Ethics Bills Flail in the Roundhouse
As time in a brief 30-day Legislative Session ticks away, will these measures fizzle out?
Charges of corruption abound in this state, and with each confirmation of an ethics breech, public trust dwindles. Accusations of cronyism, the conviction of former state treasurers, charges that politicians skimmed millions off construction funds for the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Courthouse—the parade of shamefaced officials grows ever-longer. Though the governor set health care at the top of the legislative priorities this session, a handful of ethics reform bills also made it onto the agenda. Many were introduced late in the game and haven't been receiving much of a push from the governor or state legislators.
With pressure from political groups and constituents for ethics reform, legislators are feeling the heat, says political blogger Heath Haussamen. "There are some lawmakers who want to make it look like they're doing something without actually doing something." Some bills weren't given time in committees until last week. And the minutes are ticking by. The Legislative Session ends Thursday, Feb. 14.
Stir into that pot congresspeople playing politics, and we'll be lucky if any of these bills see a vote, period. "The relationship between the governor and the Senate is not good to say the least," Haussamen adds.
But here they are, the three most important ethics reforms on the table, in Matt Brix' opinion. Brix is the policy director for the Center for Civic Policy. "All three are important and play off of each other very well," Brix says. "Alone, none of them is the silver bullet. But together, I think they will help us make necessary reform."
Brix encourages people to call their legislators as the days run short for the Legislative Session. "The more people hear from constituents, the more likely they are to take action."
Public financing had its maiden voyage in Albuquerque's City Council races last year. Chasey's measure would extend the financing option, which allows candidates to run using tax dollars, to people running for statewide offices like governor or lieutenant governor.
Proponents say public financing offers candidates the opportunity to run for office without spending the majority of their time cajoling contributions out of supporters and that it ensures political independence.
Alone, none of them is the silver bullet. But together, I think they will help us make necessary reform
Under the bill, candidates would be required to get a certain number of qualifying contributions before being given public funds to run their campaigns.
For the position of governor, candidates would be given $1.75 per registered voter. Lieutenant governor candidates would receive 25 cents for each voter. The attorney general contenders would get 75 cents per voter. All public offices serving the state would be eligible for varying levels of funding.
The bill was given the OK by the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.
"There has been some unethical behavior, which is terrible, that has occurred in this state," Rep. Garcia says. Her proposed ethics commission would serve as an ear for anyone who thinks they may know of ethical violations in New Mexico agencies. It also contains protection for those whistleblowers, in that all complaints would be completely confidential.
The commission would be made up of a broad cross section of people. Four would be appointed by the governor, with no more than two of the same political stripe and no more than two from the same congressional district. The state Legislature would have seven appointees. The chief justice of the state Supreme Court would appoint two more, also not of the same political party.
Once formed, the commission would elect a director, who would hear complaints. The commission would look into all complaints, and if there is probable cause that an ethics violation has occurred, it would report its findings to the proper authorities. Criminal conduct would be reported to the Attorney General's Office. An appropriation of $500,000 would be given to the group to perform its duties and to print a booklet informing people about where to call and what the code of ethics is. The commission would be re-evaluated in 2010 to determine if it's necessary.
A similar measure was passed by the House in the last session, but didn't make it through the Senate. Garcia says she will reintroduce the measure next session and will continue to introduce it until it passes both House and Senate. "It will maintain the public confidence in government," she says.
Introduced by Sen. Michael Sanchez
New Mexico is one of five states without campaign contribution limits. The first of Sen. Sanchez’ measures this session to address adding limits, Senate Bill 264, used language that applied to individuals, political parties, committees, unions and corporations. Effective Jan. 1, 2009, campaign contributions would be limited to $2,300 for the primary and $2,300 for the general election. Here's where it gets tricky.
The newer bill, 387, would not apply to political committees or parties. But any person or group that drops more than $500 on politics can register as a committee for an extra $50. Political blogger Haussamen charges this later bill didn't really limit anybody, because of a big loophole. An individual, corporation or union could register as a political-action committee. The newly formed committee wouldn't be subject to campaign contribution caps.
The bill was amended Monday morning in the Senate Rules Committee. An individual making a contribution to a candidate for a district office, like a state legislative seat, would only be allowed to donate $2,300. An individual making a donation to a statewide campaign would be limited to $5,000. A political party, political action committee, union or corporation would be limited to $5,000 for a district office and $7,500 for a statewide office. Anyone making a contribution to a political action committee or political party would be limited to $15,000.
The amended bill manages to cover all the entities that can contribute, but it sets the caps higher. Advocates hope the measure will be strengthened further. Brix, the policy director of the Center for Civic Policy, says he would like to see lower limits. "It's important that as this moves through the process we make certain all entities are covered, that we're not limiting some entities but not others. That could be problematic."
Tell your legislator what you think of these bills. To find out who your congressperson is and to get his or her contact information, go to: http://legis.state.nm.us/LCS.