February 23, 2019

Committee advances ethics bill, but questions remain

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Matthew Reichbach

The House Judiciary Committee on Saturday voted 8-0 to move forward a bill establishing procedures for the state Ethics Commission, even though some lawmakers believe the measure still needs work.

House Bill 4 would install seven commissioners with power to investigate and enforce compliance with laws on governmental conduct, election campaigns, lobbying and financial disclosures.

Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, who is sponsoring the bill, told committee members the bill needs tweaking. But, he said, “I really want to get this thing moving.”

Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, agreed. He has served in the Legislature for 11 years and said he figures that 11 years from now, lawmakers will still be working to make the bill stronger.

“We need to move it forward so something can be done, even if it’s not something everybody likes,” Alcon said.

Republicans on the committee who had questions also opted to advance the bill after minimal debate.

Ely first brought the bill to the committee Friday to explain it. Other lawmakers said it lacked clarity on whether the commission’s work would overlap with other government agencies, such as the Secretary of State’s Office.

Ely told committee members Saturday that the commission would have to create a memorandum of understanding with the Secretary of State’s Office to avoid redundancy.

He added language to the bill regarding any discoveries by the commission of criminal wrongdoing. Those matters would be referred to the attorney general or a district attorney.

Ely said he eventually wants the commission to have the power to investigate complaints against school board members and county commissioners, among other officials. But, he said, it’s too soon to include them in the legislation because the commission will need time to set up and operate.

Advocates for open government so far have been neutral about the bill.

They say a state Ethics Commission is long overdue, but the bill does not go far enough in releasing public records regarding investigations.

For example, after a complaint against a legislator, the accused has 30 days to respond. During that time, the commission is not required to reveal any information about the issue, though the bill allows both the complainant and respondent to talk to the public and media about it if they want.

If the commission finds a complaint to be frivolous or unsubstantiated, it is not required to reveal that information to the public, though the complainant and respondent may. Only after the commission finds a violation in conduct do all records related to that investigation become public, according to the bill.

Ely’s bill calls for the commission to be funded through a $1 million annual appropriation from the Legislature. The seven members would serve staggered terms of four years each.

Seventy-five percent of voters in November authorized establishment of the commission. Legislators, though, must put its duties and scope of responsibilities in place.