February 22, 2016

Session Recap: Once again, ethics failures outweigh successes

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

While ethics reform was on everyone’s mind when the 2016 Legislative Session began, the increased attention didn’t mean increased success in passing ethics bills.

There were some small successes. The House will archive proceedings and a bill to streamline campaign finance reporting is on Gov. Susana Martinez’s desk.

But the real ethics news was the crown jewel of ethics legislation—an independent ethics commission—once again failed after heading over to the Senate. And a bill to shine the light on so-called “dark money” failed on the House side.

Ethics commission dies

After nearly a decade of failures to create an ethics commission through statute, this year saw a slightly different tack; Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, introduced a proposed constitutional amendment to create an ethics commission. As has been the case in many previous years, the legislation passed the House but stalled in the Senate Rules Committee.

This time, it came in the form of a proposed committee substitute that Dines said so fundamentally changed his bill that he would not want his name on it. The committee, heeding his wishes, didn’t even vote on the substitute and instead left the bill languishing in the committee as time ticked down on the end of the session.

A day later, members of the committee held a press conference to say they weren’t to blame for killing the ethics commission.

On the other side, a bill to allow insight into “dark money” spending passed the Senate unanimously, only to die in the House side. New Mexico In Depth reported it happened because Common Cause New Mexico, which advocates for ethics legislation, and the Secretary of State’s office could not come to an agreement. So, like 2015, the idea is dead for another year.

Small successes

With the hostility toward ethics legislation, any small success seems amplified.

The New Mexico House joined dozens of other states in archiving the webcasts of House proceedings. These will include committees and floor proceedings; the archived videos will be kept for five years.

However, a bill that would have mandated the same thing for the entire Legislature, including interim committees, never received a hearing in the Senate after passing the House in the dying days of the session.

The Senate long resisted video webcasting of proceedings.

Another small victory came from in the form of a bill to streamline campaign finance reporting to make it more clear for both candidates and members of the public. This came after media investigations, legislators cited KOB-TV frequently, looked into confusing campaign finance reports and after much investigation largely found that nothing was done illegally or wrong.

Still, the successes were outweighed by the failures.

Increased reporting from lobbyists, clarification on what can be spent by candidates with campaign money, increased penalties for public officials who commit corruption crimes and more all failed to pass the Legislature.

Once again, it’s wait until next year for the biggest ethics bills.