In historic first, NM state senate passes ethics commission proposal

The state senate voted 30 to 9 early Thursday afternoon to ask voters next year to enshrine an independent ethics commission in the state constitution.

“This is a really big step for us in New Mexico,” Democratic Sen. Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces told his colleagues moments before asking his colleagues to support the proposal. “I think it will be healthy for democracy.”

Steinborn, who presented House Joint Resolution 8 to the Senate, was alluding to the decades-long effort to get to this moment: The New Mexico state Senate voting on a proposal that would move the state closer to joining more than 40 states that already have an ethics commission.

The senator might have spoken a bit too early, however.

The Legislature isn’t finished with the proposal yet. The House of Representatives must decide whether to agree or disagree to changes a senate committee made Wednesday to the proposal that the House passed 66-0 earlier this month.

Ethics commission proposal clears perennial hurdle, heads to full Senate

On a 9 to 1 vote early Wednesday afternoon, the Senate Rules Committee, a perennial roadblock to ethics legislation, moved New Mexico closer than it has ever been to joining most U.S. states in creating an independent ethics commission.

But as sometimes happens in a decade-long quest a challenge can materialize just as success appears within sight. And so it was for House Joint Resolution 8.

Already in a race against the clock, HJR8 — which would enshrine an independent ethics commission in the state constitution should voters approve — must clear the full Senate before returning to the House, which gave its stamp of approval to HJR8 last week.

But that was before the Senate Rules Committee decided to remove language laying out how ethics commission members are appointed. Expunged too by the committee were requirements to make public all ethics complaints the commission receives, as well as the responses to them, and that it weigh evidence and rule on complaints in public hearings.

Ethics watchdog says bill before the Senate lacks teeth

State lawmakers would have too much power to decide who sits on an independent ethics commission under a proposal now being considered by the state Senate, a watchdog organization said Tuesday. New Mexico Ethics Watch, which leveled the criticism, disliked that the would-be commission in the proposal would not have sole authority to investigate and prosecute ethics complaints. “While it is important that the state have an Ethics Commission, it is more important that an Ethics Commission be properly constituted and protected from future meddling,” Ethics Watch Executive Director Douglas Carver said in a press release. “The version of the constitutional amendment creating an Ethics Commission that is before the Senate now is significantly flawed.”

New Mexico Ethics Watch, founded last year, is a non-partisan organization dedicated to promoting ethics and accountability in government and public life in New Mexico. Prior to Ethics Watch, Carver worked for five years as a staff attorney for the New Mexico Legislative Council Service, which included working with the Legislative Ethics Committee.

Senate committee throws late session ethics commission monkey wrench

Late last week a proposal to create an independent ethics commission seemed perched nearer than ever to success in the New Mexico Legislature. The New Mexico House of Representatives had voted unanimously to approve House Joint Resolution 8, sponsored by Republican Rep. Jim Dines of Albuquerque and several Democratic lawmakers. It had received one committee assignment in the state Senate — admittedly the Senate Rules Committee. Chaired by Sen. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque, that committee has gained a reputation as the place where ethics legislation goes to die. Still, with just one committee hearing standing in front of a full Senate vote, a few longtime observers began to wonder if 2017 might be the year of the independent ethics commission after more than a decade of failed proposals.

House and Senate trade ethics and transparency measures

With 12 days left in the 60-day session the New Mexico Legislature might or might not be heading toward a repeat of last year. It’s difficult to tell. Last year, in the final days of the 2016 session, the House of Representatives approved by a 50-10 vote, and with great fanfare, an independent ethics commission proposal. It would have asked voters to enshrine the commission in the state constitution. It died in the state Senate.

Closed loopholes, Medicaid cuts and potential higher health insurance costs buried in Gov. supported bill

A piece of legislation moving through the New Mexico Legislature offers a window into how difficult it is to pay for and deliver healthcare during a state budget crisis, particularly at a moment when uncertainty in Washington clouds the future of healthcare in the U.S.

Sponsored by Republican Rep. Paul Bandy of Aztec and supported by GOP Gov. Susana Martinez,  House Bill 316 seeks to reduce state spending on Medicaid by pushing hundreds of people off a little-known state program – the New Mexico Medical Insurance Pool, also called the “high risk pool” — and onto the state’s health insurance exchange. The high risk pool currently offers health coverage for the sickest of the sick, more than 2,700 people who suffer from heart disease, cancer, Hepatitis C, neurological disorders and HIV/AIDS. The bill is one of many proposals that would save money as New Mexico attempts to survive a state budget crisis. The legislation, in effect, is a one-two punch to  health insurance companies, closing what Martinez considers a tax loophole by phasing out a tax credit for health insurers. It would trim Medicaid costs in a way that would end up increasing some health insurers’ costs, too.

The clock starts on ethics reform

With four weeks to go in this year’s legislative session, state lawmakers have time to pass an independent ethics commission proposal, Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf of Santa Fe said Thursday. Egolf made his prediction an hour or so after a House Committee cleared a proposal that would ask New Mexicans to amend the state constitution to create an independent ethics commission. The bill has only one more stop – the House Judiciary Committee – before it would head to the floor of the House of Representatives. But the question mark regarding ethics reform has never been the New Mexico House of Representatives. That chamber has passed several versions over the years.

Lobbying fix faces new opposition

The sponsor of legislation that would require lobbyists to disclose more about what they spend each year on state lawmakers and other public officials said he was considering changing the bill after a fifth state lawmaker publicly stated his opposition Friday morning. “Clearly there is heartburn with some of the progressive ideas that I’ve proposed” in SB 168, Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said. Steinborn’s reconsideration came after Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, became the fifth lawmaker on the Senate Rules Committee to openly block the legislation. On Wednesday Candelaria had voted against a motion to not pass SB 168 out of the Senate Rules Committee, joining three other Democrats against four Republican Senators who wanted to table the legislation. The bill’s main goal is to fix a transparency loophole the Legislature created last year that allows lobbyists to disclose much less about how they spend money on public officials.

Gov. Susana Martinez refuses to answer media’s questions

New Mexico In Depth attempted to ask Gov. Susana Martinez about her reaction to the uncertainty in Washington surrounding the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress have made it a priority to repeal major provisions. Any action from Washington would ripple through New Mexico. Early in her term Martinez was one of the few Republican governors across the nation to agree to expand the Medicaid program, which was a major provision of the ACA. Her decision resulted in around 250,000 additional New Mexicans getting health insurance.

Go public with alleged ethical lapses and jail could be your next stop

Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, has filed her own version of a bill that would create a state ethics commission. And as with similar legislation she filed in 2016, the legislation  contains provisions that would enable officials to punish anyone who talks publicly about a confidential complaint filed with the proposed panel with up to $35,000 in fines and a year behind bars, or both. You can find the language in Section 16 of SB 218 on page 23:
A. Disclosure of any confidential complaint, report, file, record or communication in violation of the State Ethics Commission Act is a misdemeanor and shall be punished by a fine of not more than ten thousand dollars ($10,000) or by imprisonment for not more than one year or both. B. In addition to a penalty imposed pursuant to Subsection A of this section, a court may impose a civil penalty not to exceed twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000) for each violation of Section 12 of the State Ethics Commission Act. The language appears close to if not exactly the same as language in a bill Lopez filed in 2016 that would have created a state ethics commission.