COMMENTARY: In 1932, Justice Louis Brandeis famously called states “laboratories of democracy” where innovative policies could be tested, and if successful, adopted by other states or at the national level. New Mexico has served as such a laboratory in years past, with landmark programs in rural health and other areas.
Now Washington should once again look to our state to remind itself that citizens in the hinterland are demanding transparency and accountability — and elected officials are responding.
It’s something that the Trump administration, mired in conflict of interest and unresolved ethical questions, should heed.
After decades of citizen activism, this year the New Mexico Legislature voted to give voters a voice by putting ethics reform on the ballot in 2018. If approved, this measure will create a statewide independent ethics commission, to investigate abuses of power and ethics violations in state government and apply sanctions appropriately. The ethics measure has the support of 89 percent of New Mexico voters, according to a recent poll, and received bipartisan support in the Legislature. Common Cause New Mexico has already begun work to ensure its passage on next year’s ballot.
But while New Mexico is moving ahead in creating accountability in government, the Trump administration seems to be going in directly the opposite direction. Common Cause’s new report, State of the Swamp, details the many ethical problems and conflicts of interest inside the Trump administration.
Perhaps most notable among them is President Trump’s repeated refused to release his tax returns, even as he proposes tax reform for the rest of the nation. His refusal means Americans do not know the full extent of his business holdings, his income, the extent of his debts and who holds them. It’s impossible to determine whether he’s making official decisions to serve his private interests or the American people.
And it is impossible to know what the effect of his proposed tax reforms are on his personal fortune.
Releasing tax returns has been a common practice for both Democratic and Republican presidents for half a century. Candidates for federal, state and local office have embraced this commonsense transparency action, including New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.
Sen. Tom Udall is cosponsoring legislation that would require presidential candidates to release their tax returns, and Sen. Martin Heinrich has said President Trump’s tax returns should be subpoenaed as part of Congress’s investigation into Russia’s ties to the Trump administration.
Americans especially need to access to President Trump’s tax returns because he refuses to divest from his business and retains ownership of his global empire, opening the door to conflicts of interest, possibly in violation of the U.S. Constitution. A president with holdings in foreign countries is a dangerous set up, for many reasons, yet the president refuses to resolve the problem.
While he has said there is a clear separation between his business and his job as president, President Trump often seems more focused on his businesses and real estate properties than on governing in the public interest. He frequently checks in on his resorts and golf clubs. He does the business of the government at these properties and has refused to release membership and guests lists.
He has also reversed an Obama-era policy of making White House visitor logs public, something that has spurred Udall to introduce the MAR-A-LAGO Act, requiring the disclosure of visitor logs from the White House and other places the president conducts official business.
While President Trump and his staff continue to play by their own rules, or no rules at all, New Mexico voters can show President Trump what real accountability and transparency in government looks like when they go to vote on the statewide ethics reform in 2018. We can lead the way to show the nation that there is a better way to do the business of the people that involves everyone playing by the rules and being held accountable to the people, not their own special interests.
Viki Harrison is executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a nonpartisan grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy. It works to create open, honest and accountable government that serves the public interest; promote equal rights, opportunity, and representation for all; and to empower all people to make their voices heard as equals in the political process.