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:

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Free Speech means the right to criticize politicians – and NM politicians don’t like it

free-speech-zone1Let’s face it.  Elected officials don’t like to be criticized – and especially not in public.

There’s nothing wrong with that.  They have feelings too.  But criticism goes with the territory.  And there’s a big problem when those same officials attempt to use their powers to stifle the public’s exercise of free speech.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the right of free speech, including the right to discuss and dissent and to criticize the public acts of governmental officials, is afforded the highest protection from government interference.

That’s why it’s so alarming that two measures to clamp down on free discussion of governmental actions are being rushed through the New Mexico Legislature. These two bills, HB808 sponsored by Rep. Paul Bandy (R-Aztez) and SB652, sponsored by Sen. William Payne (R-Albuq.), have earned the “Politician Protection Act” tag, along with HB 891, sponsored by House Majority Leader Ken Martinez and Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez.

Some of the legal theories being dredged up to attack the non-profits certainly should make any lover of the Constitution shudder.  Take the argument employed in committee testimony recently by Deputy Attorney General Phil Baca, who drafted HB808 at the direction of House Minority Leader, Rep. Ken Martinez (D-Grants).  “Under New Mexico state law, we’re sovereign… We don’t have to grant tax exempt status to any organization we want…We’re an independent sovereign,” Baca said.

Considering the source, such neo-Confederate legal argumentation was both surprising and more than a little shocking.  One half expected a band in the back of the room to strike up “Dixie.”

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Senator Michael Sanchez: Manipulations, Maneuvers and Manny

While nothing surprises me much at the Roundhouse these days, Senator Michael Sanchez pulled a major shocker out of his hat yesterday afternoon on the Senate Floor.

With Lt. Governor Diane Denish out of the chair and Senator Tim Jennings presiding, Senator Sanchez moved Senate Bill 652 for discussion, literally leap-frogging it ahead of hundreds of other bills onto yesterday’s Senate calendar for immediate action. Even Jennings, a stalwart ally of Sanchez’s, was momentarily stunned, saying something to the effect of, “I don’t believe we go that high, Senator.”

So what was SB 652? It’s Senator Bill Payne’s bill to allow candidates to sue nonprofits and others who they feel are illegally intervening in their reelection campaigns. In other words, the Politician Protection Act — Round 2.

The Senate passed the measure 29-10, with Senator Sanchez voting against the bill, but only after orchestrating its hearing and passage.

Blasting bills from the bottom of the list to the top is certainly not unprecedented but definitely unusual. And who has the authority to manipulate the process like this? Senator Michael Sanchez. These procedural maneuvers are reminiscent of the master of maneuvers, Senator Manny Aragon.

Another fine example of the hidden hand of Senator Sanchez at work.

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.

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Rep. Ken Martinez, Senator Michael Sanchez and the Politician Protection Act of 2009

In years past, the legislature has deployed a defensive strategy on ethics reform – just kill all the bills they don’t want.

That strategy changed this year, with the filing (on the last day to introduce new legislation) of HB891, sponsored by House Majority Leader Ken Martinez and Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez. While a committee substitute is likely, you can see their original bill here.

Ethics bills have been killed over the past several years with Sanchez and Martinez overseeing their demise. They fear things like contribution limits, public financing, an independent ethics commission and open conference committees. They believe these reforms will make it harder for their roundhouse brethren to win re-election.

But playing defense is not enough anymore. Now Martinez and Sanchez – both smart attorneys – are going on the offensive. They want to actually suppress dissent from pesky nonprofits that dare to call attention to the actions of the legislative colleagues they feel they must protect.

This bill from Rep. Martinez and Senator Sanchez should be named the “Politician Protection Act of 2009.”

At first glance, their bill seems reasonable. You can bet that Martinez and Sanchez will present it as such. All it does is require nonprofit organizations that engage in “electioneering communications” to report their organizational donors to the Attorney General.

Seems sensible, right?

Just wait til you see what they really want to do. Continue reading