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The KUNM news team's coverage of the 2020 legislative session and its impacts

Ethics Commission Heads To Voters, But Will It Have Teeth?


Most other states around the country have some kind of watchdog agency in place to investigate politicians and other powerful people entrusted with public dollars. But New Mexico doesn’t have anything like that. So would a commission with the power to investigate and field ethics complaints help stop corruption here? The issue will be on ballots in November.

We know about the political scandals in New Mexico. Longtime former state Sen. Phil Griego is in an orange jumpsuit. Dianna Duranstepped down as secretary of state a couple years back and served 30 days in jail for embezzlement. Former Sen. Manny Aragon got busted for courthouse kickbacks. Theft, abuse of power, cronyism—they’ve loomed over the state for as long as anyone can remember.

Those are the kinds of things that are on Dawn Webster’s mind as she heads to the polls this year, a first-time voter at 42. "You know when you talk to other people about this kind of thing, their answer is always, 'Well, they’re politicians.' And so it’s kind of like, 'Well, OK. It’s part of the culture.' "

People in positions of power have to be able to exercise good judgment and restraint, she said. But it can often feel like there’s no one out there to check them.

"If they themselves don’t see a problem with having a conflict of interest, or if they become greedy or tyrannical, unfortunately, it does impact the state of New Mexico," she said.

Webster’s a budget analyst for the Department of Cultural Affairs, though she’s not representing the state or the department in this story. Part of her job is to oversee how taxpayer dollars are spent. She’s thinking about the constitutional amendment to create an ethics commission that will be on her first ballot. "If we’re willing to put something like that in place, it’s kind of like it has to have real teeth," she said. "You know, there has to be real consequences."

Webster said she’ll vote for the amendment. Here’s what a yes vote does: Enshrine in the state’s constitution a commission to investigate state officials and employees, lobbyists and government contractors.

But the teeth Webster wants to see, they aren’t on the ballot. The proposed amendment doesn’t answer questions like: Will the commission be empowered to issue punishments? Or will the commission’s investigations be public?  

Kathleen Sabo is the executive director of New Mexico Ethics Watch. "One thing people think is that politicians are getting benefits that other people aren’t," she said. "And if we have investigations, they’ll be sort of a level playing field. People won’t feel, 'OK that’s them up in Santa Fe. This is us. We don’t get what they get.' ”

Good-government groups have tried to get lawmakers to create an ethics commission for four decades, but legislators kept saying the devil’s in the details, like how accusations could be strategically used to throw an election. "That’s the first thing they mention: We are afraid this is going to be a tool. We’re afraid it’s going to happen right before an election."

Heather Ferguson of Common Cause New Mexico said as ethics bills made their way through the Roundhouse over the years, lawmakers said they didn’t like the idea that complaints could be leveled against them and become public information before they have a chance to respond, "which, in fact, is really what we have right now anyway in our current system," she said. "Somebody files a complaint with the secretary of state, their next stop is the media."

Ferguson has been pushing for an ethics commission for years. It’ll be good if voters approve it in November, she said, because then it will be preserved in the state’s constitution, so legislators who are accused of corruption in New Mexico couldn’t decide to disband the thing altogether. That happened in Wyoming just recently. "We never wanted something like this to be at the whim of any Legislature," she said. "We want this to be something that will be able to cross over all of the different administrations that might come in."

Studies showcorruption erodes trust in state government. And New Mexico just got a failing grade in a country-wide evaluation of government ethics, primarily because it doesn’t have a watchdog agency. Shruti Shah is the president of the Coalition for Integrity, the national organization that gives out the grades. She said New Mexico is taking an important step with its ballot measure, but the commission will have to be powerful.

"If you have a toothless ethics agency, it cannot serve the public well, and it’ll be really ineffective in terms of carrying out its mission," Shah said.

And no matter what voters decide on Tuesday, Nov. 6, lawmakers will have the final say on whether the ethics commission will have any bite.

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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