KUNM

Will Lawmakers Give Voters The Ethics Watchdog They Asked For?

Mar 5, 2019

For decades, legislators have repeatedly fumbled the creation of an ethics commission to stop government corruption. But voters demanded one overwhelmingly in November, and now it’s on some of the very people the commission would police—state lawmakers—to decide what it can and can’t do. They’re considering two bills this year: one where people can see what the commission’s up to and one where it’s mostly secret.

All but a handful of states have ethics commissions. New Mexico voters sent a message just a couple of months ago: There should be one here, too.

“We’re fighting for an independent commission, one that is adequately funded, so that it just doesn’t sit there and do nothing,” said Kathleen Sabo, executive director of New Mexico Ethics Watch.

Crucial basics remain in the hands of legislators this session, like whether the commission’s work would be visible to the public, and whether it will have teeth, like the power to dole out meaningful penalties.

“At this point, sort of the motto is among people: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Sabo said. “And so then the question becomes: When does it stop being good?”

The voters demand for a commission wasn’t a surprise. And ethics commissions have been on the table in Santa Fe for years. So why are lawmakers still scrambling last-minute over core principals?

“It looks like the entrenched people have major concerns about it, and I don’t know that they’ve been able to reconcile their concerns with the public’s demand for transparency,” Sabo said.

On the House side, a bill sponsored by two newer Democrats checks a lot of boxes. Rep. Daymon Ely from Corrales has been in office two years.

“This is a sea change,” he said. “It really will be a place where the public’s confidence in government can help be restored.”

With Ely’s bill, transparency is built in, though some exceptions in it have drawn backlash. For example, if a complaint is filed, and the commission decides it’s frivolous, that complaint is never made public. Ely said that’s to encourage someone who maybe saw something kind of ethically funny, but they’re not totally sure about it, to come forward anyway.

“I want to give those people some confidence in the system that it won’t just be public the minute they filed it. If they want to make it public, they can always do that,” he said.

And that’s pretty different than the competing bill in the Senate, created by Democrat Linda Lopez, who’s been a legislator for 22 years. With her measure, all complaints, reports, files, records and communications would be secret and not subject to the state’s open records law. And if someone shares that info or makes it public, they would be subject to thousands of dollars in fines—higher fines in some cases that what a politician would pay if found guilty of breaking existing ethics laws.

KUNM put in multiple requests for comment to Senator Linda Lopez’ office for over a week, and as of airtime, hadn’t heard back

With Lopez’ bill, the commission would only be able to recommend penalties, and could reprimand or censure someone. With Ely’s bill, the commission could impose fines or force many elected officials out of office.

Shruti Shah is the president of the Coalition for Integrity

“This is a huge step forward, so they should be commended for it,” she said. “My concern is that I don’t want people to find tiny excuses to not take this bill forward.” The coalition is a national nonprofit that gave New Mexico a low ranking when it came to battling corruption last year: 41st in the nation.

Ely’s bill could flip us to the top 10, Shah said, it comes down to really hearing the voters.

“If you want to make sure the mandate from the people becomes a reality, you want to incorporate the best-practice standards. You’re not trying to do the minimum,” Shah said.

As the clock ticks down to the end of the session next week, both bills could face last-minute changes and late-night votes. We’ll see which politicians go for more transparency and a watchdog with bite.