February 16, 2016

A brief history of the Legislature rejecting ethics commissions

If approved into law, the latest push for creating independent ethics commission would be the culmination of a decade of efforts to combat corruption in New Mexico.

But if history is any guide, the road to agreement could still be long and rocky.

Update: Add this one to the list of failed attempts: The legislation died in the Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday morning. This piece continues as originally written below.

The impetus came in a mirror image to the current situation, just a decade earlier. In 2005, a statewide elected official—State Treasurer Robert Vigil—resigned amid allegations of misconduct. In 2015, a statewide elected official—Secretary of State Dianna Duran—resigned amid allegations of misconduct.

Both resignations prompted calls for reform. But both may lead to the same result—nothing.

Task Force

Months after Vigil’s conviction, Gov. Bill Richardson issued an executive order to create the Governor’s Task Force on Ethics Reform. The task force would begin by reviewing current state laws related to government ethics and campaign finance reform. Members would then present recommendations ahead of the 2007 legislative session.

Photo Credit: Center for American Progress Action Fund cc

Center for American Progress

Photo Credit: Center for American Progress Action Fund cc

Former Gov. Garrey Carruthers, then the dean of the New Mexico State University College of Business, and Suellyn Scarnecchia, the Dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law led the charge. Others serving on the task force included high profile names like United States Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, Albuquerque city councilor Brad Winter and then-state senator Dede Feldman.

Richardson released the task force’s much-anticipated recommendations in October 2006.

That report outlined the recent history of ethics reform in New Mexico, starting with a unsuccessful  1969 effort to revise the state constitution.

Then in 1992, Gov. Bruce King convened his own task force, which “made several recommendations to the legislature with respect to campaign reporting, lobbyist regulation, financial disclosure and governmental conduct at the state level of government.”

Several of the changes recommended by the 1992 Governmental Ethics Task Force went into effect, including new campaign finance reporting requirements. Candidates could no longer use campaign funds for living expenses.

Still, the current ethics push really has its beginning with the 2006 task force.

The report’s first recommendation was “the establishment of an independent state ethics commission.”

In that 2007 legislative session, State Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Las Cruces, introduced a bill to create a State Ethics Commission. It passed the House on a 58-4 vote but failed to pass the Senate.

The independent ethics commission bill was just one part of a slate of ethics legislation that year; Richardson also supported limits on campaign contributions and expanding public financing of campaigns. Those efforts also failed.

Richardson took another stab by including ethics reform bills as part of the agenda for a special session. In that special session, a state ethics commission bill sponsored by Rep. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, passed the House. Once again, the efforts failed to pass the Senate.

At this point, the Senate’s disagreements with the governor’s office were already a time-honored tradition.

During that same special session, the Senate adjourned before taking up a single bill, prompting Richardson to go on the attack. In an March, 2007 article in the Albuquerque Journal, Richardson ran through a list of issues for the special session that members of the Senate did not address (the article is currently not available on the Journal’s website).

“I want the Senate to ask: What do they say to victims of domestic violence?” Richardson said, according to the paper. “What do they say to the (people) of New Mexico that want roads in their cities and counties? What do they say to gay couples that want a fair shot? What do they say to controlling the meth problem in the state? And what do they say about ethics? I mean, we’ve had all these scandals, and the Senate doesn’t even want to vote?”

Instead, legislators passed only a handful of bills and then adjourned. Ethics issues remained on the table.

“The deal was [Governor Richardson Investment Partnership road projects] and public financing of judicial races,” Feldman recently told NM Political Report.

After this, Richardson and others, including the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, floated the idea of a special session later that year dedicated solely to ethics reform bills. The idea never went past the trial balloon stage.

Second task force, more efforts

The 2007 failures prompted another ethics task force. Again, Carruthers and Scarnecchia served as co-chairs.

RoundhouseAnd again, an independent ethics commission was the top recommendation.

But history repeated itself. The Senate continued to resist ethics legislation, saying that even bringing the issue up was an insult and an insinuation that senators were unethical.

Former Senator Dede Feldman relayed the opposition, from Senators of both parties, in her book “Inside the New Mexico Senate: Boots, Suits and Citizens.”

NM Political Report ran an excerpt from the book earlier this week

Majority Leader Michael Sanchez in particular was incensed at the hypocrisy of it all. And the more popular that ethics reform became with the public and the House of Representatives (where it passed with only four opposing votes in 2007) the more he dug in. Sanchez argued the reforms were unnecessary in the legislature, which was being punished for the sins of one man (Robert Vigil) who was not even a member of the legislature. “What did the legislature do to warrant the push for the change?” he asked.

He was not alone. Republican Minority Leader Stuart Ingle said you couldn’t legislate ethics. “You either have ethics or you don’t.”

Sen. Leonard Rawson said, “Ethics legislation would only trap people who are trying to be honest, and the laws can be abused. Just because you have an ethics commission or ethics laws, doesn’t make someone ethical.” The argument that the legislature had done nothing to warrant change became harder to sell after the March 2007 indictment of the senate’s flamboyant pro tem, Manny Aragon. But that didn’t mean the opponents didn’t try. Even when the news of Aragon’s indictment broke during the March 2007 special session, the leadership avoided dealing with the topic of the ethics commission, shifting instead to debate on public financing of judicial races.

Ball in the Senate’s court

If even the indictment (and later conviction) of Manny Aragon  couldn’t move the needle, it’s not clear if last year’s resignation of former Sen. Phil Griego for violating the state constitution or the recent jailing of former Secretary of State (and former state Senator) Duran will push the Senate toward passage as the minutes count down in the session this year.

New Mexico State Senate. Wikicommons


New Mexico State Senate. Wikicommons

Following the 2007 failure, four more ethics commission bills passed the House on wide bipartisan and sometimes even unanimous votes only to fail in the Senate.

The most recent House effort was a 2013 bill by Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, that passed 64-1. Still, it failed to even pass one Senate committee.

Senate versions of ethics commissions have proved more controversial, even drawing opposition from groups that normally back ethics legislation.

A press release in February of 2010 signed by leaders of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, Common Cause New Mexico, the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, AARP New Mexico and the League of Women Voters slammed a 2010 bill brought by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, and then-Rep. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque.

At issue was a provision that called for penalties up to $26,000 in fines and a year in jail for those who spoke publicly about ethics complaints.

“It’s odd that the penalties for a complainant speaking publicly about a complaint would be astronomically harsher than any penalty the commission could dish out to a public official accused of misconduct,” Steven Allen, then executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, said.

The bill was largely dead on arrival.

One bill, however, has passed a Senate committee. The next year, a bill again sponsored by Lopez and O’Neill, with smaller punishments for those who broke confidentiality, passed the Senate Rules Committee but could go no further.

The latest effort to pass the House is a proposed constitutional amendment brought forward by Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque. After a withering Monday morning hearing that lasted into the afternoon, the Senate Rules Committee is retooling the bill and plans to vote on the legislation on Tuesday, just two days ahead of the end of the session.

If Dines’ bill doesn’t pass the Senate and then gain concurrence in the House, it would suffer the same fate as all the others—dying at the end of another legislative session.