In less than an hour Tuesday morning, the Senate Rules Committee killed two good-government proposals, helping cement the Senate’s reputation as the place where ethics and transparency legislation goes to die.
One proposal, HJR 5, would have asked voters in November to create a state ethics commission, an idea the New Mexico Legislature has contemplated since 2007.
The other, HB 137, would have required lobbyists to report in more detail what they spend on state lawmakers and other public officials. There was not much debate on that legislation before its quick death.
There was more back-and-forth on the ethics commission proposal.
Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, the sponsor of the proposed amendment to the constitution to create an ethics commission, told the committee he couldn’t support the committee substitute presented by Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque.
The suggested changes to the proposed commission would have altered its powers, Dines told the Senate Rules committee, removing the proposed commission’s authority to make rulings on cases and merely allowing it to investigate complaints.
Dines said the strength of what he was proposing was a commission that had the authority to adjudicate matters and whose findings were subject to the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act.
“There’s almost a paranoia about an ethics commission being used to embarrass or damage someone with false accusations,” Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino said.“The bottom line – I have a very strong belief that transparency is important,” Dines told members of the committee. “We have to embrace that. We’re going to have to embrace transparency if we’re going to have a successful ethics commission. I’ve got certain principles I have to stand on.”
Sen. Sander Rue, Republican of Albuquerque, beseeched the public (Tuesday’s meeting was webcast) for patience during debate on the ethics commission proposal.
“I hope the public will indulge us for one more session,” Rue said. “We’re at a point where this needs to be done. It should have been done by now.”
An analysis of state ethics commission legislation since 2007 shows the New Mexico Legislature has discussed the idea of a state ethics commission nearly two dozen times after a task force recommended the creation of such an entity in 2006.
That recommendation came after then-state Treasurer Robert Vigil was convicted on one count of attempted extortion in 2006 and his predecessor, Michael Montoya, had pleaded guilty to extortion the previous year.
By the time the New Mexico Legislature began contemplating whether to create a state ethics commission, a majority of U.S. states already had such a body, although those bodies vary in their powers and how they are funded.
Since the early state treasurer scandals, New Mexicans have endured numerous other scandals, including when a longtime Democratic senator resigned during the 2015 legislative session due to a scandal. More recently, former Secretary of State Dianna Duran resigned and pleaded guilty to six criminal counts, including two embezzlement felony counts.
Last year’s scandals led Governing Magazine, a periodical read by public officials across the country, to ask in a headline for a December 2015 story, “Can New Mexico Break Its Cycle of Corruption?”