Ethics commission bill enters New Mexico Senate

Noel Lyn Smith
Ethics Commission

FARMINGTON — State senators are beginning discussion on a proposed constitutional amendment to establish an independent ethics commission that would have the authority to investigate allegations of civil violations by state elected and non-elected officials.

Supporters say the commission could help reverse the state's long long-held reputation as a place where crony capitalism thrives, making it easier to attract new businesses.

Sen. Steven Neville

Under the proposal, the commission would investigate complaints against elected and appointed members of the state legislature and executive branches, state officers, employees, government contractors and lobbyists.

A study released in January by the Committee for Economic Development, a non-profit public policy organization in Washington, D.C., and the University of New Mexico reports the state's economy remains stagnant because of a reputation for corruption and crony capitalism and an environment that fosters pay to play behavior.New Mexico is one of eight states that does not have an independent ethics commission overseeing state government. In a poll conducted by Common Cause New Mexico, 86 percent of voters in the state support the creation of an independent ethics commission.

Rep. Paul Bandy

Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, co-sponsor of the bill, presented the measure to the Senate Rules Committee on Monday in Santa Fe.

Dines said there was discussion but no decision was made. Rather, the committee decided to continue the debate today.

During his presentation, Dines said he shared the results of a poll taken by 250 business people in state. Among the results, 91 percent of those polled are concerned about the state's ethical climate and its negative impact on business development.Among the questions Dines received some focused on the level of transparency in the commission operations, including the amount of information that would be public and, if hearings are conducted, would they be open to the public.

It is time the lawmakers address that perception, he said, adding he remains "optimistic" about his bill.

Rep. Rod Montoya

In order to reach the full Senate, the legislation has to pass in the Senate Rules Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. It passed out of the House earlier in the session and any changes made in the Senate would have to be agreed to by the House before final passage.

Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec, said the bill faces a "tough" challenge by the Senate committees, especially with the end of the legislative session set for noon on Thursday.

"I'm not in opposition to the concept. I think it's a good concept," he said Monday.He said the bill would have had a stronger chance of survival if it went before the committees at least a week earlier but with hours left in the session, the possibilities are slim.

Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage

Neville is a member of the Interim Legislative Ethics Committee, which is comprised of senators and representatives, and said the committee receives complaints about officials but does not have the same level of authority the commission would have.

Another reason the bill may not make it to the full Senate is due to it being a constitutional amendment, he said, adding that lawmakers usually take time to review such proposals, to ensure the language is proper before it is placed before voters.

This is done because if the bill is passed, it does not require the governor's approval, he added.

Sen. William E. Sharer

Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, could not be reached for comment Monday.

The House voted 50-10 in favor of the measure on Feb. 9.

Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, voted for its passage while Reps. James Strickler, R-Farmington, and Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, cast votes against the bill.

Bandy, Strickler and Montoya did not respond to calls for comment. Montoya told The Santa Fe New Mexican last week he is concerned about possible frivolous complaints and that commissioners might purposely investigate frivolous complaints against officials they do not like.

Rep. James R.J. Strickler

Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-Kirtland, said Monday she was excused from the House when voting occurred due to a doctor's appointment but if she was present, she would have voted in favor of the bill.

“I like this because it puts all of us in check,” Clahchischilliage said adding it would make officials "more conscious" about their conduct.

She said she was one of eight representatives who passed the bill out of the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.