Ethics bill gets committee nod

By Kate Nash: The New Mexican

For years, a measure that would enhance penalties for public officials who are convicted felons couldn’t even get a hearing in the Capitol. And when it was heard, it never cleared a single committee.

Wednesday morning, however the bill (SB 141) got a nod from the Senate Rules Committee and was sent to the Judiciary Committee for consideration.

It would allow a court to ratchet up the sentence of convicted felon officials and impose a fine equal to up to the official’s salary and benefits.

Senate Minority Whip Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque, who is carrying the measure, said the atmosphere surrounding ethics has changed.

“We have more convictions, more talks of investigations ongoing,” he said.

Payne said the bill might give some would-be criminals pause if they face paying large fines.

“Public officials who violate the public trust while receiving a salary from taxpayers should receive a greater punishment than just the basic sentence,” he said. “Being fined the amount of their salary and benefits might make these corrupt officials think twice about violating corruption laws.”

The committee also heard but set aside until Friday a measure (SB 261) that would eliminate pensions for convicted felons.

Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort, R-Sandia Park, the bill’s sponsor, said this is the year to pass some ethics bills.

“I think the public expects that we do something significant that is throughout that is righteous,” she said.

The measure could have prevented two famous state politicians from collecting pensions, had it been in place during a pair of recent scandals.

Former state treasurer Robert Vigil gets $4,455 a month in state pension while former Sen. Manny Aragon gets $2,022, according to the Public Employees Retiree Association.

The measure is expected to come back up for consideration Friday morning in the Rules Committee, as is a slew of other ethics measures.

Among other things, the panel is considering measures to prohibit former lawmakers from becoming lobbyists (SB94) for a year after serving in the Roundhouse; to limit political campaign contributions (SB116) and to require biannual campaign reports (SB128).

The meeting is set for 8 a.m. in room 321.

Ethics reform is a big topic this session and Gov. Bill Richardson and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish have outlined ethics packages they are supporting.

Contact Kate Nash at 986-3036 or knash@sfnewmexican.com.