Voters in next year’s general election will get to decide on a proposed constitutional amendment to establish a state ethics commission. The measure could lead to creation of a commission to investigate possible public corruption cases and campaign finance violations. Both the House and the Senate on Friday night approved a compromise resolution. That followed the action of a special committee consisting of three senators and three state representatives who reconciled two versions of House Joint Resolution 8. A resolution that unanimously passed the House last week spelled out many details of how the ethics panel would operate.
It seemed for a few hours that the New Mexico Legislature, after years of rejecting the idea, was about to authorize a proposed constitutional amendment to establish a state ethics commission. Then the proposal hit a bump Thursday night. The state Senate had voted 30-9 hours earlier to approve House Joint Resolution 8, sponsored by Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque. But, when the resolution went back to the House of Representatives for concurrence on an amendment made by a Senate committee, Dines urged members to vote against going along with the Senate’s change. House members complied, and now three-member committees from each chamber will meet to try to reach an agreement.
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.
The New Mexico House of Representatives on Thursday night agreed to give voters a chance to establish a state ethics commission through amending the constitution. The House voted 66-0 to pass House Joint Resolution 8, sponsored by Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque. But the measure faces a harder time in the Senate, which despite a string of state government scandals in the past decade, has been the traditional burial ground for ethics legislation. Under Dines’ proposal, a seven-member commission would be appointed by the governor and the Legislature to investigate possible ethical violations by legislators, state officers and executive branch officials. The proposed body also would investigate alleged violations of campaign finance laws, laws covering lobbyists and disclosure requirements for state contractors.
Several lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle had pointed questions Thursday about a proposed constitutional amendment that would establish an independent ethics commission in New Mexico. But at the end of the hearing, the House Local Government, Elections, Land Grants and Cultural Affairs Committee voted unanimously to give a do-pass recommendation to House Joint Resolution 8, sponsored by Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, and send it to the House Judiciary Committee. “We all know there is an obvious gap in trust between us in office and the public,” Dines told the committee. “The more we do to restore trust, the better it will be, not only in New Mexico, but in the U.S.” Under Dines’ proposal, if the seven-member commission is approved by voters in 2018, members would be appointed by the governor and the Legislature to investigate possible ethical violations by legislators, state officers and officials in the executive branch.
Thursday marks the halfway point of the 2017 New Mexico Legislature’s 60-day run in Santa Fe. And while half the time is gone, perhaps 90 percent of the work remains. All-important debates over how to spend the public’s money, where to get it and how much to keep in reserve, are yet to be resolved. How much should be devoted to keeping the schools running? What kind of tax breaks are effective in stimulating a sputtering economy?
The vast majority of New Mexicans reject the notion that political corruption in state government cannot be reversed through legislative action, according to the results of a new University of New Mexico poll. But many of the people surveyed said they don’t feel they have the power to influence government decision-making, according to the report, released this week as lawmakers are considering proposals to create a statewide ethics commission. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Center for Health Policy at UNM published the report, which says 72 percent of the 1,505 adult state residents surveyed believe “the state’s political leaders should implement reforms such as an independent ethics commission.” Roughly half of the people responded to survey questions by telephone, and the other half responded online in September. According to the report, 1 in 5 of those surveyed said they never trust state government to do what is right, while only 3 percent said state government can always be trusted to do what is right.
With the state wracked by successive corruption scandals involving top officials, several lawmakers seem to agree that this is the year for ethics reform in New Mexico. A committee of the state House of Representatives gave a boost to those hopes Thursday by advancing a bipartisan proposal to establish an independent ethics commission through a constitutional amendment. The commission would have the power to investigate complaints of misconduct by public officials, candidates, lobbyists and contractors. The complaints would be public, and the commission’s opinions could be appealed to the state courts. Campaign finance reform advocates and good government groups have fought for years to create such a body.
During the legislative session earlier this year, something very typical happened: an attempt to create an independent ethics commission failed to pass the Senate. NM Political Report wrote about the history of this happening over the last decade. This year’s version was pushed by Rep. Jim Dines, an Albuquerque Republican. Dines’ legislation would have put the question to voters to decide if such a commission should be created under the state constitution. One issue that received pushback was how the ethics commission in Dines’ proposal would have published all of the ethics complaints, even those deemed frivolous, after a review by the commission.
While ethics reform was on everyone’s mind when the 2016 Legislative Session began, the increased attention didn’t mean increased success in passing ethics bills. There were some small successes. The House will archive proceedings and a bill to streamline campaign finance reporting is on Gov. Susana Martinez’s desk. But the real ethics news was the crown jewel of ethics legislation—an independent ethics commission—once again failed after heading over to the Senate. And a bill to shine the light on so-called “dark money” failed on the House side.