In State Government, Transparency Goes Both Ways

By Tracy Dingmann

The Albuquerque Journal makes a compelling argument today in calling for more sunshine in the Roundhouse.

In an editorial called “Lawmakers, Let’s Put the Sunshade Away,” the Journal takes the state Senate to task for passing a rule that bans people from taking audio or video of committee meetings (news media excepted).

It’s an argument we at Clearly heartily support. Committee meetings are public. Under the First Amendment, the New Mexico Senate has no business prohibiting anyone from taking audio or video of public meetings conducted in our State Capitol.

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Which Path, Governor?

By Tracy Dingmann

On Monday, Jan. 31, Governor Susana Martinez issued an executive order requiring state police officers to inquire into criminal suspect’s immigration status and “report relevant information to federal immigration enforcement authorities.”

It was the latest in a troubling stream of executive orders to come from Governor Martinez’s office since literally the moment she took office.

Like the other executive orders emanating from her office, it sought to aggressively reverse key decisions made by her predecessor, Gov. Bill Richardson. And like the rest of her executive orders, it appears to be extremely vulnerable to legal challenges on purely constitutional grounds.

Add Monday’s executive order to the rest of the group and I think it’s time for the people of New Mexico to ask sincerely – which path are you taking us down, Governor?

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Gov. Martinez Sued Again in State Supreme Court

Gov. Susana Martinez

By Tracy Dingmann

The head of the state Worker’s Compensation Administration has filed suit against Gov. Susana Martinez in state Supreme Court, saying she is breaking state law by attempting to remove him from office before the expiration of his five-year statutory term.

In a suit filed Jan. 14, Albuquerque attorney Glenn R. Smith says Gov. Martinez has no authority as governor to remove him from office before his term ends in January 2012.

Smith, a former Deputy Attorney General and special counsel to the Attorney General, has been director of the Worker’s Compensation Administration since Gov. Bill Richardson appointed him to the position in January of 2007. He was confirmed by the state legislature.

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AZ Immigration Law? We’re Better Than That, New Mexico

A bill that would require Arizona police to stop and interrogate people about their immigration status if they have brown skin or speak Spanish is sitting on Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s desk –and it looks like she just might sign it into law.

If Brewer signs the bill giving the state the power to enforce federal immigration law the repercussions would usher in a police-state mentality in Arizona that would go well beyond the immigrant community.

All brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking people in Arizona – including those who are just visiting the state – would be subject to questioning by police. The definition of “reasonable suspicion” that would allow cops to stop people is murky – one California legislator even suggested it could be based on someone’s assessment of a person’s clothes or shoes.

And it wouldn’t just be brown-skinned Spanish speakers at risk of being stopped by police – read this legal interpretation from Gabriel “Jack” Chin, a University of Arizona law professor and constitutional-law expert who has spent years crafting other bills and thinks this law is poorly written.

It was published Thursday in the Arizona Republic:

“If the person was born in Mexico and doesn’t have satisfactory identification, I would think there is probable cause to arrest that person for violation of this section: There is evidence they are not a U.S. citizen (foreign birth), they do not have any evidence they are authorized to live in the United States. . . . I would say the answer is: If you look Mexican or Hispanic or Asian or Black, then you should carry ID because there’s already some evidence that you could fall into this category.”

The proposed law has earned Arizona scorn from most of the rest of the country and condemnation from many, including the Catholic Church, President Barack Obama and New Mexico’s own Governor Bill Richardson. Police chiefs across the nation have panned the bill, legal experts question whether the law is constitutional and civil rights advocates call it outright racial profiling.

Could a draconian law like Arizona is considering ever pass in New Mexico? That’s what everyone I’ve been talking to wants to know.

I asked Rachel LaZar, executive director of the local immigrant rights group EL CENTRO de Igualdad y Derechos, whether she thought New Mexicans would ever tolerate a law like the Arizona proposal.

“I am optimistic that policies such as those in Arizona won’t be passed in New Mexico, but we must be vigilant and continue to work together as a community to ensure that doesn’t happen,” she said.

LaZar said that, unlike in Arizona, public and private organizations in New Mexico have worked together for many years to cultivate an atmosphere where immigrants are treated with respect.

“New Mexico has a proud history of passing non-discrimination policies that are conducive to immigrant integration,” she said. “These policies are a result of recognizing the long history of cyclical migration in New Mexico, cultural connections, the recognition of shared values, and due to successful organizing and advocacy efforts led by immigrants leaders, elected officials, unions, faith leaders, and civil rights/civil liberties organizations.”

It is important to note that, if passed in New Mexico,  a law like the one being considered in Arizona would affect much more than just immigrants.

Anyone who is brown and speaks Spanish could be subject to interrogation – including your primo from Cruces or your tia from Chama – and would be well-advised to keep identification with them at all times.

Precious and scarce police resources could be drawn away from serious crimes.

Passage of the bill could spark a tourism boycott like the one they are expecting in Arizona,  and further damage our already precarious economy.

And studies show the atmosphere of suspicion and increased attention to people’s skin color and language could well lead to a spike in hate crimes.

“It is important to understand that anti-immigrant policies have an impact on native born Latino/Hispanics as well, subjecting them to higher incidences of racial profiling, discrimination in the workplace, and hate crimes,” said LaZar. “That is an additional reason for immigrants and non-immigrants in New Mexico to collectively oppose these types of proposals.”

