The latest, and best, ethics commission push

Perhaps this will be the year when we actually get some decent ethical standards in place for state officials.

It’s a long-running issue that seems to resurface every time someone gets in trouble, but for various political and provincial reasons, nothing ever gets through the state Legislature. This year, however, one proposal might actually make it in front of New Mexico’s voters.

House Joint Resolution 5 has bipartisan support. Sponsored by Reps. Jim Dines, an Albuquerque Republican, and Jeff Steinborn, a Democrat out of Las Cruces, the measure cleared its first hurdle last week when it sailed through the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee with an 8-0 vote.

The Dines-Steinborn measure proposes a constitutional amendment that would have to be approved by the voters in November. It creates a nine-member ethics commission and a paid staff to oversee the conduct of state officials in the executive and legislative branches, as well as contractors and lobbyists doing business with state government.

It’s not the only ethics measure introduced this session. House Bill 88, sponsored by Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat, and Senate Bill 124, sponsored by Sen. Linda Lopez, an Albuquerque Democrat, would also establish a state ethics commission, but as of last week, neither had gone anywhere in the process.

If anything ethics-related is going to go anyway this session, it’s almost certain to be HJR 5, since it bypasses the need for gubernatorial support. Martinez, for whatever reason, has failed to make ethics legislation part of her call (for action) this session, so the Egolf and Lopez bills aren’t likely to go anywhere.

Political pundits and others are attributing the momentum behind an ethics commission to the recent scandal involving Dianna Duran, the ex-Secretary of State who got into trouble by using campaign funds to support her personal gambling addiction. But, really, it’s the legal process that took action against her misdeeds, as it did the illegalities of state treasurers Michael Montoya and Robert Vigil, each convicted of corruption charges nearly a decade ago. Plus, the law took care of former Senate Majority Leader Manny Aragon, who was convicted in 2009 on conspiracy charges stemming from his activities while in office.

A more pertinent illustration of the need for an ethics commission is found in the Phil Griego episode. Griego, a five-term senator from San Juan in San Miguel County, resigned last year under a cloud of suspicion—and the threat of ethics hearings—over his involvement in the sale of a state building in Santa Fe.

Maybe that would be a moot issue now were it not for the fact that Griego is now considering a run to regain his seat in the Senate. And he could just pull it off.

Since Griego dodged an ethics inquiry last year, he has less of a cloud hanging over such a re-election bid. Lacking any sort of official investigation, he can blame his troubles on media hyperbole, or devious actions by his enemies, or whatever.

Here’s what I like about the Dines-Steinborn measure:

• In addition to creating the all-important ethics commission, it gives the commission some real teeth. According to Milan Simonich, a reporter for the New Mexican’s legislative reporting service, Dines said his proposal would give the ethics commission subpoena powers, as well as the authority to adjudicate complaints and impose civil penalties (while referring criminal matters to state prosecutors).

• The commission would also keep an eye on government contractors and lobbyists. Special interests shouldn’t get more attention than the public’s interest, but because of their backroom access to state officials, they often do.

• Also, Dines, in Simonich’s report, said his proposal would allow the public to follow and track complaints against state officials—but would only accept signed complaints, which would be made public after the accused has a chance to respond.

The Legislative Finance Committee’s Fiscal Impact Report sets the cost of the Dines-Steinborn commission at $1.285 million a year. If you ask me, I’d say that’s a relatively small price to pay for a more open and honest state government.

Lawmakers have historically shied away from the creation of an ethics commission with some real teeth, so if you agree the state needs one, you might want to let your state representative and senator know.

Otherwise, SJR 5 might become just another failed attempt at making our government more ethically run.

Tom McDonald is founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He may be reached at tmcdonald@gazettemediaservices.com or tmcdonald@rdrnews.com.