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Common Cause Says Ethics Commission May be Shortchanged by Legislature

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Commentary: The New Mexico legislature last year passed enabling legislation to establish an independent Ethics Commission, as required by a constitutional amendment passed by 75% of NM voters in 2018, but Common Cause New Mexico says there is a big problem.

   “The legislature doesn’t want to come up with the funds to ensure that it can fully do its job,” says Heather Ferguson, Common Cause’s executive director.  Ferguson says the Legislative Finance Committee’s recommendation will not allow the commission to cover its start-up costs this year and hire hearing officers for the complaints it expects during the upcoming election season. The Governor has recommended full funding, but so far, the House budget committee is not on board. 

   The Legislative Finance Committee recommended $250,000 less than the Governor’s request for FY 2021( $1,244,100) and it recommended no funding at all for the rest of FY 2020. 

   The Ethics Commission is an independent state agency incorporating seven commissioners appointed on a bipartisan  basis by the legislature and the governor.  It has jurisdiction over the Campaign Reporting Act, the Financial Disclosure Act, the Gift Act, the Lobbyist Regulation Act, the Voter Action Act, the Governmental Conduct Act, the Procurement Code, the State Ethics Commission, and Article IX, Section 14 of the New Mexico Constitution, commonly known as the “Anti-Donation Clause.”

   “The commission has a lot of work to do,” says Ferguson, “and jurisdiction over about 55,000 people in state and local government. We should not shortchange it just as it is standing up.” 

   She said that in seven short months the new ethics commission has done a remarkable job, using agency savings for its funding source.  Its commissioners are appointed, the executive director and chief lawyer hired, some hearing officers now under contract and on Jan. 1 it began its main job—hearing complaints from the general public. 

   Depending on the nature of the complaint, each one could require $10,000 to provide due process, with hearing officers, investigations, electronic filing,  administration, court reporters, travel and other costs. That was the testimony of Jeremy Farris, director of the commission before the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. Currently there are three employees—a director, a lawyer and a communications director, with three more called for in the budget. 

   “We are impressed that the commission has opted for cheaper, and more accessible office space at UNM,” said Ferguson.  “As an independent agency, it’s  a good idea that it’s at arm’s length from Santa Fe. “

   Ferguson said that Common Cause has been working with New Mexicans for Ethics Reform, which includes the League of Women Voters, NM First, NM Ethics Watch, the NM Foundation for Open Government, and the NM Press Association to ensure proper administration and full funding for the long-sought law. All of the organizations are supporting full funding.

 “So many legislators have pointed with pride to the establishment of this commission, to the unanimous support and bi-partisan collaboration it engendered, “said Ferguson, “So it is really puzzling why it would not even want to cover the start-up costs of approximately $300,000 for furniture, IT systems, hearing officers, and an electronic filing system."

New Mexico’s budget surplus this year is $800 million, with much of it going to one-time, non-recurring expenditures—like start-up costs.

For the longer run Ferguson says, “We feel  the commission’s own request of $1.14 million in recurring dollars is not too much to ask.  It is an investment in good government which will pay off in many ways—increased public trust and even economic development.” ###

Common Cause is a nonpartisan grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy. It works to create an open, honest, and accountable government that serves the public interest; to promote equal rights, opportunity, and representation for all; and to empower all people to make their voices heard as equals in the political process.