Wednesday, February 7, 2007
Campaign Bill Clears Panel
By Trip Jennings
Journal Capitol Bureau
SANTA FE A House committee cleared the first campaign finance reform proposal before the Legislature on Tuesday, but delay in acting on other measures has some advocates worrying about passage of a broader reform agenda this year.
After a lengthy debate, the House Voters and Elections Committee voted 7-5 along party lines to call for publicly financed statewide elections and judicial races.
Because the discussion took so long, the committee postponed a hearing on two other campaign finance reform proposals. And the decision could be a portent of things to come.
This year's move to reform the state's ethics and campaign finance laws comes on the heels of a similar campaign last year, when most reform legislation was dead on arrival.
Supporters say they are running into resistance around the Roundhouse again.
"What you are saying to us is to design our own noose before we stick our heads into it," said Sen. John Grubesic, D-Santa Fe, a sponsor of one ethics reform bill, as he tried Tuesday to explain lawmakers' reluctance.
Other legislators said they weren't sure lawmakers are ready to impose limits on how they raise campaign funds and cap the value of gifts they can accept.
"We will see," said Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Other lawmakers see the reform efforts as nothing more than window dressing.
"It's another example of smoke and mirrors by the majority party," said House Minority Whip Dan Foley, R-Roswell.
This year's proposed reforms roughly resemble recommendations by Gov. Bill Richardson that evolved out of monthslong deliberations by an ethics reform task force he appointed.
The measures would give each New Mexico lawmaker $16,000 a year for legislative expenses, establish an independent ethics commission that could recommend disciplinary action, and place limits on gifts and campaign contributions to state public officials and political candidates.
But some of the reform bills already are weaker than task force recommendations, even before they go through the vetting of legislative committees.
For example, a bill that would establish an independent ethics commission would give the panel subpoena power, as recommended, but the commission would not have the power to censure or reprimand public officials another task force recommendation.
Another bill would cap at $250 the value of gifts public officials could accept. But gone is an ethics task force recommendation to reduce that cap to $100 during annual legislative sessions.
"It's going to be challenging, no question," said Matt Brix, executive director of New Mexico Common Cause, a watchdog organization. "Anytime you change the rules . . it is inherently challenging."
Brix said the timing is right for reform in New Mexico.
New Mexico is one of a few states that do not limit contributions or gifts to public officials and political candidates. It also is one of 10 states without a state ethics commission.
"A lot of stars are aligned," Brix said. "We have the governor's support."