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Senate committee begins debate on ethics panel

Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, left, and Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, discuss an ethics commission bill during a Senate Rules Committee meeting on Friday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – With just one week remaining in this year’s 60-day legislative session, the fate of a voter-approved ethics commission is far from settled.

Two competing bills have emerged that would set the powers and procedures of the seven-member commission, and one of those bills passed the House earlier this month with bipartisan backing.

But that measure, House Bill 4, has not been taken up by the Senate Rules Committee, which instead started deliberations Friday on a separate measure sponsored by the panel’s chairwoman, Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque.

Lopez has said the bill will be revised before it’s voted on, which could happen as soon as today.

In its current form, Senate Bill 619 has come under fire from open government advocacy groups for being secretive and punitive.

Among other things, it would impose stiffer penalties on people who violate the confidentiality provisions than it would on officials who violate ethical standards. The gag provision includes those who file complaints.

Some lawmakers suggested Friday that approach might not go over well with voters, as a proposed constitutional amendment to create the ethics commission passed last November with the support of more than 75 percent of those who cast ballots.

“I think the public is going to expect us to err toward more transparency than (toward) less transparency,” said Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque.

But other senators suggested too much transparency could lead to politically motivated smear campaigns.

“The accusations that come forth sometimes are unbelievably false,” said Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales. “It’s easy to criticize when you’re not part of this process.”

Under the approved constitutional amendment, the independent commission will be tasked with investigating claims of wrongdoing against legislators, lobbyists, elected officials and state employees.

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

But the two bills call for different procedures. The House plan would make all commission hearings open to the public, but the Senate measure, in its current form, would allow such hearings to occur behind closed doors.

They also differ on how when and how ethics complaints would be made public, which Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, described as the “thorniest issue of them all.”

The House-approved plan calls for complaints to be released once they are determined to be valid, while the Senate proposal would keep them confidential under most circumstances.


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