Who Could Oppose an Ethics Commission?

To New Mexico’s left-leaning advocates for “good government,” it’s all so easy.

More laws. Tighter regulations. “Public” financing of candidates. Paid, full-time legislators.

Implement Ralph Nader’s preferred policy architecture for politics and elections, we are told, and corruption will fade, citizen activism will expand, voter turnout will balloon, and “public service” will again be — and be considered — a noble calling.

So it’s hardly surprising that on Election Day 2018, the usual suspects want voters to approve Constitutional Amendment 2, and thus create “an independent State Ethics Commission with jurisdiction to investigate, adjudicate and issue advisory opinions concerning civil violations of laws governing ethics, standards of conduct and reporting requirements as provided by law.” The League of Women Voters of New Mexico, Common Cause New Mexico, Bob Perls, liberal columnists — the couch-fainters want a “government that works for everyone,” and with that crowd, intentions are always more important than facts.

One fact voters might want to consider can be found in the “Arguments Against” portion of the Office of the Secretary of State’s 2018 GENERAL ELECTION VOTER GUIDE:

Under existing law, multiple state agencies already have oversight over ethics matters affecting their respective branches of government. These include the State Personnel Office, the secretary of state, the attorney general, the Interim Legislative Ethics Committee and designated house and senate ethics committees.

Throw in the Office of the State Auditor and the Office of the United States Attorney for the District of New Mexico, and it’s quite clear that one more governmental entity involved in rooting out/prosecuting ethical violations isn’t necessary.

Then there’s the research. In 2013, two scholars from the University of Missouri conducted “the first systematic statistical evaluation of the effects of state ethics commissions on public corruption among state and local officials.” Their results didn’t offer any intellectual ammo for Constitutional Amendment 2’s backers:

* “Overall, we found no strong or consistent support for the common claims made by political actors that state ethics commissions are important policy tools for reducing political corruption.”

* “[T]he raw correlations and point estimates that we present indicate that state ethics commissions have only very weak, and possibly perverse, effects on public corruption.”

* “[I]t is reasonable to conclude that there is no support for claims that state ethics commissions, including bipartisan and nonpartisan commissions, serve to reduce political corruption.”

Ouch. It’s also worth noting that some of the sleaziest states in the union — e.g., New Jersey, Mississippi, Illinois, Louisiana, Alaska, New York — have ethics commissions. (The Pelican State’s goes back to 1964.) The six states that lack such bodies (in addition to New Mexico, the list is comprised of Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, and Wyoming) are all over the map on the issue of corruption.

And just because a bureaucracy has the word “ethics” in its name, does that make it unquestionably fair and impartial? Veteran journalist Jon Margolis recently criticized the Vermont State Ethics Commission for being “politically played” by a far-left group looking to hurt the incumbent (Republican) governor’s reelection chances. Last month, the Institute for Justice sued the Oklahoma Ethics Commission for blocking the public-interest law firm from distributing Bottleneckers: Gaming the Government for Power and Private Profit — “a $15 book” — to state legislators.

No one would argue that New Mexico is America’s ground zero for honest pols, hard-working bureaucrats, and honorable government contractors. But voter skepticism is entirely reasonable when it comes to the “need” for yet another bureaucracy tasked with policing the “public good.” The best solution for secrecy, selfishness, and shadiness at the state and local levels in the Land of Enchantment remains less government, not more.

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