Ethics Commission is not all it’s cracked up to be

Appearing on New Mexicans’ ballots this fall is Constitutional Amendment 2, which would create a state ethics commission.

To New Mexico’s advocates for “good government,” it’s easy: With an ethics commission in place, corruption will fade, citizen activism will expand, voter turnout will balloon and “public service” will again be a noble calling.

Who could possibly be against that?

The first argument against the ethics commission comes from 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 U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico, and it’s quite clear that one more governmental entity involved in rooting out or 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 re-election chances.

Last month, the Institute for Justice sued the Oklahoma Ethics Commission for blocking the public-interest law firm from distributing a book to state legislators called Bottleneckers: Gaming the Government for Power and Private Profit.

Undoubtedly, New Mexico political leadership has more than its share of bad actors. But that doesn’t mean the problem will be solved by yet another bureaucracy tasked with the “public good.”

How could New Mexico’s myriad ethics problems be addressed? For starters, voters should hold politicians accountable at the ballot box when they display inherent ethical shortcomings. Making politicians pay is the best single way to restore ethics.

A second and oft-ignored path to more ethical behavior is to reduce the size of government and thus reduce the amount of money that can be skimmed off and used to pad the pockets of political ne’er-do-wells.

Smaller, limited government has two salutary impacts.

Most importantly, it limits the raw amount of money available to the political class, forcing a prioritization on core public services. But it also allows journalists, activists, taxpayers and citizens to track and analyze a limited number of bureaucracies, programs and subsidies — as opposed to monitoring an almost-unlimited array of government expenditures.

Paul Gessing is the president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation.