New Mexico Ethics Watch has significant concerns regarding the revised version of the constitutional amendment creating an Ethics Commission for New Mexico that the House of Representatives has sent to the Senate for consideration.
The House Judiciary Committee made sweeping changes to the legislation, changes that critically undermine a prospective commission’s independence, impartiality, and effectiveness. The legislation now before the Senate is flawed. The Senate should restore the resolution to the text it had at introduction before passing this measure.
The original version of Representative Jim Dines’s House Joint Resolution 8, like the constitutional provision enshrining the Judicial Standards Commission, was a finely balanced bill that safeguarded critical aspects of an Ethics Commission from future tampering.
It struck a strong balance in the appointing authorities for the commission, placed necessary restrictions on who could serve on the commission, and empowered the commission with significant jurisdiction over a variety of areas concerning good governance.
Last year, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed Rep. Dines’s version of an Ethics Commission, a piece of legislation that was virtually identical to this year’s version. Yet this year, the House Judiciary Committee decided to radically alter the legislation, and the House speedily sent this lesser bill to the Senate for consideration.
The current version of the constitutional amendment creating an Ethics Commission undermines the original proposal in the following ways:
The House has stripped out all of the commission’s jurisdiction. Jurisdiction will be determined in future legislation by the Legislature. The principal reason to have an Ethics Commission enshrined in the state’s Constitution is so that its jurisdiction cannot be easily tampered with. This protection no longer exists.
The House has shifted the power of the commission drastically towards the Legislature. Six of the seven members of the commission are appointed through the Legislature, and the commission requires five members to agree in order for the commission to act. This is a recipe for deadlock and ineffectiveness.
The House has also removed the restrictions on who can serve on the commission, and has stripped out the provision protecting commissioners from removal, meaning that there are no constitutional safeguards to ensure that the commission is not packed with cronies and partisan players.
Additionally, the title of the legislation – which is the language that will go to the voters – obscures the fact that this amendment to the Constitution in fact gives the commission no jurisdictional authority, as all jurisdiction will be given to the commission at a later date by the Legislature.
“While it is important that the state have an Ethics Commission, it is more important that an Ethics Commission be properly constituted and protected from future meddling,” Douglas Carver, Executive Director of NMEW said. “The version of the constitutional amendment creating an Ethics Commission that is before the Senate now is significantly flawed. The Senate should reinstate the commission with the structure and powers it had when the legislation was introduced, and quickly return the resolution to the House for concurrence.”
“The Senate can make the time in the closing days of the session to restore the language to this legislation that was removed and rapidly return it to the House,” Carver continued. “It should be remembered, however, that the amendment will not go to the people for approval until the 2018 general election. If necessary, the Legislature can reconsider a constitutional amendment creating a statewide Ethics Commission in the 2018 legislative session, and do the job properly before the people are asked to weigh in.”
Carver concluded, “Contrary to what the press has reported is the sense of certain Senators, it is vital that an Ethics Commission be enshrined in the state Constitution – but a flawed commission would do more harm than no commission at all.”
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.
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