Ethics proposal could double as business recruiting tool, supporters say

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Voters could make New Mexico history tomorrow. Yes, the state likely will make U.S. history, too, sending the first Native American woman to Congress.

But New Mexico could join more than 40 other states if voters approve constitutional amendment question No. 2 that would create an independent state ethics commission.

Approval, which would come after more than a decade of unsuccessful attempts, might be viewed as New Mexicans’ response to the state’s long-suffering reputation for corruption. Over the past 15 years more than a dozen public officials have been indicted or prosecuted, a trend that continued last week when a judge ruled enough evidence existed to try Gov. Susana Martinez’s former taxation and revenue secretary on two criminal felony counts, including embezzlement.

But Republican House Rep. Jim Dines of Albuquerque sees another, less well-known benefit not generating tons of headlines: Business recruitment.

One of the main sponsors of the constitutional amendment, Dines sees a commission as “sending a message that New Mexico is addressing this matter” to business communities inside and outside the state.

Heather Ferguson of Common Cause New Mexico, an organization that has supported an ethics commission since the 1970s, agreed, saying when she travels out of state she sometimes gets a reaction when she mentions where she’s from.

“They go ewww, New Mexico is pretty corrupt,” Ferguson said. The state’s scandals are sending the wrong message to the rest of the nation, including businesses looking to relocate or expand. The “bad apples” prosecuted in court are not “representative of the whole bunch,” she said.

Democratic Sen. Linda Lopez, who has earned a reputation as a ethics commission skeptic over the past decade, acknowledged that its passage “may encourage other companies to think about New Mexico in a different perspective,” she said recently. “That we do take seriously looking at government officials, appointed officials, that we hold them to a standard.”

The emphasis on corruption as detrimental to economic growth is not new. Studies have linked unethical behavior in government to economic growth, rates of trust in government and participation in elections. In fact, one 2010 peer-reviewed academic essay titled “Corruption is bad for growth (even in the United States)” found that corruption has a negative and significant effect on growth in U.S. states.

For years, the business community in New Mexico has supported creating an ethics commission. More than eight-in-ten (83 percent) business leaders somewhat or strongly supported the creation of an independent Ethics Commission, according to a 2017 poll by Research and Polling, Inc. for the Committee for Economic Development, a Washington, D.C.-based non-partisan business-led public policy organization.

The Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce supported the 2017 legislation that is on the ballot tomorrow, its president and CEO, Terri Cole, said.

“We are encouraging our investors to vote for the ballot measure and we hope it passes,” she added.

Most political observers expect the ballot measure to win big tomorrow. A January 2018 poll done by Research & Polling Inc. for Common Cause New Mexico found that 78 percent of those surveyed believed that an ethics commission would make politicians more responsive to voters, Ferguson said.

A working group composed of Dines, Lopez, attorneys and representatives of civic organizations is already working on draft legislation to submit during the 2019 legislative session on the assumption that the commission will get go ahead from voters tomorrow.

State lawmakers must fill out the details of the operation of the commission and how much it will cost to run, guaranteeing it will be on the legislative agenda in January should voters approve the ballot measure.

The proposal on the ballot might have widespread support but it also has its critics. Problem is, none would go on the record opposing it or why.

But, in a nutshell, critics say power over the commission was kept in the hands of the very people it is supposed to oversee. If the ballot measure passes tomorrow, the state constitution will spell out that legislative leaders and the governor get to appoint five members of the ethics commission, with those five selecting the remaining two

Other ethics commission proposals proposed different methods of appointing members as state lawmakers weighed competing versions during the 2017 legislative session. One version had a Supreme Court justice as a member of the ethics commission.

Then, there is the issue of purse strings.

Funding is a fraught issue for an independent body that watches over people who determine its annual financial fate through the state budgeting process.

In some states, lawmakers perennially underfund such watchdog agencies, creating toothless ethics commissions. Recent drama in Wisconsin surrounding a decade-old ethics agency highlights the danger of a watchdog agency antagonizing those who control its pursestrings. In that state, ethics commission-launched investigations into state leaders led the Legislature to shutter that agency and create another entity.