Lawmakers move quickly on ethics, campaign finance bills
By MORGAN LEE
Jan. 30, 2017
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Efforts to reform New Mexico's political ethics and campaign finance regulations are off to a fast start in the state Legislature amid recent high-profile corruption scandals and public pressure for changes.
In the first two weeks of the legislative session, committees have advanced bills for greater campaign finance disclosures for independent political groups, the creation of an independent political ethics commission and a two-year cooling off period before many public officials can become lobbyists.
The open government advocacy group Common Cause New Mexico released polling results Monday that show broad support for the initiatives — especially for broadening disclosure requirements for political contributions that flow through committees.
Recent committee endorsements include a bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe that would require new reporting on the sources of contributions to political committees that do not coordinate directly with candidates. The bill responds to a flood of political spending under a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision. Similar efforts by Wirth on three previous occasions have failed to win approval.
Common Cause Campaign Manager Heather Ferguson said campaign finance excesses and mysteries of the 2016 presidential election season have highlighted the need for greater campaign finance disclosures, and that the Legislature immediately set a new tone for debate this year by webcasting and archiving legislative debates for easier public access.
"The level of awareness of the public has increased after seeing such a brutal election cycle," she said.
Proposals to create an independent ethics committee or board also are advancing, after a similar initiative fizzled last year amid concerns by lawmakers that it would create a forum for false accusations. New Mexico is one of eight states without an independent ethics body.
Proponents of an ethics commission say an atmosphere of distrust hangs over current oversight of campaign and ethics regulations by partisan elected officials at the Attorney General's Office and the Secretary of State's Office, while lawmakers vet initial ethics complaints against colleagues.
New Mexico state government has been shaken by recent corruption scandals, including the pending trial of former Sen. Phil Griego on fraud and bribery charges linked to his private commission on the sale of a state-owned building and the prosecution of former Secretary of State Dianna Duran, who resigned and pleaded guilty in 2015 to spending campaign funds on a gambling spree. Griego maintains his innocence.
More recently, Demesia Padilla resigned as state taxation and revenue secretary in December after prosecutors raided her agency's offices and seized her personal tax filings amid allegations she gave preferential treatment to a former business client. She has not been charged.
Common Cause plans to track all committee and floor votes by legislators on a slate of ethics and electoral reform bills that the group supports, starting with initiatives that expose and reduce the influence of money on politics, and issue ratings for individual lawmakers.
Meanwhile, a new nonprofit called New Mexico Ethics Watch has highlighted weaknesses in oversight of the state's Financial Disclosure Act that required political candidates and many government officials to report income and investment holdings in an effort to minimize conflicts of interest in government.