The first day of every legislative session legislators raise their right hand and take the oath of ethical conduct, swearing that they shall not use their office “for personal gain and shall scrupulously avoid any act of impropriety or any act which gives the appearance of impropriety.” But the honor system isn’t working and it’s only the legislators that deny that reality. New Mexico constantly flunks on national scorecards on ethics and disclosure, and this year a Common Cause poll found that only 19% of voters feel that elected officials are more responsive to voters than lobbyists.
Examples of abuse abound. This year the Santa Fe Reporter documented how Sen. Phil Griego, serving as both a realtor for a client buying a state property and a state senator, pushed through the sale (and voted on it) under suspicious circumstances. But has anybody done anything about it? No. New Mexico is one of nine states that does not have an independent ethics commission, although it does have a legislative ethics committee. The committee never meets, however, and the pubic is barred from finding out if any complaint has been filed unless legislators themselves find probable cause. The latest we heard from the committee was about six years ago, when someone complained about the misuse of the state seal. Yet for the past several years, public polls indicate overwhelming support (always over 85%) for the establishment of a commission.
Meanwhile, the Secretary of State recently admitted that she didn’t punish candidates who violate campaign finance laws, and lobbyists…. well, lobbyists, have gotten their way again, with the party-line defeat last week of Rep. Jeff Steinborn’s HB 155 which required additional disclosure of how much special interests are paying overall to push specific issues in Santa Fe. Coincidently, the SOS website, which allows at least a glimpse into how much lobbyists are paying for gifts, special events and contributions, has malfunctioned this session, making access to the existing records difficult, if not impossible.
For a good look at this subject check Sandra Fish’s story on KUNM http://kunm.org/post/lobbyists-lax-spending-disclosures and for a real case study see what lobbyists have spent to defeat a interest rate cap on payday loans http://nmindepth.com/2015/02/06/storefront-lending-lobbyists-spend-big-on-nm-officials/
At least we’re not New York where the Speaker of the House recently was arrested on corruption charges. But without transparency or accountability—how do we know that there aren’t lots of Sheldon Silvers out there making policy, levying taxes, and influencing education and economic development?
I can personally attest that most legislators are honest and hard working. But they are caught up in a system that demands constant fundraising and interaction with special interests and their representatives. And they are in denial if they think that contributions, personal relationships don’t influence their vote. It did mine. They don’t realize that what is just a campaign contribution to them looks a lot like legalized bribery to the public.
The restoration of public trust starts with a few good people in office coming forward and saying here’s how we can begin to fix the system—even in the face of Citizens United. And that’s happening this session.
There are several bills to establish an ethics commission (HB 115) and shine some light on who is funding all those independent PACS that are now heavily influencing the outcome of our elections (HB 278 and SB 384). There are others to fix our public financing system (SB 58). And HB 155, to require more lobbyist disclosure, is showing signs of life. Sen. Peter Wirth is, again, a hero. I hope you will weigh in with legislators on committees to which these bills have been assigned. Keep track of the bills at www.nmlegis.gov