March 15, 2017

Proposal for state ethics commission advances to full Senate

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Laura Paskus

The Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday endorsed a proposed constitutional amendment to establish a state ethics commission, a proposal that has died in the New Mexico Legislature year after year.

The measure now moves to the full Senate, where its advocates hope it receives a vote before the legislative session ends at noon Saturday.

Note: This story has been updated throughout with more information on the proposed ethics commission.

Members of the Rules Committee voted 9-1 to advance House Joint Resolution 8, sponsored by Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque. The House last week voted 66-0 for the measure.

“We’ve had a great collaboration both bipartisan and bicameral working on this resolution,” Dines said.

If it wins final approval in the Senate, the proposed amendment would go on the ballot in next year’s general election.

Related: Report: New Mexicans want ethics reforms to prevent corruption

The resolution calls for a seven-member commission that would investigate and adjudicate possible ethical violations by state legislators, executive branch officials, lobbyists, candidates for state offices and state government contractors. The commission would have subpoena power.

Only Senate Republican leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, voted against the proposal in the Rules Committee. He said the Legislature does a good job of policing its members. Once there’s a commission in place, he said, it will be used to smear public officials.

“The charge will be on the front page and the retraction will be on page 17,” Ingle said. “We’re going to have a harder time getting people to run for public office.”

The committee adopted an amendment by its chairwoman, Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, that removed many of the specifics on how the commission would operate and how members would be selected.

Dines said he preferred to keep his resolution intact, but neither he nor his co-sponsors argued against Lopez’s amendment.

“I’m encouraged because clearly we’re going to have something in the constitution,” Dines told reporters after the hearing.

By editing details from the proposal, Lopez may have lessened the language that would be in the constitution. Legislators would then devise the particulars of the powers and practices of the ethics commission.

Dines said bills introduced this year by Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, are good templates for the legislation that would actually implement an ethics commission.

Lopez’s amendment to slim down the proposal eliminated a section on transparency.

The original version specified that complaints to the ethics commission would be published online as soon as the person accused of a violation submits a response. The complaint and the response would be published side by side. The original version said that the commission would have the power to dismiss complaints it deemed frivolous. But it would have to make public those complaints that were dismissed without a hearing and the reason for that dismissal.

Peter St. Cyr, executive director of New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, was among those who spoke in favor of the bill Wednesday before Lopez’s amendment was adopted. But afterward, with the transparency elements removed, “there is nothing for NMFOG to comment on,” he said.

The amendment also took out the details of how the seven members would be appointed and how long their terms would be.

Also removed was a detail that many lawmakers had praised: A requirement that five commissioners would have to concur on any decision. Supporters said this would help ward off overtly partisan actions by a commission.

Contact Steve Terrell at 505-986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com. Read his political blog at www.santafenewmexican.com/news/blogs/politics.

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