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NM House backs independent ethics panel

SANTA FE — New Mexico lawmakers have bickered for at least a decade over the creation of an independent ethics commission.

But the state House late Thursday was remarkably united in support of a proposed constitutional amendment that would create one. It passed 66-0.

“I think this is great example of what we can do when we work together,” said Rep. Jim Dines, an Albuquerque Republican and one of five co-sponsors.

The bipartisan proposal still faces another critical test before it can reach voters in 2018 — the state Senate, where similar efforts have died repeatedly.

And time is running out. The session ends in nine days.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said the proposed amendment was crafted with help from a bipartisan cross section of lawmakers and he is hopeful that this is the year it clears both chambers.

“This is how this type of legislation should be done,” he said.

New Mexico is one of only eight states without an independent ethics commission.

House Joint Resolution 8 would change that by establishing a seven-member board empowered to investigate allegations of misconduct against elected officials, candidates, state employees, lobbyists, contractors and others. It could also issue advisory opinions on how to handle ethical questions.

The commission would also have power to issue subpoenas to obtain documents and require witnesses to attend hearings.

The composition of the board is aimed at insulating it from partisanship. The governor, Senate president pro tem, Senate minority leader, House speaker and House minority leader would each appoint one member.

The final two members would be selected by the four legislative appointees.

And the commission couldn’t take action unless it had support from five of the seven members.

“I think it’s going to result in a very fair board,” said House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuqueqrue. “It guards against using this body as a political tool.”

The commission would hold public hearings, and it wouldn’t accept anonymous complaints.

Dines said the transparency would help build public trust in the group. Complaints would be made public at the same time as the target’s response to the complaint.

The co-sponsors include Democratic Reps. Nathan Small of Las Cruces, Bill McCamley of Mesilla Park and Daymon Ely of Corrales.

Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, is the sponsor on the Senate side.

The proposal comes after some high-profile allegations of ethical misconduct over the past few years.

In 2015, for example, New Mexico’s secretary of state, Dianna Duran, resigned and pleaded guilty to charges of misusing campaign funds. Also that year, a state senator, Phil Griego, resigned and now faces trial on public corruption charges, which he denies.