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Senate votes 40-0 to approve newly-drafted ethics commission bill

SANTA FE – A freshly minted ethics commission bill has passed the Senate via a unanimous 40-0 vote, culminating a whirlwind day on one of the closely-watched issues of this year’s 60-day session.

The Senate vote took place just after midnight and following a lengthy debate. Eight different amendments were tacked onto Senate Bill 668, which now advances to the House.

Just a day earlier, the fate of the voter-approved ethics commission appeared to be in doubt after two dueling measures stalled on tie votes in the Senate Rules Committee.

But top-ranking Senate Democrats used a procedural maneuver to sidestep that political quagmire, bringing forward the new measure by using the “dummy bill” process – or using a placeholder bill that’s rewritten after the bill introduction deadline.

Backers of the new bill, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier in the day, described it as a compromise between the two other ethics commission proposals

Senate Majority Whip Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor, on Tuesday described the move as an attempt to get ethics commission legislation through both chambers before the 60-day session ends Saturday at noon.

“This is a bill that leadership thinks we have to deal with this session,” Stewart said in an interview. “The concern was that the way things were going in Senate Rules (Committee), we weren’t going to get anything out.”

She also said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, had asked her to use the dummy bill on ethics commission legislation.

The new bill seeks to strike a middle ground between the two stalled ethics commission measures – House Bill 4 and a revised version of Senate Bill 619.

On the issue of transparency, it would call for ethics complaints to be made public if a settlement is not reached within 45 days of a probable cause finding that a violation of state law had likely occurred. Settlement agreements would also be publicly disclosed.

In addition, open hearings on the complaint would also be scheduled at that time, said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque.

But the bill would also make other changes to state law, including shifting enforcement of the state Open Meetings Act from the Attorney General’s office to the ethics commission.

Some senators questioned the wisdom of passing such sweeping changes in a hurry.

“Tonight, this is not the best piece of legislation,” said Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup.

But other senators said New Mexico voters expect lawmakers to pass ethics commission legislation.

“We have to come out of this session with something,” said Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales.

Meanwhile, Stewart told reporters earlier Tuesday that the dummy bill is not an “end run” around the Senate Rules Committee, but rather an attempt at breaking the logjam and getting a bill to the Senate floor within the chamber’s rules.

New Mexico lawmakers have for years debated creating an independent ethics commission to investigate claims of wrongdoing against legislators, lobbyists, elected officials and state employees.

But this year’s debate has added urgency as statewide voters approved – by a roughly 3-to-1 ratio – a proposed constitutional amendment in November to create the commission.

New Mexico is currently one of just eight states without an independent ethics commission.

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