You cannot legislate ethical behavior. I know. I’m beginning to sound like a broken record on this subject. But, it’s true. You might recall that Governor Bill Richardson, our Governor who is currently under federal investigation for the rampant pay-to-play practices of his administration, convened an ethics task force some time ago to come up with recommendations on how to create an ethical government. Yeah, the irony here is overwhelming.
You might also recall that as part of the “solution package” for making government more ethical there was a recommendation to put legislators on the payroll. Maybe, you even remember the rationale provided by one former Governor:
Carruthers said the panel may discuss something he has long favored – a stipend for lawmakers, who are unpaid although they get expense reimbursement.
When legislators are uncompensated, “there’s always one or two that might feel it necessary to take some compensation in another way,” said Carruthers, who is dean of business at New Mexico State University.
Now, I completely disagree with Governor Carruthers that giving unethical people a salary is going to make them walk the straight and narrow. In fact, if we think of all of the people who have been thrown in jail, or who are under investigation, for unethical and illegal behavior, we will find that most of them were pulling down a rather nice salary at the time.
With that said, it does look like Governor Carruthers was dead on when he stated, “there’s always one or two that might feel it necessary to take some compensation in another way.” Take Senate Judiciary Chairman Cisco McSorley for example:
Essentially, Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, is taking the per diem and other reimbursements he is entitled to from the state for travel as a lawmaker, then also reimbursing himself for additional travel expenses out of his campaign fund.
But, wait, it gets better…
McSorley, according to the Journal, “said he has done nothing wrong and that he doesn’t consider the per diem he receives from the state to be an allowance for lodging, meals and incidental expenses.
“That is supposed to be trying to make up for what I lost at home” while away from work, the Journal quoted McSorley as saying.
You’ve got to be kidding me. Senator McSorley is Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and he is a lawyer. Which leaves us only two possible conclusions with regard to his statement that per diem is intended to replace lost wages:
- he is inept.
- he is unethical.
How do we limit it to just these two possibilities? Simple. Let’s look at number one first. The New Mexico Constitution is crystal clear on the purpose of per diem, and how it is to be calculated:
Each member of the legislature shall receive:
A. per diem at the internal revenue service per diem rate for the city of Santa Fe for each day’s attendance during each session of the legislature and the internal revenue service standard mileage rate for each mile traveled in going to and returning from the seat of government by the usual traveled route, once each session as defined by Article 4, Section 5 of this constitution;
B. per diem expense and mileage at the same rates as provided in Subsection A of this section for service at meetings required by legislative committees established by the legislature to meet in the interim between sessions; and
The same section of our state constitution is equally clear when it comes to additional types of compensation our legislators entitled to receive for providing legislative services:
That’s right “no other compensation, perquisite or allowance” is permitted. Since paying legislators a salary has come up several times during Senator McSorley’s tenure, it is can only be assumed that he is inept if he is unaware of these prohibitions. Alternately, if he is aware of these constitutional limitations, then that leaves us to conclude that he has been acting, at best, unethically.
So, which is it?