It’s no surprise that New Mexico did not get passing grades on integrity in a national study of state government accountability and integrity put together by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. Our state is a D-minus, with a score of 60.6 out of 100 and tied at 34.
How could it be a surprise? The study was released earlier this week, just as citizens were learning that Gov. Susana Martinez’s top political adviser — Jay McCleskey — is the target of a federal investigation. Investigators reportedly are examining how the governor’s campaign funds and money from a 2011 inaugural committee went to McCleskey. The governor herself has been interviewed by investigators.
Earlier in the fall, the state watched the spectacle of a secretary of state elected on an integrity and accountability platform face 65 criminal indictments, resign her office and plead guilty to two felonies and four misdemeanors. Former Secretary of State Dianna Duran awaits sentencing but likely won’t go to prison or face the loss of her pension, despite admitting guilt.
And those are just the front-page-headline kinds of stories, the big stuff. The integrity report was designed to use data to paint a picture of how transparent and accessible state governments are to citizens and was completed before the Duran and McCleskey cases became public. Lack of systems, of course, does not necessarily translate into a lack of ethics. However, it is clear that governments that work best for citizens are accountable, transparent and limit the influences of special-interest money. That’s true not just for New Mexico, but across the nation.
New Mexico’s report, put together by journalist Gwyneth Doland, found the state especially weak in enforcing laws that are on the books. The “enforcement gap,” as it is called, means that it’s easy to get away with breaking rules. Why not? Penalties are not enforced.
The public has a right to know, but if a state agency or local government doesn’t turn over records, no one pays. There are few fines and private parties generally must hire a lawyer and sue to ensure compliance with laws. That’s just one problem with what’s happening in New Mexico, however. Campaign finance laws are riddled with loopholes. Lobbyist disclosure laws are weak. And year after year, when good-government groups support bills to fix the system, improvements are defeated.
Come 2016, with a short legislative session and likely budget woes ahead, we doubt anything will change. Especially considering the rash of violent crimes, much of the legislative session will be spent debating how best to catch and punish violent repeat offenders. Crime and punishment could dominate the session, leaving good government to wait for another year.
Without passing any laws, however, Attorney General Hector Balderas could begin to enforce what is in the law more vigorously — especially in the area of open records. A reform-minded attorney general who goes after public records offenders could help raise awareness that these laws are not made to be broken. The Secretary of State’s Office could begin to penalize lobbyists who don’t provide adequate information on disclosure forms. Even in a busy short session, legislators could appropriate more money for enforcement of laws on the books.
Bigger reforms are necessary as well. New Mexico’s judicial standards commission is working well, placing the Land of Enchantment third in the nation for accountability of the judiciary. We can take what works and apply it to other branches of government. We can introduce and pass campaign reform laws that are less complex so that candidates don’t have to consult a lawyer to follow the law. We can make the activities of lobbyists and donors transparent, so that if we can’t stop the influx of money into government, we can at least know who is doing the buying.
Reform won’t happen overnight, but with the will of involved citizens and ethical lawmakers, New Mexico doesn’t have to remain mired in the muck of unethical behavior and weak laws. First, though, citizens must demand better. Only then can change occur.