Lawmakers for second year kick ethics fixes down the road

An effort to fix the state’s anti-corruption statute after the New Mexico Supreme Court barred prosecutors from bringing criminal charges under several of its provisions died in the state Senate. The legislation languished in a committee after clearing the House 66-0 with two weeks to go in the legislative session, which ended at noon today. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham greenlighted the effort to fix the ethics law as the session kicked off in January. House Bill 8, sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Cates, D-Rio Rancho, would have fixed the Governmental Conduct Act, which provides standards for ethical conduct on the part of public officials, employees of state or local agencies, and lawmakers. 

The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that three of the statute’s four provisions used by prosecutors were too vaguely written to result in criminal charges.  

Justices considered the statute in a consolidated case involving a county treasurer who offered money to an employee for sex; a district attorney who used her position to intimidate officers investigating her use of a public vehicle for personal reasons; a judge who illegally recorded private conversations in a courthouse; and a state cabinet secretary who used her position to access the tax records of a previous employer. In the latter case, prosecutors alleged she was trying to prevent an audit of that employer because she had embezzled money from them. (Her embezzlement conviction was later overturned on appeal with the court saying the statute of limitations had run out.)

After the Supreme Court ruling, prosecutors couldn’t criminally charge these public officials for state ethics violations. 

The proposed fixes to the ethics law included barring partisan political activity while on duty or undertaking it in a way that uses public resources.

Bill would amend current law to allow lawmakers into cannabis biz early

Back in 2021, before voting to make recreational use of cannabis legal, lawmakers on the Senate floor barred any lawmaker serving at that time from getting a commercial cannabis license until 2026. Lawmakers debating the provision that year brought up potential conflicts of interest among voting lawmakers who might have plans to participate in a future cannabis industry. 

Now, lawmakers have removed that prohibition in a bill that is making its way through the Senate. The Senate Judiciary committee last week created a substitute bill that included the change. 

Senate Bill 6 contains numerous changes to the cannabis regulation act, which its sponsor, Sen. Katy Duhigg, said stem from lessons learned in the almost three years cannabis has been legal in New Mexico. Duhigg said she was carrying it on behalf of the agency that regulates cannabis companies. 

The original bill this year kept the prohibition on lawmakers who voted on legalization in 2021 from getting into the cannabis business until 2026. Lawmakers on the judiciary committee discussed several changes to the bill, including one that would outlaw cannabis sales through drive-up windows, but skipped right over the change allowing them to open cannabis businesses two years early. 

The bill later in the week passed the Senate Finance committee, where Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, questioned why the prohibition was removed.

Oil and gas gave big in 2023. The industry flexed its muscles this week.

Large oil and gas companies gave nearly $800,000 in the past 12 months to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, partisan legislative political action committees and individual state lawmakers, according to a partial review of campaign finance reports filed by lobbyists. That amount almost certainly will grow in coming months due to a quirk in New Mexico’s disclosure laws. Elected officials don’t have to report contributions they received in the last quarter of last year until this spring. 

The amount of money the industry showers on elected officials offers a glimpse into the influence it has at the state capitol during legislative sessions. 

The industry’s ability to shape legislation was on full display Thursday when a House committee substantively stripped a bill of new regulations that would have required oil and gas infrastructure to be set back more than a third of a mile from schools, health facilities, multifamily housing, occupied homes, and at least 300 feet from waterways.The political giving reflects the industry’s outsized dominance in a state that ranks second in oil production nationally and where more than 40% of funding for New Mexico’s state budget can be tied directly to the industry.The money spread around to New Mexico’s elected officials has been well-documented, as has its power. A March 2020 report by Common Cause New Mexico and New Mexico Ethics Watch detailed the largess over the years 2017-2019, with almost $12 million funneled into political campaign coffers, and more than a million more was given by October of that year.New Mexico In Depth also has documented the political spending and the push and pull over regulation through the years. In 2019, the first year Lujan Grisham took over as governor from Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, there was a push by environmentalists to implement greater regulations for the oil and gas industry, but in the end, the oil and gas industry had little to fear. 

The industry far exceeds other industries in its political giving, and has for many years.

Debate over independent redistricting commission moves to Senate this year

Every ten years, the United States counts its people, tabulating where they live and who they live with, plus a range of factors about them, like their sex, race and ethnicity, age, income, and more. 

