The state Senate approved a compromise bill late Tuesday night that would give the newly created New Mexico Ethics Commission subpoena power and authority to enforce the state’s open meetings laws.
The emergency measure, Senate Bill 668, cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday evening. The vote was 11-0. This ended a stalemate, as two other bills had stalled in another committee. The Senate later approved the bill with a vote of 40-0.
Under the new proposal, the executive director of the commission would have authority to make complaints public or to seal them.
If the director finds probable cause of an ethical breach and the case is settled, the terms would be made public in 45 days, said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who helped craft the new bill.
A case that goes before a hearing officer also would lead to public disclosure of the findings.
But the commission would not make public complaints that it dismisses or consider frivolous.
But this stricture would not necessarily block the allegations from public view. A complainant could simply call a news conference or post a letter of complaint on social media to ensure publicity of an ethics complaint against someone in state government.
Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, is the sponsor of the compromise bill to put the Ethics Commission in operation.
She wrote her proposal in what critics call “a dummy bill,” an open-ended measure adapted for a particular issue late in the legislative session.
Stewart said the mechanism was needed in this instance.
“Two bills went to the Rules Committee and they couldn’t get either out,” she said. “The concern was if Senate Rules Committee couldn’t pass a bill, we’d have to go to Plan B.”
Ivey-Soto, then wrote amendments to the bill. He said they are intended to improve investigations of ethics complaints.
For instance, Ivey-Soto’s changes would empower the Ethics Commission to take over investigations of civil violations of the open meetings law. As it stands, the state Attorney General’s Office has this authority, but it also advises the same public agencies on legal matters.
Ivey-Soto said the system works poorly and can be refined if put in the hands of the new commission.
Seventy-five percent of voters last year approved the creation of an Ethics Commission, leaving it to the Legislature to work out the details of defining its powers and responsibilities.
If the enabling law is approved by the House of Representatives before the legislative deadline of noon Saturday, the bill would go to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
The commission officially would be formed July 1, but Ivey-Soto said it likely would spend its first year finding office space and hiring staff.
An allocation of $500,000 is included in a spending bill to get the commission started. Under Stewart’s bill, the commission’s duties later would expand to investigate ethics complaints beyond state government to local entities, such as city councils and county commissions.