Catch up, clean up — cover up?


Just when you think progress is being made with regards to good government and legislative transparency, something happens that restores the public distrust and skepticism that has plagued public office holders for generations.

Last year, Democrats in the New Mexico Legislature laid the groundwork for what today can only be described as legislative malfeasance by attempting to fund, under the cover of darkness, hundreds of legislative staffers for House and Senate members. It was contentious, to say the least, as Republicans have vocally opposed this concept from the beginning. In short, Republicans believe funding legislative staff would be akin to taxpayer-funded campaign staff. The effort last year failed, but Democrats were successful in appropriating millions of dollars to study the idea.

Fast forward to this legislative session. After the study was finalized last year and presented to a single committee, Democrats in both the House and Senate went quiet.  There were no more discussions of legislator staff - not in committee, not during weeks of budget discussions, not in public forums and not in the media - and rightfully so. Probably because Democrats knew that the public is skeptical at best and worried their hard-earned money was going to go to what would effectively be campaign workers for individual legislators.

The silence continued up until this last Friday in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, during a process called “catch up clean up,” when members of the committee were informed by the Chair that $6 million dollars had been added to the budget overnight for legislative staff.  The Chair shared no details, no guardrails and no statutory language with committee members about how the new staffers are supposed to operate, and most importantly, no discussion or debate from those pushing this funding proposal. In fact, nobody even knows who made the decision to add the money in the first place. It was as if $6 million dollars magically appeared out of thin air, keeping clean the hands of those members who have been clamoring for campaign staff for years.

This, at best, is legislative misconduct and at worst is a violation of the public’s trust. It is also a reflection of how things were done in the old days before webcasts and accountability were something we as elected officials took pride in.

There is a reason Republicans have opposed this concept from the beginning; we simply cannot stomach the thought of hundreds of legislative staffers running around the state with no oversight, likely using taxpayer funds to engage in campaign activity. We know now why Democrats have snuck millions of dollars into the budget at the last minute and with zero discussion from elected members of the legislature; they, too, know the public does not want this either.

Rod Montoya is a Republican member of the New Mexico House of Representatives, from Farmington.

Opinion, NM Legistative