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.
For a window into how legislation is made, few moments were more educational than a sparsely attended meeting Tuesday afternoon in a cavernous, mostly empty room on the University of New Mexico campus. On the surface, the meeting was congenial as two state lawmakers, legislative staff, attorneys and representatives of civic organizations hammered out the beginnings of draft legislation that would fill out the details of the state’s first independent ethics commission if voters give the go ahead in November. But beneath the amicable discussions there was a rematch of sorts, perhaps noticeable only to those aware of the contentious history surrounding the idea of an independent ethics commission. For almost 15 years, lawmakers offended by the notion that they needed anyone to watch over them squared off against other legislators who touted independent oversight as a way to restore public trust in government. Legislative opposition knew no political party, with both Democrats and Republicans chafing at the idea of an independent oversight body.
An interim committee hearing included harsh criticisms and personal stories of detention at private facilities which have contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee held a hearing Monday afternoon concerning two privately-operated prisons in New Mexico that detain immigrants. These include Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, which is run by CoreCivic, and the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, which is run by Management and Training Corporation. Legislators heard from an immigration attorney, advocates for immigrants and some in the country without authorization. The committee invited Ronald D. Vitello, the acting director of ICE, but he did not attend or even acknowledge the invitation.
A ballot measure that calls for using more money from the state’s $17 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood education is a small step closer to going to voters this year. The House Education Committee on Monday voted 7-6 along party lines to approve the constitutional amendment that backers say could expand access to education programs for young children across New Mexico, the state with the highest rate of child poverty. Republicans on the committee voted against the proposal. They say it could deplete a fund that now props up the budgets of New Mexico’s public schools and is supposed to last forever. Democrats in the House of Representatives have made a priority of getting the measure, House Joint Resolution 1, on the November ballot.
Lawmakers voted to update the State Legislature’s sexual harassment policy, the first such change in a decade. The 15-0 Legislative Council vote came a day before the start of the 2018 legislative session. The council adopted the policy crafted by eight legislators who rewrote it at a time where many industries and organizations, including political institutions, are grappling with sexual harassment. The policy allows for an outside investigator to look into allegations of sexual harassment against legislators. It also calls for “outside counsel who is experienced in harassment matters” to determine in consultation with legislative leaders if a complaint merits an investigation.
Both the House and Senate recessed Thursday afternoon—without officially ending the special session. Now, the governor has three days to take action on four bills aimed at tax changes and reinstating funding to the Legislative branch and institutes of higher education. By recessing until Tuesday instead of adjourning, the House and Senate could still introduce new legislation to replace anything Gov. Susana Martinez might veto. Martinez, in an atypical statement, praised the Legislature for some of their work. “In a bipartisan manner, lawmakers passed my plan to put more funding toward cancer research and student financial aid, while at the same time forfeiting their pork projects and a small portion of their personal legislative retirement accounts to fill the budget hole — something I’ve urged them to do for months,” she said.
Voters in next year’s general election will get to decide on a proposed constitutional amendment to establish a state ethics commission. The measure could lead to creation of a commission to investigate possible public corruption cases and campaign finance violations. Both the House and the Senate on Friday night approved a compromise resolution. That followed the action of a special committee consisting of three senators and three state representatives who reconciled two versions of House Joint Resolution 8. A resolution that unanimously passed the House last week spelled out many details of how the ethics panel would operate.
It seemed for a few hours that the New Mexico Legislature, after years of rejecting the idea, was about to authorize a proposed constitutional amendment to establish a state ethics commission. Then the proposal hit a bump Thursday night. The state Senate had voted 30-9 hours earlier to approve House Joint Resolution 8, sponsored by Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque. But, when the resolution went back to the House of Representatives for concurrence on an amendment made by a Senate committee, Dines urged members to vote against going along with the Senate’s change. House members complied, and now three-member committees from each chamber will meet to try to reach an agreement.
The state minimum wage will increase to $9 an hour from $7.50 by April 2018 if Gov. Susana Martinez signs a bill that has been passed by both houses of the Legislature. The House of Representatives on Thursday night voted 41-27 to pass Senate Bill 386, sponsored by Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants. The bill would increase New Mexico’s hourly minimum wage to $8.25 in October, then to $9 in April 2018. It also would allow employers to have an $8 training wage for employees for 60 days, which would go into effect in October. The minimum wage for tipped employees, currently $2.13 an hour, would rise to $2.38 in October, then to $2.63 in April 2018.