Lawmakers: OK an ethics commission or face a ferocious backlash

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COMMENTARY: Let this column serve as a warning to state legislators as we start a 60-day session on Jan. 17: Republicans in the U.S. House are still stinging from the backlash against their unscheduled, secret vote to restructure the independent agency that polices their behavior. To avoid a similar firestorm of criticism, state lawmakers must approve legislation to create an independent ethics commission this year.

Heath Haussamen

Heath Haussamen

In case you missed it, U.S. House Republicans voted in secret last week to move the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) under a committee of lawmakers, bar the agency from investigating anonymous tips, and keep some of its work secret.

The New York Times said the changes would “effectively kill” OCE by taking away its “power and independence.”

With Democrats, activists, journalists and the public up in arms, Republican lawmakers scrapped the proposed changes. The office retains independence and power, for now.

Democrats and Republicans have complained about OCE in the past. U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., says Republicans were trying to reform, not gut, the agency. Pearce may have a valid viewpoint, but with their secrecy, he and his colleagues earned skepticism – and the criticism the nation heaped on them.

Meanwhile, at the state capitol last year, the proposal to create an independent commission to set standards for ethical conduct in government and police violations died for the umpteenth time in the Senate Rules Committee. Some committee members said they needed more time to iron out details.

“If this was the first time they’d asked the public to be patient, I might give them the benefit of the doubt. But some members of the Rules Committee – led by the chair, Albuquerque Democrat Linda Lopez – have been asking for more time for years,” I wrote in February 2016. “This is an attempt to make it look like they’re trying to create a commission while they actually stand in its way.”

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Angelica Rubio, who joins the Legislature as a freshman representative this year, was also critical. The fact that “nearly 50 bills to curb corruption have been introduced in the past decade without avail” is one reason people have given up trying to influence their government, she wrote at the time.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque and a member of the Rules Committee, pushed back, saying the committee had a duty to be thoughtful and intentional.

But there was good reason for skepticism. Too many reforms – like our state’s weak, flawed ban on gifts to lawmakers – have been smokescreens. Our Legislature has sometimes created things to pacify the public that don’t actually do what lawmakers say they do.

I’m tired of inaction and fed up with fake action.

Ivey-Soto on Monday introduced new ethics commission legislation. The 86-page bill is complicated. It needs public debate and scrutiny. Without endorsing it, I’ll give Ivey-Soto kudos for putting forth a substantive proposal.

Eight-five percent of registered voters in New Mexico want an independent ethics commission, a Common Cause New Mexico poll found. Most participants in New Mexico First’s recent focus groups support creating a commission to address concerns about ethical problems in government.

On a bipartisan vote, the N.M. House approved legislation in 2016 to let New Mexicans vote on creating an ethics commission. A year later, senators who wanted more time have gotten it. In the upcoming session there is no room for excuses.

If lawmakers don’t get this done, they should expect a ferocious backlash like the one U.S. House Republicans experienced last week.

Heath Haussamen is NMPolitics.net’s editor and publisher.