The clock starts on ethics reform

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With four weeks to go in this year’s legislative session, state lawmakers have time to pass an independent ethics commission proposal, Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf of Santa Fe said Thursday.

Egolf made his prediction an hour or so after a House Committee cleared a proposal that would ask New Mexicans to amend the state constitution to create an independent ethics commission. The bill has only one more stop – the House Judiciary Committee – before it would head to the floor of the House of Representatives.

But the question mark regarding ethics reform has never been the New Mexico House of Representatives. That chamber has passed several versions over the years.

The question mark is the state Senate, a chamber that over a dozen years has earned a reputation as a killing ground for ethics reform.

Last year the state Senate killed a previous version of this year’s legislation that would establish the ethics commission by constitutional amendment in the final days of the 2016 regular legislative session. Some senators blamed the House for waiting too late to pass the ethics legislation. The House passed the ethics reform bill the night of Feb. 9, 2016, giving the Senate a week to debate the proposal.

This time around, “there’s plenty of time for it to happen,” Egolf said of ethics reform legislation. Then he added, “I truly can’t say what the Senate is going to do.”

Egolf is hopeful, he said, in part due to his Santa Fe colleague, the new Democratic Sen. Majority Leader Peter Wirth, also of Santa Fe.

“Like a lot of people Peter’s position encourages a lot of us.”

This session Wirth, himself a sponsor of an ethics commission proposal in 2015, replaced Sen. Michael Sanchez as the Senate’s most powerful lawmaker. Many viewed Sanchez as resistant to ethics reform.

Wirth has indicated a desire that ethics reform legislation would pass in 2017. Wirth could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Egolf said if the House can send an ethics commission proposal over to the Senate in “the next week to 10 days” he is hopeful “he (Wirth) will be able to use that as plenty of time to get it passed.”

HJR8, the proposal that unanimously passed the House Local Government, Elections, Lands Grants and Cultural Affairs Committee on Thursday, would ask voters in 2018 to change the state constitution to create a new independent ethics commission.

If voters approved it, state lawmakers for the first time would be held accountable by an outside entity for ethical lapses. And ethics complaints against state lawmakers would become public.

Sponsored by Republican Rep. Jim Dines of Albuquerque, two House Democrats and Democratic Sen. Jeff Steinborn, the proposal would centralize in the independent Ethics Commission the oversight function currently handled by several state agencies such as the Attorney General and Secretary of State.

It would create a seven-member independent Ethics Commission that would have power to issue subpoenas, a fact-finding tool given to most of the more-than 40 state ethics commissions across the country.

Once it completed investigations and found an ethical lapse, the commission could levy fines on all of those covered by the commission: the governor; officials at executive branch agencies; state contractors, lobbyists; and state lawmakers.

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