The perennial issue of creating a state ethics commission passed a House committee on Wednesday.
The legislation, sponsored by Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, sought to make the ethics commission as non-partisan and non-political as possible. The House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee voted unanimously to pass a committee substitute version of the legislation with no recommendation.
There was little debate on the legislation, though Egolf noted that members on the committee had heard this legislation before so a detailed presentation was not necessary.
Rep. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, noted that Egolf is the latest in a line of legislators to try to create an ethics commission. Martinez said Egolf is “picking up this mantle that has been going on for over a decade.”
The committee substitute addressed several concerns that legislators and open government advocates had voiced. One was that the penalties for breaching confidentiality were too severe. The penalty is now a misdemeanor, with up to a $1,000 fine, something Egolf told the committee was common among misdemeanors.
The confidentiality itself was important to legislators. Initial complaints would not be public, and Egolf told New Mexico Political Report following the hearing that this was important.
“If it’s a frivolous complaint, we don’t want the ethics commission to be used as a weapon in a political campaign,” Egolf said.
Final reports and other information in the investigation would be made public afterward. Initial meetings into the investigations would not be subject to the Open Meetings Act, but other meetings would according to Egolf and a representative of the office of the state Attorney General.
One issue that Martinez raised was the details of transferring staff responsible for campaign finance reporting from the office of the Secretary of State to the newly-created ethics commission. He noted that when the legislature moved corporate filings from the Public Regulation Commission to the Secretary of State’s office, it took a lot of hard work.
“The issue is not just personnel, but this ethics commission would need a home,” Martinez said, saying there is limited office space in Santa Fe.
The legislation would not take effect until Fiscal Year 2017, which Egolf said would give the legislature time to sort out all the details in next year’s 30 days session.
The legislation mandates an 11 person panel, with no more than five members of one party.
As for the bill’s prospects of passage this year, Egolf seemed cautiously optimistic.
“We’re hoping to get it into Judiciary as quickly as possible and I think if we can get it heard in the next week it has a chance of passing,” Egolf said.
In addition to the House Judiciary Committee, the legislation is assigned to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, an assignment Egolf was hoping to have removed.
He said that the legislation is important because New Mexico is one of the last states in the nation that does not have a state ethics commission.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 42 states have ethics commissions while just 8 states do not have an ethics commission.
While Egolf joked that some view it as a quixotic quest, he did believe it was an important piece of legislation.
“I think it’s important that the public has more confidence in elected officials,” Egolf said.