Ethics legislation drops, but tricky path ahead for popular idea

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NMID Executive Director Trip Jennings

A bill to create an independent ethics commission was introduced Monday, nearly halfway through the 2019 legislative session. That’s later than expected given the overwhelming public support in November for the idea.

The legislation, HB 4, introduced by Albuquerque Democrat House Rep. Damon Ely,  would flesh out how much power the seven-member independent ethics commission will have, its funding and how transparent it is. But it won’t be alone for long. Whispers are that there will be competing ethics measures. There might even be a taskforce to study the idea. Yep, you heard that right.  

The public’s endorsement of the independent statewide commission followed a series of political scandals that have ensnared a Democratic senator, a Republican Secretary of State and more than a dozen other public officials since 2005.

Nearly a decade and a half of covering the New Mexico Legislature, however, has taught me good government proposals don’t receive the red carpet treatment even with massive public support and a dark cloud looming over public officials.

So, for your edification, here’s Trip’s short list of legislative maneuvers the ethics commission legislation might confront over the next 30 plus days. .

  • A committee substitute in the final days of a legislative session is a near-certain death sentence for a bill with powerful opponents. In 2016, the Senate Rules Committee gutted independent ethics commission legislation, sponsored by Albuquerque Republican Rep. Jim Dines and others, with two days to go. The end of the session is called the killing time for a reason. Unless a complete overhaul of a bill is agreed to by sponsors, it is a death verdict that late in the session. (This is something to watch for with the ethics commission legislation). Rather than sign on to the committee’s weakened bill, Dines pulled his support, letting the Democrats who suggested the committee substitute earn the loss.
  • More, not fewer, committee assignments is not a good sign. More committees usually means more opportunities for political hijinx and last-minute changes. Longtime observers of the Legislature know three committee assignments is worse than two and two is worse than one. One committee assignment is a sign that some higher power – a legislative leader, maybe even the governor – has taken favorable interest in you and your bill. Three committee assignments, as often as not, means the opposite. Someone has it in for you.
  • Delays in the effective date – like, a really big delay. In 2007, a Democratic state lawmaker proposed limiting campaign contributions to candidates in the state Senate. At the time, New Mexico was one of a handful of states with no limits on campaign contributions. The lawmaker’s Republican colleague suggested amending the bill to make the effective date 1,000 years after the legislation passed. The chamber voted in the millennial delay. I remember a lot of male senators laughing as the amendment passed gutting the female sponsor’s bill. Former Sen. Dede Feldman mentioned the political hijinx in her book, Inside the New Mexico Senate: Boots, Suits and Citizens.
  • Filibusters are the nuclear option, particularly in the final days of a session. A filibuster, according to dictionary.com, is “a prolonged speech that obstructs progress in a legislative assembly while not technically contravening the required procedures.”  Sounds harmless, but a filibuster can gum up a Legislature, big-time. Lawmakers from both parties have filibustered to kill bills. In 2008, former Democratic Sen. Cisco McSorley filibustered legislation in the final minutes of the session to kill a controversial proposal to create a tax increment development district for a large development company. A few years later, former Republican senators John Ryan and Rod Adair filibustered a bill in the Senate, running out the clock on the session and effectively killing a bill with $240 million for projects around the state.

To these four potential stumbling blocks a fifth that came to light Monday might be added: A task force to study a controversial idea.

In this case, the idea would be an independent ethics commission similar to commissions in more than 40 states…that  75 percent of voters supported in November…that New Mexico state lawmakers have already studied since 2006, and much earlier according to certain folks.

Apparently, a task force for how to set up the ethics commission might be a thing. There is an argument being made among some colleagues, Ely said, that the Legislature doesn’t have to create an ethics commission this session, that state lawmakers could wait until 2020.

“I disagree with that very strongly,” Ely said. “I think we have a very strong bill that’s been through lots of process and in my view we’re going to get it done this session and I am committed to that.”

We’ve got more than 30 days left in the session. And my bet is that ethics commission legislation has its work cut out. That three of every four of you who voted in November support the idea doesn’t matter as much as you might think, not in the Roundhouse.

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