Doubts About an Ethics Commission

Larry Barker’s exposé of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) is sure to be trumpeted by supporters of an ethics commission in New Mexico. The bureaucracy awarded a contract for veteran outreach to Clarence Gallegos, whose wife was a manager at the Public Education Department, which oversees the DVR. Gallegos, who had “no college degree, experience, or training,” then won a no-bid renewal of his deal, despite his failure to fulfill his obligation to hold “a minimum of two town hall meetings.” Contract #3 was awarded around the same time Gallegos wound up in jail, and … read KRQE’s coverage for the whole sordid, sorry tale.

There are currently two bills before the legislature to establish an ethics commission in New Mexico: SB 218 and HJR 8. Both would subject elected officials, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and contractors to scrutiny by a seven-member board. Civil penalties/sanctions would be imposed on offenders, and possible criminal activities would be referred to, as the House bill puts it, “the appropriate prosecutorial authority.”

The proposals have many similarities — seven commissioners, four-year terms that are staggered at the entitiy’s founding, an executive director — but some significant differences as well. SB 218 would let the state’s chief justice make an appointment the commission, while its counterpart in the House wouldn’t. The latter requires a five-member majority to act, the former doesn’t. SB 218 requires that the commission’s chairman be a retired judge, HJR 8 is silent on the issue. Most importantly, the Senate bill establishes the ethics commission by statute, while the House’s proposal submits the matter to the voters for possible addition to the state constitution.

But while no one would question that corruption is a disturbing reality in the Land of Enchantment, it’s not at all clear that creation of an ethics commission would, as Common Cause put it, be “a critical step in rebuilding voters’ trust in our system.” Some of the cleanest state governments in the nation — e.g., Idaho, Vermont, and Wyoming — have no such entities. And many corrupt-as-they-come states — e.g., Illinois, New York, and Louisiana — have ethics commissions.

You can’t have big corruption without big government. The best tool to combat fraud, greed, and sleaze remains state officials, whether elected or appointed, who understand what the “public” sector should and should not do — and prefer liberty, opportunity, and prosperity to ever-metastasizing government.

The Rio Grande Foundation has yet to score the ethics-commissions bills in our Freedom Index. What do you think? Would a new oversight body fight malfeasance and graft in the state? Or is an ethics commission just more wishful thinking by left-leaning proponents of “good government”? Let us know.