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It’s a ‘Historic Day’: Ethics commission clears key panel

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – After years of resistance, the idea of creating an independent New Mexico ethics commission to look into complaints against elected officials appears headed for the legislative finish line.

The proposed constitutional amendment, House Joint Resolution 8, cleared the Senate Rules Committee – a place where previous proposals had been derailed – on a 9-1 vote on Wednesday and now heads to the Senate floor. A full Senate vote is expected today.

“I’m encouraged because I think clearly we’re going to have something in the Constitution,” said Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, who’s led a bipartisan push to establish an ethics commission.

However, before signing off on the proposal, the Senate committee removed language dealing with transparency requirements and the commission’s makeup.

Senate Rules Commission Chairwoman Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, proposed the changes, saying constitutional amendments should be succinct.

Details about the makeup of the committee, and how it would respond to filed complaints, would apparently have to be hashed out by lawmakers in 2019, provided statewide voters approve creation of the ethics commission in November 2018.

Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, a first-term lawmaker and co-sponsor of the measure, credited new blood in the Legislature and new legislative leadership for moving the proposal forward.

“The sentiment has shifted, and I think it’s a big step forward,” Small told reporters after Wednesday’s vote.

Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, cast the lone “no” vote in committee, saying the Senate has ably handled ethics issues that have arisen.

“I often get dismayed when it looks like we don’t have any ethics here, because we truly do,” Ingle said.

New Mexico has had a string of recent scandals involving elected officials, and is currently one of just eight states without an ethics commission, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

As currently drafted, the proposed constitutional amendment calls for the creation of a seven-member independent ethics commission to review complaints against elected officials, candidates, lobbyists and certain government employees.

The body would have certain set powers, including the authority to “require the attendance of witnesses or the production of records and other evidence relevant to an investigation by subpoena,” but specific details about the commission’s day-to-day actions would have to be determined in the Legislature.

Under the version approved last week by the House on a 66-0 vote, ethics complaints would have been publicly released once a response to the complaint was filed – or upon the due date for a response.

In addition, complaints deemed by the commission to be frivolous would have been publicly released with a reason for dismissal.

The revised version does not address when, or if, complaints would be made public.

Despite removal of the transparency language, Heather Ferguson of Common Cause New Mexico, a group that’s pushed for years for creation of an independent ethics commission, called the vote a “historic day for New Mexico.”

“There’s always going to have to be compromises along the way,” Ferguson said. “The legislative body does have a will to want to accomplish this.”

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s vote marked a stark difference from last year, when Dines balked at proposed changes to a similar measure and said he would no longer want his name appearing on it if the changes were approved.

This time around, Dines said he’d been persuaded by Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, and others to keep the measure short.

Though he said he still preferred having the transparency requirements included, he described the final product as workable.

“I did not know for sure what was going to happen today,” Dines said. “The process isn’t over, but I’m encouraged.”

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