State ethics panel is a work in progress

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers approved the creation of an independent ethics commission during this year’s legislative session, but there’s still much unsettled about how the body would function – even if it’s approved by statewide voters next year.

That’s because what lawmakers approved during the 60-day legislative session that ended in March was essentially the framework for an ethics commission, with the assumption specific powers and procedures would be set at a later date.

That approach has raised concern among some advocacy groups, who are pushing lawmakers to start talking details in interim legislative committee hearings this summer and fall.

“A bad commission is worse than no commission,” New Mexico Ethics Watch Executive Director Douglas Carver said in a recent interview. “Right now, the (Legislature) is basically saying, ‘Give us a blank check on this.’ ”

At least one legislative interim committee, the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, is expected to discuss the ethics commission in the coming months, but the panel’s co-chairwoman said Tuesday it’s unlikely the committee will end up recommending legislation.

“I think we will probably spend some time on it,” Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, said after a hearing at the state Capitol. “But the ethics commission doesn’t go to voters until next year.”

As currently proposed, the seven-member independent ethics commission would review complaints against elected officials, candidates, lobbyists and certain government employees.

However, transparency requirements were stripped out of the measure before its final approval, meaning that and other details about the commission’s day-to-day operations would have to be determined by the Legislature in 2019, if statewide voters approve a constitutional amendment creating the commission in the November 2018 general election.

Proponents of the ethics commission proposal say they’re open to more discussion but defend the measure that was approved this year after numerous previous attempts to enact such a commission failed.

“There is some very good language in what we passed,” said Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, one of the measure’s sponsors. “People shouldn’t be fearful it’s smoke and mirrors.”

While much of the proposed commission’s powers and duties have not been set, he pointed out the body – if approved by voters – would have the ability to subpoena records and compel witness testimony.

But it’s not clear, for example, whether the commission would only be able to initiate investigations upon receiving a complaint or if it could unilaterally launch such probes.

Carver, who previously worked for the Legislative Council Service, an agency that drafts bill and provides technical advice to lawmakers, also expressed concern that four of the seven members of the proposed ethics commission would be directly appointed by leading legislators. One member would be appointed by the governor, while the remaining two members would be appointed by the legislative appointees.

That could consolidate too much power in the legislative branch to make the ethics commission truly independent, he said.

Carver suggested legislators could approve a bill spelling out the powers and functions of the ethics commission during the 2018 session that would be contingent on the constitutional amendment winning approval at the ballot box.

But such an approach is unlikely, Steinborn said.

“There’s an awful lot of legislators who think that would be putting the cart before the horse,” he said.

The ethics commission legislation passed both the House and Senate this year by decisive margins, following a public outcry over a recent string of public corruption cases involving high-ranking New Mexico politicians.

New Mexico is currently one of eight states without an ethics commission, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and ethics complaints against legislators are handled internally through a largely secretive process.

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