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House passes measure to create ethics commission

SANTA FE – A new attempt to create a state ethics commission – in part sparked by recent scandals involving New Mexico elected officials – was approved on a 50-10 vote Tuesday night in the House.

But it might face a political minefield in the Senate, as a top-ranking senator sounded a wary tone on the proposal.

If enacted, the ethics commission would investigate complaints against legislators, other elected officials and lobbyists.

Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, the measure’s sponsor, said the state’s current system is not working, while adding an ethics commission could provide guidance to lawmakers and other elected officials.

“The idea here is to get away from the secrecy,” Dines said during Tuesday’s debate.

However, despite its broad support in the House, the ethics commission proposal has stirred unease among some lawmakers, most of it focused on a transparency provision in the measure.

Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, expressed concern that the ethics commission could be used for politically motivated attacks.

“Rather than create a whole new bureaucracy here, I wonder if we ought not to use the tools we already have at our disposal,” Brown said.

Backers of House Joint Resolution 5, which would have to be approved by state voters in November to be enacted, said Tuesday that they were optimistic it would gain approval from both legislative chambers before lawmakers adjourn Feb. 18.

“I think this has a great chance of getting through this session, and the voters need it to,” said Heather Ferguson of Common Cause New Mexico, a group that has pushed for tougher government transparency laws.

Under the proposal, any complaints would be kept confidential until the subject of the complaint responded or until a set amount of time had passed. The complaint and response would then be made public, along with the names of the parties involved.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said Tuesday that he had not yet reviewed the legislation but that he would have concern about filed ethics complaints being made public.

“There are a lot of things that sound really good on the surface, but when you get into the nitty-gritty, they’re not as good as they sound,” Sanchez told the Journal .

Meanwhile, several changes were made to the ethics commission proposal before it reached the House floor Tuesday. Those changes included language clarifying the commission’s jurisdiction and stipulating that the body would leave possible impeachment proceedings to the Legislature.

New Mexico is one of eight states that do not have an ethics commission. Although previous attempts to create one have stalled at the Roundhouse, recent scandals involving elected officials have rekindled interest in the idea.

In the most prominent scandal, Secretary of State Dianna Duran, a Republican, resigned from office in October and later pleaded guilty to using campaign contributions to fuel a gambling habit.

As proposed in HJR 5, the ethics commission would consist of nine members. The members would be appointed by legislative, judicial and state officials. The commission would look into alleged violations of state ethics, campaign finance and procurement laws and would hold public hearings to resolve complaints, which could not be anonymous.

Currently, many formal complaints against New Mexico elected officials are reviewed and investigated confidentially in a closed-door process.