Inside the Capitol

Thursday, February 05, 2009

2-9 Why Can't They Be More Ethical?

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Big news. A major barrier in the path to ethics legislation appears to be softening. Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez of Belen says he thinks recent events will contribute to a greater likelihood of passage.
The Senate has been the graveyard for most ethics legislation in the past. Sanchez himself is not the roadblock. He says he's speaking for a majority of his members.
The Senate's attitude in the past has been that it isn't needed because politicians and state officials police themselves and safeguards already are adequate. The only problem they have seen is that the enforcement of existing provisions hasn't been sufficient.
That contention has been brought into question recently but another assertion may have some merit. It is said that ethics legislation is like a balloon. When you squeeze it in one area, it just pops out somewhere else.
When you limit the amount of money a candidate can receive, special interests give it to political parties which use it for the candidate. When you limit what a candidate can receive, the money goes to independent expenditure committees which spend it on the candidate.
When you tell lawmakers they have to open the conference committees that resolve differences between House and Senate versions of bill, they make decisions ahead of time somewhere else.
But the good government people never give up their effort to make enough rules to control all situations. Numerous lawmakers have tossed bills into the hopper. The governor and attorney general both have gotten ethics packages introduced.
This year, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish has recently introduced her own package providing more transparency into dealings between public officials and companies doing business with the state.
It doesn't take a pundit to figure out Denish is trying to put some distance between herself and Gov. Bill Richardson who is being investigated for pay-to-play dealings.
It also is revealing that the lieutenant governor had her three-bill package introduced in the House instead of in the Senate over which she presides.
So what is ethics legislation all about? As you see from the previous discussion, it involves many topics. The Legislature doesn't even recognize ethics as one of the 60 or so categories into which it divides bills. That's likely because it is such a broad category.
Ethics legislation generally involves bills regulating and reporting who gives how much to whom and when and who among the big givers has received contracts from the state.
Ethics also includes bills opening the actions of public bodies and of their records. And it involves the enforcement of all the above provisions.
Sen. Sanchez recently told reporters that he thinks the Senate roadblock will be broken when the Senate Rules Committee combines several ethics provisions into one major bill. He thinks that bill will get the necessary votes from the entire Senate.
The House generally has been receptive to passing ethics legislation. Is that because their shorter terms make them more receptive to constituent wishes but that they know they can depend on the Senate to kill their measures. We may learn the answer this session.
Why don't public officials behave in an ethical manner without all the regulation? Is human nature just not as good as we would like it as most of us would like it to be? Is greed too strong a motivator?
The same questions currently are being asked about Wall Street. The last several U.S. presidents have hoped financial markets could operate without many regulations because prudent risk assessment would prevent them getting out of hand.
Some people are trying to find an answer. The New Mexico Ethics Alliance aims to be a catalyst toward achieving higher ethical standards.
It is located at the University of New Mexico Anderson School of Management and headed by former Public Service Company of New Mexico head John Ackerman. If you are interested, check out its Web site at
MON, 2-09-09

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



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