It might be time for that ethics commission

Note to readers:  Since this was written, the legislature ended without passing the ethics commission legislation.

I used to joke that my late husband was the last honest man in the New Mexico legislature.

He was not the last, though. Most legislators do not take illicit money or otherwise profit from their public service. I have known a few legislators who, after their service was over, out of the glare of publicity, quietly went bankrupt. Their years of honest volunteer service had cost them dearly.

New Mexico’s past reputation was that there was lots of corruption but most of it was small-time.

We were only slightly outraged when politicians did favors for their friends. If you won a local election as a county commissioner or a school board member, your reward was jobs for needy relatives. When the other guy won, his relatives might replace yours. In low-income counties with few good-paying jobs, this was a way to spread the wealth.

When an influential legislator/lawyer represented clients before boards and commissions – perhaps using bullying power to influence a licensing decision — it didn’t even make the news. When legislators vote on issues that affect their own professions, we barely notice. After all, we rationalize, our unpaid legislators have to make a living doing something other than legislating.

But we have been troubled by the influence of special interests on legislation. As I say repeatedly, New Mexico is the state that couldn’t pass fireworks legislation in a drought – because of pressure from the fireworks industry (how big an industry can that be?). We haven’t capped the interest rate on payday lending, which could still be highly profitable with a reasonable cap. There’s a loophole in our title insurance law (the insurance that is supposed to protect your house) that exempts the insurer from liability for errors in researching your title.

In recent years, we learned about two state treasurer scandals and the officials who profited from a courthouse project. New Mexico corruption hit the big time.

In the Bill Richardson administration, New Mexico saw a new level of sophistication in what became known as pay-to-play, with complex schemes like turning the investment of our precious permanent funds over to cronies. Our current administration has also demonstrated a grander sort of audacity, such as the vicious attack that decimated our fragile behavioral health system for no apparent reason. The public may never find out who profited from that debacle.

The Dianna Duran scandal is different. It was not a plot to undermine democracy or steal from the public treasury. It was a raid on her own campaign accounts to feed a gambling addiction. It’s not in the same category. But it’s still not acceptable.

So maybe New Mexico is finally ready for an ethics commission. Among other things, the commission would be able to issue advisory opinions about ethics issues. As former state senator Phil Griego contemplates running again for his old seat, after resigning to sidestep a scandal, maybe an independent commission could advise him that would not be prudent – even if it has no power to stop him.

The commission, according to Common Cause New Mexico, would also be authorized to clarify campaign reporting laws; initiate, investigate and adjudicate potential violations of campaign finance laws or reporting requirements for candidates; compel people to testify and turn over evidence; and protect both whistleblowers and those potentially accused falsely.

There will be a serious push to create such a commission in the 2016 legislature. As the world becomes more complex, so do the issues placed before our public officials – and the potential benefits of impartial guidance on what’s okay and what’s not.

This is worth a try. I just wish my husband, former senator Ken Kamerman, were still around to be a member of it.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2016


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