With days to go, ethics commission legislation stalls

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A few weeks ago, Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, mentioned the option of passing a memorial creating a task force to study an independent ethics commission through 2019.

Just in case, he said.

Nibert wanted to see legislation that dictates what powers such a commission would have and how it would operate. But it was clear, even weeks ago, that agreement on a subject the Legislature has debated for 13 years might be difficult despite 75 percent of New Mexicans voting to enshrine the idea in the state constitution this November.

But Nibert waited before asking a legislative agency to draft the memorial. He wanted to see if state lawmakers could make headway. And he waited. And waited.

Until Monday, when agreement on a new independent ethics commission appeared unlikely as sponsors of competing bills to set up the new agency disagreed over subpoena power and other issues.

“Looks like we’re going to have to pull the trigger on the memorial,” Nibert told Raul Burciaga, the director of the Legislative Council Service.

Nibert believes it’s important to let New Mexicans know that if nothing emerges from the Legislature that state lawmakers do realize how important the subject is, especially with last November’s overwhelming vote of support.

It was unclear Monday afternoon if the legislative agency had started drafting the memorial.

The disagreement happened Monday morning in the Senate Rules Committee, a panel that over the past decade and a half has earned the reputation as a killing ground for ethics legislation.

The committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, asked the committee to pass a substitute of her ethics commission bill – SB619 –  as the measure that should win legislative approval. Rep. Damon Ely, D-Albuquerque, sponsor of the competing  ethics bill, HB4, opposed Lopez’s substitute becoming the framework for an independent ethics commission. So did representatives of several organizations, including Common Cause New Mexico, New Mexico Ethics Watch, New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and the Association of Commerce and Industry.

Terri Cole of the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce cited lack of subpoena power, lack of public disclosure when probable cause is discovered, and other issues, in expressing opposition to SB 619. “Our biggest objection to this at the end of the day is that this legislation doesn’t align with what the voters expected it to do when they voted, overwhelmingly,” she said.

Heather Ferguson of Common Cause NM added that SB 619 “pulled the teeth out for so many things.”

The two bills represented different philosophical worldviews, Ely told Senate Rules committee members.  

“You have to decide whether you want a transparent process, or one that is not transparent,” Ely said. “HB 4 is a transparent process. Senate Bill 619 is not.

Ely’s bill would make an ethics complaint public after probable cause was found to proceed with an investigation. Lopez’s bill would not.

Ely’s measure would also give the commission power to issue subpoenas independently. In Lopez’s measure, a state judge would have to approve a commission’s request for a subpoena.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who appeared to favor Lopez’s version, said asking a judge to grant a subpoena wouldn’t cause problems. Ely disagreed, saying asking a judge for a subpoena is an “incredibly cumbersome process.”

After hearing the discussion about the competing ethics commission measures, a number of votes were taken to see if there were enough votes to advance either Lopez’s substitute of SB619 or Ely’s HB4 to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Because almost half of committee members were absent, neither measure could muster enough votes, meaning all ethics commission measures are, for now, stuck in the Senate Rules Committee.

Some legislators who were present seemed pained about not advancing ethics legislation and broached the idea of bringing up the discussion again tomorrow when more committee members are present.

Whether or not that happens is anyone’s guess.

Marjorie Childress contributed to this report.