Small Wins, But Mostly Failure For Good Government Bills

Mar 5, 2016

During the 2016 legislative session, the People, Power and Democracy project tracked efforts to address ethics, accountability and money in politics. This year lawmakers met for only 30 days and were charged first and foremost with preparing a state budget. Most of the bills we followed failed, but many sponsors and advocacy groups pledged to return again in the longer 2017 session and try a gain. Here’s a summary of the proposals we watched most closely.

What Passed

House webcasts to be archived

New Mexicans have been asking for years why the Legislature offers a live stream of its proceedings, but doesn’t give people the opportunity to go back and watch debates and votes they missed while they were at work or asleep. (The Legislature can keep strange hours late into its sessions.) But when they first agreed to livestream, wary lawmakers specifically prohibited the feed from being archived—or used for political purposes.

After several years of trying, Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, succeeded in persuading his colleagues to post recordings of the official webcast. The House has the power to change its own rules, so the governor didn’t have to sign off on the plan and as long as there’s enough money, the archiving will begin in 2017. This applies only to the House, though; the Senate didn’t act on an attempt to use a change of law (HB 301) to force archiving in both chambers.

Improving accuracy and access of campaign finance data

On the same day she signed the budget, Gov. Martinez also signed a bill to update campaign finance law and force candidates, lobbyists and contributors to file their spending reports online.

It will give the public better information about money spent by lobbyists, who used to be able to file reports listing one big lump sum spent on lawmakers. They will now be required to itemize each time they spend $100 or more. Lobbyists will also have to list whether campaign contributions came from the lobbyist or one of their employers. And the Secretary of State will have to take all that information and make it available in an open data format, meaning it will be easier for reporters and the public to search, sort and download the details.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that the minimum for reporting in the bill that was passed and signed by the Governor is $100, not $75. 

17-year-olds might vote in primaries

The Legislature passed a bill (HB 138)that will allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections as long as they’ll turn 18 before the general election. The idea is that if they’re legally able to vote in November they should be allowed some say in who’ll be on the ballot.

It passed both the House and Senate, with only a handful of Republicans joining Democrats in voting yes.  Gov. Martinez has not yet signed the bill. She has until March 9 to decide.

What Failed

Ethics-related proposals

Despite being pounded by negative stories about corruption, neither Gov. Martinez nor the Legislature seemed to make ethics-related bills a priority. For her part, Martinez conspicuously did not list ethics among the government reforms she mentioned in her opening-day address to senators and representatives.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate introduced a couple of bills that went nowhere. House Democratic Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, introduced an ethics commission bill (HB 80) similar to plans he’d offered in the past, but it was never even assigned to a committee. Senate Rules Committee Chair Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, put forth her own version (SB124), but it never had a hearing.

Freshman Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, got farther with a proposed constitutional amendment (HJR 5) that he submitted before the session began. Dines’ bill included significant transparency measures, but lawmakers were skeptical of the mechanism—cramming so much detail into the constitution, as opposed to a law—and even more skeptical of the idea in general. He faced tough questioning in the House, but the measure passed 50-10. Critics including former state Sen. Dede Feldman said members felt free to vote for the plan knowing it would die in the Senate. In the last days of the session Dines withdrew the bill after members of the Senate Rules Committee demanded so many changes that Dines considered it “gutted.”

Several lawmakers attempted to respond to high-profile wrongdoing—most notably by former Secretary of State Dianna Duran and former state Sen. Phil Griego—by cracking down on corruption. Bills by Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Santa Fe (HB 96) House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque (HB 260) and Rep. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso (HB 278), would have made sure that officials convicted of corruption offenses would lose their pensions. McQueen had another measure (HB 155) that would have consolidated some of those offences into a “Public Corruption Act.” None of the bills made it very far.

Disclosure of dark money in politics

For campaign finance reform advocates, the biggest loss of the 2016 session was the Legislature’s failure to address independent money in politics—money spent by outside groups, such as unions, business groups and some political action committees.

