Once again, the state Senate has confirmed its status as the graveyard for ethics legislation.
A week after the House of Representatives voted 50-10 to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot that would establish a state ethics commission, its sponsor, Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, withdrew his joint resolution from consideration in the Senate Rules Committee.
That came after Dines saw proposed changes — which the committee was likely to adopt — that he says would have watered down his proposal.
Dines said he no longer wanted his name on the proposal. “It would have become a toothless tiger,” Dines told the Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday.
“There would be no transparency, no public hearings, no ability to adjudicate cases,” said Heather Ferguson, a spokeswoman for Common Cause New Mexico, a government watchdog group that has advocated the creation of an ethics commission for nearly a decade.
Backers of ethics reform thought last year’s corruption case against then-Secretary of State Dianna Duran could be the spark for the Legislature to pass several measures related to government corruption. Instead, the demise of the ethics commission proposal likely means that no meaningful ethics legislation will come out of this year’s session.
Dines’ measure isn’t the only ethics legislation to bite the dust in the session. In fact, the Senate Rules Committee also voted Tuesday to table, effectively killing, a bill sponsored by Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, that would have required more disclosure from legislative lobbyists.
Many ethics proposals languished without a hearing this year because Gov. Susana Martinez didn’t write executive messages for them. In 30-day sessions, messages from the governor are necessary for bills not directly related to the budget.
Some members of the Rules Committee expressed the fear that Dines’ ethics commission legislation would be used to conduct “political witch hunts.” Some Republican opponents in the House expressed similar concerns.
Ferguson said such fears never have been realized in the 42 states that have ethics commissions.
Sen. Daniel Ivey Soto, D-Albuquerque, who introduced the committee substitute bill to which Dines objected, didn’t list that as a reason for his proposed changes to the proposal. Instead, he told reporters Tuesday, his main objection was that the proposed amendment had too much specific language that, he said, was not appropriate to put in the state Constitution.
The commission, under Dines’ proposed amendment, would have been empowered to initiate and investigate complaints of wrongdoing by state officials. It would have subpoena power. There would have been nine members — three appointed by the governor, four selected by legislative leaders and two picked by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. No more than four members of the same political party would be allowed. The members would serve in staggered terms.
Had voters approved the amendment, the Legislature would have had to pass enabling legislation to set up the commission.
But Ivey Soto’s proposal also took away the powers of the ethics commission to issue subpoenas, hold public hearings and provide officials with advisory opinions to help officials with ethical questions and clarify rules and laws.
“All this stuff could be added to the statute,” Ivey Soto told reporters.
Ferguson said she didn’t disagree with the point that some of the language about the makeup of the commission could have been added later without putting it into the constitution.
She said the specific language was there because the proposed amendment was modeled after the constitutional amendment that established the state Judicial Standards Commission. That amendment lists specifics about the makeup and the duties of the Judicial Standards Commission.
Some members of the Senate Rules Committee suggested they needed more time to consider an ethics commission.
However, the idea of such an agency has been kicked around for years, starting after a 2005 FBI investigation of a kickback scheme in the New Mexico’s State Treasurer’s Office resulted in the indictments and eventual convictions of then Treasurer Robert Vigil and his immediate predecessor, Michael Montoya. A state task force in 2006 recommended the state establish an independent ethics commission.
More than 30 pieces of legislation calling for an ethics commission have been introduced since 2007. Through the years, at least two have passed the House, only to die in the Senate.
The idea has a history of picking up steam when a new state government scandal develops — former Senate President Pro Tem Manny Aragon’s conviction for skimming state money from an Albuquerque courthouse project, the pay-to-play scandals that festered in the last years of former Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration and, more recently, Duran’s embezzlement convictions. But public outrage over corruption never seems to translate to legislative support for an agency dedicated to investigating government corruption.
Ferguson said Tuesday that Common Cause will try again next year.