March 11, 2019

Senate committee deadlocks on ethics panel

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Joe Gratz

Flickr/cc

New Mexicans voted in a landslide for an ethics commission to police those in state government. But a Senate committee can’t seem to agree on how it should work.

The Senate Rules Committee deadlocked Monday in a round of votes on two different bills that would set up the commission.

The logjam comes amid questions about how much the public should know about the panel’s work and how much authority it should have to subpoena documents or witnesses.

This disagreement is not a surprise given that lawmakers have been left to decide how to police themselves. But the tension also comes as the 2019 legislative session winds toward its end at noon Saturday.

The impending deadline left at least one lawmaker to wonder aloud whether legislators might simply run out of time before passing a bill to formally establish the commission regardless of how many voters supported it.

The House of Representatives passed legislation, House Bill 4, earlier this month that outlined how the commission would operate.

But the Rules Committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, proposed a bill of her own that initially drew sharp criticism from good government groups for creating a process they said would be too secretive.

Lopez rolled out big changes to her bill during the committee hearing Monday morning.

It is still unclear when exactly the public would have the right to know about complaints filed with the commission. HB 4 states cases would become public once the commission’s general counsel decides there is probable cause to proceed with the matter. But while Lopez’s Senate Bill 619 provides for public hearings and says settlements as well as findings of wrongdoing would become public record, the measure does not spell out when the existence of an investigation might be disclosed.

And new version of SB 619 still would not give the commission subpoena power, which was included in the legislation approved by the House. Instead, the commission would have to go through a state court to issue subpoenas as part of investigations.

But Lopez scrapped the requirement that people filing complaints with the commission sign a strict confidentiality agreement. She also included school board district officials under the law, while HB 4 only covers state-level officials, lobbyists and contractors.

Lopez rolled back a proposed “blackout period” around the time of an election during which the commission would not be allowed to adjudicate complaints. Instead of prohibiting action on a complaint from the day that candidates file to run through election day, she instead proposed a blackout period 60 days before a general election or primary. And the blackout period would not apply if a case involved the state’s campaign finance laws.

Lopez’s proposal was a sort of compromise born of negotiations with the sponsor of HB 4, Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales.

Ely said he only saw the new 44-page version of Lopez’s bill when it was handed out during the committee hearing. And Ely said he did not support it, raising concerns about transparency and subpoena power

“There’s really a philosophical difference with these two versions that just aren’t compatible,” Ely told the committee.

Good government groups as well as chambers of commerce lined up behind HB 4.

“We feel that subpoena power is absolutely necessary,” said Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, an advocacy group that has been working on ethics commission legislation for months with lawmakers as well as other organizations.

Without subpoena power, she said, “it just pulls the teeth out of this commission.”

Some members of the committee backed the compromise measure.

“I personally like the check and balance,” Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said of the proposal to leave subpoena power with the courts.

But other members of the committee said they would prefer to advance HB 4.

“It doesn’t rise to the level of transparency that the public is demanding and has a right to expect,” Sen. Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, said of SB 619.

And committee vice chair Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said HB 4 is “the template of what the voters approved.”

By the time the committee got around to voting, however, most of its members had left the room. So, the committee deadlocked 3-3 on the question of whether to advance SB 619. It deadlocked again on advancing HB 4.

Ultimately, both bills were left stuck in the committee.

Lopez adjourned and said the panel would meet again Tuesday.