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Ethics reform bills frozen in glacial legislative process
Despite record heat in New Mexico during February, that’s the word watchers are using to describe the pace of ethics reform during this legislative session. And on Monday the Senate Rules Committee continued that pace. It skipped over the major reforms at the top of its agenda and instead heard two smaller ethics-related bills, but it did not vote on either.
“This meeting is just one more disappointment for the advocates of ethics reform,” said Steven Robert Allen, executive director of Common Cause, a government watchdog group.
“There’s a lot of frustration among legislators who have been supporting these reforms for years, as well as advocates who have been working on this for years. We have Common Cause members who have been working these same bills session after session, and we’ve had all of these debates before,” Allen said.
In particular, advocates voiced frustration with how long it’s taking for the committee to combine one group of similar bills on campaign contributions and another group that would establish a state ethics commission. When several bills in front of a committee are combined, the resulting bill is called a committee substitute.
After the meeting, the committee chair, Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Bernalillo, said that the bills were moving slowly because the committee was “trying to reach consensus.” She again said she expected at least one substitute to be ready for the next meeting, on Wednesday.
“I’m not sure what’s holding it up, but there’s a lot of cynicism surrounding this whole process. Not a whole lot of these ethics reform bills are being addressed,” Allen said.
But committee member Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, demurred.
“It’s not like we’re just sitting around, growing grass,” he said, referring to several recent comments that likened the bills’ slow journey to watching grass grow.
With three weeks remaining in the legislative session, advocates’ patience is wearing thin. “For some of the extremely simple bills — such as campaign contribution limits — we should have had substitute a week ago. … I could write one up today,” Allen said.
But campaign limits are complicated, Wirth said.
“It seems like, ‘Set a number and stick with the number,’ … but you’ve got statewide candidates and non-statewide candidates, some on a four-year cycle and some on a two-year cycle. … The positive thing is that by doing this so deliberatively — and I know that may be frustrating — when a substitute comes out of here, I think it’s going to be much better. … We can now say, in the judiciary committee or on the floor, ‘Look, we had these different bills, we’ve done this debate, these are the numbers we came up with.’”
Neither of the two ethics bills heard by the committee Monday was brought to a vote.
Lopez spoke in favor of her bill (SB 555 Public Employee and Officer Conduct), but after several senators expressed worry that it was too broad, she agreed to work on it before bringing it back to the committee.
Freshman Sen. Sander Rue, R-Bernalillo and Sandoval, appeared in front of the committee in support of the Budget Review Act (SB 157), a bill that would impose a waiting period before passage of appropriation or revenue bills, including amendments and substitutions to those bills.
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, said he was in favor of the bill, but sharply criticized the fact that its effort at reform focused exclusively on the state Legislature. “We’re on the brink of some of the greatest corruption to come out of New Mexico, and yet the only solution anybody has is to attack the legislative branch,” Jennings growled.
Jennings argued forcefully that any effort to hold the Legislature to a higher standard should be applied across the board.
“Make it apply to all three branches of government. Let’s open it all up! Don’t open up one specific branch and not have it apply to the other ones,” Jennings urged.
He also argued against an incremental approach, saying, ” You know, people say this is a first step, but we always do these first steps and nobody ever gets around to the second and third steps.”
After the meeting, Rue said he had taken Jennings’ criticism to heart:
“I’ve always thought about taking more than one bite of the apple at a time, and I would be afraid now that I could put something in place and if that’s as far as it went … I could make the problem worse that I was trying to solve. To be effective at all it’s going to have to take on a broader scope.”
Rue indicated he would probably abandon SB 157 in favor of a broader Senate memorial. While such a memorial could initiate expansion coverage to other branches of government, memorials in general often have relatively little impact. The practical effect would be to delay the legislation by at least a year.
Of all the ethics reforms being proposed this year, Wirth said he thinks campaign contribution limits are most likely to succeed.
“Limits make perfect sense. It’s crazy that we don’t have limits,” he said. “It’s time to roll and I think we’re going to see a [campaign contribution limits] bill come out of this committee.”