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House panel starts debate on ethics panel bill

SANTA FE – With a mandate from statewide voters, New Mexico lawmakers have begun weighing proposed legislation that would set up an independent state ethics commission and outline its powers and procedures.

But although there seems to be broad agreement among state officials, business groups and open government organizations about the need to pass an ethics commission bill, finding consensus on its details could prove a thorny task.

A House committee held its first hearing Friday on one of the two ethics commission bills that have been introduced at the Roundhouse but put off a vote on it until today.

The measure, House Bill 4, has already undergone several changes, and it’s sponsor, Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, said he’s willing to make even more revisions.

“It this passes, we will have a robust and transparent ethics process that the public can have confidence in,” Ely said during Friday’s meeting of the House Judiciary Committee.

In its current form, the bill would give the seven-member commission subpoena power – so that it could obtain evidence and compel witnesses to testify – and the ability to hand over complaints to other state agencies.

In addition, the commission would have the authority to investigate compliance with certain state laws, including those covering campaign fundraising, financial disclosures, lobbyist regulations and the conduct of government officials.

However, ethics complaints would not immediately be made public, and the commission’s decisions would be released only for complaints found to be non-frivolous.

Some open government groups have called for more transparency requirements, but Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said Friday the group will not oppose the bill as currently written.

The other ethics commission proposal, Senate Bill 619, has come under fire from some open government groups for restricting public access to ethics hearings and complaints.

After years of debate on the issue and several high-profile public corruption cases, New Mexico lawmakers approved a 2017 constitutional amendment to set up a state ethics commission to investigate claims of wrongdoing against legislators, lobbyists, elected officials and state employees.

The amendment was then approved by statewide voters in November, with more than 75 percent of those who cast ballots voting in favor.

That set the backdrop for this year’s 60-day session, and supporters spent months last summer laying the groundwork for ethics commission legislation.

“We feel the outcome is going to be exactly what the public was looking for when they voted for it in November,” said Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a group that has long pushed for creation of an ethics commission.

Meanwhile, Ely and other backers voiced concern that a $7 billion budget bill passed by the House this week includes $500,000 for the ethics commission – or half of what’s proposed in his ethics commission bill.

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