Ethics commission proposal clears perennial hurdle, heads to full Senate

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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.

House agreement to Senate changes would send it on to voters next year. Disagreement, on the other hand, would threaten to kill yet another ethics commission proposal — there have been about two dozen — that the Legislature has considered over the past decade.  

HJR8’s main sponsor, Republican Rep. Jim Dines of Albuquerque, said he was surprised by the details of the amendment but still said he was encouraged “because I think clearly we’re going to have something in the constitution.”

“I was not sure what was going to happen today,” he added.

Senators said the amendment to strip significant language of the bill was meant  to keep language in the constitution “succinct” and not so detailed that unworkable elements were difficult to change later.

Instead, several senators said, such details would be worked out in enabling legislation if voters support the measure.

Heather Ferguson of Common Cause New Mexico called Wednesday’s vote historic.

“We are absolutely thrilled the committee voted to support this. That in itself is history,” Ferguson told a gaggle of news reporters. “Getting out of this committee a constitutional amendment … is something that we’ve been trying for years.”

Nearby stood Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver who was “still trying to digest the details of the amendment.”

“In general, I am cautiously optimistic,” she said. “Needless to say this is a historic moment. We saw a an ethics commission constitutional amendment pass the Senate Rules Committee.”

While the Senate Rules amendment removed appointing authority and transparency requirements from the proposal, it kept in the commission’s authority to issue subpoenas to investigate ethics complaints, which Dines called crucial.

The challenge now for the proposal was how to clear both the Senate and another review by the House with little time.

Ferguson of Common Cause sounded confident.

“Where there is a will there always is a way,” she said. “We’ve seen tremendous support coming from both chambers on this issue.”

A spokesman for Sen. Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe said Wednesday the ethics commission proposal would come up for a vote before the full Senate on Thursday.

If passed by both chambers voters would be asked next year to enshrine an independent ethics commission in the state constitution.

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