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Lawmakers debate funding for Ethics Commission

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico voters ended decades of debate in 2018 by approving an independent ethics commission to investigate allegations of wrongdoing against state officeholders and others.

Now supporters fear that the agency, in its first year of operation, isn’t getting enough money to carry out its work.

Furthermore, the new commission is in the odd position of having to ask lawmakers – a group under the agency’s jurisdiction – for more funding.

Rep. Daymon Ely, a Corrales Democrat who helped craft 2019 legislation outlining the commission’s procedures and power, said he’s hopeful the agency will get the necessary money this year.

A state budget proposal is still under development in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. Ely said he’s “nervous” about the outcome.

“I do think going forward, this poses a problem,” he told the Journal. “You don’t want the ethics commission that’s going to oversee the Legislature having to get out the tin cup every year – that’s a potential conflict in the system.”

The budget talks, meanwhile, come as lawmakers consider adding more work to the agency’s mission. A proposed constitutional amendment moving through the Senate calls for the State Ethics Commission to set the salaries of hundreds of state and county elected officials, starting in 2023.

The commission could also establish salaries for legislators, who now draw per diem payments during the session and for attending meetings, along with reimbursement for some expenses.

New Mexico legislators, however, aren’t paid a salary.

Budget debate

The budget debate, meanwhile, focuses on spending in two years – this year and next.

The agency received $500,000 in this year’s budget to begin operations, although legislative analysts have projected it would require close to $1 million to operate the commission for a full year.

Consequently, the State Ethics Commission requested an extra $385,000 to help carry out its work this year – a recommendation backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration.

Requests for a midyear “supplemental appropriation” are common in New Mexico’s budget process.

But a budget proposal under consideration by the House appropriations committee wouldn’t provide any extra money this year.

Jeremy Farris, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, said the agency will struggle to handle even a moderate volume of ethics complaints through June – the end of the fiscal year – if it doesn’t get the requested money.

The commission also has other work to do, including developing training materials and issuing advisory opinions. There are also some startup costs, such as purchase of furniture.

Denying supplemental appropriation, Farris said, “would delay the launch and creation of this state agency.”

But budget talks are ongoing, and it’s early in the budget process. It isn’t unusual for legislators to start with a smaller recommendation and then consider whether to increase it.

In any case, next year’s budget is also under consideration this session. For the year starting July 1, the State Ethics Commission requested a little over $1.1 million.

The governor recommended slightly more – about $1.2 million.

The budget package under consideration in the House would provide about $986,000, based on a recommendation by the Legislative Finance Committee, a panel that meets between legislative sessions.

A coalition of groups – including Common Cause New Mexico, New Mexico Ethics Watch, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and the League of Women Voters – announced support this week for fully funding the State Ethics Commission.

“It is an investment in good government which will pay off in many ways – increased public trust and even economic development,” said Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause.

More authority proposed

Legislators, meanwhile, are debating whether to add to the commission’s authority.

A proposed constitutional amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 7, would make the State Ethics Commission the sole authority to set the salaries of hundreds of state and county elected officials.

If approved by lawmakers, the proposal would go before voters this fall.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the proposal, said it would be a way to “de-politicize” the setting of salaries.

“The only way for salaries to not be political is for us to be out of the salary business altogether,” Ivey-Soto told his colleagues this week in a committee hearing.

Under the bill, the State Ethics Commission could establish salaries for legislators.

Democratic Sen. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque said she is hopeful that setting an appropriate salary for legislators would allow more people to serve, especially parents.

Many legislators are retired or work in careers that give them the flexibility to travel to Santa Fe each year for the session.

“Not everybody can afford to be here,” Lopez said.

Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, objected to the proposal. He described it as a “backdoor” way to create salaries for legislators, and he questioned whether the State Ethics Commission is the right agency for the work.

“I have a problem with an outside group that’s not elected by anyone making a decision on appropriations,” Sanchez said.

Legislative analysts said the commission would need extra funding to determine the appropriate salaries for hundreds of officials in New Mexico. It wouldn’t be needed right away, however, as the State Ethics Commission would set salaries in 2023.

The proposal cleared the Senate Rules Committee 6-4 this week and now heads to the Judiciary Committee, potentially its last stop before reaching the full Senate.

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