N.M. to allow public-records requests by e-mail, fax

Monday, April 6, 2009

SANTA FE, N.M. — A new state law will require governmental institutions and agencies to accept e-mailed and faxed requests for public records.

Gov. Bill Richardson signed H.B. 598 on April 3 that makes clear that an e-mail or fax must be treated the same as written requests under the state Inspection of Public Records Act.

Attorney General Gary King advocated the change in law, which is to take effect June 19.

In 2007, King's office issued an advisory opinion saying governmental bodies can accept e-mail requests for records although the law didn't explicitly require it. The opinion was prepared after New Mexico State University decided an e-mail wasn't a valid request for public records.

The Democratic governor also signed a bill that makes public legislative conference-committee meetings where lawmakers reconcile differences between different versions of bills passed in the House and Senate.

Richardson said he thought the decision should have been made by the Legislature, rather than the executive branch, but he signed the bill out of respect for lawmakers' desire to be more open to the public.

“Despite the flaws in the bill, the public wins with an open process,” Richardson said in yesterday’s news release.

The Legislature has wrangled for years over the issue of opening up conference committees, which are made up of six lawmakers from both parties appointed by Senate and House leaders.

The final decisions on important legislation, like the annual state budget, are often made in conference committees.

Until now, the public, news-media representatives and even other lawmakers have been excluded from the closed-door sessions.

Supporters have said opening up the conference committee meetings brings more transparency to the legislative process.

Opponents said being watched could chill the negotiating process for conference committee members and opening up the committees would drive the real decision-making behind the scenes.

H.B. 393 says conference committees will be open “unless otherwise provided by joint House and Senate rule.”

That language provides a way for the Legislature to close conference committees, but it would take a two-thirds vote of both chambers.