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Officials approve finance change

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The 2013 regular session of the Legislature was a mixed bag on the issue of money and politics.

Lawmakers approved a bill to correct a constitutional problem with a law that provides for public financing of campaigns for the appeals and supreme courts and Public Regulation Commission.

Under the legislation, the amount of public financing a candidate receives would be based in part on how much the candidate collects in private donations. A private contribution couldn’t exceed $100.

Legislators also approved bills that would require reporting of campaign contributions and expenditures by school board candidates in large districts and by candidates for boards of community colleges and state technical and vocational institutes.

Those measures and the bill on public financing of campaigns are now on the desk of Gov. Susana Martinez for signature or veto.

As for what the Legislature didn’t pass in its session, which ended March 16, it rejected measures to effectively double how much a person could contribute to a candidate for most state and county offices.

The effort to increase the limits on donations came just three years after the caps were imposed.

Lawmakers also failed to approve legislation to address the emergence of so-called super PACs, as well as electioneering by some nonprofit organizations.

Super PACs – a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United Ruling in 2010 – aren’t subject to state and federal limits on amounts of donations because they operate independently of candidates.

Super PACs – including one with ties to Gov. Martinez and another largely funded by organized labor – were active in several races last year for the Legislature.

Super PACs are required, just like other political committees, to report to the Secretary of State’s Office where they get their money and how they spend it.

However, the bill rejected by the Legislature would have specifically prohibited super PACs from coordinating with or contributing to candidates.

In addition, super PACs would have been required to report which candidates or ballot issues they were supporting and to quickly report large expenditures to the Secretary of State’s Office.

The legislation also would have addressed the issue of nonprofit groups that advocate for or against candidates or ballot issues but don’t have to disclose where they get their money or how they spend it because the groups aren’t formed primarily for political purposes.

The bill would have required anyone, including a person or nonprofit, that spends more than $800 in a year on political advocacy to report electioneering expenditures and, in some cases, to disclose who financed the expenditures.

The Senate unanimously approved the legislation, but it never made it to the House floor.

“It is a shame that true disclosure in politics is not a priority for some of our elected officials, leaving us to wonder why we allow independent groups to operate in the dark with no transparency,” said Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a nonpartisan group that lobbies for open government.

Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, was the sponsor of the legislation dealing with super PACs and nonprofit groups. It was the third time that legislation on independent political spending was rejected by the Legislature.

“Intense last-minute lobbying by nonprofits and super PACs sealed its fate,” Wirth said. “With unlimited money flowing into the system on both sides of the aisle, it is imperative that we turn the lights on and let donors see where the money is coming from.”

Wirth also was the sponsor of the bill to fix public financing of some campaigns and said the measure is “one glimmer of hope in a campaign-finance system under siege.”

The House and Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure.

“If Gov. Martinez signs this bill, candidates who participate in public financing for appellate judge races and the PRC have a fighting chance” against privately supported candidates, he said.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at tcole@abqjournal.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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