Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – After more than a decade of debate and disagreement – and more than 35 bills falling by the wayside – New Mexico lawmakers finally approved the framework of an independent ethics commission during the 2017 legislative session.
Now, it will be up to voters to decide in November whether to put the ethics commission in the state Constitution. It will appear on the ballot as Constitutional Amendment 2.
If approved, the new seven-member ethics commission would function as a clearinghouse of sorts for complaints involving state officials, legislative employees, lobbyists and government contractors.
“I think it’s overdue and will put us in line with the vast majority of states that already have (an ethics commission),” said former longtime U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who is helping backers rally support for the measure. “This will help, I believe, to reassure people that the folks representing them are generally honest and aboveboard.”
Although powers and makeup of the commissions vary, New Mexico is one of only six states – along with Arizona, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming – that do not have an ethics commission, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The number of states with ethics commissions has steadily increased in recent years; in 1980, only 28 states had them.
New Mexico’s ethics commission proposal comes after a string of public corruption scandals involving elected officials.
In one of the most recent examples, former state Sen. Phil Griego, a Democrat from rural San Miguel County, is serving a prison sentence after being convicted of fraud, bribery and pocketing money from his campaign account.
And ex-Secretary of State Dianna Duran, a Republican, resigned and pleaded guilty in 2015 to using campaign funds to cover a gambling habit. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail – she served the time in the Santa Fe County jail – and several years of probation.
It’s unclear whether the creation of an independent ethics commission would reduce public corruption, since a 2013 study by University of Missouri researchers found no correlation between corruption rates and the existence of such commissions.
But backers say the creation of an ethics commission would not only bolster public confidence but would also represent an improvement over New Mexico’s fragmented current system for handling ethics complaints, in which jurisdiction depends on who’s being accused and investigations often take place in secret.
“The beauty of an independent ethics commission is we won’t be investigating ourselves,” said former Gov. Garrey Carruthers, a Republican who helped head a task force that recommended the creation of such a commission in 2006.
Carruthers also said the ethics commission could take a proactive role in educating contractors, elected officials and others about state ethics laws.
“We might be able to stop some of that behavior when it first starts,” he said.
Even if voters approve the ethics commission measure in November – and there’s no organized opposition against it – there will still be key structural decisions to be made.
For instance, the proposed constitutional amendment does not stipulate exactly when complaints would be made public and does not provide for a funding mechanism to pay for the ethics commission’s operations.
Those decisions and others, such as member qualifications and penalties for frivolous complaints, would have to be made by the Legislature during the 60-day session that starts in January. A subcommittee of lawmakers has been holding meetings to discuss some of those issues.
Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, who has spoken against the idea of an independent ethics commission in recent years, predicted that the proposed constitutional amendment will be easily approved by voters.
But he expressed concern about complaints possibly being made public or leaked by commission members before they can be thoroughly investigated. He said legislators have in the past received internal ethics complaints about divorces and other personal matters.
“These things can be so treacherous,” Ingle told the Journal. “With that many people involved, it’s going to be hard to keep it private.”
In contrast, Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, a retired attorney who spearheaded a bipartisan push in 2017 to pass the ethics commission legislation, said much of the commission’s business should be handled in the open.
“The real strength of the commission will be its transparency,” Dines said. “We don’t want it to be a toothless tiger.”
One thing that would be enshrined in the state Constitution, should voters approve the proposed amendment, is subpoena power for the ethics commission. That would allow the commission to require witnesses to testify and compel requested records and other evidence to be provided.
The makeup of the seven-member commission would also be set in the Constitution. The commission would include one gubernatorial appointee, four members picked by top legislative leaders – the top Democrat and Republican in both the House and Senate – and two additional members selected by already appointed commissioners.
Overall, no more than three of the commissioners could be from the same political party. That means at least one member would have to be either an independent, a Libertarian or a member of some other political party beside the Democratic and Republican parties.
“The thought is that will lessen any kind of political bent,” said Kathleen Sabo, executive director of New Mexico Ethics Watch, a nonpartisan organization that is one of several groups closely watching the recent meetings on how to set up the ethics commission should voters approve the idea.
She also said the creation of an independent ethics commission could be an economic benefit for the state, since surveys have shown that business leaders overwhelmingly support more government accountability and transparency.
“This could really have an economic impact,” Sabo said. “It could leave an impression and make more businesses want to come here.”