AP NEWS

Lawmakers remain divided on ethics commission bill

March 15, 2019

SANTA FE ? New Mexico lawmakers enter the final hours of this year’s 60-day legislative session with lingering disagreements over how to set up a voter-approved ethics commission.

An ethics commission bill approved by the Senate earlier this week was revised Thursday by a House committee, which then sent the measure on to the full House.

“We are creating what I consider to be a fourth branch of government, so I think it’s critical that we get it right,” said Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell.

The changes by the House Judiciary Committee to the legislation, Senate Bill 668, include limiting the ethics commission’s scope and keeping enforcement of the state’s open meetings laws with the Attorney General’s office.

In addition, valid ethics complaints would have be made public if a settlement is not reached within 20 days of a probable cause finding that a violation of state law had likely occurred ? down from 45 days under the Senate plan. Settlement agreements would also be publicly disclosed.

The House already approved a separate ethics commission bill during this year’s session, but that bill stalled in a Senate committee ? along with a dueling Senate bill.

Top-ranking senators then used a procedural maneuver to bring forward a third bill, which quickly moved to the Senate floor and was approved without opposition shortly after midnight on Wednesday.

But several House members expressed concern with provisions in the Senate measure.

“If it comes down to the (original) Senate bill or nothing, I’d rather have nothing,” Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, the sponsor of the original House bill, told reporters after Thursday’s hearing.

If approved by the House, the revised bill would go back to the Senate. If the Senate resisted signing off on the changes, a conference committee featuring representatives from both chambers would be appointed to try to come up with a compromise before the session ends at noon on Saturday.

New Mexico lawmakers have for years debated creating an independent ethics commission to investigate claims of wrongdoing against legislators, lobbyists, elected officials and state employees.

But this year’s debate has added urgency as statewide voters approved ? by a roughly 3-to-1 ratio ? a proposed constitutional amendment in November to create the commission.

New Mexico is currently one of just eight states without an independent ethics commission.