For at least 13 years, New Mexico has seen a seemingly endless parade of corrupt political figures falling into disgrace, with two state treasurers, two state senators, a secretary of state and a …
For at least 13 years, New Mexico has seen a seemingly endless parade of corrupt political figures falling into disgrace, with two state treasurers, two state senators, a secretary of state and a deputy superintendent of insurance going to prison on criminal charges.
And that's not all: A recent secretary of the state Tax and Revenue Department is about to face a preliminary hearing on embezzlement and other charges.
After debating for more than a decade whether the state should establish an independent ethics commission, one that has the potential to identify wrongdoing, the Legislature finally passed a proposed constitutional amendment that goes before voters in this general election.
"An ethics commission will rebuild trust in government," said Heather Ferguson, executive director of New Mexico Common Cause. Not only would a commission investigate corruption, she added, it would "serve as an educational tool for officials who aren't sure whether what they want to do violates any laws."
She said an ethics commission should be able to provide opinions on such matters much faster than the state Attorney General's Office, which also issues opinions on questions asked by lawmakers and others.
If approved by voters, the Legislature would determine how the commission would operate. The commission would be authorized to look at alleged misconduct by state officers as well as employees of the executive and legislative branches, plus candidates, lobbyists, government contractors and those seeking government contracts.
The amendment would give the new commission broad powers, including the ability to subpoena witnesses.
In a recent opinion piece published in The New Mexican, former Republican Gov. Garrey Carruthers and retired U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat, strongly endorsed the amendment, writing, "We wince every time we see the state tarnished by poor national rankings for good government and ethics, and worry that the perception of corruption is costing us business and opportunities, discouraging civic participation and decreasing voter turnout."
In a recent op-ed piece published in The New Mexican, Paul Gessing, president of the libertarian think tank Rio Grande Foundation, argued against the amendment, saying smaller government, rather than a commission, would allow "journalists, activists, taxpayers and citizens to track and analyze a limited number of bureaucracies, programs and subsidies -- as opposed to monitoring an almost-unlimited array of government expenditures."
Ferguson argues the ethics commission would be a one-stop shop for residents to report suspected official wrongdoing. She also said an independent commission would be more transparent in it investigations than the current agencies dealing with ethics violations.
Some worry the Legislature's ability to dictate how the commission would work could give some lawmakers a chance to water down the proposed agency, making it less effective.
Ferguson said a subcommittee of the Legislature's interim Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, anticipating the amendment's passage, currently is crafting enabling legislation for the commission
The ethics commission amendment is one of two on the ballot this year. The other amendment would give the Legislature power to decide which courts would hear appeals of cases decided in a probate, metropolitan, magistrate or other lesser courts. Currently all appeals from the lower courts be decided in new trials in state district court.
Supporters say this measure could allow for a faster and less costly appeals process; could reduce caseloads in district courts; could align appellate review of court decisions to the seriousness of the offense; and will allow the Legislature the flexibility to address evolving needs of the lower courts.
Opponents counter that district courts might be best suited to establish a record for judicial review because, unlike magistrate courts in 31 counties, district judges are required to be lawyers. Also, critics say, the amendment could increase the number of cases in appellate courts.
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