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Ringside Seat: Keep An Open Capitol

on January 19, 2019 - 11:48am
The east entrance to the State Capitol Building in Santa Fe. Photo by Carol A. Clark/
One of several statues and sculptures on the grounds of the State Capitol Building in Santa Fe. Photo by Carol A. Clark/
Local government liaison David Trujillo, right, looks over the rotunda Tuesday at the State Capitol Building in Santa Fe. Photo by Carol A. Clark/
What a spectacular place the New Mexico Capitol is.
Millions of dollars of artworks line the walls. Tourists from across the world wander the hallways. The Rotunda is a hive of human activity at this time of year, often jammed with a couple hundred activists for one cause or another.
Best or worst of all, depending on your point of view, people walk into the building without having to pass through metal detectors or any other security screening.
On occasion, some arrive wearing holstered pistols. A few will even carry rifles if a gun-control bill is up for debate. Nobody knows how many more visitors have concealed weapons in a bag or under their clothing.
They can walk right to their elected representative's office or any of the dozen committee rooms where legislation is first debated. Or they can head downstairs to the wood-paneled chambers where the full membership of the Senate and House of Representatives meet.
A small change this year is that on select days state police are controlling access to the gallery of the House of Representatives. Most people with a weapon are turned away from that one section of the Capitol.
Officers on Thursday used a wand to check for metal when people reached the doors of the gallery. The chief justice of the state Supreme Court was preparing to speak on the House floor to a joint session of the Legislature. For these sorts of gatherings, lawmakers decided the gallery above should be clear of weapons.
They initially were so zealous that even armed sheriffs were barred from entering the House gallery. Legislative leaders say this was a mistake that will not be repeated.
I have always loved the openness of the Capitol. It's a paradox of state government. Agencies might stonewall me for months or years on a simple request for public records, yet I can enter the floor of the Senate or House and interview a lawmaker. A political handler has only interfered with me once in nine years, but I still got the interview.
Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, takes the opposite position.
"Our problem in New Mexico is that we haven't caught up with the rest of the world," he told me. "We have the same issues, but we haven't caught up."
He recounted his visit to the Capitol in South Dakota, a state of perhaps 900,000 people. Metal detectors framed the entryway. Wyoming, a state with a population smaller than Albuquerque's, has a secure Capitol, Muñoz said.
"We're the last one in America. And there's always one out there," he said of an armed nut who wants to harm innocents.
Muñoz believes the tighter security in the House gallery means nothing. Not when anyone can go directly to the floor of a legislative chamber or almost any other section of the Capitol.
He says entering the Capitol should be as difficult as getting into a courthouse. This would mean installing metal detectors and screening bags and briefcases at Capitol entrances, a taxing proposition. Courthouses are designed with a single entrance that is easily monitored. The Capitol was built to allow people to enter from the east, west and basement.
Security officers at the Capitol told me they would at least like to see armed state police officers stationed in committee rooms for every hearing. Police officers typically move about the building.
Having covered mass shootings, including the slaughter at Virginia Tech in 2007, I understand Muñoz's position.
But an open Capitol can be maintained and still be made more secure. It might mean doubling the number of police officers assigned to the building during legislative sessions. It could entail assigning police officers to the Capitol at sleepy times, when tourists from Asia and Europe outnumber the legislators and lobbyists.
Unlike the citadels that serve as statehouses around the country, New Mexico's Capitol is unique. People can easily enter the seat of government, find their legislators and be heard.
It reminds me of the great line by the late territorial Gov. Lew Wallace, who's better known for writing the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.
"All calculations based on experience elsewhere fail in New Mexico," Wallace said.
Let Wallace's words inspire today's lawmakers. They can improve security without strangling a government that stands out as the most open in the country.