Commentary: New Mexico: A state in need of reform

February 5, 2017 GMT

Political corruption continues to be a major issue in New Mexico, making legislation to improve government accountability and transparency a major need as we begin the 60-day legislative session. Most recently, Taxation and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla resigned from her job in the midst of an embezzlement and tax evasion investigation. However, scandals regarding elected and appointed officials in the state have been rampant of late, including the arrests of former state senators, Public Regulations Commission members several state officers.

Most troubling, while the secretary of state is the official state government ethics regulator, three individuals who have held this position in a row have been accused of wrongdoing while holding this important office. It is not surprising that the Center for Public Integrity and other independent report cards consistently rank New Mexico among the worst states in ethics and government accountability. For example, New Mexico is among the minority of states (seven in total) that lack an independent ethics commission. The only positive that might come from these high-profile and embarrassing events is that they remind the public that we are in desperate need of ethics reform.

A new survey conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy at The University of New Mexico provides some fresh data on how the New Mexico public views corruption and the amount of trust the public has in our government. One of the key inquiries we made in this section of the larger survey was whether the New Mexico community believes that we have a culture of corruption in the state due to a long history of political corruption and recent high-profile scandals. More specifically, we asked respondents to let us know which of the two statements came closer to their view on the issue of corruption in the state:

“New Mexico has a culture of political corruption that cannot be improved by reform efforts so we just have to accept that some of this will be part of our political system.”

“Political corruption is not acceptable here in New Mexico and our political leaders should implement reforms such as an independent ethics commission to improve our political system.”

As reflected in the figure below, the vast majority (72 percent) of New Mexican adults believe that the state’s political leaders should implement reforms such as an independent ethics commission. In fact, although self-defined liberals are more supportive of reforms, only 27 percent of conservatives believe that New Mexico has a culture of corruption that cannot be improved by reform efforts. This is a positive sign, as it provides direct evidence that despite having good reason to believe that corruption is endemic of our political system, the state’s population reject that there is a culture of corruption that cannot be reversed through legislative action.

Finally, the survey also measured the level of political agency among New Mexicans, or whether respondents believed they had the ability to influence local government decision-making. As the figure below illustrates, citizens of New Mexico do not have high levels of efficacy, as nearly 40 percent report that they have “no” influence on the decisions made by government, compared to another 38 percent who believe that they have only “a little” influence.

Seemingly widespread corruption together with low levels of trust in government and political efficacy do not paint a pretty picture. This begs the question, what can be done to reverse these trends and begin building more public confidence in our elected officials? We believe that the answer lies in the creation of an independent ethics commission here in New Mexico. This is not a new concept, as all but seven states (including New Mexico) across the nation already have an ethics commission to provide accountability. In fact, seven states have more than one commission!

We believe that our state desperately needs a well-funded, independent and highly staffed commission to oversee ethics more than ever before. The data we are presenting also reveals that this would be welcomed by the public, as more than 70 percent of the respondents in this poll support the creation of an independent ethics commission. Our data is not unique on this point, as 61 percent of New Mexican voters indicated that they support establishing an ethics commission, according to a recent Common Cause survey. In fact, according to that poll, 59 percent of New Mexicans said they would support a candidate who strongly pushes for campaign finance and ethics reform.

State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto has introduced a bill that is intended to address political corruption by creating a bipartisan board that would review complaints or tips from the public and ensure that they are forwarded to the right agencies for investigation. The legislation also would empower this committee to track investigations and provide more transparency by placing the status of investigations on the internet for the public to view.

Some may argue that the economic crises facing our state will require the state to postpone major ethics reform. After all, the establishment of a robust and well-resourced commission will cost money at a time when there is not enough to go around. However, we must also consider the cost of inaction. A recent report conducted by our colleagues in the Department of Political Science at UNM has found that political corruption has a marked impact on our state’s sluggish economy that continues to lag behind the rest of our neighboring states. Ethics reform should therefore be considered among other policy solutions intended to increase economic development.

We believe that New Mexico is facing a critical juncture in our state’s political history. Substantial reforms are needed to decrease the amount of corruption, which will give our electorate a reason to be more engaged with the political system. Although the current political climate has left a lot to be desired, perhaps it can serve to motivate the political will needed to bring real reform to our political institutions that will begin the process of not only improving trust in government among the citizenry, but also improving the state’s economy.

Gabriel R. Sanchez is a professor of political science, executive director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy at The University of New Mexico and a principal at Latino Decisions, a national survey firm that focuses on political behavior and policy attitudes. Melina Juárez is a Ph.D. candidate in political science and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Doctoral Fellow at UNM. Brooke Abrams is a Ph.D. candidate in political science and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Doctoral Fellow at UNM.

Survey Methodology

The New Landscapes of a Majority-Minority State study was conducted from Sept. 3 to Sept. 27, 2016, and relied on a total sample of 1,505 respondents, of which 753 interviews were conducted through a mixed-mode approach over the phone (603 landline and 150 cellphone) and 752 through the web to capture a wider segment of the New Mexican population that lacks a landline telephone or prefer to engage in online surveys. The Pacific Market Research in Renton, Wash., administered all the phone calls, and the interviewers were fully bilingual. All samples were combined and weighted to match the 2013 Current Population Survey universe estimate for the state of New Mexico with respect to age, place of birth, race/ethnicity, gender and state. The survey consisted of about 96 questions, including several skip pattern questions. On average, the length of the survey was about 20 minutes. With a response rate of 17.7 percent for the telephone sample, the survey has an overall margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent.