March 12, 2019

Ethics commission rules should make sure the panel is independent

Last November, voters cast their aspirations for better government, but the Independent Ethics Commission they enshrined in the state’s constitution won’t be the silver bullet they hoped for in the ballot booth.

It’s disappointing, since only 20 percent of citizens think state government is on the right track. It’s doubtful the ethics commission will move current perceptions.

The reality is, getting upward movement in these kinds of polls will require leadership and a shift in the public’s mindset that the commission is truly independent. 

Ultimately, we think it will be even harder than that since most of us think our district’s officials do a fine job representing our public interests. It’s other district’s state representatives and senators, whom we probably haven’t met, that we need to closely watch, right?

Establishing an ethics commission is a noble idea considering New Mexico’s political history, but the impact of similar boards around the country have had mixed results.

It’s critical to adopt the best rules to guide the ethics commission board and voters set high expectations. No one wants bad rules etched in stone or to spend years getting them amended.

It’s too bad we didn’t know the rules before we voted. We said NO after all three pillars of transparency were removed from the original resolution. Of course, we support ethical conduct and have a track history of holding unethical officials accountable and applauding public servants for excellent work, but now the clock is ticking on this year’s session and there’s still to many unknowns to rally public support for either of the current rule proposals.

For example, it’s unclear if a respondent settles a complaint with the commission’s executive staff whether the public will get to see the underlying documents to determine if the powerful and elite are getting sweetheart deals.

We understand the need to fully fund the ethics commission, but we are concerned about the commissions’ budget doubling to $1,000,000 in the second year, and admit we’re relieved the commissions won’t be as costly as our investment in Spaceport America.

It’s not been discussed in the news, but the ethics commission’s six-figure budget allocation is significantly higher than the $30,000 paid to two separate law first to investigate former Sen. Phil Griego’s for fraud, perjury and Senate Ethics Rules violations. The commissions’ six-figure budget also seems steep compared to the $100,000 that Legislative Counsel Services spent following up allegations against former state Rep. Carl Trujillo last year.

With so much at stake, it’s clear we should not demand legislators finalize the ethics commission rules this year. Rather than rush them to the governor’s office for her signatures, let’s consider a new approach.

Our suggestion: Let’s ask lawmakers to table both rules proposals and refocus the discussions on what kinds of experts should be appointed to serve on the commission and re-evaluate the budget to determine if a million dollars justifies a new two-hour ethics training requirement for state lawmakers, especially considering Florida requires their legislators and state constitutional officers to earn double the credit hours.

Once commissioners are confirmed, we suggest they host several town hall meetings around the state this summer and get input from residents with different perspectives. Legislators would be smart to attend. It’s a great chance for them to shake hands with people they’ve never met.

Peter St. Cyr is the executive director of Open Access New Mexico.