- Associated Press - Thursday, March 16, 2017

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico voters could be asked next year whether to create an independent political ethics commission in the wake of a recent string of corruption scandals.

The Legislature inched closer Thursday to approval of a proposed constitutional amendment that calls for creating a seven-member body to investigate ethics violations and sanction violators.

The state Senate voted 30-9 Thursday in favor of the amendment, but the House balked at endorsing Senate revisions and instead referred the matter to a conference committee for negotiation.

Legislative approval would send the proposal to a statewide ballot initiative in November 2018.

The lead sponsor of the initiative, Republican Rep. Jim Dines of Albuquerque, objected to Senate revisions that cut out guidelines for appointments to the commission and transparency provisions for making ethics complaints public once a response is filed.

The commission would enforce standards of conduct for state officers, employees, lobbyists and contractors, along with campaign finance restrictions and reporting requirements for political candidates. It would have the authority to issue subpoenas and civil penalties.

Democratic state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, of Las Cruces, said the commission could restore battered confidence in state government.

“There is a perception in some quarters that this is a state where who you know can trump what you know and how well you do it,” Steinborn said. “And that in itself can be a disincentive to invest in our state.”

Approval is the culmination of decades of discussions and a string of failed bills in recent years, said Heather Ferguson, legislative director for Common Cause New Mexico.

“This is something that the public has been screaming for to try rebuild their trust in the political system,” she said.

Last year, a similar constitutional amendment was approved by the House but stalled in the Senate over concerns that a commission would become a forum for false accusations and political vendettas.

Steinborn said decisions about how the commission is appointed would be addressed in future legislation, after voters approve the creation of a commission.

Several senators expressed reservations about leaving those and other details until later. Republican state Sen. Craig Brandt, of Rio Rancho, warned that there would be no going back after a constitutional amendment if the ethics commission proves ineffective or bends to partisan control.

The amendment specifies that only three of the seven members of the panel could belong to a single political party.

New Mexico is one of eight states without an independent ethics body. Proponents of creating a commission say an atmosphere of distrust hangs over the current system of oversight by partisan elected officials at the Attorney General’s Office and the Secretary of State’s Office, while lawmakers vet initial ethics complaints against colleagues.

State government has been shaken over the years by numerous corruption scandals, including the case of former Sen. Phil Griego, who faces fraud and bribery charges linked to his private commission on the sale of a state-owned building. Griego maintains his innocence.

There was also the prosecution of former Secretary of State Dianna Duran, who resigned and pleaded guilty in 2015 to spending campaign funds on a gambling spree.

More recently, Demesia Padilla resigned as state taxation and revenue secretary in December after prosecutors raided her agency’s offices and seized her personal tax filings amid allegations she gave preferential treatment to a former business client. She has not been charged.

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