committee meetings to the public.

So what? Depends on whether you want government to conduct business in the open or behind closed doors.

The perception is that conference committees “reconcile” differences between versions of the same bill. In fact, they have considerable power to craft legislation. While joint legislative rules say the conference committee can’t alter the bills that come to it “unless the item has been the subject of a legislative committee hearing during the session,” that’s pretty broad language. Nearly anything discussed during a committee hearing can become part of a conference committee’s final bill, including ideas that were rejected or ideas brought up solely for the purpose of preserving them for later use in conference.

But when the final bill comes out of conference committee, the House and Senate must adopt or reject it as presented — no changes.

That’s how conference committees can and do make law in secret, circumventing the democratic process.

Conference committees keep no minutes and the whole process is conducted in anonymity. The only people who know what happened in the locked room are the three senators and three representatives on the committee, and they’re not talking lest they face retaliation.

All we know is that some horse-trading occurred, but we don’t know what horses were traded or who traded them.

Opponents argue that opening conference committees to the public would drive that horse-trading further underground, implying it could somehow become more secret than it already is. But opening the meetings creates opportunity for shining light on those underground deals. With open conference committees, the six members would at a minimum have to vote in public. And once you know how someone voted, you can ask him or her why.

Opponents also argue that opening conference committee meetings would lengthen them. But the public wouldn’t be allowed to comment, only to attend and observe, so the only factor in longer meetings would be the legislators themselves.

In fact, there is no significant evidence that these or any other predicted dire consequences have been a problem in the 43 states that already have some form of open conference committees.

Opening conference committees to the public was a recommendation in the 2007 report of the independent Ethics Reform Study Committee co-chaired by former Gov. Gary Carruthers. The legislation actually passed in 2007 until some Senate maneuvering led to reconsideration and defeat, both by one vote.

During the debate, one senator said the press only wanted open conference committees so they’d have something to write about. Such a comment raises the question that if there’s something going on in conference committees worth writing about, shouldn’t the public know what it is?

As this is written, two open conference committee bills sit unheard and unscheduled in the Senate Rules Committee — Rep. Joe Cervantes’ House Bill 393, which has already passed the House 66-0, and Senate Bill 150, sponsored by Sen. Dede Feldman, which has languished in the committee since the session opened. The fact that half the members of the Senate Rules Committee have been consistent opponents of open conference committees could be a factor.

The members of the House made it clear by their 66-0 vote that it’s time for New Mexico to join the vast majority of states that open their conference committees to the public. If you believe in government transparency, if you believe that laws should be made in the open and not in secret, please send that message to your senators.

Dana L. Bowley is executive director of the New Mexico Press Association. He is a native New Mexican who has been in the news business in the state more than 30 years. He may be reached at 505-275-1241.