Ethics commission legislation in race against time

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With a month to go in the legislative session, history may be  about to repeat itself. But voters probably won’t be too happy about it.

State lawmakers have four weeks to agree on a bill to flesh out the powers, funding and operations for a seven-member independent ethics commission voters added to the state constitution in November.

As of Thursday, there are competing bills and both are in a race against time in a legislative body that’s as prone to kill good government ideas as approve them, based on the New Mexico Legislature’s track record over the past decade.

The week started with the introduction of a state ethics commission  bill (HB4) sponsored by Rep. Damon Ely, D-Albuquerque. That was much later than many observers expected after a working group spent all autumn drafting parts of the legislation.

On Thursday afternoon, Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, long a skeptic of outside oversight for New Mexico’s public officials, filed her own ethics commission legislation (SB619).

All in all, Lopez’s ethics commission would be weaker, less well-funded and have a higher threshold to find ethics violations against public officials than the commission Ely’s bill contemplates. Lopez’s bill, as her proposals have in the past, includes hefty fines and possible imprisonment for people who disclose confidential matters before the commission.  

The potential clash of ideas coincides with a race against the clock, a familiar scenario for anyone who’s followed ethics commission legislation over the past decade.

Ely’s bill has a few hurdles to jump – two House committees and the full House of Representatives – before it heads to the state Senate, which has always been the stiffer challenge when it comes to ethics bills. This is in contrast to a slew of other bills that have been fast-tracked through the Legislature this session, without an overwhelming voter mandate.

Eli’s bill  likely won’t get its first committee hearing until possibly late next week, said Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

“We’re booked until next Wednesday,” Chasey said, adding the ethics bill likely won’t get a hearing until “late next week, at the earliest.”

She acknowledged the race against time. “We need to get it moving,” she said.