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Ethics commission legislation signed into law

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Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, center, laughs during a ceremonial bill signing on legislation to create a new state ethics commission on Thursday in the Governor’s Office. Among those present for the bill signing were, from left, Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, Reena Szczepanski, Egolf’s chief of staff, and Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico will no longer be one of just six states without an independent ethics commission, after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law Thursday a bill setting the powers and procedures of a voter-approved commission.

The fledgling ethics commission will officially be created in July, although it will not start hearing complaints until January.

“This is what New Mexicans want and what the voters want,” Lujan Grisham said during a Thursday bill-signing news conference. She later said, “We were clear this was a bill we had to get over the finish line.”

But it wasn’t always clear that lawmakers would find common ground on an ethics commission bill during the recently completed 60-day legislative session.

The final measure that reached Lujan Grisham’s desk, Senate Bill 668, was approved by the House and Senate in the session’s final week. And it wasn’t until the last day of the session that the Senate agreed to sign off on House changes to the bill.

In addition, the bill was brought forward only after two competing ethics commission proposals stalled in a Senate committee.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, described the behind-the-scenes work on the quick-moving bill as the legislative process at its best, although he acknowledged it wasn’t always a smooth ride.

“It had a heck of a journey this session,” Wirth said.

New Mexico lawmakers for more than a decade have debated creating an independent ethics commission to investigate claims of wrongdoing against legislators, lobbyists, elected officials and government contractors.

But this year’s debate had added urgency as statewide voters approved – by a roughly 3-to-1 ratio – a proposed constitutional amendment in November to create the commission. That vote followed a string of ethics scandals involving elected and appointed officials in state government.

“My hope is that as we move forward the public will have confidence in this commission,” said Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, one of several legislators who worked to reach a compromise on the ethics commission legislation. “I think the outline is there to have a process that will keep the public’s trust in what we do here in Santa Fe and around the state.”

Specifically, the bill signed into law Thursday will allow the ethics commission to ask a judge designated by the state Supreme Court’s chief justice to issue subpoenas, which could be used to compel witness testimony and obtain evidence.

In addition, valid ethics complaints would have be made public if a settlement is not reached within 30 days of a probable cause finding that a violation of state law had likely occurred. Settlement agreements would also be publicly disclosed.

Lujan Grisham described the transparency requirements as a reasonable balance and said the settlement disclosure provision is more stringent than what has been required by Congress.

A $7 billion budget plan that’s still awaiting final action on the governor’s desk includes a $500,000 appropriation to get the ethics commission up and running – and to hire an executive director. More funding could be authorized for the commission during the 2020 legislative session, Lujan Grisham said.

In addition to investigating ethics complaints, the commission will also be able to issue advisory opinions intended to provide guidance to elected officials and others.

The legislation signed into law Thursday will also make several other changes to state ethics laws, including pushing back the date bills can be pre-filed before a legislative session to Jan. 1 – which is also the start date of a blackout period for lawmakers to solicit campaign contributions.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who was closely involved with the ethics commission negotiations during the session, said the bill that emerged is a good starting point, even if the commission might have to be tweaked in future years.

“Ethics, when properly done, should serve as a shield and not as a sword,” Ivey-Soto said during Thursday’s news conference. “This is the way, in the end, that legislation should be done.”

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