An attempt to bring an independent ethics enforcer to New Mexico state government died during the 2016 session.
New Mexico Senate to Public: We Can Police Ourselves
BY DAN VUKELICH
An attempt to bring an independent ethics enforcer to New Mexico state government died during the 2016 session through a variation of a legislative maneuver used for more than two decades to defeat ethics reform.
Late in the session, a Senate committee amended a proposed constitutional amendment to create an independent ethics commission so as to make it a “toothless tiger,” according to its sponsor, Rep. Jim Dines, an Albuquerque Republican.
Rather than have his name on a meaningless measure, Dines said he chose to abandon it.
“What went down is, I proposed the constitutional amendment to give an ethics commission provisions for transparency and give it exclusive authority to adjudicate civil complaints, and the response to that the morning of the hearing was such that transparency and adjudicative authority was removed,” Dines said.
“We would have been left with an investigative-type committee and with no authority,” Dines said.
“It was more than a disappointment,” he said. “I thought this was a very good piece of legislation,” he said.
Dines’ proposal would have covered non-criminal campaign finance violations by political candidates, officeholders and lobbyists; non-criminal ethics violations by state employees; and failures by state contractors and would-be contractors to disclose ethical conflicts. Jurisdiction over criminal violations would have remained with prosecutors.
Members of the commission would have been laymen. The measure would have kept the investigative process by a bipartisan, appointed nine-member commission confidential until a decision would have been made public.
Once an ethics complaint was determined to have merit, Dines’ proposal called for commission hearings on it to be held in public.
Gov. Susana Martinez opposed a statutory attempt to create an ethics commission. Had it passed both houses, Dines’ resolution would have bypassed the governor and sent the proposal directly to voters in November as a constitutional amendment.
As a two-term legislator carrying the ball on ethics reform for the first time, Dines wasn’t around during dozens of past attempts at ethics reform. Publicly at least, legislative support for ethics reform each year was proudly worn on lapels at the Roundhouse like a pink ribbon, while year in and year out actual reform went nowhere.
Typically, ethics bills have been carried by relatively junior members while the job of snuffing them out has fallen to senior members able to withstand potential political backlash within their districts. Some years, proposals died because so-called supporters said they didn’t go far enough, while in other years they died because they go too far. This year’s attempt appears to fall in the latter category.
Former Albuquerque Rep. Dick Minzner, who served from 1981 to 1990, attempted to tighten lobbyist disclosure requirements. “People are always afraid of careless mistakes and getting their name in the paper,” he said.
“It’s not that one member will say, you kill it for going too far and I’ll kill it for not going far enough,” he said, “That’s not to say that each of the 112 members of the Legislature don’t have legitimate concerns” that can derail a proposal, he said.
This year, Dines’ proposed amendment was about to be watered down because influential members of the Senate: (a) believed the Legislature can police itself; (b) believed the commission could be used for partisan vendettas and; (c) objected to making public complaints rejected by the commission.
After passing the House 50-10, the bill hit the Senate Rules Committee late in the 30-day session. At the committee hearing, Chairwoman Linda Lopez, an Albuquerque Democrat, objected to giving the commission subpoena power.
Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, a Belen Democrat and a Senate Rules Committee member, has opposed an ethics commission as unnecessary.
Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, a Portales Republican, told the Albuquerque Journal there were widespread concerns about making ethics complaints public. Being wrongly accused of something is the “most unfair thing you can have happen to you here,” he told the newspaper.
“The Senate can govern itself and it has, in my years here, very ethically and very fairly,” Ingle said.
Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democrat and Senate Rules Committee member (and an occasional contributor to this newspaper), told NMPoliticalReport.com there was “almost a paranoia” among legislators that an ethics commission would be used to “damage someone with false accusations.”
Dines said he will introduce the measure again in 2017. “It’s time for members to fish or cut bait,” he said. “The statutes presume government to be open and I haven’t heard a valid argument against transparency at the Legislature.”
Dan Vukelich is editor of ABQ Free Press. He covered most meetings of the New Mexico Legislature from 1984 through 2001. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.