Ethics advocates hoping to be heard at Legislative session

By Kate Nash: The Santa Fe New Mexican

With most of lawmakers’ attention focused on the state budget this session, ethics reform and good government advocates are hoping legislators have time to dedicate to reform.

Already, several lawmakers have prefiled ethics bills online while other public officials have outlined what measures they are willing to support.

So far, they include an ethics commission, a ban on former lawmakers becoming lobbyists within a year of public service and disclosures by and limits on state contractors who contribute to public officials.

None of the ideas are new. And neither are the problems.

A year ago at this time, The Wall Street Journal called New Mexico the “political wild west,” pointing out our status as one of the few states that doesn’t limit campaign contributions and lacks an independent ethics board, and the only state that doesn’t pay its legislators. A New York Times piece touched on similar themes.

The Legislature last year changed part of that: a law that takes effect in January of next year limits donations to a political candidate from an individual at $2,300 in an election cycle. Other limits will include $5,000 from a political committee and $10,000 from a political party in an election cycle.

Since then, more state government scandals have been in the news, something advocates say means there’s more reform work to be done.

“It’s great we have those limits in place, but it’s important to realize that can’t be the last accomplishment we have in New Mexico related to reform,’’ said Steve Allen, head of the good-government group Common Cause New Mexico.

This session, Allen’s group is hoping lawmakers set up an independent ethics commission made up of appointees from both the executive branch and the Legislature, with subpoena power — and a budget.

It also supports banning contributions form lobbyists and state contractors.

The think tank Think New Mexico is pushing a measure that would prohibit contractors, lobbyists and those seeking government subsidies from making campaign contributions to state or local officials who have the power to influence the contract or subsidy.

In addition, Common Cause also hopes to eventually expand public campaign finances to big races like governor, and not just the Public Regulation Commission and appellate judicial races, Allen said.

However, Allen admits 2010 could be a hard year for any big changes.

“It’s a tough environment to ask for any bill that involves an appropriation. It’s very important for the state to get its financial books in order, I understand that,’’ Allen said.

“But it’s also important to understand that type of corruption we’ve seen has a negative fiscal impact on our state in terms of businesses wanting to locate here, a fair economic environment and overall economic development.’’

Despite the state’s past scandals — and despite the fact that many lawmakers running for re-election this year want to pass something — ethics reform appears to be an uphill battle.

“The pressure is there,’’ Allen said. “There is a realization among lots of legislators and other public officials that this needs to get done. It’s just a matter of making it sort of a number-one priority, and that hasn’t happened yet.’’

The Legislature made no major changes in ethics laws after two state treasurers were sentenced to time behind bars. And it made no big changes after a former state Senate president pleaded guilty to three felony counts of conspiracy and mail fraud in connection with a scheme prosecutors said was to defraud the state in an Albuquerque courthouse construction project.

Already this year, however, officials including Gov. Bill Richardson, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish and Attorney General Gary King have all put out ethics reform platforms — a sign at least that more attention is being paid to state laws governing public conduct.

Along with measures related to public-official conduct, expect some good government bills to hit lawmakers’ desks this session.

Already, several have been prefiled with the Legislature.

They include:

— SB 42, which would put the state’s budget online

— HB 33, which would put school district budgets online

— SBs 28, which would give the public more information about which state contractors have contributed to public officials

The ethics bills include:

— SB 43, which would create an ethics commission

— SB 48, which would prohibit contractors from making contributions to candidates and certain political action committees

— SB 51, which would extend public financing to statewide races