Hold on to your hat, we’re closing in on the final couple of weeks of this 2017 New Mexico legislative session. The last day of the session is March 18, so there will be a flurry of activity in the days ahead as the intensity of lawmaking increases.
The session will be remembered for its budget, of course, because that’s what will keep state government open. But there is always the possibility that a major reform or two will be passed into law as well.
Let’s take a look at three proposed reforms encapsulating ethics, redistricting and public infrastructure spending.
Ethics: For the umpteenth time, an ethics commission is being proposed to provide standards and enforcement provisions for lawmakers, lobbyists and others running around the Roundhouse. This session, House Joint Resolution 8 is the measure that would do that.
Could this be the year? It seems that someone asks that question every year, usually by referencing the latest scandal du jour. Last year it was taxation and revenue secretary Demesia Padilla’s forced resignation amid accusations of tax evasion and embezzlement; the year before that it was secretary of state Dianna Duran and her gambling addiction and state Sen. Phil Griego and his alleged wheelings and dealings. Seems every year we have an example of a politician who turned to the dark side and got caught, and every year it spurs cries for ethics reforms. And every year, an ethics proposal bites the dust in one legislative vote or another.
So this year it’s HJR 8, which would place the idea of an ethics commission before the state voters in 2018. If passed, it would create a seven-member commission with the power to investigate complaints against election campaigns and members of the legislative and executive branches, as well as state officers and employees, and government contractors and lobbyists.
Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, is spearheading this year’s effort. He has a couple more weeks to succeed.
Redistricting: Meanwhile, here’s a proposal that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention—House Joint Resolution 3, another proposed constitutional amendment for the voters to decide, if it makes it that far.
HJR 3 would set up an independent agency to redraw our district lines every 10 years. As it’s done now, elected officials oversee the process, which is an invitation to redraw district lines for partisan political advantage.
A result of district gerrymandering is fewer contested elections. According to a Common Cause New Mexico report, nearly two-thirds of New Mexico’s legislative races were uncontested in the general election last year. That’s because, in most of the legislative districts around the state, once you win the dominant party’s nomination, it’s a free ride to election. Sometimes it’s because of the concentration of Republicans and Democrats in certain areas of the state (Republicans controlling the southeast, Democrats controlling the north, that sort of thing) but other times it’s because our politicians took the time to redraw district lines to the advantage to the incumbents and their political party.
To offset this tendency to protect incumbents and bolster party preferences, some states have turned to independent commissions to redraw their district lines every decade. HJR 3 would move New Mexico in that direction but it appears to be languishing in committee. Whether it will go anywhere this session will become apparent soon enough.
Spending: Then there’s Senate Bill 262, which I’ve written about before. It would revamp the way in which public projects get funded by replacing the current system, which relies almost exclusively on politics and influence, with one that would be based on need and merit.
The bill has been gathering support. More than a dozen public interest organizations, business and industry groups, labor unions and even the influential Association of Counties are backing it. Last week it passed the Senate Rules Committee; next up is Senate Finance.
If approved and signed into law, SB 262 would dramatically change the way state government spends its money and takes care of its infrastructure needs. This will be landmark legislation coming out of this year’s session, if it passes.
All three of these measures have one thing in common: They would weaken the influence of politics in the management of state government. Of course politics and government go hand in hand, but when it comes to policing the politicians, or realigning representation, or spending taxpayer money according to need , I think the less politics involved, the better. We’ll soon see if enough lawmakers agree.
Tom McDonald is founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org