Op-Ed: Session didn’t do enough to improve ethics laws

By: Maggie Toulouse Oliver

This should have been the year of campaign and ethics reform in New Mexico. It wasn’t.

While legislators on both sides of the aisle introduced more than 30 bills relating to ethics, campaign finance, and election law, and Gov. Susana Martinez allowed many of those bills to be heard, only two bills made it through the legislative process. Two. Those bills now sit on the governor’s desk awaiting her signature — or her veto.

 

These reforms are long overdue in our state. Last year’s unfortunate situation with former Secretary of State Dianna Duran shed a bright light on the need in our system for ethics and government accountability. Media investigations revealed fundamental flaws in the state’s campaign reporting system; an in-depth study showed businesses aren’t setting up shop in New Mexico because of concerns about government ethics; and lobbyists’ expenditures are still largely obscured to the public.

New Mexicans have had enough and were looking to the Legislature to ensure transparency and accountability in government. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen in 2016.

There were, of course, some great champions, like Reps. Jim Smith, Jim Dines and Jeff Steinborn, and Sen. Peter Wirth, among several others, who fought hard to make meaningful changes to state law. They fell short, but gave voice to the loud public cry for the Legislature to take action.

I have dedicated my career to implementing policies that promote good government and increase access to the ballot. As I’ve done many times during my tenure as Bernalillo County clerk, I was in Santa Fe this year speaking in support of many of the bills — some with Republican sponsors, some with Democratic sponsors, because good government is a nonpartisan issue. I began the session optimistic that common-sense reforms like automatic voter registration, a state ethics commission and open primaries would become law.

However, it quickly became clear that in this heavily partisan election-year environment, much-needed reforms were going nowhere. That must change.

Business-as-usual is not working for New Mexico. We must act to change not just the perception that government doesn’t work for citizens, but also the underlying lack of laws and rules that allow that perception to exist in the first place.

First, we must make it easier — not harder — for more people to vote. That means open primaries, automatic voter registration, sufficient alternate voting sites and holding school and municipal elections on standard election days to increase awareness and turnout.

Low turnout in our elections, however, is not just a function of access. It’s also a question of public trust. New Mexicans must be able to trust their elected leaders at all levels. That is why I will continue to push for the establishment of an independent ethics commission, to ensure campaign finance reporting is simple and transparent, and to rein in the undue influence of lobbyists and special interests.

As a current elected official, I believe all public servants are accountable to the people who elect them, without exception.

The dust is still settling from the 2016 legislative session. HB 105 and HB 138, the two bills to make it through, await their fate in the governor’s office. If HB 105 becomes law, the bill, sponsored by Smith, would provide for a transparent and reliable campaign finance reporting system. HB 138, sponsored by Steinborn, will allow 17-year-olds who will be 18 at the time of the general election to weigh in on the nominees they will select from in November.

I respectfully urge the governor to sign both.

However, whether these bills indeed become law, the 2016 legislative session will have left undone far too much of the work still needed to ensure public trust in government. Two new laws would be a victory, but it’s far from what we deserve as New Mexicans.