A news release I got last week from a new group called New Mexico Ethics Watch reminded me of an old Elvis Costello song from 40 years ago. It’s the one that starts, “Oh, I used to be disgusted / And now I try to be amused …”
The group was concerned about a piece of legislation, House Bill 291, which would add more people to the list of those who are required to file campaign disclosure reports. If it passes, those appointed to fill vacancies for elected offices would have to file disclosures within 30 days of appointment. Currently elected state officials, including legislators, state officers, Cabinet officers, board members, etc. are required to annually submit these disclosures. The bill also would require the Secretary of State’s Office to keep the forms for as long as the appointee is in office. Currently, the statements are kept for only five years.
Douglas Carver, Ethics Watch’s executive director, called the bill a “small step in the right direction” but said it doesn’t go far enough.
A little background: Right before the session started, Ethics Watch published a report on its investigation of how the Financial Disclosure Act, which has been around for years, was being followed.
The results were disappointing, to put it mildly.
“This law is in place so that the public can see whether elected or appointed officials are operating to benefit themselves rather than their constituents,” said an Ethics Watch release last month. “The act, however, is extremely broad and non-specific, creating enormous loopholes and inhibiting the public from obtaining useful information. In addition, [Ethics Watch] has found, after reviewing over 560 Financial Disclosure Statements from 2014-2016, that the Office of the Secretary of State does not seem to be conducting even a rudimentary review of these filings as multiple errors and omissions were discovered. …”
So the group published a bunch of recommendations on how to fix this — most of which, Carver said, HB 291 ignores. For instance, it doesn’t address the most obvious flaws in the current law. It doesn’t require more specific information about an official’s income and real estate holdings, and it doesn’t require more information on an official’s memberships on boards and associations.
I’m not casting asparagus, as we used to say in Oklahoma, on the bill’s sponsors — Reps. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, and Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences. But Carver is right that HB 291 does little to fix the real problems.
Sure, the session is still young and there’s plenty of time to amend this bill or introduce a strong one. But the truth is that almost any time the Legislature tries to impose ethical restrictions on itself, such efforts get stomped to death or watered down beyond recognition. Simply put, the foxes just don’t like a whole lot of tinkering with their hen house security contract.
I think of poor Jeff Steinborn, a Las Cruces Democrat now a senator, then a representative, who carried a bill aimed at requiring more disclosure from lobbyists. The bill got diluted so much he began referring to it as his Weekend at Bernie’s bill. It was like propping up a corpse and trying to convince people it was alive. Steinborn currently has three bills dealing with lobbyist disclosure, all awaiting hearings in the Senate Rules Committee, known as the graveyard of ethics legislation.
There was some good news about financial disclosures this week, however. As my colleague Andrew Oxford reported Thursday, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said she’ll start posting the disclosure statements on her website again later this month. The office did that for years but stopped, for reasons still unclear, in 2012 under then Secretary of State Dianna Duran.
So, assuming nothing meaningful passes in the Legislature in this area this year, at least the public can in the near future more easily scrutinize the extremely broad and nonspecific, mistake- and omission-fraught disclosure statements from our public officials.