Ethics: The Myth of New Mexico’s Exceptionalism

lemmings2On Saturday, the NM State Senate delivered yet another blow to the cause of ethics reform.  SB163, a bill to impose a one-year cooling off period before ex-legislators can work as lobbyists, went down by a vote of 14-22.

One of the major purposes of the cooling-off period is to remove the temptation for lawmakers to push legislation made to order for future lobbying clients — in return for lucrative lobbying gigs immediately after they retire. Former Louisiana Congressman Billy Tauzin was an particularly egregious example of this at the federal level.  Note that under state law (the Governmental Conduct Act)  such a cooling-off period is applied to members of New Mexico’s executive branch – but the legislature thus far has exempted itself from this provision. SB163 would correct this omission.

The key moment of the lengthy debate over SB163 was a highly emotional speech against the bill by Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez.

Over the years, the Leader has honed many political skills.  And one that he has perfected to a high art – the taking of umbrage — was unleashed to full effect when he brandished the microphone for his assault on SB163.

In this case, the umbrage was enlisted in the service of a narrative portraying the Senate membership as being a kind of downtrodden class, unfairly persecuted by blogs like Democracy for New Mexico (which he mistakenly called “Democracy for America”) and various unnamed “groups”.

Persecution Complex?

Sanchez built his argument on two laughably false premises: (1) that it is only certain advocacy groups who really want ethics reform – rather than the broad public, and (2) that these groups “don’t like” legislators or anything that legislators do.  He essentially invited his colleagues to indulge in a collective persecution fantasy:

… maybe it’s just we’re bending to a point where we say that loud group of people who doesn’t like us anyway — by the way – as legislators. Doesn’t trust any of us as legislators because they don’t think we do anything right — as legislators. They think that we’re out partying every night. They think we’re doing things in backrooms somewhere.  I get some real interesting comments from Democracy for America and some really interesting blogs that they put out in terms of what we’re doing down here on this floor and what we try to do as a body. But I think by passing a piece of legislation like this, we’re just telling them, “yeah, you know what, that goes on here.”

Where to begin? Does Sanchez actually believe this nonsense about advocates going around saying that legislators are “partying every night?” Along with the show of false umbrage, it’s just another rhetorical ploy to rally fellow senators against ethics reform.

Next, after building a case out of straw men arguments, Sanchez appealed to his colleagues to “stand up” against those ethics reform meanies:

But because there’s this push by groups of people who are the loudest group out there, we back off and we cower a little and we say, “Oh goodness, what in the world if we vote against this bill what’s going to happen to us?” Oh, our names are going to be here. Somebody’s going to say we’re this, somebody’s going to say we’re that. Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to stand up for this body. It’s time to say, “you know what?  We’re not bad people.”

Clearly, the slightest suggestion that New Mexico might benefit from stronger ethics laws is an affront to Sanchez’s personal honor:

An appearance of impropriety? Wow. An appearance of impropriety. How many appearances of impropriety do we have to go through until we stand up and say, you know what? “We are doing your job.”

In Sanchez’s world, the public has little interest in ethics reform.  He’s often been quoted to that effect.  It matters little to him that New Mexico is one of only five states with no campaign contribution limits, one of only nine states with no ethics commission and that twenty-five states have enacted legislator-lobbyist cooling off periods.  Is it because New Mexico is special when it comes to governmental ethics.

Call it the Sanchez “Myth of New Mexico Exceptionalism.”

And it’s a worldview that is leading many of his senate colleagues like lemmings over the ethics reform cliff.

Sanchez did address part of his closing appeal to the general public, however:

Trust us to do the right thing. Listen. Watch what we’re doing. If we’re doing it wrong, tell us!”

Well, at least that sounds sensible enough — except for the fact that listening and watching presents a bit of a problem for most people in New Mexico, given that Senator Sanchez also seems determined to ensure they will never have access to legislative webcasting.  That’s just one more to add to the litany.  New Mexico is one of only six states that does not webcast, or broadcast by television, its legislative floor sessions.

It’s just another reason why our state stays so “exceptional.”

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(Saturday’s floor debate on SB163 could be heard on KUNM’s audio webcast. A liveblog of the event is posted at Santa Fe Reporter and the NM Independent .

For the latest update on the Senate’s move to block video webcasting, see Haussamen and FBIHOP.)

UPDATE 3.10.09:  More on the webcasting debacle from Haussamen

“The reality: Sanchez and some others in the Senate want to kill this bill and reject any attempt to increase transparency. They’re trying to find a way to kill it.”


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