The state senate voted 30 to 9 early Thursday afternoon to ask voters next year to enshrine an independent ethics commission in the state constitution.
“This is a really big step for us in New Mexico,” Democratic Sen. Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces told his colleagues moments before asking his colleagues to support the proposal. “I think it will be healthy for democracy.”
Steinborn, who presented House Joint Resolution 8 to the Senate, was alluding to the decades-long effort to get to this moment: The New Mexico state Senate voting on a proposal that would move the state closer to joining more than 40 states that already have an ethics commission.
The senator might have spoken a bit too early, however.
The Legislature isn’t finished with the proposal yet. The House of Representatives must decide whether to agree or disagree to changes a senate committee made Wednesday to the proposal that the House passed 66-0 earlier this month.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether House would agree to those changes. If it doesn’t, House and Senate leaders would appoint a conference committee to try to come to an agreement on the proposal.
Even if Thursday’s Senate vote wasn’t a final step in the legislative process, it did mark a historic moment for the New Mexico state Senate, which has never held an up-or-down vote on the idea of an independent ethics commission, according to veterans of the Roundhouse.
Thursday’s historic vote occurred after an hour-long debate in which a number of senators either questioned the necessity of an independent body or the wisdom of sending to voters a bare-bones proposal without many of the details sketched out.
“Were you aware we have an ethics committee?” asked Republican Sen. William Sharer of Farmington.
Sharer was referring to the Interim Legislative Ethics Committee, a body that is empaneled to analyze complaints filed against sitting lawmakers. Two years ago a subcommittee investigated a complaint against former Democratic Sen. Phil Griego. Its findings led to Griego’s resignation. Griego has since been charged criminally and is awaiting trial. The ethics committee’s deliberations were secret, however.
Steinborn said he was aware and commended his colleagues’ action. But, he responded, “the reality is it’s a fundamental conflict to have one colleague to judge another colleague. There is an inherent tension.”
An independent ethics commission would remove that tension, Steinborn said.
Republican Sen. Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho wondered what qualifications would be required for an individual to sit on the ethics commission.
If voters approved the constitutional amendment, the Legislature would determine those, Steinborn said.
“We … say the devil’s in the details so we left out the details, so we can fight over the details after the election,” Brandt said.
The version of House Joint Resolution 8 that passed out of the House laid out who would appoint commission members and required the commission to make public all ethics complaints it receives, as well as the responses to them by the accused. Also required was that the commission deliberate cases in in public hearings.
But the Senate Rules Committee voted Wednesday to remove that language.
“Who appoints members and qualifications are important details to be sure,” Steinborn told Brandt.
But several lawmakers who had worked on the legislation agreed that those details would best be left up to the Legislature to work out if voters approved the constitutional amendment.
If the House agrees to the changes the Senate made to HJR8, voters would choose in 2018 whether to create a seven-member independent ethics commission that has subpoena power to investigate complaints.