UPDATED: Lawmakers race to finesse state ethics commission details as session winds down

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The conference committee on House Joint Resolution 8 reconciled differences during a Friday afternoon meeting. From left to right: Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, Senate Rules Committee analyst Matt Baca (sitting against wall), Rep. Damon Ely, D-Corrales, Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque. Photo by Trip Jennings/New Mexico In Depth

This article has been updated to reflect news developments.

With 16 hours left in a 60-day session, the Legislature on Friday moved one step away from doing something it’s tried to do for a decade: Pass a state ethics commission proposal.

And it took all day Friday to get it done.

Then after multiple meetings, both chambers of the state legislature agreed late in the evening to place a measure on the 2018 ballot letting voters decide whether or not to place in the state constitution an independent ethics commission charged with investigating and prosecuting ethics complaints filed against public officials, state contractors and lobbyists, among others.

How it played out on Friday

Members of the House of Representatives disagreed Thursday night with changes the Senate had made to House Joint Resolution 8, which would ask voters to enshrine an independent ethics commission in the state constitution.

A meeting first scheduled for 9:30 a.m. to resolve their differences kept getting delayed throughout the day as the Legislature focused on other issues, such as the $6.1 billion spending plan and $350 million in proposed tax increases the House of Representatives debated and approved, sending it Gov. Susana Martinez.

Finally, around 4:30 p.m., six House and Senate lawmakers got to work.

They quickly hashed through differences and agreed on a new version of House Joint Resolution 8 the full Senate and full House could vote on.

The proposal seemed poised for legislative approval. But nothing about ethics commission proposals has been simple or easy over the past decade. Roughly two hours after the first meeting finished amid a celebratory mood, House Speaker Brian Egolf of Santa Fe announced from the podium in the House chamber that the committee would reconvene at 7:45 in Room 315.

The six lawmakers ambled back in the committee room and amended amend their previous agreed-upon proposal: The Senate President Pro Tem, not the Senate Majority Leader, would appoint one ethics commission member.

Earlier in the day, the group had agreed the governor would appoint one member and Democratic and Republican legislative leaders — the House Speaker, House Minority Leader, Senate Majority Leader and Senate Minority Leader — would appoint four. Those four members, in turn, would appoint the panel’s sixth and seventh members.

The second, later meeting Friday evening was a surprising ending to a yearslong quest by advocates and some lawmakers who have encountered bipartisan opposition for years.

Celebration

Advocates and supportive lawmakers were thrilled by Friday’s outcome and predicted New Mexicans would overwhelmingly endorse the idea during next year’s general election.

“One of the last polls I saw I think it was close to around 90 percent who wanted to have an ethics commission,” said Republican Rep. Jim Dines of Albuquerque, the primary sponsor of House Joint Resolution 8. “Going door to door during the campaign, when we would talk about the ethics commission, everyone was in favor of it.”

“It’s a historic day,” added Heather Ferguson of Common Cause New Mexico. The organization began pushing for an ethics commission in the 1970s, Common Cause New Mexico’s Executive Director, Viki Harrison, said.

New Mexico would join more than 40 states that have similar commissions across the country if voters approve the proposal.

A series of scandals since 2005, including several former public officials who went to federal prison, has steadily turned up the pressure on lawmakers to create an ethics commission. But none have notched the success of House Joint Resolution 8, which presumably will clear the House and Senate after years of ethics commission bills dying in the Senate.

The measure voters will see next year provides for a seven-member independent ethics commission with subpoena authority. It also spells out how ethics commission members would be selected.

Left out of Friday’s version of HJR8 were requirements that the independent ethics commission weigh evidence and rule on complaints in public hearings and make public all ethics complaints that it receives, as well as responses from the accused.

The Senate stripped out that language from a version of HJ8 the House passed unanimously. House lawmakers agreed Friday to leave that language out.

“It really shows that we are working together bipartisan, bicameral on the ethics commission,” Dines said. “It was a very good moment to show that we all got together.”

The disagreement between the House and Senate reflected differing ideas state lawmakers have about what should go in the constitution.

Do you include many details and, if so, which ones? Or do you opt to go with a bare-bones proposal, leaving the details to be hashed out by lawmakers in what’s called enabling legislation?

The version the House passed came down on the detailed approach; the Senate went with bare bones.

Dines said the Legislature’s work this year gives state lawmakers a head start on crafting legislation on how to fund and set up operations for the commission should voters give it a thumbs up next year.

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