New Mexico voters have an unprecedented chance to send an important message this November that New Mexico takes corruption seriously and will hold government officials, candidates and contractors accountable when they cross ethical boundaries and violate the law. As former statewide elected officials, we wince every time we see the state tarnished by poor national rankings for good government and ethics, and worry that the perception of corruption is costing us business and opportunities, discouraging civic participation and decreasing voter turnout. New Mexico is one of only six states that does not have a statewide ethics commission.
Despite nearly 50 attempts – and the recommendations of a high-profile ethics task force chaired by one of us, Gov. Carruthers, in 2006-2007, the Legislature has never passed a measure to create a commission. But this year, legislators agreed to send the question to the voters in the form of a constitutional amendment. It will appear near the end of the ballot, and we urge you to vote for it.
The commission triggered by passage of this amendment in November will oversee public employees, state officials, contractors, candidates and lobbyists and will investigate and adjudicate violations of the governmental conduct act and campaign finance laws. It will be independent of the legislative and executive branches and provide an avenue for ordinary citizens to safely lodge complaints of possible wrongdoing. The commission will have subpoena power and the power to investigate and resolve complaints it receives or initiates. It will hold hearings and issue rulings. Illegal activities will be referred to the secretary of state, the courts or the attorney general. It will also help elected officials navigate the often-cloudy waters by issuing advisory opinions.
The vast majority of elected officials are honest public servants. But the few bad apples who capture headlines and serve time in prison give all of us a bad name. The cynicism created makes it harder for government to function at all levels. Creating an ethical culture is not something that happens overnight, but an independent ethics commission is a solid step in that direction. We thank the many legislative sponsors and citizen advocates who have worked hard over the years to get us to this point. We should not let it slip away.
To ensure that the ethics commission is truly independent and not just a self-policing mechanism, it will not include current legislators, candidates or politicians. Membership on the seven-member commission will be balanced, with no more than three members of the same political party. Members will be appointed by the governor, and by the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate, who will each appoint one member. The remaining two members, who cannot be from the same party, will be appointed by the four legislatively appointed members of the commission.
If the amendment is passed by the voters this fall, the legislation that details guidelines for the commission and its specific duties will be introduced in the 2019 Legislature. This “enabling legislation” will empower the ethics commission to begin its work, hold hearings, set deadlines for complaint and response procedures and detail the process to adjudicate complaints. Members of the commission will then be appointed.
Citizens should keep their eye on the process to ensure that the commission lives up to its promise and operates transparently and with an adequate staff and budget.
Nothing undermines public trust more quickly than the impression that elected officials and government employees are getting away with wrongdoing. An independent ethics commission will help restore that trust by ensuring that no one is above the law, and when laws are broken, consequences follow. New Mexicans deserve no less.
Jeff Bingaman served in the U.S. Senate from 1983-2013 and as N.M. Attorney General from 1979-1983. Garrey Carruthers was governor of New Mexico from 1986-1991.