House Judiciary ethics changes set up potential for legislative showdown

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With less than 48 hours left in the 60-day session, the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday evening set up the potential for a legislative showdown over a new, independent ethics commission as time runs out on the 2019 session.

It happened when House Judiciary members dramatically altered the Senate’s vision for the new commission, sending it to the full House for a vote.

It was another strange turn in the long trip for ethics commission legislation during this year’s session as state lawmakers seek to honor New Mexicans’ wishes. Seventy five percent of voters in the November election approved amending the state constitution by adding an independent ethics commission with subpoena power following a series of scandals.  

That the fate of a new commission might be decided in a game of legislative chicken in the final 36 hours of this year’s session isn’t a surprise. State lawmakers have debated the idea of an ethics commission for a dozen years, with many lawmakers not exhibiting much of an appetite.

This session, ethics commission legislation didn’t move for weeks and only in the last week did it seem like a priority, and even then it took arcane procedural maneuvers to get it through the state Senate when sponsors of competing ethics bills couldn’t agree on a compromise.

The Senate bill that arrived in House Judiciary Thursday contemplated a bare-bones ethics commission.

An executive director would accept and investigate complaints of all types from across state government, including the state’s more than 80 public school districts, as well as people who allege violations of the state’s open meetings and public records acts.

By the time SB 668 left the Judiciary Committee on its way to the House for a floor vote, the ethics commission’s executive director had help. A general counsel to determine whether complaints warranted further investigation and who would do the investigating. And hearing officers who would adjudicate cases that found potential ethical violations.

The ethics commission’s workload also had shrunk, going from being responsible for monitoring all layers of government to just state public officials, including state lawmakers, state employees and constitutionally elected officials like the governor – and only then civil provisions of several state laws.

Under House Judiciary’s amended version, the ethics commission also could make ethics complaints public sooner than the Senate wanted – 20 days after the commission’s general counsel found probable cause to proceed with an investigation, not 45 days like the Senate wanted.

One major point wasn’t changed.

The ethics commission would request subpoenas from a judge assigned with the responsibility of deciding whether or not to grant them. A House bill earlier in the session had given the commission the power to issue subpoenas itself. A Senate bill had required the commission to request subpoenas from state court, without designating a state judge.

This was seen as a compromise.

The question now is will the Senate accept the changes made by the House Judiciary Committee providing the full House votes them out.

If the Senate doesn’t, that would trigger a conference committee where lawmakers from each chamber would meet to negotiate a compromise, likely in the last 24 hours of the session.

Some observers were guaranteeing the Senate wouldn’t go for the changes and would force a conference committee.

Rep. Damon Ely, D-Albuquerque, who has been a key player in the debate over ethics commission legislation this session, was more optimistic.

“I think we have a 50-50 chance for a conference committee.”