Reformers try again on ethics bills

By Kate Nash: The Santa Fe 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