Absence of watchdog groups means lawmakers must proceed with caution

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With news that the 2021 legislative session would be held virtually – with the public and lobbyists prohibited from being in the capitol building – it’s likely that legislative agendas are being adjusted. For interested citizens, lobbyists and state agencies charged with reporting to or suggesting reforms to the Legislature, the most important question may be how to participate in the upcoming session – in floor sessions, committee meetings, and with all important personal visits with individual legislators – in order to protect the public interest.

Kathleen Sabo, Executive Director, New Mexico Ethics Watch

Because we have a citizen legislature, with short sessions and limited full-time and seasonal staff available to legislators, lawmakers often rely upon lobbyists to educate them about legislation, particularly complex legislation.  That element will also be missing.

So, what do we wish for in the upcoming session and how do we accomplish it?

The newly formed State Ethics Commission filled a void in state government.  Within the legislation enabling the commission (2019’s SB 668), not only is the commission required to submit an annual report to the Legislature and governor that includes recommendations regarding state ethics laws, the Legislature was specifically charged with making recommendations during this upcoming session on any changes to the Campaign Reporting Act, the Voter Action Act and the Lobbyist Regulation Act, “necessary for the efficient administration and enforcement of the provisions” of these acts.

In their annual report, the commission puts forth a discussion draft of legislation that essentially assigns the administrative tasks provided for in the CRA, VAA, LRA and Financial Disclosure Act (FDA) to the Secretary of State and adjudication and enforcement authority to the commission.  

In other years we would be cheering the commission on, urging them to use their position to propose this change and more…but is that wise in this unprecedented time? Do we want legislators working on reform of these acts without sufficient public input and opportunity to participate in and watchdog legislative activity? What are the chances that something could go wrong and that efforts at improving ethics-related laws turn into schemes to weaken legislation?

These concerns are being weighed by all. Due to New Mexico’s unique constitutionally mandated legislative system, a long, substantive session comes around only once every two years. (2019, 2021, 2023, etc.) Shorter sessions occurring in even-numbered years may address: 1. Budget, appropriation and revenue matters; 2. Bills put forth by special messages of the governor; and 3. Bills vetoed by the governor in the last regular session.

That means that by the time another long, substantive session arrives in 2023, another election cycle will have passed (2022), without needed reforms to the CRA, the LRA, the FDA and the Governmental Conduct Act (GCA), unless proposed by the governor in the short 2022 session. 

What to do?  One solution would be for a special, substantive session to be called before the 2022 elections, but there has been no talk of that.  (Although support for this may grow during and after the 2021 session, depending upon how things go.)

As a watchdog group and an advocate for necessary reform, New Mexico Ethics Watch (NMEW) will be observing the session closely and participating as we are able.  While we may choose to not support or generate as many legislative proposals as we might otherwise in a non-pandemic session, we WILL be looking for and calling out any proposals and/or amendments that would further weaken already anemic ethics-related laws. 

We’ll expect House and Senate leadership to monitor and promote public access to and participation in public hearings and meetings.  We, and others, will work to hold lawmakers accountable during what will be the unprecedented nature of the upcoming session.Will this strategy work?  Time will tell.

Kathleen Sabo is executive director of New Mexico Ethics Watch, a non-partisan organization dedicated to promoting ethics and accountability in government and public life in New Mexico. The views in this column are the author’s alone and do not reflect the view or opinions of New Mexico In Depth. This column first appeared in New Mexico In Depth’s 2021 Legislative Special Edition.

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