NM legislators fail to pass ethical conduct bill as lobbyists fear unsafe working conditions

Sen. Cervantes stalls the bill by not scheduling it in his committee, but supporters say they will be back with safety reform efforts

By: - March 23, 2023 5:00 am
A statue of several children outside the entrance to the New Mexico state capitol is covered in snow.

Snow fell in Santa Fe on Dec. 12, 2022. Inside lawmakers made changes to the Roundhouse anti-harassment policy. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

An effort to update and standardize professional conduct standards for public employees, including lawmakers, failed to get through the 2023 legislative session. As a result, lobbyists say people who work and visit the Roundhouse will still need to assign their own measures to feel safe in Santa Fe.

House Bill 5, Conduct of Current and Former Public Officials, would’ve updated the Governmental Conduct Act, which sets ethical and legal requirements for public officers and employees to follow.

The bill passed unanimously through the House of Representatives on March 8. With ten days left in the 60-day session, the proposal never got a start in the other chamber as Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) never scheduled it in the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

Without a vote, the proposal died because of time. 

Bill sponsor Rep. Kathleen Cates (D-Rio Rancho) said she’s not sure why the legislation wasn’t scheduled in the Senate. 

Cervantes, chair of Senate Judiciary, didn’t respond to multiple calls and emails from Source New Mexico requesting comment about his scheduling.

“It’s a little disheartening,” Cates said.

The current conduct act already lays out that public employees can’t ask for money or something else of value in exchange for a vote or other official favors, but this bill would’ve specified that sexual acts also can’t be traded.

It’s something that business owner and lobbyist Nick Voges says seems obvious.

Voges, a supporter of Cate’s Legislation, said the bill would’ve helped change harmful culture in the Roundhouse that shouldn’t stay the same.

“Anything, of course, that will work to change the culture up there, and this would, is absolutely a step in the right direction and is necessary,” he said.

Lan Sena is the policy director of the Center for Civic Policy, a nonprofit organization focused on public policy. She said the Legislature is unsafe for many people, including lobbyists and members of the public.

Lobbyists had safety plans and trainings for NM’s 2023 session, fearing misconduct by lawmakers

She said legislation like House Bill 5 could move the needle to change the Roundhouse’s “culture of harassment.” The culture remains the same, making the Legislature dangerous for many, she said.

“As much as we will try through legislation to address these issues and to also provide remedies for our survivors, the culture, again, remains,” she said.

Cates was a new legislator this session, serving Bernalillo and Sandoval Counties. She said she comes from a nonprofit background and was shocked at how few documented ethical policies are in place for the Legislature. 

Out of the four other bill sponsors joining Cates  — Reps. Reena Szczepanski (D-Santa Fe), Tara Jaramillo (D-Socorro), Charlotte Little (D-Albuquerque) and Eleanor Chàvez (D-Albuquerque) – only one, Chàvez, had experience as an elected member of the Legislature before this session.

Cates said the women pushing for this proposal were surprised that the Legislature “lacks what we believe to be some basic guidance.”

Cates said the Senate Judiciary is usually swamped with a lot of bills, and there were hundreds of others that weren’t heard in the committee, either. Still, she said, this was a really vital measure to get passed and it could’ve been prioritized or reassigned.

Another safety-related bill had to make it through the Senate Judiciary — House Bill 169, which would allow people who file harassment complaints to the interim Legislative Ethics Committee to speak up about it.

Before making it to the governor’s desk, where it now sits, bill sponsors and advocates spoke before the Senate committee last week about the harassment-related legislation — in front of a committee member with several sexual misconduct allegations against him.

Bill at gov’s desk would lift ‘gag order’ for people filing legislative harassment complaints

Voges said he was asked by supporters of House Bill 169, who wanted to speak about it in Senate Judiciary, to be there as well so they could feel safer. 

He rushed to get a babysitter, he said, so people would feel comfortable talking in front of Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto (D-Albuquerque).

“It’s just gross that people feel unsafe,” he said. “Like they have to ask someone like me to hang around so that they feel okay.”

Allegations against Ivey-Soto for harassment and retaliation were stalled due to the legislative process for people who file claims through the Legislative Council Services. The months-long investigative report was confidential. A leaked copy of the independent investigation revealed Ivey-Soto might’ve violated the policy, but no action was taken to further pursue the case because lawmakers voted in a tie, effectively ending the investigation.

Sena said it’s heartbreaking that survivors of sexual harassment have to go in front of a senator whose been accused of harassment and intimidation.

“I know that the culture remains, and, because of that, people will continue to be assaulted and harassed,” she said.

Trying again next year

Cates said she plans to introduce her governmental conduct bill again next session. But she said it’s problematic that it didn’t get through in 2023. 

“When we work on it again next year, that’s a whole ‘nother year of not having clarity and not having a written policy that’s updated,” she said.

Next year’s legislature meets for 30 days and has a priority to pass just a state budget. All other proposals need substantial support from prominent lawmakers or the governor. 

Without this legislative reform, Voges said people will continue to feel unsafe, and there will be another year of people attempting to create a better environment through safety plans or other similar initiatives.

“The consequences are that the public, they don’t feel safe,” he said. “The consequence is that there’s still a lot of work to be done to change this culture and for the public to feel safe in what should be the people’s house.”

Sena, whose organization circulated safety plans ahead of the 2023 New Mexico Legislature and held safety trainings for it, said people will have to continue doing those things. Until a senator with multiple misconduct allegations faces real consequences and there’s an independent, transparent process guarding the Legislature, she said, things won’t change.

“We have already heard of more and more people getting harassed and assaulted,” she said. “So how many more people does it take to actually take this seriously?”

Sena said there are serious issues when pieces of legislation like House Bill 5 easily get through the House side but are stalled in the Senate.

Cates said in order to prioritize it next year, she’d like some senators to also sponsor the bill and be part of writing it up, so there’s more ownership of it over there.

“It has to get done.”


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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.