An interim committee to study New Mexico’s infrastructure funding is headed to the House floor after a 7-6 vote Monday. Republicans on the Taxation and Revenue Committee voted against House Joint Memorial 4 sponsored by Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, while Democrats voted for it. The committee would incorporate staff from the state auditor’s office, and one Republican suggested including Department of Finance and Administration staff as well. The state’s overall infrastructure spending is divided among numerous agencies and committees. And each legislative session, lawmakers get to divvy up capital outlay money for projects in their district.
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.
Several bills related to transparency are up for hearing this legislative session, including a capital outlay bill introduced by Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Santa Fe. The proposal, HB 121, would make public information about capital projects—and who funds them. That information is currently kept private. Detailed information including the amount of money given to projects is protected under statute. That means there is no way for the public to know how much money their lawmakers individually allocate to a capital project.
Entering the third week of New Mexico’s 2017 legislative session, several ethics and campaign finance reform bills have cleared their first committee hearings. In the interest of reporting on these subjects in a comprehensive way, we’ve decided to share our internal “ethics tracker” publicly. Ethics and campaign finance are issue areas New Mexico In Depth has reported on for years. This year, two bills that would bring significant change to New Mexico seem to have more traction than in years past:
Creation of an independent ethics commission, or similar entity. Passage of an omnibus campaign finance reform bill.
From fancy dinners to ski passes, lobbyists and their employers reported spending more than $68,000 during the first two weeks of the legislative session. Topping the list are $27,500 worth of ski passes for lawmakers from Ski New Mexico Director George Brooks. Presbyterian Health Plan spent $10,873 on a dinner for elected officials at La Posada on Jan. 18. Lobbyists and their employers must report all expenses of $500 or more within 48 hours during the legislative session.
Campaign donors would be able to double their contributions to state lawmakers under a campaign finance reform measure approved by the Senate Rules Committee Friday. Senate Bill 96 also would increase disclosure for super PACs and nonprofits that get involved in campaigning. The Senate Rules Committee approved the measure, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, in an 8-1 vote. Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said he couldn’t support the bill with the increased campaign limits for lawmakers. “I think adding on to the limits is the wrong way to go,” Steinborn said.
Four bills aimed at improving governmental ethics cleared their first House committee Thursday. Here’s a look at the bills approved by the House State Government, Indian and Veterans’ Affairs Committee:
House Bill 10 would create a public accountability board to consider complaints against members of state and local government. But complaints against sitting lawmakers would still be considered by a legislative ethics committee. The measure passed on a 6-3 vote, and next goes to the House Judiciary Committee. Representatives of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and the Rio Grande Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists objected to the measure, saying it isn’t transparent enough and removes enforcement of the open meetings act from the attorney general’s office.
Years ago, I had a conversation with a friend about tensions in his relationship. My friend eventually shrugged and said “I don’t know, that’s just the way it is,” resigning himself to accepting the tension rather than find a solution. For a very long time, New Mexicans have been expected to just shrug our shoulders and accept the problems in our state as “that’s just the way it is.”
New Mexico is at a crossroads: with a multi-year budget crisis and some of the low rankings in child well-being (coupled with high levels of unemployment and poverty), we can stay the course of giving tax breaks to big, out-of-state corporations and fix the budget crisis by cutting services for New Mexicans, or we can take bold steps toward creating a brighter future for New Mexico. Several bills are aiming to do just that. Raising the minimum wage, introducing statewide paid sick leave and a constitutional amendment that will allow New Mexicans to decide whether or not to invest in our most precious resource, our children, are pushing our Legislature to take action.
Early childhood care and education is central to any discussion about improving child wellbeing in New Mexico. Decades of research have shown that the early years of a child’s life are a special time when the brain is developing rapidly, and that providing enriching, stable environments for young children is one of the best investments a society can make. Supporting parents to help them be their children’s first teachers, ensuring all families have access to high-quality child care and pre-kindergarten experiences, and investing in strategies to improve the early school years are all ways New Mexico can support the wellbeing of its youngest children. Though investing in early childhood is sound policy, accountability for early childhood investments is critical in this time of declining state resources and competing needs. Without solid data and accountability systems, it is challenging to know the reach and impact of state investments.
Elections have consequences. And, while Republicans strengthened their standing nationwide, here in New Mexico, Democrats are ascendant with working majorities in both houses of the Legislature. Democrats are undoubtedly chomping at the bit to push through a whole range of policy initiatives, possibly via constitutional amendments which will circumvent Gov. Susana Martinez. But the most pressing issue is the budget situation and the economy as a whole and something needs to be done about it right away. While acknowledging the role of declining oil and gas prices, corporate tax cuts enacted in 2013 (and supported by vast majorities of Democrats) will be targeted.