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Legislative bills we like

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By Optic Editorial Board

Last December, a great new feature went online in the form of the Sunshine Portal, a website designed to provide greater accountability and transparency in New Mexico government. State Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque,  sponsor of the legislation that created the site, said the concept was to create a “one-stop shop” to see where state agencies are spending taxpayers’ money.

It also motivated other lawmakers to develop some bills to more widely open the doors of government. Here are a few, starting with a couple of measures intended to expand the Sunshine Portal itself, and our take on them:

• Senate Bill 327 and House Bill 436, sponsored by Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, and Rep. James E. Smith, R-Sandia Park, would require public school districts to provide a wide range of information to the state Public Education Department for posting on the Sunshine Portal. Such an upload of information would be a big step toward improving accountability at local school districts.

• Senate Bill 392, sponsored by Sen. Mary Jane M. Garcia, D-Dona Ana, would create a local government portal by July 2013 for Class A counties and municipalities with populations of more than 15,000 (though local governments could be exempt if them maintain their own portal). This takes the Sunshine Portal concept to the next level and deserves passage; then another bill should follow to require such e-openness at all levels.

Of course, the Sunshine Portal is the product of the state rapidly expanding electronic capabilities, and lawmakers haven’t overlooked the need to modernize the state’s public records law as well. Here are a couple of e-records friendly bills:

• Senate Bill 52, sponsored by Sen. Stephen Fischmann, D-Mesilla Park, would require agencies to provide public records electronically upon request (if they already exist in that format), with fees linked to actual costs. This measure is long overdue, as more and more information is easily retrieved and released via e-mail, rather than making people go through the hassle of requesting hardcopy documentation.

• Senate Bill 271, sponsored by Sen. Timothy Keller, D-Albuquerque, would make ”knowingly and in bad faith” withholding of public records a criminal offense — specifically, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500. Plus, it would created a fourth-degree felony for knowingly and willfully destroying public records to circumvent the state’s open records act. This measure would make the Inspection of Public Records Act a lot stronger, which would serve the public interest well.

Then there are the webcasting measures, the byproduct of a legislative decision two years ago to open the conference committee meetings. House Bill 367, Senate Bill 456 and Senate Resolution 1 would bring webcasting requirements into public meetings, cabinet meetings and Senate committees respectively, thereby creating an even greater atmosphere of openness at the Roundhouse.

We hope all these bills pass and go to Gov. Susana Martinez’s desk for signing. She has verbally expressed her support for a more open government, so let her put her pen where her promises lie.