A bill that would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment to create an independent ethics commission cleared its first hurdle on Friday on a unanimous vote.
Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, sponsored the proposed constitutional amendment explained that he felt this was a very important piece of legislation to both the public and the Legislature.
“There are many different places to go to try to get an opinion, which can vary,” Dines said. “It needs to be centralized.”
“It can give us direction. It can give us stability,” Dines said. “And I don’t want any of us to make a mistake simply because we did not go somewhere [for advice].”
He noted that the legislation would look at not just the legislative branch, but also the executive. It would also oversee the actions of lobbyists and government contractors.
While it passed unanimously, the portion on transparency received the most attention from the representatives on the panel.
While in the other proposal, the complaints would remain private and those who disclose them would be subject to criminal penalties, Dines’ proposal would have the process be open.
“A person can put their complaint out into the public because of free speech,” Dines said.
Rep. Kelly Fajardo, D-Belen, said she was concerned about things that are brought to the commission but aren’t actually ethics issues.
“If I get upset with Rep. Clahchaschilliage and I file several complaints and it doesn’t go anywhere, there are still several complaints against her,” she said.
Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Espanola, also voiced similar concerns.
“To me, that would say if there is a frivolous complaint that is brought out, then it would be public,” Rodella said.
Fajardo said, she wanted to “protect legislators from people who are just doing bad things.”
Maestas voiced concerns about what should be in the constitution versus what should go in later legislation to address the framework of the constitution. He had voiced similar concerns about an independent redistricting commission that was held over while the sponsor, Rep. Carl Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, made changes.
Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert didn’t voice concerns about the timeliness of a potential ethics commission’s decisions.
“I think you need to have a time period in which these allegations are dealt,” she said, saying that a complaint can drag out through the elections.
Dines agreed that there should be a time limit. He also said that it would be part of the enabling legislation, not part of the constitution.
The idea of an independent ethics commission has been around for years and was a priority of Gov. Bill Richardson in his final years. Constitutional amendments on the topic are rare; only two have been introduced since the issue gained prominence in the last decade.
The legislation has at times passed the House, but run out of steam when hitting the Senate.
Dines referred to the more recent history and mentioned House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, and Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, both of whom have introduced such legislation in recent years, including this year.
“I’m very thankful to them and I’ll publicly say thanks to them,” he said.