Why No Ethics Commission This Year?
Lawmakers are wrapping up a 30-day session in Santa Fe Thursday. They’ve hammered out a budget, moved forward on some crime-fighting bills and spent time debating anti-corruption proposals.
Gwyneth Doland is covering the state legislature for the People, Power and Democracy Project. She spoke with KUNM's Chris Boros.
KUNM: Yesterday you told us about a plan to create a commission that would oversee ethics statewide. But, that failed, so that’s not going to happen, right?
Doland: It did fail, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to come back. I could use a whole bunch of jargon to explain how and why, but the point is: The House voted for the plan, but the Senate didn’t like it.
KUNM: The House is controlled by Republicans and the Senate is controlled by Democrats. Is that the issue here?
Doland: No, it’s not the issue. It was a bipartisan group who supported it in the House and a bipartisan group who killed it in the Senate.
KUNM: OK. So it’s not a political thing…
Doland: Oh, it’s a political thing!
Doland: The ethics commission proposal died in the Senate Rules Committee, which has for a long time been where leaders of both parties funnel proposals they don’t like so they can fix them or get make them go away.
KUNM: Now, that sounds a little harsh to me.
Doland: Politics, Chris. It’s dog-eat-dog.
KUNM: OK. But I still don’t quite understand why the House approved it overwhelmingly but the Senate didn’t like it.
Doland: I don’t know. I think it may have been something like a foregone conclusion that the Senate would kill it because in the past, where they have killed it, and so maybe the house was like “Yeah, yeah, we’re all going to do this, but they’re going to kill it."
KUNM: But why ?
Doland: I’m being cynical here, but folks at the capitol today were really intent on telling me that there were serious problems with the proposal, which was sponsored by Jim Dines. He’s a new lawmaker, he’s a Republican, he’s in the House: he’s not in the Senate club.
And many of these people are lawyers, so they make arguments like, “Well, this shouldn’t be in the constitution because it’s not the right place to put all the details about this thing.” And you’re like “I don’t understand any of that.”
KUNM: I don’t either.
Doland: Legally it shouldn’t be in the constitution because this and that. And there were objections about the staggering of the commission members, they wanted to make that less political.
Anyways, the official story from the Senate is that the proposal just wasn’t ready. It needed work. But they liked it and they want to bring it back. They say the sponsor agreed and that’s why he agreed to remove it from consideration.
KUNM: That’s the official story. Is there another story?
Doland: There’s eighty-seven sides to every story. And, the big picture here is that Dines didn’t talk to the Senate before the session started or before the bill got there. So they felt attacked.
KUNM: Attacked? By “House Joint Resolution Number Five”?
Doland: It’s very threatening. I mean, obviously we’re talking about an ethics commission because people think ethics are a problem. And that shows that people think a good number of these lawmakers aren’t ethical. Polls are showing us that.
KUNM: We’ve seen some cases of things that were illegal and things that were unethical.
Doland: That’s right. In the Senate in particular, Phil Griego, a Senator from Santa Fe, was accused of abusing his position to make money on a land deal. It was all out in the media and it looked real bad, it looked really clear.
But the Legislature convened an ethics committee which meets very rarely and they investigated, they hired an outsider to investigate. It took a while and it was very secretive. In the end he resigned, but critics said it took way too long and there was no public insight into what was going on. He was still in office a year after it came to light in the press.
But the leaders of the Senate both told me told me they think the fact that Griego resigned is evidence that their process works.
Michael Sanchez is the Senate Democratic majority leader.
Senate Republican Minority Leader Stuart Ingle referred to the same thing in telling me he thinks the situation is fine as it is.
KUNM: Isn’t that a sign their system works?
Doland: That’s what they’re saying here, but the public doesn’t see it that way. They cannot get Phil Griego and Dianna Duran put of their minds. It was a pretty rare occurrence that there was a problem, and someone actually goes away. Plus, their ethics committee doesn’t cover the governor, cabinet secretaries or any of the rest of government. And it’s very secretive, so there’s not really a lot of public confidence without transparency.
KUNM: So what happens now?
Doland: The sponsor told me he’s going to talk to Senate leaders and try again next year.
Check out all of the content from our People, Power and Democracy project online at KUNM.org. It's a collaboration between KUNM, New Mexico In Depth, New Mexico PBS and the New Mexico News Port at UNM. Funding for the project comes from the Thornburg Foundation.