After a string of high-profile corruption scandals in state government, and a decade-long legislative fight to find a solution, in 2018 New Mexico voters passed a popular constitutional amendment creating an independent ethics commission. Enabling legislation cleared the legislature during the 2019 session, and the commission began operating on January 1, 2020. The ethics commission hears complaints made against candidates, lobbyists, and public officials in the executive and legislative branches. In addition, it publishes opinions on questions of ethics in state government. The commission, however, risks failing at its mission to reduce unethical behavior because of a lack of power and gaps in underlying anti-corruption law. Part I of this comment explores the cyclical history of corruption and attempts to pass anti-corruption law in New Mexico. It then explains the legislative history behind the new ethics commission, including the constitutional amendment and enabling legislation. Part II examines the strengths and critiques the flaws of the ethics commission. This comment notes that by passing a constitutional amendment, New Mexico avoided separation of powers concerns that can undermine statutorily created commissions. On the other hand, the analysis notes gaps that will potentially frustrate the effectiveness of the commission: limited jurisdiction, lack of subpoena power, and an absence of recurring funding. In making these critiques, this comment makes recommendations for strengthening the commission, often looking to other states for examples. Part III argues that an ethics commission is insufficient to address public corruption by itself without a broad set of laws and norms addressing corruption’s root causes. It also makes recommendations for filling gaps in substantive anti-corruption law. While the ethics commission can bring some accountability to bad actors and transparency to bad behavior, other features of state government leave incentives for corruption: a lack of pay for legislators, little conflict of interest enforcement for legislators, opaque capital outlay procedures, and feeble asset disclosure laws for public officials, for example. In such an environment, even a strong ethics commission will struggle to address public corruption. A weak one risks being a salve-turned-irritant, disappointing a citizenry that voted strongly in favor of fighting unethical behavior by its public leaders.
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New Mexico’s Independent Ethics Commission and the Long Fight to Constrain Public Corruption,
N.M. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/nmlr/vol51/iss1/10