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2nd House committee OKs ethics panel bill

SANTA FE – With just over two weeks remaining until the end of a 60-day legislative session, ethics commission bills are finally on the move at the Roundhouse.

One of the two bills setting up a voter-approved ethics commission and outlining the body’s powers and procedures cleared its second House committee Wednesday without opposition and could be voted on by the full House by the end of this week.

Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, the sponsor of House Bill 4, made several changes to the measure before the House Appropriations and Finance Committee voted 14-0 to approve it.

One of the changes makes it clear that valid ethics complaints – and responses to the complaints – would be publicly available once an ethics commission official finds probable cause exists to launch an investigation.

That change was lauded by open government groups, with Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, calling it a “huge step in the right direction” and saying the group now supports the legislation.

The other measure, Senate Bill 619, has been criticized by some who say it would shroud the ethics commission in secrecy and give little enforcement power to the commission.

It will get its first hearing Saturday in the Senate Rules Committee, said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, chairwoman of the committee.

Striking the balance between transparency and due process for the accused has emerged as a sticking point in discussions over how to go about setting up a New Mexico ethics commission.

A spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office last month, said Wednesday that the governor wants lawmakers to have a robust debate on when the commission should release complaints.

“She certainly does endorse the need for transparency and wants to see legislators meet the public’s expectations for the commission,” Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said.

New Mexico voters last year overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment – passed by lawmakers in 2017 – to set up an independent commission to investigate claims of wrongdoing against legislators, lobbyists, elected officials and state employees.

That vote came after years of debate on the issue and a string of high-profile public corruption cases involving elected officials.

The House bill approved Wednesday would give the seven-member commission subpoena power – so that it could obtain evidence and compel witnesses to testify – and the ability to hand off complaints to other state agencies.

The body would have the authority to investigate compliance with state laws covering campaign fundraising, financial disclosures, lobbyist regulations and the conduct of government officials.

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