Legislature should enact voters’ mandate for strong ethics commission

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The “devil is in the details,” the old adage goes, and nowhere is this more evident than in drafting legislation.

After 75 percent of New Mexico’s voters supported the passage of a constitutional amendment to establish an independent ethics commission last fall, the 2019 Legislature is now mandated to craft those “devilish details” and pass enabling legislation that will set up and empower this commission to begin its work.

Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico

Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico

The 2017 House Joint Resolution that initiated the ballot measure only drew a broad outline of the commission’s appointment process, statutory jurisdiction and powers, and now it’s time to provide the ways and the means for the commission’s functions and funding.

This presents an exciting opportunity for New Mexico. Since June of 2018, staff from Common Cause, New Mexico First, the League of Women Voters, NM Ethics Watch, legislators and their staff have been meeting to work through many of these details and to build a blueprint for enabling legislation. These meetings have been open to the public and transparent — just as the Ethics Commission itself should be.

To assure voters that public officials are not above the law and to build public trust, we believe that the ethics commission should include these features:

  • Will receive complaints from any person alleging a violation of any of the laws within the scope of its authority. It may also initiate complaints on its own.
  • Will have primary jurisdiction to enforce civil provisions of campaign finance and financial disclosure laws, the Governmental Conduct Act, lobbyist and gift regulations, the Procurement Code, the Whistleblower Protection Act and others, working in cooperation with applicable agencies.
  • Complaints not initially dismissed will be investigated fully and a determination made within a specified period whether probable cause exists to convene a formal hearing.
  • Will be authorized to issue subpoenas, or to request a court to issue subpoenas, for compulsory appearance of witnesses and production of evidence.
  • Following a hearing, the commission will make and publish its determination, written findings and conclusions.
  • Will be empowered to impose sanctions on violators, including censure and public reprimand, and to refer adjudicated cases to other agencies, employers or prosecutors for possible further disciplinary action.
  • Will issue advisory opinions to people presenting legitimate questions about whether their own contemplated future conduct may violate any laws.
  • Will have a budget sufficient to allow it to hire staff, including a director and legal counsel, to assist it in carrying out these functions.
  • No more than three members of the seven-member commission may be from the same political party.
  • Formal hearings will be conducted in public, and all rulings of the commission will be published.

Common Cause will also be working to update and reform our campaign finance disclosure laws to make it easier for New Mexico’s voters to know who is paying to influence their votes.

The campaign finance disclosure bill will bring the current law into compliance with recent court rulings and in-line with modern campaign practices. We will also be working on legislation to allow for automatic voter registration using a secure database to identify and register all eligible citizens when they renew their driver’s license or change their address.

We look forward to working with all elected officials on these, and other good government reforms which, combined, will give all New Mexicans an increased opportunity to both participate and restore their trust in our democracy.

Heather Ferguson is executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a nonpartisan grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy. It works to create open, honest, and accountable government that serves the public interest; promote equal rights, opportunity, and representation for all; and to empower all people to make their voices heard as equals in the political process. The views in this column are the author’s alone and do not reflect the view or opinions of New Mexico In Depth.

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