Voters could make New Mexico history tomorrow. Yes, the state likely will make U.S. history, too, sending the first Native American woman to Congress. But New Mexico could join more than 40 other states if voters approve constitutional amendment question No. 2 that would create an independent state ethics commission. Approval, which would come after more than a decade of unsuccessful attempts, might be viewed as New Mexicans’ response to the state’s long-suffering reputation for corruption.
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.
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.
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.
Last week marked the start of the 12th installment of a long-running debate among New Mexico state lawmakers. In previous years the discussion could be summed up in two questions: Should the Legislature create an independent ethics commission; and, if so, what form should it take? The perennial answer to the first question was “no ethics commission this year,” rendering moot the second as to the shape and form it would take. This year, unlike in previous sessions, however, state lawmakers will be able to debate both questions at once. With positive votes from the House State Government, Indian & Veterans’ Affairs committee on Jan.
New Mexicans, Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, wants you to file ethics complaints. Suspect a state lawmaker is corrupt? No need for an independent state ethics commission. File a complaint — a letter is all it takes — with the Interim Legislative Ethics committee. Lopez thinks the current system works fine.