Governor, lawmakers tussle over funding for Ethics Commission

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Last year the debate over New Mexico’s first-ever Ethics Commission was about its day-to-day running and its independence. This year it’s about money. 

And the game is on.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wants to give the state’s independent Ethics Commission a lot more operating money than lawmakers. She recommends nearly $400,000 to help the commission get up and running in its first few months of operation. The Legislature’s request is half that. She’s also recommending a quarter million more for the agency in its first-full year of operation than is the Legislature, $1.24 million (page 18 of her budget request) compared to $985,000 (pages 43-44 of the Legislature’s). 

Lujan Grisham’s aid for this year is $385,000 (it’s on page 49 of Lujan Grisham’s proposed budget plan) compared to the $200,000 the House Appropriations and Finance Committee adopted Thursday.

The state agency, led by a seven-member board, by law is able to begin receiving complaints this month and needs to add staff for that work after hiring executive director Jeremy Farris in September. 

These different funding goals matter because the agency’s mission – investigating ethics complaints – is a touchy subject for some state lawmakers who’ve over the years repeatedly feared attacks prior to elections.

“The Legislature doesn’t want to come up with the funds to ensure that it can fully do its job,” Heather Ferguson, director of Common Cause New Mexico, said in a press release Wednesday. 

Hearing officers, who are a core part of any investigation the agency would undertake in its first months prior to the June primary election, are among the staff the money would pay for. 

The competing perspectives on funding for the state Ethics Commission highlight a long-time concern of good-government advocates and supporters of a vigorous commission. Some states with election commissions underfund the agencies, creating toothless watchdogs. Even worse has happened. Earlier this decade in Wisconsin, ethics commission investigations into leaders led its legislature to shutter that agency and create another, weaker entity.

Because of this conflict of interest, a coalition of organizations that support a strong ethics commission is exploring the creation of a funding source divorced from the Legislature’s budget-making authority, Kathleen Sabo of New Mexico Ethics Watch wrote in an essay for New Mexico In Depth earlier this month. That would diversify funding and prevent budget cuts that could come on a whim and severely undermine the commission’s effectiveness, Sabo wrote.

In broad terms, the commission’s mission centers on bolstering public trust at a time when the public isn’t in a trusting mood. Its creation comes after a decade and a half of high-profile public scandals in New Mexico that include two state treasurers and two former state senators going to prison for corruption. A former secretary of state, meantime, went to jail for corruption. And in what some described as a black eye in front of the nation, a decade ago Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew his nomination to serve in President Obama’s Cabinet because of a federal investigation. The probe yielded no indictments but a federal prosecutor concluded pressure from the governor’s office had corrupted the state’s procurement process.

The commission will educate New Mexico officials, helping them to think about what is ethical and not , as well as will investigate complaints against some of those same public officials. The commission can fine public officials if they are found to have violated civil provisions of several state laws.

Expect Lujan Grisham and state lawmakers to haggle over the final budget for the ethics commission in the three weeks remaining in the 30-day session. Given the wariness some officials have about such an agency – after all, it took the Legislature 12 years to create an independent ethics commission in response to pressure from the public, good government groups and the media – it could get testy.   

This piece originally appeared in New Mexico In Depth’s weekly Friday newsletter. Don’t miss out, sign up for the newsletter here.

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