Inside the Capitol

Thursday, August 03, 2006

8-9 Ethics Reform

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Ethics reform. That was the battle cry last year in the wake of scandals at the state treasurer's office.
Reform packages were on the lips of state officials as the Legislature moved into its 2006 session in January. But when the session ended, only one minor piece of ethics legislation had made it through.
Too busy, said lawmakers. It was a short, 30-day session, intended mainly for budget considerations. And certainly, making sure everyone got a share of the big pork money was the top priority.
Perhaps if ethics reform could have applied to just the treasurer's office, it would have been easier.
Lawmakers did that last decade when they created the Public Regulation Commission to replace the old Corporation Commission, which had been riddled with allegations of excessive campaign contributions and gifts from industries regulated by the commission.
Special rules now apply to candidates for the PRC. So why not do that for the treasurer's office too?
But lawmakers weren't about to get by with that again. The public was wise to it. If it can happen at the Corporation Commission and the treasurer's office, it can happen anywhere in state or local government.
So, if ethics laws are to apply to the people who make those laws, it is extremely important that they be very carefully written. It would be terrible if anyone were to be too inconvenienced.
Consequently, nothing happened in the 2006 Legislature. That means there will be no new laws applying to candidates running for state office this year. That's especially nice for Gov. Bill Richardson, who raises huge chunks of money and who likely won't be running for state office again.
Richardson did introduce a package of ethics legislation, which got nowhere. Then he appointed a task force on ethics reform to report to him by October so he can have some well-considered bills to introduce in the 2007 Legislature, assuming he still is governor then.
It is a strong task force, headed by former Gov. Garrey Carruthers. Former U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Stuart Udall, is a member, as well as my favorite, Maralyn Budke.
Budke was chief of staff for Carruthers as well as for former Gov. David Cargo. She also headed the Legislative Finance Committee for more than 20 years. Budke not only is the reigning expert on state government, she is without question a paragon of ethical values herself.
So we're likely to get some good suggestions out of these folks. The panel has narrowed its focus to exploring five main issues: limiting gifts to public officials; capping campaign contributions; using public money to finance campaigns; paying salaries to New Mexico's citizen legislators; and creating a state ethics commission.
Limiting or eliminating gifts to public officials addresses a major problem in the treasurer's office. It also affects the gifts to and entertainment of legislators by lobbyists.
Capping campaign contributions is common in most states and the federal government. But there seem to be ways around every law, allowing candidates to still accumulate huge war chests. And the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that capping campaign expenditures is a free speech violation.
Public financing of political campaigns is now being tried by some states and in presidential campaigns. But to get around the court decision, participation by candidates must be voluntary, allowing well-heeled candidates to get around it.
Paying salaries to legislators is now a practice in nearly all states. In New Mexico, the change requires a state constitutional amendment. Numerous past efforts have failed despite support by many different citizen groups. Prospects for passage any time during this millennium appears equally unlikely.
The argument for legislative salaries is that most people can't afford to give up the time or money to serve, so salaries would significantly increase the pool of possible candidates.
And then there is the possibility some lawmakers are forced to solicit gifts in order to make ends meet.
WED, 8-09-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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