Inside the Capitol

Friday, August 10, 2007

8-15 How Politically Corrupt is New Mexico?


Syndicated Columnist


      SANTA FE -- Is New Mexico the most politically corrupt state in the nation? It's a perception held by more than a few New Mexicans. Last spring it was bolstered by the departure of former GOP state chairman and gubernatorial candidate John Dendahl.

      Dendahl's parting shots before leaving for Colorado were that New Mexico had become far too politically corrupt for him to want to stick around.

   Also last spring, author and journalist Greg Palast appeared in Santa Fe to expand on New Mexico corruption charges made in his latest book "Armed Madhouse."

   So I decided to google "political corruption" to see if a picture of the New Mexico state capitol appeared next to the definition. I found no mention of New Mexico in the first 100 or so entries.

   But I did find a very interesting ranking of political corruption, contained in a book of that title by Arnold Heidenheimer and Michael Johnston. It ranked all states except Hawaii according to the number of federal misconduct convictions per 100 elected officials between 1986 and 1995.

   New Mexico ranked 19th, with a little less than two convictions per 100 elected officials. Virginia led the rankings with over 10 convictions, followed closely by Florida and Maryland.

   Next came all but one of the deep South states (Arkansas) along with some of the biggest states (California, New York, Ohio and Illinois). New Hampshire and Vermont were the cleanest.

   So maybe New Mexico isn't that bad after all. From over a half century of talking with people from other states, it seems most of them think their state is the most politically corrupt. They also think their weather is the most changeable and they all tell dumb jokes about their neighboring states.

   But even two crooked public officials out of every 100 is too many. So how do we fix it? That's a question currently being addressed by an ethics task force appointed by Gov. Bill Richardson.

   That task force began its work two years ago, but the 2006 and 2007 legislatures didn't do much with its recommendations, even in a special session earlier this year, in which the governor asked them to give it another try.

   The big stumbling block is that it seems logical for the rules to apply to all three branches of government. But lawmakers, mostly Senate leaders, say they don't need any rules because they are not the problem.

   Careful guys. That sort of thing can turn out to be very embarrassing, like when the details of the Albuquerque metro court indictments are revealed.

   This time, the ethics panel is expected to recommend another special session to address the very complex questions of whether an overall ethics commission is needed, what its powers should be, and whether a code of ethics similar to the existing judicial code is needed as a basis for judging ethics violations.

   It may not be surprising that all states are wrestling with these questions. We won't be the first, and hopefully not the last, to begin finding some solutions.

   New Mexico's first step needs to be a decision on when best to begin this deliberation. The Ethics Commission is expected to recommend a special session before April 1, 2008. This would get some laws into effect for the 2008 election cycle.

   The majority thinking at this point is to have a session immediately following adjournment of the 2008 Legislature in Mid-February. That would be most cost effective. This will be a short, 30-day session, so lawmakers may not be as worn out.

   But primary election campaigns are facing all 112 lawmakers next spring. They'll be wanting to hurry home to start getting nominating petitions signed and fundraising started for their June primary elections.

   The one issue on which everyone agrees is that the decision and date for a session needs to be acceptable to both the governor and Legislature and decided in advance, this time.

WED, 8-15-07


JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505

(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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