Legislature works on transparency, ethics measures

By Kate Nash: The Santa Fe New Mexican

In the basement, the Senate in a late-night session was taking a major step to increase confidence in state government by voting to throw the doors open on some of the last closed meetings in the Capitol.

It decided 33-8 to open conference committees to the public, a measure that for more than ten years had met rejection.

At the same time, two floors above the Senate at the Capitol, members of the House Judiciary Committee late Thursday night were moving to table a Senate-approved measure (SB 141) that would block corrupt public officials from collecting a pension.

Senate Minority Whip Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor, didn’t know his bill was being heard.

And as of Friday evening, about the only thing he knew about the committee’s action for sure was that the bill was tabled.

Committee staffers wouldn’t release a list showing who voted how, and the committee’s chairman, Rep. Al Park, D-Albuquerque, didn’t return calls or messages about the measure Friday.

“What happened to my understanding last night…someone moved my bill to the next order of business without my being there, they debated it and tabled it,” Payne said.

Under the bill, if an elected official is guilty of a felony in connection with the offender’s holding an elected office, the basic sentence may be increased by an additional fine that could be as much as the value of the salary and fringe benefits paid to the offender. Gov. Bill Richardson said he supports the measure.

“My bill was very simple because it went to what I’ve said all along…ethics for most people means if you are a crook, you ought to be punished,” Payne said.

Ethics and government reform have been big topics this year, the same year former Senate president Manny Aragon was sentenced to prison time, and the same year Richardson dropped his bid for U.S. commerce secretary as a federal grand jury investigation is said to be focused on how a major political contributor, California-based CDR Financial Products, received lucrative state financial business.

Advocates say some progress has been made in both chambers, and were waiting Friday night for a Senate-approved campaign contributions limit to be heard on the House floor.

The Senate signed off on the measure, (SB116) which limits donations to a political candidate from an individual at $2,300 in an election cycle. Other limits include $5,000 from a political committee and $10,000 from a political party in an election cycle.

Those caps would take effect in January of 2011, after the 2010 gubernatorial election.

Earlier this session, the Senate also approved unanimously a measure (SB159) that would put the state’s expenditures online.

Democrats in the House Taxation and Revenue Committee, however, killed the bill a few days later.

“We wanted to demystify the state budget and bolster public confidence in their government. The purpose of this legislation is to invite the public to the negotiating table,” sponsor Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, said in a statement at the time.

The House approved another ethics measure, (HB151), that would set up a state ethics commission. It was never heard by the Senate Rules Committee.

Meanwhile this session, both the House and Senate have accepted webcasting; the Senate shows video it from its floor meetings on the Internet, the House streams audio for computer users at home.