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NM Ethics Commission Supporters: Public Trust at Stake

Ethics scandals, including a former New Mexico state senator's conviction on corruption charges, led 75 percent of state voters last November to approve creating an ethics commission. (gerait/Pixabay)
Ethics scandals, including a former New Mexico state senator's conviction on corruption charges, led 75 percent of state voters last November to approve creating an ethics commission. (gerait/Pixabay)
March 4, 2019

SANTA FE, N.M. — Advocates in favor of creating a New Mexico State Ethics Commission say voters' faith in the political process could be restored if state lawmakers pass House Bill 4 this year.

The bill would establish a commission with the power to investigate claims of wrongdoing against legislators, lobbyists, elected officials and state employees. Heather Ferguson, executive director at Common Cause New Mexico, said various corruption scandals involving high-profile state officials already led voters last November to overwhelmingly approve a constitutional amendment to create an ethics commission.

"The public's trust has eroded so much. And this is an opportunity for them to show the public that they want to hold their own accountable when they misbehave or they commit a violation or they behave unethically,” Ferguson said.

A competing bill to establish the commission, Senate Bill 619, has been criticized by Common Cause and other open-government advocates who say it would impose harsher penalties on whistleblowers than on those who commit ethics violations. Some lawmakers have also expressed concern that a public ethics process could become a platform for political attacks.

If passed and signed by the governor, House Bill 4 would establish operations and powers of the agency. Ferguson admits it won’t please everyone, but she said it would create greater transparency.

"A lot of times, the public can file a complaint, and then they just have no idea where it goes, and that's an issue,” she said. “They need to know that they file a complaint, and oh, now it's going to go through a process. Everybody can see it, it's behind a glass wall."

The seven-member commission would have subpoena power and the authority to investigate compliance with state laws on campaign fundraising, financial disclosures, lobbyist regulations and the conduct of government officials. The bill made it out of the House Appropriations Finance Committee and will be heard next on the House floor.

Roz Brown, Public News Service - NM