Lawmakers pass legislation through the House specifying standards of political conduct

Another bill that would lift a gag order on the complaint process is a few steps away from becoming law

By: - March 9, 2023 5:00 am

House Bill 5 lays out professional political standards, and House Bill 169 would change the interim Legislature's complaint process. (Photo by Liam DeBonis for Source NM)

Legislative efforts to ensure professionalism and safety in the Roundhouse are making their way through Santa Fe.

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed House Bill 5 unanimously, with eight legislators excused and one absent representative not voting.

This legislation reorganizes the Governmental Conduct Act, laying out professional political standards.

It specifies that sexual acts are among money and other things of value that can’t be traded for votes by legislators or other resources.

It also puts forth other political conduct public and private officials must adhere to, like revolving door policies that favor former employees. That would mean the state can’t take action for the purpose of benefiting someone who used to work there, for example.

The legislation would increase the maximum total civil penalty for violations in the bill from $5,000 to $10,000.

Sponsor Rep. Kathleen Cates (D-Rio Rancho) said this legislation was spurred because the New Mexico Supreme Court held in the recent case State vs. Gutierrez that New Mexico’s main anti-corruption provisions aren’t specific enough to be criminally enforceable.

Rep. Charlotte Little (D-Albuquerque), a cosponsor, said this legislation strengthens the Governmental Conduct Act “in ways that are long overdue” and will help stop unethical practices.

“It is sad that we must put into statute that a lawmaker cannot demand sexual acts for a vote,” she said. “But here we are.”

Rep. Reena Szczepanski (D-Santa Fe) is another sponsor and said this bill would put into statute what it means for a lawmaker to serve the public.

“We all serve here in the public trust, and we take an oath of office. We took that oath on the opening day,” she said. “And what this legislation does is it breathes life into that oath of office.”

An amendment from Rep. James Townsend (R-Artesia) was tabled that would’ve singled out lobbyists in the bill, specifying that they can’t pressure lawmakers into political acts or offer them sexual favors or other things of value.

Cates said what Townsend tried to do with the amendment is excellent, but the bill is about governmental figures, not lobbyists.

“I am so happy to hear that my very valued colleague is thinking about ethics and being able to make sure that we are communicating to the voters of the state that this is an important value for all of us,” she said.

The floor also approved an amendment clarifying definitions.

Changing the complaint process

Szczepanski is also sponsoring House Bill 169, which would allow anyone who files a complaint with the Legislative Council Service during the interim session not to be bound to a confidentiality agreement. Currently, only the person accused can speak up about these investigations.

The legislation passed the House and is waiting to be heard by the Senate Judiciary, its second Senate committee.

“I just think it’s really important that we have an ongoing focus on making sure the Roundhouse is respectful and that people from every corner of the state can be here and feel safe and respected,” Szczepanski said.

She said it used to be difficult to know even where to bring a complaint. Now, she said, people tend to undermine how hard it can be to speak up.

“It’s really hard to come forward with a complaint — very, very difficult,” she said. “You’re facing potential ramifications for your employment, in your personal life. You’re facing embarrassment.”

Szczepanski said she’s been working on issues related to the anti-harassment policy since 2017. She previously worked as a lobbyist and staffer at the Roundhouse.

She said there’s a lot more work that needs to be done and anticipates more legislation will come in the future.

There has been some progress in modernizing the Roundhouse, she acknowledged, like getting more representation for women in the Roundhouse in the last four years. And now, she said, there is a lot of strong female leadership in the Legislature that helps with safety, too.

Szczepanski is the majority whip for the House. Sen. Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque) also serves as the president pro tempore on the Senate side.

“This institution was not created with women or people of color or people who speak English as a second language or any number of diverse people in mind,” Szczepanski said.


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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.