This is open, bipartisan government at work
I am more hopeful than ever that the Ethics Commission Act will succeed. Even if it doesn’t, we New Mexicans can be proud of the process that produced it.
The recently proposed Ethics Commission Act endorsed by the Legislature’s interim Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee is probably the best example of open, public, bipartisan government at work that I have been a part of in the last 25 years.
Government and especially lawmaking bodies are much criticized these days for not acting collaboratively, and for making key decisions behind closed doors, but this year’s ethics commission bill was developed through an impressive, open and bipartisan effort — led by committee co-chairs, Sen. Peter Wirth and Rep. Al Park — that deserves commendation and that hopefully can serve as a model for tackling and solving other complex issues.
Earlier this year, the House passed an ethics commission act unanimously. It was similar to other ethics commission bills it has passed in recent years. But that bill, as well as other ethics commission proposals introduced in the Senate, never got out of the Senate Rules Committee.
Despite repeated votes by the full House in recent years, the Senate has never taken a floor vote on whether to enact an ethics commission.
This year, the Courts and Justice Interim Committee co-chairs arranged at their first meeting to hear testimony about an ethics commission. On behalf of Attorney General Gary King, I testified at that first meeting as an expert witness for last year’s House bill co-sponsor, Rep. Park. Immediately after that discussion, the co-chairs announced that they intended to create an Ethics Commission Subcommittee — of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans and House and Senate members — to work on and hopefully propose to the full committee an ethics commission bill.
How they did it
That is exactly what they did. But what was most impressive was how they did it.
They scheduled public meetings about the ethics commission at each of their meetings around the state. The meetings were all open to the public, in Santa Fe, Red River, Las Cruces and back again in Santa Fe for the final review of proposed legislation. In addition to encouraging me to attend, they encouraged Steve Allen, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico; and Lt. Governor Denish’s representative, Eric Vasquez, to attend. Sen. Dede Feldman, a longtime, leading advocate of ethics reform, arranged for her representative, Cliff Rees, to attend on her behalf, and even though Sen. Feldman was not a member of the committee, she came to the critical last meeting as well to review and comment on the proposal.
What was most unusual about this process was that right from the beginning, whenever there was concern about how to proceed on an issue — for example, how many commissioners should there be and how should they be appointed? — Sen. Wirth and Rep. Park asked all of us who were present to vote, even those of us who are not legislators. I have never seen that happen before.
I don’t necessarily recommend it as a way of always taking positions on issues that only legislators can ultimately vote on, but it reflects the openness of this process and the extent to which these legislators wanted all of us who care about this issue to become involved in helping solve the problem.
The press was not at our meetings, with the exception of reporter Heath Haussamen at the Las Cruces meeting. The press’ absence was perhaps due to their own budget cuts. So the openness of this process was not widely reported. But it deserved to be.
Remarkable bipartisan involvement
There was also remarkable bipartisan involvement. For example, I was particularly struck by the time when two legislators mostly viewed as being on opposite ends of the political spectrum — Democrat Rep. Mimi Stewart and Republican Sen. Rod Adair — joined forces to jointly push a proposal even when most of the rest of us disagreed with both of them.
The Senate Rules Committee chair, Linda Lopez, was an active member of the subcommittee, and I think that bodes well for this bill’s prospects next year.
And as Lopez correctly pointed out, the bill has continued to improve as the additional work has refined it. We had active involvement by Sen. Cisco McSorley, even though he was not appointed to the subcommittee by the co-chairs, and consistent involvement by Sen. John Ryan, who served with me and others on Gov. Richardson’s Ethics Task Force and who also introduced an ethics commission bill last year.
I believe last year’s House bill succeeded in garnering unanimous support on the House floor because Democrat Rep. Rhonda King and Republican Rep. Don Bratton were appointed by the House Appropriations Chair, Rep. Kiki Saavedra, to iron out differences and come up with a bill they jointly supported. Many others have worked hard on this issue in recent years, including Speaker Ben Luján, House Majority Leader Ken Martinez, Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, Sen. Mary Jane Garcia and Sen. Pete Campos.
The details of the proposal
I am more hopeful than ever this year that this bill will succeed. It provides for 11 members, with two appointed by the House Democratic Caucus, two by the House Republican Caucus, two by the Senate Democratic Caucus, two by the Senate Republican Caucus, and three by the governor — a Democrat, a Republican and someone who is neither a Democrat nor a Republican.
The 11 members can only act if there is a quorum of eight, and at least eight of the 11 members must agree on every action the commission takes. That ensures real bipartisan agreement, which I think is key to the success of an ethics commission.
This commission will oversee both the legislative and executive branches, and it can recommend punishments and publicly issue ethics violations about anyone, including the governor and legislators. This commission will have the independent authority to subpoena documents and witnesses, by going through a confidential court-approved process as it investigates a matter.
In short, this ethics commission bill has teeth, and protections to prevent it from engaging in partisan witch hunts.
New Mexicans can be proud
There is, of course, no guarantee this ethics commission bill will become law, or not be significantly weakened as it makes its way through the legislative process once the 2010 session begins. There is also a substantial hurdle to overcome in these difficult, tight budgetary times of finding the money to adequately fund a new commission to oversee ethics laws, provide ethics training and guidance, and investigate and act on ethics complaints involving state government officials and employees, lobbyists and government contractors.
Hopefully the legislators and the governor will agree on the need for this bill, and enact it in substantially the form it will be proposed. But even if they don’t, the process that led to the bill this year deserves credit.
I have worked on government ethics reforms for years. I have done so while representing Attorney General Gary King, as I do now, and former Attorney General Patricia Madrid while serving as her chief deputy. I was a staff member for the Government Ethics Task Force, which in 1992 proposed most of the ethics disclosure laws now on the books. I served on Governor Richardson’s Ethics and Campaign Reform Task Force, and I have worked on ethics issues for with Democrats and Republicans, House members and senators.
I think this year, with the leadership of Sen. Wirth and Rep. Park, and the bipartisan involvement of the Ethics Subcommittee they created, we are uniquely well-positioned to enact a good, strong ethics commission law in New Mexico. But even if we don’t, based on my involvement with the N.M. Legislature over the last 25 years, we New Mexicans can be proud of the open, bipartisan process that produced the proposal this year.
Bluestone is the senior counsel for Attorney General Gary King.
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