February 17, 2017

Measure creating independent ethics commission advances

Several lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle had pointed questions Thursday about a proposed constitutional amendment that would establish an independent ethics commission in New Mexico.

But at the end of the hearing, the House Local Government, Elections, Land Grants and Cultural Affairs Committee voted unanimously to give a do-pass recommendation to House Joint Resolution 8, sponsored by Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, and send it to the House Judiciary Committee.

“We all know there is an obvious gap in trust between us in office and the public,” Dines told the committee. “The more we do to restore trust, the better it will be, not only in New Mexico, but in the U.S.”

Under Dines’ proposal, if the seven-member commission is approved by voters in 2018, members would be appointed by the governor and the Legislature to investigate possible ethical violations by legislators, state officers and officials in the executive branch. The body also would investigate alleged violations of campaign finance laws, laws covering lobbyists and disclosure requirements of state contractors.

Five commissioners would have to concur before any decision, Dines said.

The commission would not investigate anonymous complaints, Dine said. Complaints would be published online as soon as the person accused of a violation submits a response. The complaint and the response would be published side by side.

The commission could dismiss what it considers a frivolous complaint, but the dismissal would be made public. And all hearings would be open to the public, Dines said.

If passed by voters next year, the Legislature would have to pass enabling legislation to set up the new office.

Dines said he expects the office would require $500,000 to $600,000 a year and a staff including a director, a lawyer, two paralegals and an investigator.

Several members of the committee on Thursday said they would prefer that an ethics commission be established by a statute rather than by a constitutional amendment.

Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, said Dines’ proposal could unintentionally lead to more corruption. Dines’ resolution would give the ethics commission the exclusive power to investigate possible ethical violations, which Ely said would thwart individual state agencies from looking into alleged ethical violations.

“If there’s more unethical behavior, it should be under as many microscopes as possible,” Ely said.

Ely is co-sponsoring House Bill 10, which would establish a public accountability board to oversee campaign finance reporting and conflicts of interest. But the board would not have much authority over legislators. Instead, it proposes expanding the powers of the Legislative Ethics Committee.

Dines told Ely that having an agency investigate itself often is not effective.

He said the current system in which violations can be referred to more than one agency, including the Attorney General’s Office and the Secretary of State’s Office, sometimes leads to “shopping around” for someone to investigate possible violations.

Dines said the legislation is similar to a proposed constitutional amendment he sponsored last year that passed the House 50-10. However, that resolution met its end in the Senate Rules Committee. After he saw proposed changes to his resolution that the committee seemed likely to pass, Dines pulled his own legislation after that meeting last year, saying the proposal would have become “a toothless tiger.”

Contact Steve Terrell at 505-986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com. Read his political blog at www.santafenewmexican.com/news/blogs/politics.