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Lawmakers beat deadline with ethics agreement

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – With just hours left in the session, New Mexico lawmakers reached agreement near midnight Saturday on legislation that would outline how a new voter-approved ethics commission would operate.

The state House and Senate approved a compromise negotiated by a coalition of lawmakers, including Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales; Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell; and Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque.

Agreement between the chambers was crucial because the legislation would have died if they didn’t agree on a bill before adjournment at noon today. The proposal now goes to the governor.

“The process has balance. It will still be robust. It will be fair,” Ely told his colleagues as he presented the proposal. “I will be frank with the body – it is not as transparent as I’d like it to be. But it’s not an unreasonable compromise.”

Ethics complaints – and the response by the accused – would become public 30 days after the accused is notified that investigators found probable cause to investigate further. A public hearing would be set.

An attorney for the ethics commission would serve as an investigator and prosecutor of sorts. Hearing officers would consider complaints.

The commission:

⋄  Could petition a state judge to issue subpoenas as part of its work. A particular judge would be designated to issue the subpoenas on behalf of the commission.

⋄  Would have authority over statewide elected officials, legislators, candidates and lobbyists, but not school board members and local officials.

⋄  Would leave enforcement of the state’s open meetings and public records laws to the attorney general, not make them part of the duties of the ethics commission.

⋄  Wouldn’t reveal ethics complaints that have been deemed frivolous or unsubstantiated. The accuser or accused, however, could publicly disclose them.

“I think we’re presenting to you a well-thought-out process a process that works,” Nibert said.

The House approved the legislation, Senate Bill 668, without opposition late Friday. The Senate signed off on the changes early Saturday.

Establishing how the new ethics commission would operate emerged as one of the most contentious issues of the session this year.

New Mexico voters last year voted overwhelmingly to amend the state Constitution to create an ethics commission. It won approval with 75 percent of the vote.

But it’s been up to the Legislature to determine the details of how the seven-member commission would operate.

Some senators pushed for more of the commission’s work to happen in secret, while the House proposed broader transparency.

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