Monday, January 26, 2009

Ethics Graveyard Open For Business At Roundhouse; Two Big Ones Already Headed There, Plus: More On UNM Salary Front, And: The Monday Bottom Lines 

Boy, that was fast. Legislators barely had time to catch their opening week colds and already ethics legislation was on the deathbed. About that independent ethics commission with subpoena power? Call in Archbishop Sheehan. Time for the Last Rites. It was referred to three committees, also known as a Santa Fe Burial. And then there's the annual move to open up those conference committees between the House and Senate--an obscure item for the general public--but a big deal for government watchdogs and press types tired of seeing laws drafted behind closed doors and by a few select lawmakers. But Attorney General Gary "Open Government" King says not so fast--the closed conference committees, he argues, actually help speed up the legislative process.

Hey, everyone who was worried about voting against opening up those meetings, please gather under that big tent Gary has built in the Roundhouse parking lot. It will give you plenty of cover.

Then there's the question of expanding public financing of campaigns. Fugheddaboutit! ABQ Senator Eric Griego's bill has also received the near-death sentence of three committee referrals. Griego, who had success pushing public financing while on the ABQ city council, admits a funeral notice appears imminent for his measure.

How about pay to play reform? Maybe this one can avoid getting killed in the crib.

Not everyone is surprised how quickly ethics legislation seems to be falling by the wayside. Veteran observer Jay Miller quipped before the start of the session: "Ignoring ethics reforms this year will be especially embarrassing but Senate leaders will find a way."

It seems even those national headlines over the CDR bond firm pay to play investigation and which cost Big Bill a cabinet position with Obama may not be enough to bring ethics reform to life. But there is still plenty of time, if not much hope.


Sen. Feldman
The granddaddy of ethics reform in our Enchanted Land is capping campaign contributions. If you haven't lost all your dough in the stock market or real estate crashes, you can turn it all over to your favorite politician--no matter the amount. Not that you would do such a silly thing, but there are a few bigwigs who have been known to dote on their favorite politicos with contributions up to and even well over $50,000. Of course, no New Mexico politician would ever be influenced by such a showing of munificence. Never! No way! Really. Relax, it can't happen. Don't you trust anyone?

Perhaps surprisingly, the contribution cap still has some legs, albeit of the wobbly variety. Senate Majority Leader Sanchez told his hometown newspaper he thinks some kind of cap has a good chance of passing.

But there is a potential problem with the bill sponsored by ABQ Dem State Senator Dede Feldman. Some say it could actually increase spending in the races run by the 112 members of the House and Senate. The reason: The legislation caps contributions to legislators at $2300 per election, but if you glance at finance reports, contributions of that amount are rarely given to the part-time solons. The vast majority of the giving is well below the $1000 level.

The Feldman measure adopts current federal campaign contribution limits for legislative races. For statewide campaigns contributions would be limited to $5,000 per election. Most observers agree that would start dealing out the really big money in those expensive contests, but there could be work to be done on that legislative cap.

Some suggest that the legislative cap be put at $500 or $1000. Otherwise, you are inviting the politicos to push for the maximum contributions--(yes, they are known to do such things)--and actually drive up the cost of legislative campaigns.

It could all end up to be an academic exercise. If history is any guide, the campaign money cap may be destined to join its brethren--the ethics commission and the open conference committees--in a place that is more crowded than the Rio Chama at happy hour--the New Mexico Ethics Graveyard.


Why is the ethics graveyard still open for business after a parade of state ethics scandals on the eve of the Legislature? Individual lawmakers may not be feeling the heat at the grassroots level. The electorate is concerned, but also sees politicos being prosecuted. It is a mixed bag to the average voter who remains numbed by the subject of money and politics. We've long recommend a single-minded approach to reform--target one major bill per session and hammer it home. Try to galvanize the public, press, Governor and Attorney General on that single proposal. Why ethics watchdogs reject that approach after years of failure is a source of continued bemusement.


It's probably not helping the ethics lobbyists that they are refusing to support the attorney general in calling for liberal nonprofit groups that got heavily involved in the '08 legislative campaigns to be required to disclose their donations and how they spend them. Some of those same lobbyists are affiliated with the controversial nonprofits who say they are advocating for issues, not campaigning for or against candidates and don't have to report to the public. But the attorney general sees it differently as do a myriad of observers--on both the left and right-- who are warning that the state is getting what amounts to a third political party--the nonprofit party--but one that is exempted from the usual checks and balances.

The hypocrisy is giving lawmakers an excuse to push back. The far left got a bloody nose with the election of Senator Tim Jennings as pro tem and they may get more of them---from the courts and the Legislature--if they insist that they are exempt from the rules that they demand others play by. Don't say we didn't tell you....


The University of New Mexico doesn't see anything outrageous about the pay of it's chief financial officer and executive vice-president David Harris. That's what we called his $428,000 salary and a pile of "deferred compensations" in our Friday blog (Our initial draft erroneously said $438,000). We also wondered if the Legislature is going to start reining in abusive pay at the university and elsewhere in government as we deal with a fiscal crisis that is cramping services to taxpayers. A spokeswoman for UNM comes with this response:

Harris' combined salary is NOT the $428,000 as claimed by the ABQ Journal (or the $438,000 you reported) but actually $378,100. That's not chicken feed, but it is below what his counterparts are paid at comparable universities...At Texas Tech...his job functions ...are performed by two individuals whose base salaries...exceed $419,000. ...In 2008, his base salary was increased not by the 16 percent claimed by the Journal, but by 3.5 percent...His deferred compensation was increased, not by the $50,000 claimed by the Journal, but by half that amount..

While it is true that Harris received deferred compensation...of $50,000 at the end of 2008, the payment was made pursuant to Harris' 2006 contract and was an incentive for him to continue his services to the University through the Presidential transition...

We don't see the Journal rushing to make any corrections so they must be sticking with their story And why would UNM give Harris $50,000 when it was about to impose a hiring and pay freeze? Perhaps the Legislature can get the details. As for Harris' pay not being out of line with "comparable" institutions, well, it's not as if high university salaries elsewhere are not being greeted with public scepticism.


New Mexico is a small state with low per capita income and low wages. Like the national divide between corporate CEO pay and workers' salaries, the pay gap between UNM administrators and average taxpayers has gotten out of whack. If a $35,000 a year state clerk is going to be asked to sacrifice, surely those at the top of of the food chain should. We should add that Harris says he would "sacrifice" if UNM President Schmidly would ask.

The uneasiness over high UNM administrative pay while the school endures a hiring and pay freeze has faculty and staff asking for more scrutiny. When the money flowed downhill from oil and gas revenues, there was a lot of looking the other way. But now 13 percent of this state's population is receiving food stamps, unemployment is on the rise, we have a state budget shortfall of $453 million and uncertainty over if and when we will get back to where we were. Perhaps UNM is right and Mr. Harris and others are not unduly compensated, but the question needs to be asked. And the asking has to come in the halls of the Legislature.


ABQ Dem Congressman Martin Heinrich has gotten on the pay freeze bandwagon. He has co-sponsored the "Stop the Congressional Pay Raise Act" that would block the $4,700 automatic pay hike for members of Congress. It took effect this month. A congressman now makes $174,000. Southern Dem Congressman Harry Teague is also a co-sponsor. Bully for them. But if the measure fails--highly likely--will Martin and Harry forgo their pay raises? It's one thing to talk the talk, but walking the walk?

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