Saturday, February 27, 2010

Legislative Session returns

Round one of the legislative session ended last week and none of the bills we were following did very well. Round two starts Monday ad we don't expect any election related bills to be on the Governor's call.

Two positive outcomes were HB 198, which finally clarified ownership and maintenance responsibility for the state's voting machines purchased in 2006. Also passing was HB 127 which allows 16 and 17 year olds to serve as precinct workers.

The various bills to create a state ethics panel never really came together, and there will be an effort during the interim to clean them up and present them as a better bill in 2011.

HB 118, which would have banned political campaign contributions from contractors and lobbyists was left to die in Senate Rules Committee and will be back again next year.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Legislative Session

Another week has passed at the legislature, and there has been some motion with election reform bills. With ten days to go, things are sure to heat up.

The ban on campaign contributions from lobbyists and contractors: HB 118 is now known as the committee substitute for HB 118 and moves on to the House Judiciary Committee where it could be heard as early as today.

Same day registration: HB 123 passed House Consumer and Public Affairs and moves to House Voters and Elections, where it is not yet scheduled. Its "companion bill" is Senate Bill 161 (John Sapien), which passed Senate Rules today and moves to Senate Judiciary. An attempt to attach a mandatory photo ID provision failed.

An "independent" redistricting commission resolution has been introduced as HJR 15 (Karen Giannini) and would appear on the November 2010 ballot as a Constitutional Amendment if it passes both houses. The amendment is problematic as written because it creates a commission that is actually bipartisan and not independent, with the members being appointed by the leaders of the legislature.

Rhonda King's continuing effort to resolve the state's purchase of voting machines in 2006 has been introduced as HB 198. It holds the counties harmless for the purchase and maintenance of the machines other than for ongoing storage. It will be heard in House Voters and Elections this week.

Public Campaign Financing: Both bills face uphill journeys on the Senate side. SB 51 (Eric Griego) would create a public campaign financing system for executive positions but has been scheduled to three committees. SB 67 (Feldman) would clarify the Voter Action Act but has not been ruled germane.

State Ethics Commission: There are a number of bills on both sides that address and implement a state Ethics Commission that are awaiting hearings in House Judiciary and Senate Rules Committees. This will almost certainly result in a compromise bill. Loyda Martinez of Common Cause has an opinion piece that outlines the essentials which I have copied below.

Ethics Commission

Albuquerque Journal
Sunday, February 07, 2010

Ensure Ethics Panel Can Make Difference

by Loyda Martinez, Board Member, Common Cause New Mexico

We're dipping into the last hectic days of another legislative session. As was the case last time around, we're faced with a half dozen different proposals to finally create an independent ethics commission in New Mexico. On the one hand, this is a good thing. It shows an enthusiasm among legislators to have New Mexico join 40 other states in establishing an independent, bipartisan body to field and investigate ethics complaints against public officials. Furthermore, all of the current bills are significantly better than the ethics commission bill that passed the House during the 2009 regular session.
On the other hand, the task of combining these various proposals into a single consensus bill is daunting. Luckily, Sen. Linda Lopez, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, and Rep. Al Park, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, seem to be up to the task. They both seek to gather the Senate and House versions of these bills, debate the fine points, and come up with one solid bill in each chamber to push through to the legislative finish line.
For good-government advocates, of course, the debate over the fine points is key. Basically, that debate comes down to balancing two equally valid values. First, the commission has to protect the due process rights of public officials accused of wrongdoing. If a commission is set up, it will inevitably receive frivolous complaints that need to be filed in the trash can where they belong. Yet at the same time, a commission must have enough teeth to launch serious investigations of nonfrivolous complaints. Otherwise, New Mexico would just be wasting money it doesn't have.
Balancing these two important values is difficult. Here are the elements Common Cause would like to see in an ideal ethics commission bill:
1) A good commission will have independent subpoena power to ensure the commission's access to key witnesses and relevant documents.
2) A simple majority quorum is the best way to ensure anything gets done. Although requiring a super-majority (or a super-super-majority) for the commission to take any action is tempting, this would be a very unusual step and might well result in a do-nothing commission.
3) Some level of confidentiality regarding ethics commission activities is appropriate to protect the right of respondents. Excessive secrecy, however, will decrease the legitimacy of the commission in the eyes of the public and make it impossible to judge the body's effectiveness. Ideally, only the initial complaint and investigation should be confidential. Once the commission determines that there is enough evidence to proceed to a formal hearing, there is no reason that the proceedings should not become public, and any ultimate finding of guilt or innocence should of course be published. A recent report from the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government does an excellent job of analyzing the issues presented by the excessive emphasis on confidentiality in the current crop of bills.
4) Several of the proposals give the accused access to legal counsel paid for by the state. Under these proposals, if the commission finds that an ethics violation has occurred, the accused has to reimburse the state for the cost of the legal defense. This sounds good on paper, but the expense to the state is unknown and could be quite substantial. By way of comparison, the New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission does not offer judges paid legal representation. It's conceivable that such a provision actually would discourage people from filing complaints with the commission because they would feel obligated to hire their own attorney to be on an equal footing with the respondent.
There are a couple other sticking points that aren't a huge concern to Common Cause but that have made it difficult to get a bill through both chambers and on the governor's desk. The big one is figuring out an appointment scheme for the commission that satisfies both the governor and the Legislature. Maybe splitting the appointments right down the middle is the best compromise — with a couple left over coming from the state Supreme Court.
In addition to investigating complaints against public officials, a good ethics commission would have several other duties. For one thing, it would be required to draft a code of ethics for the executive branch, which currently doesn't have one. A commission could also conduct trainings for officials and state employees to help instill a culture of ethics in New Mexico government. Finally, the commission would need to issue advisory opinions to answer questions by government officials about whether or not a specific kind of behavior is or isn't ethical.
Can we finally come together and get this done?