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Don’t count on ethics reform

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE – For a moment, ethics reform has tiptoed into the spotlight.  But it won’t be for long and it won’t make much of an impression.

Budget cutting is the major topic of the day, and for many days to come. It will be the excuse for nothing being accomplished on ethics reform in this coming legislative session.

But for now state officials are busy announcing their ethics proposals for this year’s efforts. First among them is Gov. Bill Richardson, who appointed a blue-ribbon ethics task force several years ago. The group came up with a comprehensive plan, little of which has gotten anywhere over the years.

Lt. Gov. Diane Denish has introduced her ethics plan. She is particularly interested in separating herself from Gov. Richardson’s alleged ethics breaches. Rather than just saying she isn’t involved, it is better to take the offensive with a plan. And that she has.

Attorney General Gary King also has released his legislative agenda, which includes a substantial ethics component. King wants an ethics commission, a whistleblower protection act and a governmental conduct act, which would extend to all levels of state and local government.

Legislative interim committees also are looking at ethics legislation. One has proposed a bill creating an ethics commission and prescribes penalties not only for offenders but also for anyone who reports about commission proceedings.

According to Steve Terrell of the New Mexican, that could mean a reporter who gets wind of a leak. Leaks have become very common in investigations, especially with federal prosecutors, so the law may be intended to prevent such occurrences.

But interfering with the First Amendment duty of a reporter to tell what he knows is getting dangerous, especially when the punishment can be a year in jail.

Think New Mexico, a state-based think tank with a successful record of getting legislation passed, is proposing a law to prohibit political contributions by lobbyists or people who contract with the state.

This proposal’s chance of success is improved by Think New Mexico’s advocacy. The organization chooses a single issue each year on which to focus and exerts considerable influence through its all-star board, its staff and its reputation.

But this bill, too, will not pass. It has too great an affect on legislators. They like to pass ethics laws that don’t apply to them. Without campaign contributions from lobbyists and contractors hoping to be awarded state contracts, campaign accounts would become very puny.

Lobbyists have been rather quiet about the proposal because they know lawmakers don’t like it. But privately, they are thrilled. And they also know the legislation doesn’t stand a chance.

Actually, the possibility of any successful ethics legislation from the 2010 Legislature is highly unlikely. For several years the state Senate argued that senators didn’t need such guidance because they already are ethical.

When their former leader, Manny Aragon, went to federal prison last year, that tune had to change. At that point, the Senate leadership said it was going to develop an omnibus ethics proposal covering everything.

Hearings were held throughout the session in the Senate Rules Committee, chaired by Sen. Linda Lopez, who already was expressing interest in running for lieutenant governor.

We kept hearing promises but nothing ever happened. It was very complicated, you see. There were controversies that needed to be ironed out.

As Think New Mexico tells us every year, you must keep it simple and stay focused.

The 2010 Legislature is a short, 30-day budget session. The chance of any ethics bill, simple or not, is next to nothing. Several of our leaders say they want ethics legislation. Some will get bills introduced.

But in past years not enough powerful politicians have had ethics high enough on their lists to make it successful. And let’s face it, most of us are at fault too.

Ethics legislation is not going to be the top item on many New Mexican’s list this year. We have other things on our minds and we probably won’t vote next year based on whether our legislators supported ethics legislation.