Legislation to solve ethics law dispute may move fast
‘We’re kind of in a limbo,’ says Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth
SANTA FE — New Mexico lawmakers are poised to move quickly to pass legislation clarifying their ability to represent constituents in dealings with state agencies, after a dust-up over the practical implications of a nearly 60-year old state ethics law.
The filing of similar bills in both the Senate and House on Tuesday was prompted by a recent state Ethics Commission advisory opinion that concluded lawmakers could run afoul of the state’s Governmental Conduct Act by writing letters on legislative stationery to state agencies on behalf of constituents, or by making references to their role as legislators.
The opinion, issued last month at the request of the Legislature, has roiled the Roundhouse, with some lawmakers accusing the independent ethics agency of misreading state law.
“I just can’t believe that anybody in their right state of mind would say that senators are not allowed to act as senators,” Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, said during a Senate floor session this week.
The two respective Senate floor leaders — Democrat Peter Wirth of Santa Fe and Republican Greg Baca of Belen — recently teamed up on a letter asking the Ethics Commission to reconsider its stance.
But the Ethics Commission declined the request at a meeting last week, and retired judge William Lang, the panel’s chairman, told Wirth and Baca in a letter sent this week they should instead pursue legislation to address the dispute.
Wirth said he doesn’t believe the Ethics Commission’s stance represents a correct reading of state law, but suggested lawmakers tread carefully until the issue is resolved.
“Until this is addressed, and until a bill is signed, we’re kind of in a limbo,” Wirth said.
“I think you’ll see a bill move pretty quickly to address that issue — and we’re working with both sides (of the aisle),” he added.
After being filed Tuesday, the Senate proposal to resolve the issue, Senate Bill 364, is scheduled to be heard Wednesday in its first assigned committee. If approved there, it would go directly to the full Senate.
Meanwhile, the issue has clouded, at least for now, whether lawmakers can use their legislative posts, for instance, to help constituents get rebates from the state Taxation and Revenue Department under legislation passed last year.
Jeremy Farris, the Ethics Commission’s executive director, said Tuesday he’s hopeful for a productive resolution to the issue.
“The commission looks forward to a statutory amendment that makes clear that legislators may not be paid to represent private persons in discrete matters before state agencies and, while doing so, also use their legislative stationery, make reference to their legislative powers, or make threats or implications regarding legislation,” Farris told the