January 27, 2017

Report: New Mexicans want ethics reforms to prevent corruption

The vast majority of New Mexicans reject the notion that political corruption in state government cannot be reversed through legislative action, according to the results of a new University of New Mexico poll.

But many of the people surveyed said they don’t feel they have the power to influence government decision-making, according to the report, released this week as lawmakers are considering proposals to create a statewide ethics commission.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Center for Health Policy at UNM published the report, which says 72 percent of the 1,505 adult state residents surveyed believe “the state’s political leaders should implement reforms such as an independent ethics commission.” Roughly half of the people responded to survey questions by telephone, and the other half responded online in September.

According to the report, 1 in 5 of those surveyed said they never trust state government to do what is right, while only 3 percent said state government can always be trusted to do what is right. Nearly 40 percent said they believe they have no sway over state government policies, and 38 percent said they have little influence.

“Seemingly widespread corruption together with low levels of trust in government and political efficacy do not paint a pretty picture,” the report says. “This begs the question, what can be done to reverse these trends and begin building more public confidence in our elected officials? We believe that the answer lies in the creation of an independent ethics commission here in New Mexico.”

The report cites, but do not endorse, a bill proposed by Sen. Daniel Ivey Soto, D-Albuquerque, that would create a bipartisan board to review complaints against elected officials. A House committee advanced the measure Thursday, although it drew opposition from open government groups that contend it allows the board to take some actions in secret.

The House State Government, Indian and Veterans Affairs Committee also advanced a measure that would let voters decide whether to approve a constitutional amendment creating an ethics commission that would have more power to investigate such complaints.

Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois in Chicago, said an ethics commission would be just one small step in helping to reverse corruption in the state — but it would not be a silver bullet.

“It takes a real, concerted effort doing a number of things over a significant period of time,” Simpson said.

Such an effort may include reforming campaign finance laws, implementing ethics training programs within bureaucracies, empowering inspectors general to investigate government waste and corruption, and challenging patronage hiring in court through class-action lawsuits, Simpson said.

Illinois is now implementing a state law, introduced in response to political scandals, requiring all high school students to pass a civics engagement course as a graduation requirement so the next generation of the state’s leaders are more aware of ethics principals, Simpson said.

A 2015 book co-authored by Simpson, Corrupt Illinois: Patronage, Cronyism and Criminality, ranks New Mexico the ninth most corrupt of all states, Simpson said. That’s based on the number of convictions by the U.S. Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section against public officials in New Mexico from 1976 to 2012, and measured against the state’s population size.

Justin Horwath can be reached at 505-986-3017 or jhorwath@sfnewmexican.com.