Ethics agency calls for stricter disclosure laws
Copyright Â© 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The State Ethics Commission is proposing changes to state law that would require New Mexico citizen lawmakers to publish more information about their sources of personal income and business relationships.
Separately, the agency also recommends increased transparency requirements for lobbyists, such as disclosure of the bills they are working on and the provisions they are defending or against.
Lawmakers – a handful of whom are married to lobbyists – are also expected to disclose before voting if a family member lobbies on a bill.
Together, the recommendations are designed to shed light on potential conflicts within the Roundhouse, where individual lawmakers are understaffed and lobbyists play a crucial role in shaping legislation.
“Over the years, several cases of ethics violations have tarnished New Mexico’s reputation and most of them could have been avoided with stronger disclosure laws,” Heather Ferguson, director, said Wednesday. executive of the non-partisan organization Common Cause New Mexico.
New Mexico lawmakers are the only state lawmakers in the country without a salary, despite receiving daily payments during legislative sessions, reimbursements, and the opportunity to participate in a retirement system. This year’s daily rate, based on the Federal Per Diem, is $ 173 to $ 202, depending on the time of year.
The low pay means most lawmakers are retired or have jobs that allow them to take breaks for 30- or 60-day annual sessions in Santa Fe, in addition to the less formal meetings held throughout the year. year.
In an annual report released last month, the state’s Ethics Commission, an independent oversight body, called the state’s law on the disclosure of income received by public officials “vague and undemanding.” .
The commission proposes to repeal the law and replace it with the disclosure law proposed by the commission.
As it stands, state lawmakers face broad disclosure requirements for sources of revenue above $ 5,000. Many report, for example, that they earn income from a law firm, agriculture and ranching, or similar general categories.
Sonny Haquani, spokesperson for the ethics committee, said the agency had worked with the offices of the secretary of state, attorney general and state auditor on the disclosure bill to demand more specific reports.
The changes “would allow the public to identify conflicts of interest and deter breaches of public trust,” he said in a statement to the Journal.
Auditor Brian ColÃ³n, a Democrat, announced his support for the proposal last month.
“The improved disclosures will help deter public corruption and enhance public confidence in the government,” he said in a written statement.
The disclosure push comes after House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, an Albuquerque Democrat who worked for the school district, resigned earlier this year amid a criminal investigation.
She was later charged with racketeering, money laundering, illegal interest in a public market, and using her legislative position to attempt to gain promotion in Albuquerque public schools. The allegations against her include the transfer of money intended for vocational education at APS to companies and charities in which she had an interest.
Stapleton and his lawyer have denied the charges and say they will fight to clear his name.
The ethics committee report makes no mention of Stapleton. Other elected officials have also been the subject of accusations over the years.
In 2018, for example, former state senator Phil Griego, who had worked as a real estate agent, went to jail after being convicted of charges relating to the sale of a historic state building, which required legislative approval.
The new disclosure law proposed by the State Ethics Commission would set out detailed requirements for the disclosure of personal property; debts; sources of family income over $ 600, including earnings of spouses and dependent children; and land ownership.
Disclosure requirements would also cover membership in corporations and nonprofit groups, gifts of $ 50 or more from lobbyists, and work performed by the public servant or his or her spouse involving public bodies.
Elected state officials, heads of state agencies, candidates and others are expected to file annual declarations.
Ferguson said his organization strongly supports the changes. Lawmakers are now prohibited from accepting gifts worth more than $ 250 from certain donors, she said, but the rules are sometimes broken by deliberately undervaluing certain gifts.
âThe $ 250 giveaway threshold has been blatantly flouted over the years, especially with passes offered to lawmakers for activities such as multi-area skiing or statewide golf courses that are said to have an impact. slightly lowerâ¦ than the individual threshold, âshe said. noted. âThese gifts of questionable value cause public concern every year. A lower threshold with increased penalties will help curb this activity.
The Ethics Commission also supports changes that would add transparency to the work of professional lobbyists.
They are expected to table two reports during legislative sessions describing the bills they are working on, their position on the bills and the specific provisions they have supported or opposed in the legislation.
Senator Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, introduced similar legislation earlier this year, but it didn’t even get a committee hearing.
He said last week that he welcomed the support of the ethics committee.
âI think we have a huge blind spot in the legislature, knowing the mechanisms at work behind legislation,â Steinborn said in an interview. âIt gets really outrageous that session after session we see these bills and you know someone is behind them, but the system has this intentional blind spot that allows these defenders to be played out. “
In addition to lobbying disclosures, the state’s Ethics Commission also supports the requirement of lawmakers, before a vote, to disclose whether a family member has lobbied the bill.
The agency is also proposing a two-year ban for former lawmakers and other state officials from becoming paid lobbyists after leaving public service. Similar ârevolving doorâ bans have not gained full legislative approval in recent years.
In 2020, a report by New Mexico Ethics Watch, a nonprofit group, found that 34 former lawmakers worked as lobbyists and six other lobbyists were spouses or relatives of lawmakers.
A matter of time
The committee’s proposals are not guaranteed to be heard in the 2022 legislative session.
Lawmakers are expected to meet for a 30-day session starting Jan. 18 devoted largely to budget legislation.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, has the authority to add other items to the agenda. For the next session, for example, she said she would call on lawmakers to make it easier to detain those accused of a violent crime, create a $ 100 million fund to add police officers and pass a law intended to make of New Mexico a hydrogen hub.
In odd-numbered years, the legislative agenda is not restricted.
The state’s Ethics Commission, which was created by a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2018, publishes a report every year recommending amendments to New Mexico’s ethics laws.