February 16, 2016

Ethics commission dies in Senate again

A proposal to see the state finally institute a state ethics commission died, once againRoundhouse Rotunda, in the Senate Rules Committee.

This time, the legislation went down without even a vote, as the committee sponsor asked for his bill to be rolled over instead of having the Senate vote on a proposed committee substitute.

Related Story: A brief history of the Legislature rejecting ethics commissions.

“We have great differences and I’m concerned that if this went forward and became a committee substitute, it would be something that I certainly would not to have my name on the bill or resolution,” Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, said.

And so, with a whimper, the ethics commission once again died, a common result in the last decade since a task force determined an ethics commission is one of the top things needed for ethics in New Mexico.

Related Story: Senators: We didn’t kill the ethics commission

“We’re at a point where this needs to be done,” Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, said. I’m disappointed that this couldn’t be done this time.”

The legislation had previously passed the House on a 50-10 vote.

Rue has become known as one of the champions of openness and transparency in government, including passing legislation that led the Sunshine Portal, which puts public salaries and contracts online.

Dines said that Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, worked on the proposal on behalf of the committee. He said it was not just Ivey-Soto’s proposal, but supported by others on the committee.

The Albuquerque Republican did not object to all of the changes. He said that several of the “mechanical” changes were ones he could accept. But he objected to the removal of transparency provisions and the provisions related to the power of the commission.

In the Senate Rules Committee substitute, the commission would no longer make rulings. Instead, the committee substitute created an investigatory committee.

“It would become a toothless tiger,” Dines told reporters after the hearing.

A topic Dines kept returning to was transparency.

“There is a presumption of openness by law,” Dines said in his press conference. “In both open meetings and inspection of public records in law.”

He did not like that a provision that would publish all frivolous complaints along with the reason they were dismissed was removed. He also did not like that there would no longer be a “public hearing to adjudicate the case.”

“It’s something that I felt today, it’s too important to give up principles that I had hoped for, pertaining to transparency,” Dines said. “Because I have seen how it can impact in a positive way, how our government works, and I just can’t give up those principles.”

Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said there was “almost a paranoia” among legislators that an ethics commission would be used to “damage someone with false accusations.”

“Those complaints can still be filed,” Dines said afterward, of current law. “There can still be that abuse. That’s there already.”

The proposal was a constitutional amendment, which means if it passed both chambers, voters would decide, likely in November’s general election.

As with the baseball season and the Chicago Cubs, it was another “wait until next year” for supporters of such a commission.

“I look forward to working with you this interim,” Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said.