Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – With six days left in this year’s 60-day legislative session, two competing proposals to set up a first-of-its-kind New Mexico ethics commission are still in limbo in the Roundhouse.
A key Senate committee heard testimony Sunday on a House-approved plan but did not vote on the bill.
And the committee’s chairwoman suggested there could be a forthcoming effort – perhaps by as soon as today – to meld the bill with a separate Senate proposal that has drawn criticism from government transparency advocates.
“We’re getting close, I think,” said Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, during Sunday’s meeting of the Senate Rules Committee.
However, she did not provide clues about what provisions might end up being in the reworked proposal – and which might be left out.
The ethics commission debate at the state Capitol is playing out after statewide voters resoundingly approved the creation of such a body in last November’s general election.
A string of high-profile public corruption scandals involving New Mexico elected officials fueled the passage of that constitutional amendment.
But it’s up to legislators to determine how the seven-member commission will function, including whether it will have the power to issue subpoenas to obtain evidence and compel witnesses to testify.
The bill passed by the House, which would grant that subpoena power to the commission, has the backing of several business groups and open government advocacy organizations, including the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.
However, the measure, House Bill 4, has been in the Senate Rules Committee for nearly a week and was only discussed Sunday after a slew of lower-profile bills were debated.
Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, the bill’s sponsor, said he has worked with fellow Democrats and Republicans alike to try to craft a balanced approach to handling ethics complaints.
“I don’t want this to be a politically charged commission,” Ely said.
Under his proposal, complaints would be made public once there is a finding of probable cause that the complaint should be investigated. Meetings of the commission would also be open to the public.
In contrast, Senate Bill 619, the other proposal, would in its initial form allow those commission hearings to take place behind closed doors.
In addition, it would impose stiffer penalties on people who violate the confidentiality provisions than it would on officials who violate ethical standards.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office last month, has endorsed the need for a transparent ethics commission, though she has largely stayed out of the debate over the body’s specific powers and procedures.
Under the terms of the voter-approved constitutional amendment, the ethics commission will have the authority to investigate claims of wrongdoing against legislators, lobbyists, elected officials and state employees.
It will also be able to issue advisory opinions in response to questions about state laws covering campaign fundraising, financial disclosures, lobbyist regulations and the conduct of government officials.
“I think a big part of the commission is not just to be a prosecutorial body but to provide guidance,” Ely said.
While the Senate Rules Committee did not vote Sunday on his bill, at least some committee members expressed support for the House-approved approach.
“I think this is very much in keeping with what we passed,” said Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces.