New Mexicans voted in a landslide for an ethics commission to police those in state government. But a Senate committee can’t seem to agree on how it should work. The Senate Rules Committee deadlocked Monday in a round of votes on two different bills that would set up the commission. The logjam comes amid questions about how much the public should know about the panel’s work and how much authority it should have to subpoena documents or witnesses. This disagreement is not a surprise given that lawmakers have been left to decide how to police themselves.
Election season might seem like the perfect time for a government ethics watchdog to be on high alert. But in setting up a new statewide ethics commission, lawmakers are proposing to curtail its work during the height of election years — or even for the entirety of the campaign season. Some legislators contend the commission needs a sort of blackout period to avoid political adversaries from filing complaints solely for the purpose of derailing a candidate’s campaign. Advocates have been hesitant to give too much ground on the issue, though, for fear of defanging the proposed panel. Three out of four New Mexico voters in the last election backed a constitutional amendment creating a statewide ethics commission.
The House Judiciary Committee on Saturday voted 8-0 to move forward a bill establishing procedures for the state Ethics Commission, even though some lawmakers believe the measure still needs work. House Bill 4 would install seven commissioners with power to investigate and enforce compliance with laws on governmental conduct, election campaigns, lobbying and financial disclosures. Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, who is sponsoring the bill, told committee members the bill needs tweaking. But, he said, “I really want to get this thing moving.” Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, agreed.
Lawmakers and open government proponents on Friday raised questions about transparency and possible conflicts with other investigative agencies as New Mexico legislators try to flesh out details of the long-discussed creation of a state ethics commission. House Bill 4 would create an independent state agency overseen by seven commissioners with power to investigate and enforce compliance with laws on governmental conduct, election campaigns, lobbyists, gifts and financial disclosures by state officers, employees and contractors, among others. The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on the bill Saturday. Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, who introduced the bill, presented it to the committee Friday but asked the members to give him another day to work on changes before voting on it. Ely said the bill’s goal is to “make sure we go after the bad people in this system and shine a light on these people.”
Following a contentious debate, the state House of Representatives late Tuesday voted to approve a bill that would automatically register eligible New Mexicans to vote when they conduct transactions with the Motor Vehicle Division. House Bill 84 includes a provision that allows those citizens to opt out of registering or updating their existing voter registration as they apply for a driver’s license or state identity card. Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver spoke in favor of the legislation during a news conference at the Capitol earlier in the day, saying, “When more eligible voters vote, our democracy wins.” She said the bill, if it becomes law, has the potential to increase voter participation by 30 percent, or, according to a fiscal impact report, some 385,000 people. Rep. Debra Sariñana, D-Albuquerque, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the proposal “would make it more likely that anyone who wants to cast a vote can.”
A state senator has proposed to keep much of the New Mexico ethics commission’s work secret and potentially impose thousands of dollars in fines and even jail time on anyone who breaks its confidentiality rules. Seventy-five percent of voters in last year’s election approved the creation of a state ethics commission, and legislators are now debating exactly how it should work, including how much the public should know about the cases it handles. Legislation filed this week by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, would set up the commission to ensure that ethics complaints remain secret unless it decides there has been a violation of law or the accused signs waives confidentiality. Under her Senate Bill 619, the form for filing an ethics complaint would include a confidentiality agreement. And anyone who discloses confidential complaints or investigations could face fines as high as $10,000 and up to a year in jail.
New Mexico voters spoke, overwhelmingly backing a constitutional amendment last year to create an independent ethics commission. Now, it is up to lawmakers to decide exactly how the commission will work. Democrats in the state House of Representatives on Monday put forward the first plan of the legislative session for setting up the ethics panel, proposing a board that would work with broad secrecy. Confidentiality provisions immediately raised concerns from some of the biggest proponents of creating the commission. And the bill’s backers are walking a fine line as they ask lawmakers to set up the very body that will police them.
A bill to allow voters to register on the same day they vote cleared its first House committee Wednesday. The House, State Government, Elections & Indian Affairs Committee advanced the proposal on a party-line vote. The bill aims to let voters register or update their voter registration during early voting or on Election Day, and vote on the same day. Currently, voters must register four weeks before the election to be eligible to vote. One of the bill’s Democratic co-sponsors, Patricia Roybal Caballero of Albuquerque, said the legislation “is the ultimate access bill to allow voters to access the electoral process as openly as possible.”
The bill would allow new voters to register on Election Day and those already registered to change their address.
The process is taking longer than Democrats would hope, but bills to expand voting rights are moving through the state legislature. Democrats advanced two voting bills—one, to automatically restore voting rights to felons and another to expand automatic voter registration—out of the House Local Government, Elections and Land Grants Committee on party-line votes Friday. But a bill to allow same-day voter registration failed to come up for a vote, with a visibly frustrated committee chair saying they’ll meet again on Saturday. The debate on the bill to allow felons to vote began Wednesday, including substantial public comment. Felon enfranchisement
In its current form, HB 57 would remove a felony conviction from the list of reasons why the Secretary of State could cancel a voter’s registration.
Recreational marijuana would become legal for people 21 or older in New Mexico and the state could tax marijuana sold in licensed stores under a bill introduced Thursday by state Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque. House Bill 356 would establish a licensing system that supporters say favors small businesses and institute a 9 percent tax on marijuana for buyers who are not patients in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program. The revenue would go for research and education as well as community grants for workforce training, substance misuse treatment, mental health treatment, and youth drug-education and prevention programs.
Cities and counties would be allowed to opt out of allowing retail marijuana sales. “It’s time to be smart about the war on drugs,” Martínez told The New Mexican in an interview last week. He called the decades-long state and federal anti-marijuana policies a failure.