Lobbyist JD Bullington, left, speaks during a 2018 Legislative Committee hearing when Rep Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, sits nearby. The state ethics committee supports recommendations to impose new reporting obligations on lobbyists and to oblige the legislature to provide more details about their personal sources of income in order to better shed light on potential conflicts. (Eddie Moore / Albuquerque Journal)
Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The state ethics committee is proposing changes to the law that would require lawmakers to publish more information about their personal sources of income and business relationships.
Irrespective of this, the agency also recommends increased transparency requirements for lobbyists, such as the disclosure of which draft laws they are working on and which provisions they are in favor of or against.
Legislators – a handful of whom are married to lobbyists – would also have to disclose before the vote whether a family member has campaigned for a bill.
Together, the recommendations are intended to shed light on potential conflicts in the roundhouse, where individual legislators have few staff and lobbyists play a decisive role in shaping legislation.
“Over the years, several cases of ethics violations have tarnished the reputation of New Mexico, and most of them could have been prevented by stricter disclosure laws,” said Heather Ferguson, executive director of the bipartisan Common Cause New Mexico, on Wednesday.
The New Mexico legislature is the only state legislature in the country with no salary, despite receiving daily payments, reimbursements, and the opportunity to participate in a pension system during legislative sessions. This year’s daily rate, based on the federal daily allowance, is $ 173 to $ 202 depending on the time of year.
The low pay means most MPs are retired or have jobs that allow them to take breaks for 30 or 60 days annual sessions in Santa Fe, in addition to the less formal sessions held year-round.
In an annual report released last month, the State Ethics Commission, an independent regulatory agency, described the existing public officials’ income disclosure law as “vague and undemanding.”
The Commission proposes repealing the law and replacing it with the disclosure law proposed by the Commission.
As of now, state lawmakers are exposed to extensive disclosure requirements for sources of income over $ 5,000. For example, many report receiving income from a law firm, agriculture and ranching, or similar general categories.
Sonny Haquani, an ethics committee spokesman, said the agency worked with the offices of the foreign minister, attorney general and state auditor on the proposed disclosure law to request more accurate reporting.
The changes “would allow the public to identify conflicts of interest and deter violations of public trust,” he said in a statement to the Journal.
State auditor Brian Colón, a Democrat, announced his support for the proposal last month.
“The increased disclosures will help deter public corruption and increase public confidence in the government,” he said in a written statement.
The disclosure comes after then-majority leader of the House, Sheryl Williams Stapleton, an Albuquerque Democrat who worked for the school district, resigned on a criminal investigation earlier this year.
She was later charged with extortion, money laundering, unlawful interest in a public contract, and exploiting her legislative position to obtain promotion in Albuquerque public schools. One of the allegations against her is transferring funds for apprenticeship training at APS to companies and charities in which she has been involved.
Stapleton and her lawyer have denied the charges, saying they will fight to clear her name.
The ethics committee report makes no mention of Stapleton. Other elected officials have also been charged over the years.
In 2018, for example, former state senator Phil Griego, who worked as a real estate agent, was jailed after he was convicted of selling a historic state building, which required a permit.
The new disclosure law proposed by the state ethics committee would lay down detailed requirements for disclosure of personal assets; Debts; Sources of family income in excess of $ 600, including income from spouses and dependent children; and retention of title.
Disclosure requirements would also include corporate and nonprofit membership, gifts of $ 50 or more from lobbyists, and the work of the civil servant or his spouse with government involvement.
Elected government officials, heads of government agencies, candidates and others would be required to file the annual disclosures.
Ferguson said her organization strongly supports the changes. Legislators are now banned from accepting gifts from certain donors worth more than $ 250, she said, but the rules are sometimes being circumvented by deliberately underestimating some gifts.
“The $ 250 gift threshold has been openly disregarded over the years, particularly with the gift cards given to lawmakers for activities like skiing in multiple areas or golf courses across the state that are worth just under … the individual threshold,” said she said. “These questionably valued gifts generate public concern every year. A lower threshold with increased penalties will help curb this activity. “
The ethics committee also supports changes that make the work of professional lobbyists more transparent.
They would have to submit two reports during the legislative sessions setting out which bills they are working on, their position on the bills and specific provisions they support or oppose within the legislation.
Senator Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, passed a similar bill earlier this year, but it didn’t even get a committee hearing.
He said last week that he welcomed the support from the ethics committee.
“I think we have a huge blind spot in the legislature if we know the mechanisms behind the laws,” Steinborn said in an interview. “It is really outrageous that we are seeing these bills session after session and you know someone is behind it, but the system has this deliberate blind spot that makes it possible to hide the role of these lawyers.”
In addition to the disclosure of lobbying work, the state ethics committee also supports the fact that the legislature must disclose before a vote whether a family member has lobbyed for the draft law.
The agency is also proposing a two-year ban on ex-lawmakers and other state officials becoming paid lobbyists after retiring from the civil service. Similar “revolving door” bans have not received full legislative approval in recent years.
In 2020, a report from New Mexico Ethics Watch, a nonprofit group, found that 34 former lawmakers were lobbyists and that another six lobbyists were spouses or relatives of lawmakers.
The Commission’s proposals are not guaranteed to be heard in the 2022 legislative period.
Legislators will meet for a 30-day session starting January 18, mainly devoted to budget legislation.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, is authorized to add other items to the agenda. For the upcoming session, for example, she announced that she will urge lawmakers to make it easier to keep people in jail if they are accused of a violent crime, set up a $ 100 million fund to hire police officers, and a law intends to make New Mexico a hydrogen hub.
In odd years the legislative agenda is not constrained.
The state ethics committee, established in 2018 by a voter-approved constitutional amendment, publishes a report each year recommending changes to New Mexico’s ethics laws.