Task force yet to tackle main ethics issue

By Ned Cantwell: State columnist

They have to feel like David staring ashen-faced up at Goliath. It’s like someone handed them a teacup after Katrina and said, “go clean her up.” They are trying to row a kayak through gunk.

Working diligently toward its October deadline to submit recommendations to Gov. Bill Richardson is the New Mexico ethics task force. This group of people is trying to figure out what array of proposals will set New Mexico sailing a straight course.

Co-chairman of the task force is Garrey Carruthers, dean of business at New Mexico State University, our former governor, and, in this humble columnist’s view, one of the brighter lights illuminating the New Mexico political landscape. Carruthers is pushing a proposal to pay state lawmakers a maximum of $24,000 in salary and/or expenses.

Paying lawmakers may or may not be a good idea. On the one hand, it supposedly opens legislative service to those who could not otherwise afford to run, thereby wresting political control from the elite. One might argue the elite are smarter than the rest of us, and therefore should serve as our leaders, but such thinking is full of social and philosophical landmines, so I will therefore avoid it.

The point begging attention is that paying a guy a small amount of money is not going to prevent his acting like a lowlife if that were his nature in the first place. Cut to the chase. Concentrate on the lobbyist-legislator relationship. Ban travel and other gifts. Instead of paying the state senator a salary, tell him to pay his own tab when he goes to dinner with the oil company CEO and reimburse him for it.

The legislative pay change would be tied to a law also stipulating lawmakers would not be allowed to use campaign contributions for anything but campaigning. You are running for a House seat, and a neighbor gives you $500. The deal is, you would have to use that money to, say, buy political advertising rather than make your kid’s car payment. Can you legislate common sense?

Total agreement in this corner on a task force recommendation that the state treasurer and state auditor be appointed by the governor instead of elected. I know, I know. Democracy suggests the people, not the governor, should decide which corrupt official to elevate to high office. Truth is, New Mexico voters have a horrible track record in this department. Maybe if the Legislature will take seriously its due diligence when vetting the governor’s appointments, our fortunes will improve.

So far the state ethics panel is steering clear of New Mexico’s most critical and pressing question. It is dodging the issue, I suspect, because none of its members have the proper expertise. Who they need, and they need him badly, is Billy Graham.

Here’s why. Jeff Armijo, Democrat candidate for state auditor, found himself wallowing in a flap that forced Big Bill to tell Jeff to get out of the race. This prompted Republican Party Chairman Allen Weh to issue this best of quotes for 2006: “The Democrats in Santa Fe have more corruption going on than the good Lord allows.”

The question with which our ethics panel must wrestle is this: Just how much corruption will the good Lord allow? Once we get a handle on God’s absolute limit for bribery and kickbacks, New Mexico can establish some sound ethical policy.

Ned Cantwell is not totally opposed to accepting a free lunch. And it could work out well for you. Contact him at: ncantwell@charter.net