So New Mexicans, please: Let’s not let what’s happening in Arizona ever happen here. We are better than that.

Restaurant Gun Bill Now Law

There was unpleasant news today as Governor Bill Richardson signed a bill that will allow people who have permits to carry concealed weapons to take them into restaurants that serve beer and wine.

You know, like the places you and I take our children to.

The legislation was introduced during the most recent regular session by Sen. George Munoz, a Democrat, who had complained in the press that his gun was stolen from a locked car while in the possession of his sister – in the state of Nevada. If people were allowed to take their guns with them while they ate, they wouldn’t be stolen from their cars, Sen. Munoz argued.

Never mind that the incident that prompted Sen. Munoz to sponsor this bill took place in another state. Never mind that none of the bill’s supporters could produce any statistics showing that this is an actual problem in New Mexico.

The whole premise – that people should be able to bring concealed guns into places where alcohol is served – goes against common sense, not to mention specific studies done by non-partisan think tanks like the Virginia Center for Public Safety.

“I just think it’s a terrible idea,” said Sen. Eric Griego, a Democrat who opposed the bill and spoke out against it. “Families who go to restaurants now have to worry about whether someone may or may not be carrying a weapon.”

Griego acknowledged that permitted gun carriers may have great intentions to use their guns only for protection, but said he worries that accidents can happen whenever a dangerous weapon is present.

Griego said the new law puts restaurant owners – many of whom opposed the bill – in an unenviable position of enforcing the new law.

Griego said he tried to amend the bill to include a measure that would require restaurants to post a notice indicating whether they allow concealed guns or not – forcing the issue so customers would know. That amendment failed, he said. Now, if a restaurant doesn’t post a notice, it can be assumed that they allow concealed carry guns.

In my opinion, Gov. Richardson played awfully coy with this gun bill. He put it on the call for a session that was supposed to focus on the budget. Then the Governor had a spokesman say that in no way should be taken as a sign that he supports the bill. Immediately after the session, Richardson declined to say whether he’d approve the bill, saying “We’ll have to wait and see.”

Today in his announcement, he said, “My decision to sign this bill came after much contemplation and thought. I heard strong opinions from both those for and against the bill. As the Governor of a western state, I know well the deep feelings that come with such a measure, but I also understand those feelings and beliefs must be tempered by the enactment of certain safeguards.”

Richardson also said today that he was directing the New Mexico Department of Public Safety to revise a regulation that would make it clear that those with concealed weapons could not consume alcohol.

Sorry, that’s not good enough.

Thank God that restaurants who reject this new law can opt out by posting a conspicuous notice telling patrons that concealed weapons are not permitted in their restaurant.

Let’s hope they all do.

I won’t take my family to the ones that don’t.

Post-Session Blues

It’s taken me a while to settle down and write this post-session wrap-up. Partly because I’ve been so annoyed with some of what I saw happen at the Legislature, and partly because I wanted to get the chance to compare notes with others who experienced it too.

It’s been a week now – so, I’ve done my comparing, and I’ve found plenty of others who had the same thoughts as me.

One overwhelming theme I witnessed during the most recent 30-day session was the continuing lack of public access to the legislature.

Important decisions were literally made in the middle of the night.

I sat in a Tax and Revenue Committee after midnight on the last night of the session listening to legislators debate (and reject) a cigarette tax that could have raised millions for the state. No one was there to hear the pros and cons except the legislators, their staffers, a bunch of paid lobbyists and a handful of reporters.

And the so-called tortilla tax – remember that? That much-maligned measure sailed through the Senate in the dregs of a Saturday morning. It would be an understatement to say that the rest of New Mexico was pretty mad when it woke up and heard the news.

Am I naïve to think that is just plain wrong?

Part of the problem of public access could be solved if there was better public notice of when bills will be heard in committee or on the floor.  I saw a lot of bewildered “regular” people up there waiting to testify on bills that affected them. Should legislators be required to give more notice? For the sake of the public, perhaps so.

This is where webcasting the committees could also help. Sen. Eric Griego had proposed an amendment which would have done so, but didn’t get the chance to introduce it on the floor. And what about archiving those webcasts, so the public can watch them later? Even a webcast committee hearing at midnight won’t get an audience — but the public can access an archive.

One last thing – toward the frantic end of the session, I noticed an awful lot of Republicans in the House using up the maximum three hour debate limit per bill in order to run out the clock. Good bills die in the waning moments of the session because of those “minibusters.”

Similarly, SR1, the measure to expand the number of cameras used for webcasting of Senate floor proceedings, languished for four days on the table before dying when the session ended. This happened despite Leader Michael Sanchez, who controls the Senate calendar, suggesting that he would bring it to a vote.

But inexplicably it didn’t happen. It was all a big tease.

The fact that I saw some legislators waste colossal amounts of time made it hard for me to accept the excuse offered by some Thursday afternoon that they were “so close” on the budget and simply “ran out of time.” I know some legislators did work hard and were as frustrated as the rest of the state when the session ended without a budget.

Legislators were supposed to meet this week Wednesday to finish their job, but got a last minute-reprieve from Governor Bill Richardson.

When they reconvene next Monday at noon, let’s hope they make much better use of their time.