SANTA FE, N.M. — Legislation that could require public officials convicted of corruption-related crimes to repay taxpayer-funded salaries and forfeit state pension benefits is on track for Gov. Susana Martinez’s signature after unanimously passing the House on Monday.
Public demand for increasing corruption penalties dates back at least to 2006, when former state Treasurers Robert Vigil and Michael Montoya were arrested for extortion and taking kickbacks in state contracts.
A year later, former state Senate President Pro Tem Manny Aragon added to the state’s reputation for corruption when he and former Albuquerque Mayor Ken Schultz were caught in connection with a scheme to skim millions of dollars from the construction of the Metropolitan Court Building in Downtown Albuquerque.
Former Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block Jr.’s felony conviction for fraudulent use of a state credit card last year reiterated the need to increase penalties for corruption offenses, lawmakers said.
Senate Bill 197, which cleared both the House and Senate floors without a single lawmaker voting against it, is expected to be signed into law after Martinez on Monday praised the legislation as a deterrent to public corruption in New Mexico.
“The governor believes that politicians convicted of cheating the taxpayers should not be permitted to cheat taxpayers again by receiving a taxpayer-funded pension, and she is pleased the Legislature passed this important bill today in a bipartisan manner,” Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell said in a statement.
The two-page bill would allow a judge in criminal court to fine elected officials or their political appointees up to their total salary dating back to when the corruption began and the total value of their state pension.
“I think it will definitely have a deterrent effect,”said House Majority Leader Ken Martinez, D-Grants, who carried the Senate Bill through the House.
The effort, sponsored by Sen. William Payne, R-Albuquerque, has been under consideration for more than four years as a way to fight the theft of millions of dollars from state coffers.
“In a bipartisan fashion, we worked for a number of years to come up with something that solves the issue that people are concerned about: corruption with public officials,” Payne said.
Passing the bill “was a great step forward with us to deal with some of the issues we find,” he said.
“The important thing here is we’ve sort of established a history here in New Mexico of corruption in government, and I think this is a major step in changing the perception of New Mexico,” said House Minority Leader Tom Taylor, R-Farmington.
Lawmakers said the bill is an improvement over a similar effort proposed in House Bill 111 by Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, because it would limit the enhanced penalties only to elected officials or high-level appointees. That means it would protect low-level state employees from facing the more-severe corruption penalties for crimes like petty theft.
“I had serious concern about how far that one went,” said Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe.
HB 111, which passed the House on Feb. 4 and is pending in Senate committees, also would add a lifelong ban on lobbying or contracting with state government and up to an extra year in prison for corruption-related convictions.