This November, voters will weigh in on five amendments to the state Constitution, all of which would reshape state government.
Three will address reforming the dysfunctional Public Regulation Commission, while the other two would make changes in the Public Defender Department and the Judicial Standards Commission.
On July 20, the Legislative Council Service released arguments for and against each amendment, a practice dating back to 1961. A common theme in this year’s arguments faults the amendments for not fully addressing the issues they intend to tackle.
Lawmakers behind the amendments concede that some of LCS’ arguments are valid, but say LCS misunderstands the state Constitution’s role as a guidepost, not a place for fundamental policy changes.
“Laws change all the time, from day to day and year to year,” state House Minority Leader Tom Taylor, R-San Juan, tells SFR. “When you put things in the Constitution, it’s intentionally vague. That way, you can roll with the punch.”
Below, SFR examines the LCS’ arguments for and against each amendment.
Amendment 1: Add two members to the Judicial Standards Commission while requiring one of them to be a municipal judge
The Judicial Standards Commission, which investigates complaints against all levels of New Mexico judges, requires that two of its 11 members be either a state Supreme Court justice, a state appellate judge or a district court judge. But municipal judges currently lack representation on the commission, even though the JSC has the authority to punish them.
“You have guys disciplining municipal judges, and they’re not completely aware of what municipal judges do,” state House Majority Leader Ken Martinez, D-Cibola, tells SFR.
This amendment would change that by adding a municipal judge to the commission.
One LCS argument against the amendment says it would give the commission too many members, limiting its ability to get anything done. Another points out that it would burden taxpayers by increasing the JSC budget.
To the first, Martinez emphasizes that the commission will still have an odd number of members, making majority votes simple. He adds that the extra funding will be minimal, projected to be around $500-$1,000 in added per diem costs (JSC members are not salaried).
Amendment 2: Require the Legislature to establish additional qualifications for elected Public Regulation Commissioners
The PRC has been under scrutiny for years following multiple scandals that led to the ouster of several commissioners, most recently Jerome Block Jr. One amendment dealing with the troubled agency would force the Legislature to write new qualifications for commissioners, who currently must be legal adults and state residents who have not been convicted of a felony.
Many have criticized the idea of letting the Legislature—not the voters—set the new standards.
The LCS argues that the Legislature “needs to adopt a clearly written proposal authorizing it to establish specific qualifications.”
Taylor, a co-sponsor of the amendment, reiterates that constitutional amendments must be vague. He adds that the Legislature is the right body to decide the new standards because its members are elected to represent the public.
Amendments 3 and 4: Move corporation-related duties from the PRC to the Secretary of State, and revoke the PRC’s ability to regulate insurance companies
Taylor also worked closely on these amendments, which would strip duties from the PRC to streamline its sluggish operations. But the LCS argues that moving corporate charters to the Secretary of State’s office doesn’t help businesses because registration is routine and doesn’t “require highly trained technical staff.”
Taylor disputes that argument, noting that the SoS already handles a number of business functions, including registering limited liability partnerships. Adding corporation registries would create a “one-stop shop” for businesses, he says.
Another amendment strips the PRC of its ability to regulate insurance companies, which Taylor and others argue requires a completely different skill set from the utility regulation that occupies much of commissioners’ time. The amendment would set up an Insurance Nominating Committee, appointed by the Legislature, to establish a new Office of the Superintendent of Insurance.
The LCS argues that the move may disenfranchise voters by preventing them from having a say on insurance company regulations. But Taylor says the proposed setup would follow standards set across the country.
“We believe we set a reasonable process to depoliticize that as much as possible,” he says.
Amendment 5: Remove the Public Defender Department from the Corrections Department and make it a stand-alone agency
This amendment would separate the Public Defender Department from the executive branch. State Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Bernalillo, maintains that the current setup is a conflict of interest: Governors never want to be painted as soft on crime, which leads to insufficient state support for public defenders.
“Governors are political animals by their very nature,” Maestas tells SFR.
The amendment would take the department from under the governor’s control, eliminating the conflict of interest.
But one LCS argument against the idea says making the department a stand-alone agency could hinder its ability to request funding without the governor’s support.
“That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” Maestas says. “The governor and the Legislature have historically underfunded the department.”
Maestas does concede part of one argument against the amendment: that it would create a bigger bureaucracy.
“Maybe a tiny, tiny bit,” he says. But he adds that “taking politics out of the agency itself would make it more responsive” and reduce the heavy costs and bureaucracy associated with delays in prosecuting criminals across the state.