By Abby Feldman
NEW MEXICO ETHICS WATCH
New Mexico Ethics Watch has watched the process of creating a statewide Ethics Commission with dismay.
A strong, well-balanced proposal for an Ethics Commission based in the state Constitution, with its powers, jurisdiction and membership protected by the Constitution, was introduced this session as House Joint Resolution 8. Despite that concept having been overwhelmingly supported by the House in the 2016 legislative session, this year the House gutted the resolution before passing it along to the Senate. The Senate Rules Committee did the rest, and carved away virtually every remaining constitutional protection for the commission.
“Do not let the language of the resolution deceive you. Virtually every power outlined in the proposed constitutional amendment is followed with the qualifier ‘as provided by law’. This means that the Legislature, which has a well-established hostility to ethics legislation, will be the ones creating the commission’s powers. It means that the Legislature, which has shrouded its own ethics process in secrecy, will be writing the rules for this commission. It means that the commission’s powers will be vulnerable to our suddenly veto-happy governor’s pen,” said Douglas Carver, Executive Director of NMEW.
NMEW has always maintained that simply having an institution called an “Ethics Commission” will not be enough – a toothless or shell commission would do more harm than having no commission at all. It is imperative that an Ethics Commission have the following core elements protected in the state Constitution:
• be independent of influence from any one branch of government;
• have enforcement power, including independent investigatory and subpoena powers, and the ability to initiate an investigation absent a complaint; and
• operate so that the commission is transparent in its operations, especially in the manner in which it handles complaints.
“I am afraid that if the House passes the version of the Ethics Commission that is now before them, the people of New Mexico will find it is a Pyrrhic victory,” Carver continued. “This resolution should not be passed. The Legislature should stop, take a breath, and return to the creation of an Ethics Commission in next year’s session.
The amendment will not go to the people for approval until the 2018 general election. The Legislature can and should wait to act until next year, and then pass the introduced version of this constitutional amendment to create an Ethics Commission. The people of New Mexico desperately want and need a strong Ethics Commission. They must not be asked to swallow the hollow promise that this legislation now represents.”
New Mexico Ethics Watch is a non-partisan organization founded in 2016 dedicated to promoting ethics and accountability in government and public life. NMEW advances its mission through research, litigation, policy advocacy, and media outreach