Commentary

Secrecy is a pathogen, too

Lawmakers shuffle papers beyond the public’s view while a virus keeps people at bay

February 2, 2022 8:11 am

The Roundhouse in Santa Fe. (Getty Images)

The Legislature can be dirty. 

I mean that in a skeevy germ way, and in a lack-of-transparency way. 

Yesterday, senators approved a substitute bill about pay for chile farmworkers that was only available on dead-tree paper in the capital building itself. 

In an especially opaque part of the lawmaking process, amendments to legislation are posted online after they’re approved on the House or Senate floor. 

As Source NM Reporter Patrick Lohmann writes: “That means senators considered and approved legislation that the public had no chance to read or weigh in on.” 

Those amendments can be significantly different than the original measures, altering key points in a bill that people really care about. And it’s the public’s business, our business, to know what’s happening as legislators spend millions of dollars and make laws. 

Back before the word “pandemic” was peppered throughout daily conversation, I remember wry not-jokes about the capital being a gross germ pit during the sessions, like: Did you catch your Roundhouse cold yet? 

It’s not that the place isn’t cleaned. This was just back in the time of everyone going into to work hopped up on over-the-counter meds no matter how bad their fever or mocos or cough. The session always hits mid-January when illnesses are making the rounds. It was kind of inevitable. 

Now, that Roundhouse flu thing is not really so funny. Reporter Austin Fisher, a super COVID-safe guy, maybe caught the virus trying to cover the special session in December. So I hesitate to send all my reporters in there every single day during this 2022 regular session that concludes Feb. 17. Like many people, we’ve been following the session remotely, watching live-streams, doing phone interviews, and asking questions via email and text. 

I caught COVID-19. Isolation and contact tracing kept others safe.

That’s OK in the beginning when all the measures look like they’re inching along. But as the latter half of the session kicks up, legislation starts to move quick. It can be pretty hard to figure out what’s going on remotely. 

And Source Reporter Shaun Griswold will tell you it’s not so easy in-person, either. This week, he’s been risking the notorious germ pit that is the Roundhouse (decked in a suit jacket and a five-ply)  to keep an eye on rapidly shifting meetings, plans and votes. Even so, last minute changes that come out of the blue on physical sheets of office paper surprise Griswold and a lot of people trying to participate in the process even when they, too, are risking their health to be there. 

Take the voting rights bill championed by the governor and secretary of state. It was scheduled to be heard in the Senate Rules Committee on Monday morning. People had traveled in from around the country and within the state, driving up to Santa Fe from as far away as Las Cruces, to attend the hearing bright and early, Griswold said. 

Then they found out the bill got bumped back two days. 

That means all of these people who risked travel to testify in-person about our voting rights would have to figure out how to stay through Wednesday. Or, I bet in some cases, just head back home and maybe make a plan for testifying via Zoom or email. 

“At the time, I kind of didn’t think much of it,” Griswold said. “I was just like, ‘That’s weird. That’s a travel inconvenience. I’m sorry that happened.’ But then it set the tone for the rest of the day for me, because there were several pieces of legislation that I was looking to follow in committee that ended up being completely different from the agenda that was posted (online) for that day.” 

KUNM Reporter and “All Things Considered” Host Nash Jones watched the hearing from Albuquerque, waiting to hear the conversation about voting rights. They saw Sen. Katy Duhigg (D-Albuquerque) say she had an amendment but hadn’t submitted it yet, and she wanted everyone to be able to wrap their heads around it. Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) mentioned the change was 10-15 pages long and so people should spend time with it before debate. He said he would pass it around that day. 

Update on Wednesday, Feb. 2 at 1:30 p.m.:

We did finally get a full copy of the amended bill. Find the measure at the end of this article.

Observing via computer screen, Jones wasn’t sure whether they were missing something. “I couldn’t tell if they were handing it out in that moment or not.” They went to the Legislature’s website and didn’t see the lengthy amendment on the page for SB 8. “I called around trying to find someone who was in the room to see, you know, did this amendment get passed out? And is there a copy floating around that I can get my hands on? Because it was not mentioned what the amendment was about, and I wanted to report on it and talk about it.” 

A bunch of phone calls later — hearing ‘Oh, the senator was just in here and she had stacks of the amendment, but she just left with all the copies,’ or ‘We have to wait until it is submitted to the committee before we can share it,’ — and no responses from Duhigg herself, Jones was at a loss. 

Finally, the bill was scheduled to be heard Wednesday, but the amendment still wasn’t online. The administrative assistant over at the Senate Rules Committee, talking to Jones again, said something along the lines of: ‘You know, I don’t know. I’m imagining the senator is just going to arrive with copies at the hearing itself.’ 

“Because of COVID restrictions, it is supposed to be a session that can be followed along with and engaged with remotely,” Jones said. “I mean, the COVID numbers are incredibly high right now. There are positive cases coming out of the Roundhouse.” 

Jones hit up Griswold who was in the building. Griswold ran to printing services, where he’s used to finding printed docs like the amendment. The person who worked there said the printers were only getting documents and agendas to print off after they’re already available online, which is not how it usually happens. 

Griswold said the delay in looking at information is changing his process.

“I am now having to shift my reporting and go directly to these people and be like, ‘Can I have that? Or can I take a picture of that document?’” he said.

A reporter at yet another outlet managed to get a copy of the voting rights amendment from a senator and kindly took photos of each page to send to Jones. 

But that’s not how it’s supposed to work. You shouldn’t get basic information about changes to a voting rights bill — or any bill — because a senator passed someone you know a physical copy. 

Look, this isn’t Watergate, but it is a real access and transparency concern for everyone — not just reporters. What if you want to testify before the committees but don’t know when they will meet or how the measure you’re talking about has been changed? Or what if the state Senate was annoyed with a news organization’s reporters and didn’t want to share a physical copy with them for some reason? It’d be easy to make sure they didn’t get one.

More importantly, this kind of last-minute, sheets-of-paper-only thing creates a situation where, for instance, a lawmaker who wanted something to be approved without much headache or scrutiny could easily obscure it via the shuffling of papers.

“We have the biggest surplus of money that the state has ever had, on top of close to $500 million of federal money that they have to spend,” Griswold said. “We’re dealing with big-time money here.” But the rules of the game seem to keep changing as they spend it.

Griswold, nearing the end of the day Tuesday, was still waiting on yet another piece of paper. As the big spending bill made its way through committee that morning, someone had read from a clarified list breaking down exactly where all the money will go. 

The hearing happened at 8 a.m. By 3 p.m., still no dice, and nothing posted at nmlegis.gov — the Legislature’s site.

“The website itself is a pretty substantial resource” Griswold said. “We use it every single day. That’s the first thing we look at to see what’s happening. What’s the point of the website if they’re just gonna change stuff in person, right?”

Seems like it wouldn’t be so hard to make these bills available digitally, either. It’s not like these documents lawmakers are passing around are handwritten. “That paper copy,” Griswold pointed out, “comes from a computer.”

Griswold managed to get a copy of the changes to SB 8. The full text of the amended bill is below:

NM SB 8 Amendment 020222

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Marisa Demarco
Marisa Demarco

Marisa Demarco is an Albuquerque-based journalist and lifelong New Mexican whose work has won national and regional awards. She's spent almost two decades as a reporter, producer and newsroom leader, co-founding the New Mexico Compass, and editing and writing for the Weekly Alibi, the Albuquerque Tribune and UNM's Daily Lobo. She began a career in radio full-time at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health and criminal legal reform for much of the last seven years. During the pandemic, she was also the executive producer for “Your NM Gov” and “No More Normal,” shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice.

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