That census in turn affects people in significant ways, such as the once-a-decade process where local and state governments redraw political district boundaries based on how their population has changed. The goal is to ensure elected officials represent roughly the same amount of people. 

A Senate concept map, one of several the 2021 New Mexico Citizens Redistricting Committee voted to forward to lawmakers for consideration during the official redistricting process. This map-making process is called redistricting, and in New Mexico and most other states, at the state level it’s lawmakers who draw their own political district maps. 

But a coalition of advocates and civic groups, and some lawmakers, want voters to decide this November if an independent commission would do a better job than state lawmakers of drawing political districts in the future. 

A joint resolution sponsored by Sen. Leo Jaramillo, D-Española, and Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, would place the idea on the ballot during this fall’s statewide election. 

“I heard from New Mexicans from before I won the senate about how they thought a commission should be the one helping decide the district lines to make it fair for every New Mexican and every voting district,” Jaramillo said. 

Rep. Natalie Figueroa, who has championed the idea over several years, said there’s “a very direct conflict of interest in the legislators drawing their own boundaries for their own districts.” In order for the public to have faith in democracy, the Albuquerque Democrat said, there needs to be no question that lawmakers might create maps in a way that intentionally protects their own ability to get elected in the future. 

In 2019, in a New Mexico In Depth report on redistricting, experts said New Mexico’s redistricting system offered few constraints on how lawmakers choose to draw political district boundaries. After that report was produced, lawmakers created an independent committee to gather input statewide, and then create a series of maps to inform the Legislature’s redistricting process. The Legislature ultimately adopted maps drawn by legislators, and not those recommended by the independent committee.

Public blind to money flowing to lawmakers as session kicks off

As the New Mexico legislative session kicked off this week, the public was blind in one very important respect. 

Marjorie Childress, New Mexico In Depth

In the next four weeks, lawmakers will create a state budget worth at least $10 billion dollars, pass another quite large capital outlay budget, and pass influential tax and policy bills. But who gave money to those lawmakers in the last quarter of the year – in the form of campaign contributions – will largely be a mystery. That’s because lawmakers aren’t required to file a public report in January about campaign contributions they received in the run-up to the legislative session, if they didn’t run for office the year before. 

Since no lawmakers ran for office in 2023, we do not have a comprehensive data set showing the money that flowed into campaign accounts in the final months of 2023. Their last reports reflect contributions through Oct. 7, 2023, and we won’t have an update until April, when their next reports are due.I’ve been looking at campaign filings for many years. I promise you that among year-end contributors will be corporations and often, their owners and employees. There will be executives and public relations specialists for trade associations, labor unions, and public policy organizations. 

Some of those contributors will be registered as official lobbyists for their organizations, and in those cases we can see what they gave because lobbyists must file a January report. But while the reports of 100 or so lobbyists, or of their employers, are highly consequential, they are just a slice of the money flowing into the campaign accounts of lawmakers. A fuller picture would allow the public to comb through reports by address, employers, and occupation, and better understand how much money lawmakers are getting from a particular industry, special interest group, or simply from a handful of big donors. Last year, lawmakers were poised to pass a bill with several transparency measures, including one that would have shifted the reporting schedule to capture donations at the end of the year in a January report, showing how much money was given to lawmakers in the run-up to the legislative session.

Gov. Lujan Grisham will greenlight fixes to gutted anti-corruption law

The New Mexico Supreme Court in September 2022 removed the ability for prosecutors to criminally charge public officials for a range of ethics violations. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office confirmed via email Friday afternoon that she will empower state lawmakers to consider returning that power to prosecutors in the legislative session that starts Tuesday.Because it’s a short session, putting together the state budget takes priority, although a governor can add non-budgetary topics to the agenda. In this case, the topic will be the  state’s Governmental Conduct Act, the statute affected by the 2022 court ruling. 

The Supreme Court decision came out of litigation involving four separate cases featuring unethical behavior by local and state public officials between 2011 and 2018.A Doña Ana County treasurer offered money to an employee for sex.  A District Attorney in Grants used her position to intimidate officers investigating her use of a public vehicle for personal reasons. An Aztec magistrate judge was removed from the bench by the state supreme court for illegally recording her colleagues in secure areas of a court building.  A New Mexico Taxation and Revenue cabinet secretary used her position to access the tax records of a previous employer. (Prosecutors alleged Demesia Padilla was trying to prevent the audit of a former client, from whom prosecutors alleged she had embezzled money.