Ethics commission focus group findings released

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COMMENTARY: Should New Mexico establish an independent ethics commission to oversee its governmental officials? Multiple legislative efforts to establish an ethics commission in New Mexico have been attempted in recent years, but all failed.

Heather Balas

Courtesy photo

Heather Balas

To understand the reasons for the recurring efforts – as well as the objections – New Mexico First conducted a series of focus groups about the pros and cons of ethics legislation to answer this question. Meetings were held with current and former public officials, as well as members of the media.

The focus group findings revealed a broad range of perspectives, but most participants believed that New Mexico needs an ethics commission. Respondents offered a variety of reasons including public trust, fragmented existing systems, preventing honest mistakes, limitations of existing legal structures, and policymakers being asked to police themselves.

Focus group participants also discussed how an ethics commission should be established. They discussed potential jurisdiction structures, the size of commissions, appointment structure, qualifications of a commissioner, subpoena powers, confidentiality issues, and how to handle whistleblowers. The media focus group revealed additional perspectives.

However, focus group participants also voiced concerns about creating an ethics commission at this time. People agreed the state’s current financial shortfall presents a major barrier to paying for any new government function. Several participants indicated they would rather wait than launch a new commission without the resources to make it successful. Some participants worried that partisanship would render a commission ineffective. Others believed that the existing system, while disjointed, is working.

This research project, funded by the Thornburg Foundation, includes two reports:

New Mexico First hopes these reports will prove useful to the policymaking community.

Heather Balas is president and executive director of New Mexico First, a nonpartisan organization co-founded by former U.S. Sens. Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman. A fifth-generation New Mexican, Heather worked in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco for several years before returning to her home state. She has over 20 years’ experience in public policy work, including citizen outreach, voter education, coalition-building, and policy research. Previous employers include the D.C.-based Commission on Presidential Debates, the California Center for Civic Participation, and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. She holds a masters in political communication. Heather is married and is mom to two teenagers.