Trust in government; Commission seeks to expand disclosure laws

·3 min read

Jan. 14—SANTA FE — The State Ethics Commission is proposing changes to state law that would require New Mexico's citizen legislators to release more information about their sources of personal income and business relationships.

Separately, the agency is also recommending increased transparency requirements for lobbyists, such as disclosure of what bills they're working on and the provisions they're advocating for or against.

Lawmakers — a handful of whom are married to lobbyists — would also have to disclose before voting if any family member lobbied on a bill.

Together, the recommendations are designed to shed more light on potential conflicts inside the Roundhouse, where individual lawmakers have little staff and lobbyists play a crucial role in shaping legislation.

"Over the years, several ethics violation cases have tarnished New Mexico's reputation and most of them could have been prevented with heightened disclosure laws," said Heather Ferguson, the executive director of the nonpartisan Common Cause New Mexico.

New Mexico legislators are the only state lawmakers in the country who don't draw a salary, though they get daily payments during legislative sessions, reimbursements and the option to participate in a retirement system. The daily rate, based on the federal per diem, is $173 to $202, depending on the time of year.

The small pay means most legislators are retired or hold jobs that allow them to take breaks for annual sessions of 30 or 60 days in Santa Fe, in addition to less-formal meetings held throughout the year.

In an annual report released last month, the State Ethics Commission, an independent watchdog agency, called the state's existing disclosure law for income received by public officials "vague and undemanding."

The commission proposes repealing the law and replacing it with the commission's proposed Disclosure Act.

As it stands now, state lawmakers face broad requirements for disclosing income sources over $5,000. Many report, for example, that they draw income from a law firm, farming and ranching, or similarly general categories.

Sonny Haquani, a spokesman for the ethics commission, said the agency worked with the offices of the secretary of state, attorney general and state auditor on the proposed Disclosure Act to require more specific reporting.

The changes "would enable the public to identify conflicts of interest and deter violations of the public trust," he said in a statement to the Journal.

State Auditor Brian Colón, a Democrat, announced his support for the proposal in December.

"The enhanced disclosures will aid in the deterrence of public corruption and strengthen the public's trust in government," he said in a written statement.

The disclosure push comes after then-House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, an Albuquerque Democrat who worked for the school district, resigned earlier this year amid a criminal investigation.

She was later indicted on charges of racketeering, money laundering, having an unlawful interest in a public contract and using her legislative position to try to get a promotion at Albuquerque Public Schools. The allegations against her include routing money meant for vocational education at APS to businesses and charities in which she had an interest.

Stapleton and her attorney have denied the charges and say they will fight to clear her name.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting