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Conflict-of-interest rules urged for regents

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

One New Mexico lawmaker wants university regents to face potential removal for conflict-of-interest violations, citing some related “concerns” at the state’s higher education institutions.

Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, has proposed a constitutional amendment to expand the reasons for a possible regent ouster. The state Constitution currently allows removal for incompetence, neglect of duty or malfeasance in office. Lopez’s joint resolution would add “violations of conflict of interest standards established by law.”

The Senate Rules Committee advanced the measure, Senate Joint Resolution 13, last week with an 8-0 vote. It now heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Should it pass both the full House and Senate, the constitutional amendment would go to voters in November.

The resolution comes amid increasing political tension over university regents. The governor nominates regents, but the Senate must confirm them. The process starts at the Senate Rules Committee, which did not hold confirmation hearings for several of Gov. Susana Martinez’s regent appointees in 2017. Lopez is chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee.

In testifying before the committee last week, Lopez said she’s pushing for the conflict-of-interest provision to “see what we can do to kind of address some of the issues and concerns that have been raised over the last several years about members of our boards of regents. There are some conflicts of interest that have come up. And how do we address it? … I think that’s something we should take under consideration and put forward, especially since those persons who sit on those boards do have and do handle quite a bit of money and other programmatic (decisions) and everything that happens for many of our higher ed institutions.”

She later referred to some recent conflict-of-interest concerns at “one of our universities,” without saying which one. Each of New Mexico’s four-year universities and colleges has its own regents board.

Lopez did not respond to Journal messages.

Other members of the committee urged Lopez to strengthen the amendment to ensure more honesty during committee hearing testimony.

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, referred to the possible repercussions of lying in testimony to the U.S. Congress – which include prison – and said nothing prevents people from lying during Senate Rules Committee hearings.

“We all know we’ve sat at this table and watched people lie to us in my six years here. And I’m sure it happened many, many, many times in the past. I don’t think this goes far enough. … I’d like you to think about coming up with something a little bit stronger in the future that we actually have that power to protect our democracy so we’re not being lied to,” he told Lopez.

Moores, in a later interview, would not name anyone he believes has previously lied to the committee. He said his calls for strengthening Lopez’s bill reflect a desire to give the committee subpoena power and his belief that conflict-of-interest policies should extend beyond regents to anyone making public policy decisions, including legislators.