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House, Senate agree on ethics commission

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A compromise crafted on the last night of this year’s legislative session resolved decades of debate in the Roundhouse.

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers reached agreement late Friday on a proposal to create New Mexico’s first independent ethics commission. Each chamber later ratified their work – sending the proposed constitutional amendment to voters in the 2018 election.

Gov. Susana Martinez’s approval is not required.

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But some compromise was necessary Friday to keep House Joint Resolution 8 alive as the Legislature heads toward adjournment at noon today.

The new version of the legislation was crafted by a six-member negotiating team, with half the members appointed by the Senate and half by the House.

Now only voter approval is left to create a commission that’s been a subject of debate for nearly 40 years.

“We are literally just inches away,” said Heather Ferguson of Common Cause New Mexico, which has been pushing for an ethics commission since the 1970s.

At the request of Rep. Jim Dines, an Albuquerque Republican and co-sponsor of the legislation, the latest version of the proposal now includes language making it clear how members of the proposed ethics commission would be selected.

That’s a critical component, he said, because it will ensure the Legislature can’t tamper with the composition of the group and compromise its independence. The selection language, like the rest of the proposal, would be added to the state Constitution if voters approve.

“There is no perfect way” to create the commission, Dines told his colleagues Friday. But “this language is the result of a great deal of time and effort being spent.”

The proposal calls for a seven-member committee. The changes adopted Friday make it clear that one member each would be appointed by the governor, the Senate president pro tem, the Senate minority leader, the House speaker and the House minority leader.

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The four legislative appointees, then, would appoint two more members.

Sen. Jeff Steinborn, a Las Cruces Democrat and co-sponsor, said the selection process ensures the membership isn’t tilted toward one chamber or political party.

“We’re going to want to make sure it’s as apolitical as possible,” he said.

The group would be empowered to consider ethical complaints filed against elected officials, candidates, lobbyists and others. It would have power to issue subpoenas for witnesses and records.

But other details would be handled by the Legislature later, if voters approve the amendment. A key question would be whether – or when – to make ethics complaints public.

Dines expressed optimism that the Legislature would value the group’s transparency as a way to help build confidence in its work.

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

In addition to Dines and Steinborn, the co-sponsors include Democratic Reps. Nathan Small of Las Cruces, Bill McCamley of Mesilla Park and Daymon Ely of Corrales.

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