Reformers try again on ethics bills

By Kate Nash: The New Mexican

Used to be, New Mexico would get ridiculed for its perceived backwater status as a state that still allowed cockfighting.

Lately, however, the ridicule is about something else: skimpy ethics laws and political scandals.

Several national publications in recent weeks have knocked the state
for its weak or, in some cases, nonexistent laws governing the behavior
of politicians.

The Wall Street Journal called New Mexico the “political wild west,”
pointing out our status as one of the few states that doesn’t limit
campaign contributions and lacks an independent ethics board, and the
only state that doesn’t pay its legislators. A New York Times piece
touched on similar themes.

The stories appeared in the wake of news that a federal grand jury
allegedly is looking into whether pay-to-play dealings were involved in
a company with a lucrative state contract that also gave money to Gov.
Bill Richardson’s political committees.

“It’s humiliating for our state as a whole to have to go through
this,” said Steve Allen, executive director of the good-government
Common Cause New Mexico.

Allen is among reform advocates and lawmakers working to change that
in this 60-day session, with hopes that this will be the year when
comprehensive reform is adopted.

In light of past failed efforts, however, they face an uphill
battle. The Legislature made no major changes in ethics laws after two
state treasurers were sentenced to time behind bars. And it made no big
changes after a former state Senate president pleaded guilty to three
felony counts of conspiracy and mail fraud in connection with a scheme
prosecutors said was to defraud the state in an Albuquerque courthouse
construction project.

With the federal grand jury looking into the state’s dealings with
CDR Financial, not to mention another alleged pay-to-play scheme at the
State Investment Council and Education Retirement Board, as well as
separate slew of problems at state housing authorities, this year might
be different.

But lawmakers have a lot of work to do to make any substantial change, Allen said.

“You take all these (problems) together and there’s a lot of room
for improvement,” he said. “I don’t think any one bill is going to fix
or solve the problems we’ve seen here in the past few years in New
Mexico.”

Bills introduced so far this session would set campaign contribution
limits, create an ethics commission, expand public financing for
campaigns and prohibit former lawmakers becoming paid lobbyists for one
year after serving in the Capitol.

Even before these bills are heard, however, there are indications of
the kind of challenges they face. A measure (SB 140) sponsored by Sen.
Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, which would set up an independent ethics
commission, was given three committee referrals after it was introduced
last week — sometimes a bad sign for bills that must clear committees
in the House and Senate before they can be considered by each chamber
during the 60-day session.

Feldman, however, said she doesn’t know what to read into the referrals and remained optimistic.

“I think we’re going to get something. I’m very hopeful this time, more than I have been in the past,” she said.

The triple referral tactic has been used by Senate and House leaders
in the past on ethics bills — as well as many others — as a way to
impede their progress.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said he’s undecided
on the ethics commission measure and still looking it over, while
Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said he’s opposed to
it.

“I do think we need to make sure the Legislature is the main judge of itself,’ Ingle said.

Here are some of the ethics measures proposed so far. Using
the bill number, you can follow the progress of these bills with the
bill tracker at www.nmlegis.gov:

• SB 140: State Ethics Commission Act — Establishes a
10-member ethics commission that would investigate complaints against
state officials and employees as well as lobbyists and state government
contractors.

• SB 116: Limit Contributions to Candidates and PACs — Caps
political contributions at $2,300 for non-statewide office during the
primary and general elections and $5,000 for statewide candidates.

• SB 165: Public Campaign Act — Expands public campaign
financing system to allow voluntary public financing for candidates
seeking to become state lawmakers, governor, lieutenant governor,
attorney general, commissioner of public lands, state treasurer, state
auditor and secretary of state.

• SB 49: Governmental Conduct Act for Public Officers — Among
other things, prohibits local government officers and employees from
forcing co-workers to engage in political activities, including giving
to political parties. Also, local government officers and employees
would be required to disclose all outside employment.

• SB 150: Open Conference Committees — Opens to the public some of the last closed meetings in the Roundhouse.

• SB 258 Contributions from State Contractors — Bans state contractors from contributing to statewide candidates’ campaigns and their political committees.

• SB 128 Require Biannual Campaign Reports — Increases the number of times throughout the year that candidates and officials must file reports.

• SB 163 and SB 94: Prohibit Former Legislators As Lobbyists — Prohibits former lawmakers from signing up as lobbyists until one year from the last date of their service.

• HB 52 and 395: Same Day Voter Registration — Allows residents to register and vote on the same day.

— Kate Nash