Ethics reform bill prevails over Sanchez’s umbrage

Representative Joseph Cervantes

Representative Joseph Cervantes

With the clock running out on the legislative session, ethics reformers scored a major triumph last night with the passage by the state Senate of HB393, the bill to open conference committees to the public.

And just minutes before the debate commenced, Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez issued a long and acerbic press release, contrasting his “principled” opposition to ethics reform and disparaged legislators who support reform as being unprincipled headline seekers.

Nevertheless, the reformers prevailed by a 33-8 majority. As expected, Sanchez was joined in opposition by President Pro Tem Tim Jennings (D-Roswell) and Minority Leader Stuart Ingle (R-Clovis) – both long-time open committee opponents. What was surprising was the size of the winning margin – with only one other member of the Democratic caucus voting with Sanchez and Jennings.

Senator Dede Feldman

Senator Dede Feldman

The Heroes

The heroes of this fight were Senator Dede Feldman (D-Albuq.) and Representative Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces).  Cervantes, a long-time champion of open government, sponsored the measure and got it through the House.

And special kudos must go to Feldman, who for years has toiled in the vineyards of reform and came just one vote short of passing open conference committees in 2007.

With the end of the session fast approaching, Feldman played a key strategic gambit to get the bill moving.  Here’s Haussamen’s account as it played out:

Cervantes’ bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning (March 19), so it’s on the Senate floor but has not been scheduled on the calendar. Feldman’s bill is No. 2 on today’s calendar and was called up for debate by Sanchez earlier today, but Feldman asked for a brief delay.

That has turned into a long delay. Feldman said, via text message, that there are now “troubles with the majority leader scheduling.”

Cervantes’ bill has already passed the House, so Senate approval would send the bill directly to the governor, who has supported the concept of opening conference committees in the past but hasn’t specifically endorsed this year’s proposal. Though Feldman’s bill is identical to that sponsored by Cervantes, it has not passed the House, so it would have to be referred there before it could go to the governor.

But this scheduling obstacle was overcome as Sanchez, who controls the Senate calendar, ultimately acceded to the request allowing the Cervantes bill to be heard.

Senator Linda Lopez (D-Albuq.), who chairs the Rules Committee where so many ethics bills have been stalled during this and previous sessions, was designated to carry HB383 on the Senate floor.

The subsequent debate was emotional at times.  Senator Cynthia Nava (D-Dona Ana), who supported the measure, paid an especially moving tribute to Feldman.

This reform represents a real threat to leadership’s power, especially in the Senate.  Conference committees, usually three House members and three Senate members, can change bills without any public scrutiny or debate. New appropriations can be slipped in and laws altered substantially.

When umbrage meets reality

As he done so often in past debates, Sanchez once again took extreme umbrage, suggesting that ethics reform measures presented an affront to his own integrity and that of all the members of the institution.  But Sanchez went further this time, recounting his family’s tradition of public service, trumpeting his own commitment to “principles” – and questioning the motives of reform advocates – going so far as to accuse them of them of hypocrisy.

Sanchez’s press release mirrored his floor debate speech.  (You can read Sanchez’s press release statement on Haussamen here.)

The disconnect is as striking as the release’s title is ironic:  “Changing How New Mexico Does Business”.  He proposes no such thing.

Sanchez writes:

“Systemic ethics reform needs to be addressed not only by supporting laws that reform how New Mexico does business but by also examining our daily actions. It’s our responsibility to raise not only our ethical standards legislatively but to also shine a light on our personal shortcomings when the microphones and cameras are off.”

Reality check.  Sanchez has opposed, or worked behind the scenes to derail, most ethics reform bills during his leadership tenure.

What he’s really saying here is that the legislature, and the Senate in particular, is like a special club.  It should not establish bright ethical lines or public watchdog mechanisms, but instead can conduct its business quite nicely as it always has done — on an honor system.

And what “light” exactly does he propose to shine on his colleagues’ “personal shortcomings”?

More irony abounds. The only so-called “ethics reform” measures about which Sanchez really feels passionate are the bills to punish New Mexico’s non-profit organizations.  He wants to muzzle and restrict them.  Why? For shining a light on the public policy acts of legislators.

The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of our legislators are honest and incredibly hard-working. If more of the public could actually see them in action, there would be astonishment at the sacrifices they make for public service. But for every twenty or thirty honest, hard-working lawmakers, there will be one Manny.

Passage of strong ethics reform legislation will begin a much-needed and long-overdue restoration of public trust and confidence in our legislative bodies. This will make the jobs of our many good legislators easier in the future.

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