Necessary Ethics Reform Efforts Hampered by Constitutional Restrictions, Politics

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Everyone who works around the Legislature – legislator, lobbyist, analyst, advocate, reporter, etc. — knows that it can take time for legislation to “ripen”. That sometimes moving in a new direction from what is currently in statute or what is commonplace can take years of lead time and advocating for a change or for reform.

And sometimes there are issues that arrive with such exigency that they are embraced with apparent immediacy and acknowledgment of the necessity for action.

This year saw the indictment of a powerful state representative on multiple corruption charges. What a time for reform, right? With the public’s outcry over what may seem to be unending opportunities for graft (sometimes seized), and the chance for lawmakers to strengthen the rules and laws governing disclosure and transparency, auditing and reporting, and weak penalties for misconduct, that could make a bad actor at least think twice about committing wrong, unlawful, self-enriching acts!

And yet…here we are approaching and in a timely legislative session, with little hope for meaningful enactment and reform of ethics-related laws. Why?  Because this is a 30-day budget session. Our State Constitution (Article IV, Section 5) limits legislators to considering only the following during even-year, 30-day sessions: 1. budget matters; 2. bills pursuant to special messages of the governor; and 3. bills of the last previous regular session vetoed by the governor.

In public meetings of the State Ethics Commission and the Ethics Reform Working Group (www.nmethicsreform.org), both the commission and the Secretary of State’s Office have discussed submitted budget requests for new positions to strengthen their capabilities under various ethics laws. Honoring these necessary budget increase requests will serve New Mexicans well.

At its December 3rd meeting, the commission, charged with recommending reforms to ethics-related laws, voted to move forward with the proposed “Disclosure Act,” that would repeal the existing Financial Disclosure Act, and expand upon what public servants are required to disclose in the name of transparency. (See Appendix 1 in the commission’s public materials at https://www.sec.state.nm.us/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Public-Materials-for-2021-12-3-Commission-Meeting-Updated-11-24.pdf.)

While the budget requests are guaranteed a hearing in this 30-day session, the forward-thinking Disclosure Act is not.  The only way that will happen is if the governor puts that on her call…and ethics reform has not been announced as a priority by the governor. That means that necessary ethics reform will most likely have to wait to even be considered until the 2023 legislative session.

So, here we land, with a huge corruption scandal whetting the public’s appetite for reform, but probably no way to make that reform happen during the 2022 legislative session.

What’s the solution? Increasing the number of persuasive lobbyists in the ethics-reform arena to convince both the governor and legislative leadership that the public (and legislators) will best be served by endorsing and entertaining ethics-reform legislation during the 2022 legislative session? Maybe. That’s certainly a political solution.

But what of an institutional solution? 

Calls for reform/modernization/professionalization of the Legislature have been on the increase. Everything from session length, salaries, and increased, regular staffing have been suggested. Much of this will take a constitutional amendment. But there’s no appetite on the part of legislative leadership to back a constitutional amendment orchestrating reform of the institution of the Legislature when that issue could become political, and there’s an election in 2022!

So, here we are in a catch-22 situation: the need for ethics reform is urgent, apparent and desired…but will most likely not be considered in a 30-day, budget matters session…so let’s have a constitutional amendment that permits both budget and substantive matters to be introduced in every session…but there’s no support for that effort because 2022 is an election year…so we’ll have to wait for an odd-year, 60-day session for legislators to introduce substantive, ethics reform legislation!

In the meantime, years and opportunities for meaningful ethics reform pass by. The potential price? Loss of public trust in the Legislature. If I were a legislator, that would be a price I would be unwilling to pay. How about you?


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.

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