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Clock’s ticking as ethics bills bog down

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Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, left, and Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, third from right, discuss their separate ethics commission bills during a Monday hearing of the Senate Rules Committee. Both bills ultimately stalled on tie 3-3 votes. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Four months after New Mexico voters resoundingly approved the creation of a state ethics commission, two competing bills to set up the body are stuck in political quicksand in a key Senate committee.

Both measures stalled Monday on tie 3-3 votes in the Senate Rules Committee, leaving an uncertain path forward with just five days left in this year’s 60-day session.

The votes left some lawmakers stewing, although a new vote on at least one of the measures could occur today.

“We’ve got to get something done,” Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said during Monday’s hearing.

Several business groups and open-government advocacy organizations have thrown their support behind a House-approved ethics commission measure, House Bill 4, that would grant subpoena power to the seven-member body and require ethics complaints to be made public once there is a finding of probable cause that the complaint should be investigated.

But Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, the Senate Rules Committee’s chairwoman, on Monday pushed for a vote on a revised version of a separate bill, Senate Bill 619, that would keep the complaints secret until an investigation could be conducted and a violation found to have occurred.

The revised bill was not distributed until minutes before the committee began debating it

Some critics said the bill would not provide what voters were seeking when they approved – by a nearly 3-to-1 ratio – the proposed constitutional amendment in November. That vote followed a string of high-profile public corruption cases involving New Mexico elected officials.

“The voters want to know that things are being investigated,” said Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a group that has pushed for years for creation of an ethics commission. “In order to rebuild their trust, we’ve got to let some sunshine in.”

In addition, Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, sponsor of the House ethics commission bill, said he was not involved with drafting the revised Senate bill. Sponsors of such bills often get a chance to collaborate before a substitute is introduced.

Ely said the two proposals take a fundamentally different approach to how the ethics commission would function.

“You have to decide if you want a transparent process,” he said.

However, some legislators have voiced concern about the public disclosure of politically motivated complaints that could damage an elected official’s reputation.

During Monday’s debate, Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, also questioned whether the ethics commission should have unbridled subpoena power to obtain records and compel witness testimony.

He said that could lead to a “Mueller and Starr” type situation, a reference to the ongoing investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 United States election and a previous investigation, launched in 1994, by Kenneth Starr into the actions of then-President Bill Clinton.

Under the revised Senate proposal, the ethics commission would have to ask a district judge to issue a subpoena.

Moores ultimately cast one of three “yes” votes in favor of the revised Senate bill – along with Lopez and Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque.

The three senators voting against advancing the bill were Democratic Sens. Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces, Bill Tallman of Albuquerque, and Ortiz y Pino.

No member of the public spoke in support of Lopez’s bill.

After the bill failed to pass on a tie 3-3 vote, a new motion was made to pass the House bill instead.

But that motion failed on an identical vote, with the “yes” and “no” votes reversed.

Those speaking in favor of the House-approved bill represented groups including the League of Women Voters, New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, New Mexico Ethics Watch and Common Cause of New Mexico.

Meanwhile, five senators were not present for Monday’s vote, meaning they could tip the balance if a new vote is taken.

Those five senators are Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces; Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales; Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen; Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, and Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants.

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.

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