More ethics bills placed in hopper

By Steve Terrell: The Santa Fe New Mexican

Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, with the help of some House Democrats, is pushing a package of bills that she said Tuesday will bring more transparency to state government.

Denish told reporters at a news conference that her package is separate from the ethics legislation package being pushed by Attorney General Gary King and Gov. Bill Richardson.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, told reporters Tuesday that many of the multiple of ethics bills being introduced in the Legislature could end up in a single bill coming out of the Senate Rules Committee.

“Ethics reform starts with making information accessible to the public,” Denish said. “I want to bring more transparency to campaign fundraising, state government contracts, and to bring our work for the people more out into the open.”

Denish’s bills include:

u House Bill 546, introduced Tuesday by Rep. Al Park, D-Albuquerque, which would require all contractors doing business with the state to be listed in an online, searchable database that would include the company’s name, the contract and how much it’s worth.

u HB 272, sponsored by Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, which would mandate quarterly reporting of campaign finances in off-election years. Currently candidates only have to report once a year during off years. Denish, who is running for governor in 2010, voluntarily releases campaign finance reports. She has raised more than $2 million for her race.

u HB 507, sponsored by House Majority Leader Ken Martinez, D-Grants. This would expand the Inspection of Public Records Act, which would reduce the response time to public record requests from 14 to 10 days. Under current law, 14 days is supposed to be the maximum period allowed. In recent years, state government frequently has taken the maximum time for even simple requests. The bill also would establish a “double-check redaction system oriented toward openness.” Denish said the bill is intended to reduce the amount of material blacked out before a document is released.

Park’s bill would make it easier for reporters and others to compare state contractors with campaign contributions.

But two other bills introduced in the Senate would require the state to post political contributions of those doing business with the state.

Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort, R-Albuquerque, introduced Senate Bill 262, which she says, “discourages any inappropriate activity by politicians when soliciting campaign contributions from people wanting to do major business with the state.” Her bill is similar to SB 296, introduced by Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque.

“I think it’s good that there’s some overlapping,” Beffort said. “I think it’s a sign that something is going to get passed.”

Allegations that private companies’ work for the state might have been tied to political contributions to Richardson are the subject of a federal grand jury investigation. That probe caused Richardson to withdraw as President Barack Obama’s secretary of commerce nominee. Also, a civil lawsuit was filed regarding investments made by the State Investment Council and the state Educational Retirement Board.

Beffort also is one of several lawmakers sponsoring bills to put a limit on campaign contributions.

Denish said she expects her bills to do well in the House, but said they will have a tougher time in the Senate.

But Sen. Sanchez told reporters that he expects the Senate to pass serious ethics bills this year.

Sanchez said he understands the Senate Rules Committee plans to roll several of the proposed bills — including campaign contribution limits, establishing an ethics commission and bills dealing with contributions by state contractors — into one bill.

He said he doesn’t think there’s enough support this year for another ethics proposal — expansion of public campaign financing — mainly because of the budget crisis.

Sanchez also said he has heard talk of a possible amendment or separate bill that would require nonprofit groups — such as the Center for Civic Policy — to disclose contributions.

During last year’s primary election season, New Mexico Youth Organized, a group associated with that center, distributed mailers criticizing the voting records of several legislators, some of whom went on to lose in the primary. The attorney general and secretary of state ruled that the groups were “political committees” and should disclose their contributors. However, in a pending lawsuit, the groups are challenging that ruling.

CCP has lobbied for ethics legislation during the past several legislative sessions. Sanchez said Tuesday he doesn’t see the logic of the CCP “wanting disclosure for everyone else” but not wanting to disclose their own contributors.

Matt Brix of CCP said Tuesday, “We will oppose any attempt to restrict legitimate issue advocacy that nonprofits enjoy.”

Contact Steve Terrell at 986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com

Read his political blog at roundhouseroundup.com