Inside the Capitol

Monday, August 20, 2007

8-24 Do Elected Officials Need More Ethics?


Syndicated Columnist

      SANTA FE -- Are New Mexico elected officials in need of higher ethical standards?

   We talked recently about a study showing New Mexico ranks near the midpoint of states in the number of elected officials convicted on federal charges. We scored a little below the average of 2.12 convictions per 100 elected officials over a 10-year period.

   But what about having ethical standards that might reduce criminal convictions by heading off such behavior? Congress and every state legislature is looking at that question seriously after a big dose of convictions at the federal level and problems in many states.

   New Mexico has exceeded its 10-year quota with a conviction and a plea bargain for our past two elected state treasurers. So it appears to be time to impose stricter ethics standards here.

   For three years, the New Mexico Legislature has been considering ethics proposals but doing precious little about them. Sen. Joe Carraro, an Albuquerque Republican has presented the Legislature with his 3rd Hoodwink Award for its attempt at fooling the public into thinking they actually are trying to reform their own ethical conduct.

   Carraro asserts that the very few ethics bills that do pass the Legislature are carefully crafted to continue the system that now exists while appearing to deal with the concerns of the public. He says the ethics legislation he introduces is never even scheduled for committee hearings by Senate leaders.

   Nevertheless, Gov. Bill Richardson's ethics task force is attempting for a third year to convince lawmakers to swallow another small bite of ethics legislation.

   The speed at which this group is able to force feed ethics reform causes suspicion that lawmakers may feel if they accept a tiny morsel at a time, they will slow the process to a pace such that they will be ready to retire before there is any significant change.

   This isn't to say that all members of the Legislature are part of the game to stall legislation. House Democratic leader Ken Martinez, of Grants, is a member of the governor's ethics task force and has taken the lead in the House to push task force legislation. He has worked with House Republicans to secure overwhelming support for task force proposals.

   Ethics legislation reaches a screeching halt in the Senate at the hands of Senate Democratic leader Michael Sanchez. At least Sanchez is the point person for the obstructionism. He couldn't continue to be reelected to his position if other senators wanted reform as much as Sen. Carraro.

   Possibly Sanchez is doing what most other senators want him to do. Possibly there's even an agreement with the House to bury the legislation it sends over. At least the Legislature gives the appearance of being half committed to ethics reform.

   We may get a hint of how things work beginning next month. The Legislature has created an interim subcommittee to consider ethics proposals from the governor's task force, which winds up this month. The legislative panel will hold meetings the next four months.

   And talk about power. This subcommittee is composed of the two top party floor leaders in both houses. If this group comes up with anything at its final meeting on Dec. 13, there aren't many reasons it shouldn't pass.

   Of course, legislation can always run out of time at the last minute. Or need further study during the next interim. Or get derailed by disagreement between the houses. Or be sidelined because of a spat with the governor. Get the picture?

   At least there seems to be more attention focused on ethics reform this year than ever before. Maybe time has finally brought the pot to a boil. Maybe indictments in the Albuquerque courthouse scandal will involve more elected officials. Something seems to be afoot.

   So, with a decent chance that a majority of lawmakers will be serious about ethics reform this year, this column intends to cover some of the hot topics that should be of interest to everyone.

MON, 8-24-07


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

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



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