COMMENTARY: After a proposal to create a state ethics commission died for the umpteenth time in the legislative session that ended last week, some members of the Senate Rules Committee are saying they just need more time to iron out the details.
If this was the first time they’d asked the public to be patient, I might give them the benefit of the doubt. But some members of the Rules Committee – led by the chair, Albuquerque Democrat Linda Lopez – have been asking for more time for years.
This is an attempt to make it look like they’re trying to create a commission while they actually stand in its way.
That’s evidenced by the fact that Lopez, who sponsored legislation to create an ethics commission in 2009, 2010, 2011, and this year, seems thoroughly perplexed about the need for such an agency. At a news conference last week she said a commission wouldn’t prevent corruption and “is not going to make anyone more honest.”
Creating an agency that sets ethical standards in government and helps police violations is a nationally accepted best practice. Some 42 states have ethics commissions. So does New Mexico’s judicial branch. There’s demonstrable evidence that our Judicial Standards Commission has raised the ethical bar and helped oust judges who shouldn’t have been in office.
New Mexico has no ethics commission for our executive and legislative branches.
This year, the legislation with the best chance of becoming law came from Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque. He proposed a constitutional amendment that needed approval from the House and Senate but not the governor. It then would have gone to voters in November. Polling has shown widespread support for an independent ethics commission.
Meanwhile, Lopez’s bill needed – and didn’t get – Gov. Susana Martinez’s permission to be considered in the session that just ended. Martinez has expressed opposition to an ethics commission in the past, which is disappointing.
The House approved Dines’ legislation on a vote of 50-10. But Dines withdrew the bill during a hearing in the Senate Rules Committee because its members, led by Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, appeared poised to strip the commission of transparency and make other bad changes.
Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, is afraid of being unfairly accused of wrongdoing. He said the Senate “can govern itself and it has, in my years here, very ethically and very fairly” – which is simply not true. And Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said there’s “almost a paranoia about an ethics commission being used to embarrass or damage someone with false accusations.”
Some expressed similar fears about webcasting of legislative hearings years ago. Now most accept webcasting. Many even appreciate it.
Still, I’m willing to consider the senators’ concerns. The Judicial Standards Commission keeps complaints secret while investigating. Only if the agency asks the N.M. Supreme Court to discipline or remove a judge does a complaint become public.
While I always prefer sunshine, a well-structured ethics commission – with or without transparency in the investigative phase – would be an improvement.
It’s been a decade since a bipartisan task force recommended creating an ethics commission. The Senate Rules Committee’s charade is over. It’s time that New Mexico’s policymakers create such a commission. If they won’t, voters should replace those who stand in the way with new senators who will embrace transparency and accountability.