Important parts of New Mexico’s existing campaign finance laws have been invalidated by court decisions, so sponsor Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, argued that his bill (SB 11) was essential to shining a light on who’s paying to influence elections. It would have forced outside groups to disclose how much money they spent and required disclaimers on ads, detailing who authorized and paid for them.

It passed the Senate unanimously (as it has three times) but died in the House. Gov. Martinez waited until the last week of the session to add it to the agenda and then the Secretary of State’s office requested last-minute changes that Common Cause said would have “increased, not decreased, the darkness in which huge independent contributions are now shrouded.”

Defining appropriate use of campaign funds

One bill (HB 310) attempted to address embarrassing scandals that have plagued New Mexico politics for years by clarifying exactly what candidates can and cannot spent campaign funds on. Rep. Nora Espinoza, R-Roswell, who announced that she would leave the House to run for Secretary of State, introduced it. The House limited the bill to addressing only prohibited uses of the money and then passed it unanimously. It died in the Senate Rules Committee.

Reporting of lobbying expenses

The public would know more about how much each lawmaker benefits from wining and dining by lobbyists if a bill (HB 137) introduced by Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, had made it all the way through the Senate. It passed the House 58-10 but died in the Senate Rules Committee. Steinborn had tried but failed to get more transparency in lobbying in 2015; in 2016 he broke his plan into pieces in an attempt to get at least one part passed. The two other parts, (HB 135 and HB 136) didn’t make it to the House floor.

Limits and reporting for inaugural expenses

One of the things struck from Espinoza’s bill was a provision specifying that campaign funds could be used to pay for inauguration expenses, something that’s not currently addressed by state law. The issue came up after controversy surrounding money given to Gov. Martinez’s inauguration fund that wasn’t subject to the contribution limits that regulate campaign donations. Rep. Gail Chasey-D, Albuquerque, introduced a bill that would have made contributions to a gubernatorial inauguration subject to the limits and reporting requirements. Republicans perceived it as entirely politically motivated, although Democrats pointed out that it would apply to all future governors, regardless of party. It was never heard.

Accountability for the governor’s contingency fund

Another bill that wasn’t heard (HB 172) was one that had similar political issues, a proposal by House Democratic Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, to make big changes to a fund used for entertainment at the governor’s mansion. This was the fund Gov. Martinez used to pay for a staff holiday party that became a significant embarrassment for the governor after audio recordings made by police were released and critics said the governor sounded bossy and worse—drunk. The incident brought to light that the fund, unique in state government, is almost entirely unregulated. The bill was never heard.

Capital outlay reform

Changing the way New Mexico pays for big public works projects was a major topic in the 2016 session after a major public policy group adopted the subject as its campaign of the year—and many news organizations editorialized in favor of reform. The package of reforms that Think New Mexico offered attempted to reform the way the projects are funded and address criticism that the current system lacks central coordination, prioritization or planning and fails to fully fund the most worthwhile projects.

The ideas were introduced by Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho and Rep. Cook. The bill (HB 307) would have required more planning and created a legislative committee, a capital projects planning council and a new division of the Department of Finance and Administration. It was derailed by a House committee.

Meanwhile, Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, focused on eliminating the secrecy that keeps each lawmaker’s list of funded projects exempt from public records laws. He attempted to have the allocations put online in a user-friendly database (SB 48), but lawmakers resisted the effort and it never made it through the Senate. Rep. Egolf tried the same thing (HB 173) on the House side but it never got to the floor.

Predatory lending

Attempts to limit the interest charged by storefront lenders on short-term loans attracted much attention in 2015 but failed to gain momentum during a short session when the agenda is limited—and controlled by the governor. A bill (HB 84) reviving the effort to cap rates at 36 percent was never heard. Advocates, who complained that powerful lobbyists repeatedly blocked their efforts, pursued a different strategy, trying unsuccessfully to ask the state to study the possibility of offering a low-cost small loan program to state employees. It passed the Senate but never made it to the House.

Check out all of the content from our People, Power and Democracy project. It's a collaboration between KUNM, New Mexico In DepthNew Mexico PBS and the New Mexico News Port at UNM. Funding for the project comes from the Thornburg Foundation.