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Ethics-related legislation heads to session

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A new and expansive piece of legislation that would provide a place to file complaints against local, as well as state-level, public officials will be among the ethics-related measures greeting lawmakers next month.

The proposed 12-member Public Accountability Board, like previously proposed ethics commissions, would investigate and rule on complaints against public officials and employees, candidates, lobbyists and government contractors.

But this legislation would be even broader: It also would give the board enforcement authority for civil violations of the laws governing open meetings and inspection of public records, which now falls to district attorneys or the attorney general.

The Public Accountability Act also would beef up the existing Judicial Standards Commission and create a permanent, year-round Legislative Ethics Committee to replace the separate committees that currently exist only either during or between sessions.

And it would reach down to the local government level, which most previous proposals haven’t done.

“It’s important … that we have a sense of independent accountability with regard to local governments,” said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who unveiled a draft of his proposal recently at a legislative meeting.

He told the Journal he didn’t want to call it an ethics commission “because the word ‘ethics’ is value-laden.”

“What we owe our constituents is accountability. Ethics is a very subjective standard and I don’t think accountability is quite so subjective,” the senator added.

New Mexico is one of just a handful of states without some sort of ethics commission or board. Proposals to create one have kicked around the Capitol for at least a decade, since the Governor’s Task Force on Ethics Reform recommended it as a priority in a 2006 report.

Then-Gov. Bill Richardson created the task force after a kickback scandal broke that sent two former state treasurers to federal prison.

Over the past 10 years, some commission proposals have failed to get off the ground at all, while some have passed the House only to falter in the Senate.

They’ve been bogged down for a variety of reasons, including disagreements over the makeup of the commission, who selects its members, what its powers would be and whether it’s even necessary.

Some legislators are fearful “because they think it’s going to be used against them,” said Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, which has supported some – but not all – of the proposals.

Harrison argues that lawmakers already face that problem, pointing to the slew of ethics complaints that were filed with the secretary of state against candidates this past election season.

“With an ethics commission, there would actually be more protections – somebody nonpartisan looking at that complaint, adjudicating it,” she said. And by providing ethics training and issuing advisory opinions, a commission can help ensure that “people don’t get in trouble to begin with,” Harrison said.

Harrison is hopeful that the ugliness of the recent election, a general distrust of government and new faces in the Legislature in 2017 will combine to put some wind in the sails of an ethics commission and other transparency legislation.

In the 60-day session that starts in January, state Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, plans to bring back his bipartisan proposal to change the state Constitution to create a nine-member ethics commission to oversee the legislative and executive branches, contractors and lobbyists.

The constitutional amendment approach – requiring statewide voter approval once the Legislature has OK’d it – is aimed at ensuring that the commission couldn’t be tinkered with or eliminated by future legislatures, the lawmaker said.

Dines’ 2016 proposal passed the House, but ran into trouble in the Senate Rules Committee, where Ivey-Soto and others wanted revisions that Dines objected would significantly weaken it. Faced with that prospect, Dines decided not to move forward with the legislation.

The legislator indicated he may introduce a pared-down version of his previous measure.

“My concern is that we try to get something that’s simple … and not try to bog it down with a whole lot of intricate little details,” he said.

He also thinks it would be easier to get a proposal through the Legislature if it didn’t cover the local government level.

“This needs to be put into place now,” he said.

Another previously offered proposal to create a commission in state law, rather than in the Constitution, also is likely to be back next year.

First sponsored in 2015 by Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, it was expanded in committee to give an 11-member state ethics commission jurisdiction over elected officials and employees of local governments. That broader version was brought back again in 2016.

Egolf, who will have a new set of duties because he’s in line to be House speaker under the just-elected Democratic majority, said he expects the bill to be introduced in 2017 by another legislator.

“I don’t know that it’s top-of-the-mind with voters,” he told the Journal . “I do think there are a good number of members who want to see something like this happen.”

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