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.
Most members of the Senate Rules Committee trickled out of a hearing Monday, scuttling a vote on a proposed constitutional amendment to expand funding for early childhood education. The lack of a quorum stalled House Joint Resolution 1 in the first of two committees it must clear before even reaching a vote of the full Senate before the legislative session ends at noon Saturday. A couple Republicans were in the room when the Rules Committee took up the proposal. But all four Republicans on the committee either left the hearing or never entered it. Two Democrats also were absent, so only five of the committee’s 11 members remained as the debate wound to a close.
Setting up a constitutional showdown with the Legislature, Gov. Susana Martinez has withdrawn most of her appointees awaiting confirmation in the state Senate but will keep the officials in their posts across New Mexico government. Aides to the governor accused lawmakers on Wednesday of moving too slowly in confirming her nominations, leaving more than 70 unconfirmed as the session enters its final weeks. But some senators suggested Martinez was attempting an end run around the confirmation process that would undercut the Legislature’s role as a check on the executive branch of government. “The governor cannot circumvent the Senate’s authority,” Senate President Pro Tempore Mary Kay Papen told the chamber Wednesday afternoon after a clerk read aloud a letter from Martinez announcing the move. The unusual maneuver has turned a typically mundane administrative process into an unlikely flash point between the governor and Democratic legislators as debate over bigger issues, such as the budget and taxes, come to a head.
Laura Gutierrez has been trying to get public records from Albuquerque Public Schools for more than a year. In 2014 a school law enforcement officer allegedly used force against her autistic son. APS opened an investigation and soon cleared the officer of any wrongdoing. Gutierrez wants to see all the documents from this investigation. In the fall and winter of 2015, Gutierrez filed four public records requests with APS for the district’s internal investigation of the officer, an employee of the school district.
Two state senators grappled with the definition of “ethnic studies” in schools during a legislative hearing Wednesday morning. State Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, sponsored a bill to require that schools offer courses in ethnic studies as electives. State Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, was the only member of the Senate Education Committee to vote against the bill. Brandt asked Lopez if her bill would include “all ethnicities.”
Yes, she responded, mentioning Latinos, Asian-Americans, African-Americans and Native Americans as examples. “You didn’t mention mine, and I am an ethnicity,” Brandt, who is white, said.
After a year of high-profile changes in Gov. Susana Martinez’s Cabinet, top officials from several of the most important departments in state government now await Senate confirmation hearings. But the secretaries of environment, finance and health are just of a few of the governor’s nearly 100 appointees on the agenda. With the long list, it is unclear how many appointees will even get a vote before the Senate adjourns March 18. New Mexico’s financial crisis will make confirmation hearings more difficult than usual. Staff members say the Senate Rules Committee only has enough money to conduct background checks on about half the appointees.
Five Democrats joined four Republicans on Monday to block a bill that would have eliminated the job of Cabinet secretary of public education and resurrected a statewide board to oversee schools in New Mexico. The Senate Rules Committee voted 9-2 to table Senate Joint Resolution 2, a proposed constitutional amendment to create a 10-member school board that in turn would hire a secretary of education. In the existing system, the governor appoints someone to run the Public Education Department. Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, introduced the resolution, saying it would return power to school districts and would allow the state board to hire or fire a secretary of education at will. “If the individual [secretary] does a poor job, the state school board can take that individual out of the position,” Padilla told the committee.
Prosecutors with the New Mexico Attorney General’s office, a group of legislators, legislative support staff and one journalist are set to testify in the case against former New Mexico State Senator Phil Griego next week. According to a document filed by an attorney for the Legislative Council Service (LCS) earlier this week, 14 legislators and administrative staff who were called to testify are represented by Thomas Hnasko, counsel for LCS. Hnasko told NM Political Report that’s hard to say who if anyone he represents will decline to answer questions based on a speech and debate clause from state law that protects legislators from consequences on actions they make as legislators. He added that he doesn’t foresee many problems with lawmakers answering questions in court. “All legislators want to be as open as possible,” Hnasko said.
A handful of state senators explained to reporters this year’s death of a bill creating an independent ethics commission, contending it was more than their committee simply killing the measure. Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, said “a lot has been made about the actions of the [Senate] Rules Committee” suggesting actions that “the Rules committee has not taken.”
Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, carried a bill that would have allowed general election voters to amend the state constitution to create an independent ethics commission to investigate corruption complaints against public officials. After passing the House, Dines withdrew his bill after disagreements with the Senate Rules Committee over changes made in a committee substitute that was never moved. Related Story: A brief history of the Legislature rejecting ethics commissions. Ivey-Soto contended that Senate proposals that would require people making complaints against public officials to be held under penalty of perjury for filing frivolous complaints were suggestions, not requirements.