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Ethics plan moves one step closer to reality

SANTA FE – A proposal to create an independent New Mexico ethics commission to look into complaints against elected officials, lobbyists and others is just one step – albeit a potentially tricky one – from going before voters in November 2018.

In a landmark vote Thursday, the Senate approved the proposed constitutional amendment by a 30-9 vote. It was then sent back to the House, which refused to sign off on Senate changes.

That set up a legislative conference committee, in which appointed lawmakers from both chambers will try to reach a compromise.

Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, the proposal’s primary sponsor, said he was concerned about transparency requirements for the ethics commission that were stripped out of the proposal in the Senate.

But House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said there was still plenty of time to reach an agreement.

“We’re going to make sure this gets passed,” he told House members late Thursday.

Earlier in the day, the Senate passed the measure by an overwhelming margin, with backers saying it would improve the public’s confidence in government after a spate of recent scandals involving elected officials.

“There is a perception in some corners that this is a state where who you know can trump what you know,” said Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, who called the perception damaging to state economic development efforts.

The measure, House Joint Resolution 8, advanced to the Senate floor after a committee removed language dealing with both transparency requirements and the commission’s makeup.

Those details apparently would have to be figured out by lawmakers in 2019, provided statewide voters approve creation of the ethics commission next year. Because it’s a constitutional amendment, the proposal would not have to be signed by Gov. Susana Martinez.

New Mexico is one of eight states without an ethics commission, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and ethics complaints against legislators are handled internally through a largely secretive process.

Some lawmakers defended that setup during Thursday’s hourlong debate on the Senate floor and expressed concern that a more transparent system could lead to false smear claims being lodged.

“I think this is just a scary place to go,” said Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington.

Under the Senate version, 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 subpoena witnesses and records, but other details about the commission’s day-to-day operations would have to be determined in the Legislature.

That uncertainty didn’t dampen the spirits of legislative backers, who have seen numerous previous ethics commission proposals fizzle at the Roundhouse.

“The stars aligned,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, after the vote. “It’s not done yet, but it’s at a good place.”

Journal Capitol bureau reporter Dan McKay contributed to this report.