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.
The Judiciary Committee voted 8-0 Saturday morning to approve HB4, launching the ethics commission proposal on what likely will be an obstacle course with three weeks to go in the 2019 legislative session. The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Damon Ely, D-Albuquerque, is in a race against the clock, needing to clear another House committee and a floor vote in the House before heading to the less friendly forum of the Senate, which has earned a reputation as a killing ground for ethics legislation over the past decade and a half. The proposal approved Saturday appropriates $1 million for a proposed ethics commission empowered to fine individuals guilty of violating ethics rules. The commission could also issue subpoenas to pry loose information in an investigation and if a target refused to comply ask a state court to enforce it. Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales
Hearing panels to investigate ethics complaints would use the civil standard of preponderance of the evidence, instead of higher legal standards, to find violations.
A bill to create an independent ethics commission was introduced Monday, nearly halfway through the 2019 legislative session. That’s later than expected given the overwhelming public support in November for the idea. The legislation, HB 4, introduced by Albuquerque Democrat House Rep. Damon Ely, would flesh out how much power the seven-member independent ethics commission will have, its funding and how transparent it is. But it won’t be alone for long. Whispers are that there will be competing ethics measures.
Three-quarters of voters in November supported enshrining an independent ethics commission in the state Constitution, making New Mexico one of more than 40 states with similar oversight bodies. Just getting an ethics commission took more than a decade and contentious year-in, year-out legislative debates. But the most the difficult year may be 2019. State lawmakers over the next 60 days will make big decisions about the seven-member commission: how much power it has, how much funding it gets, and, perhaps thorniest of all, how open and transparent its work will be. These questions will revive old battle lines from the past nearly 15 years when a bipartisan collection of supporters in the Legislature annually squared off against an equally bipartisan coalition of opponents.
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.
NMID’s Trip Jennings discussed a November ballot measure that would create an independent ethics commission on the New Mexico PBS public affairs show “New Mexico in Focus.” If voters approve the measure Nov. 6, the Legislature, with input from New Mexico’s next governor, will work out how the commission will operate and who it will oversee during the 2019 legislative session. Already, a working group meeting through the fall is discussing draft ethics commission legislation that would go to state lawmakers to prime the conversation. The group’s next meeting is Thursday afternoon at the University of New Mexico Science & Technology Park Rotunda, 851 University Boulevard SE, Albuquerque.
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.
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.
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.