Ethics Commission Clears First Hurdle

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A proposal to establish a statewide independent ethics commission (HJR 5) passed its first committee Friday with a unanimous vote, but the measure’s future is far from clear.

This proposal, like two others introduced this session (HB 80, SB 124), would create a new government commission to oversee government employees and officials, lobbyists and contractors.

But this one makes the commission’s work open to the public. And that worries some lawmakers who fear the system could be used to smear them with false complaints.

Sponsor Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, assured the committee that the commission would be independent and would have the ability to prove a complaint had no merit.

“People’s relationship to government is all about trust…and what I’m trying to do here…especially with the transparency, is to give them the basis to reestablish that trust,” Dines told KUNM public radio in an interview.

Before his election in 2014, Dines was a media lawyer and open government advocate. His transparency advocacy earned him a First Amendment Award from the Foundation for Open Government in 2012.

Bernalillo County Clerk and 2016 Democratic candidate for Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver echoed a similar sentiment in a tweet posted just after the committee vote Friday morning, writing: “This is a good start for ensuring public trust in govn’t.”

New Mexico is one of only eight states that do not have a statewide ethics oversight body, which is part of the reason it was ranked one of the worst states in the nation for ethics in a 2015 report from the Center for Public Integrity (conducted by this reporter).

Dines’ proposal must clear two committees and a House floor vote before it can be heard in the Senate, where similar proposals have failed in the past. If it is successful in the Legislature, it will be put to voters in the 2016 general election. According to a January 2016 poll conducted for Common Cause, 85 percent of New Mexicans support the idea.

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