SANTA FE, N.M. — Editor’s note: This is part of a series of occasional columns on groups attempting to shape public policy in New Mexico.
A new tax-exempt “social welfare” group that has aired radio ads and mailed fliers in support of Gov. Susana Martinez’s actions on public education, taxes and alleged Medicaid fraud has ties to the Republican governor and the GOP.
Most recently, the group, New Mexico Competes, blasted Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Winston Brooks in a flier for opposing the administration’s new system to evaluate teachers.
The president of New Mexico Competes is former Republican state Sen. Duncan Scott, an Albuquerque lawyer who served on a Martinez transition team after her election in 2010.
The secretary and treasurer is Albuquerque lawyer and lobbyist Pat Rogers, a member of the Republican National Committee. Rogers resigned last year from a prominent law firm after disclosure of an email he wrote to Martinez staff joking that the governor had dishonored Gen. George Armstrong Custer by attending a summit with Indian leaders.
Also serving as a director of New Mexico Competes is Rich Beeson of Parker, Colo., political director for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the Republican’s bid for the presidency in 2012 and former political director for the Republican National Committee.
The executive director of New Mexico Competes is Sara Lister, who, as a Martinez appointee, served as deputy secretary of the Department of Workforce Solutions. She left the job last spring.
Lister also has done political work for several prominent Republicans in New Mexico and was a senior aide to Richard Berry after his election as Albuquerque mayor in 2009.
Martinez didn’t form New Mexico Competes and doesn’t control its activities, according to her representatives.
In an email, Rogers said the group “was established to engage and inform New Mexicans about the importance of education reform and responsible fiscal policy, in order to enhance our state’s ability to compete for jobs, economic growth and opportunity.”
The email also said:
“The current conversation about education reform is important and should continue. New Mexico must do more for our children’s future.”
You can learn more on the group’s website, www.newmexicocompetes.org.
New Mexico Competes is organized as a tax-exempt 501(c)(4), or “social welfare” group, under the federal Internal Revenue Code.
The Internal Revenue Code and IRS rules don’t require such organizations to publicly disclose their financial backers, and New Mexico Competes has declined to do so. Such organizations are sometimes referred to as “dark money” groups because they don’t have to disclose.
In September, New Mexico Competes aired radio spots supporting the administration’s decision to suspend Medicaid payments to 15 behavioral health providers because of alleged fraud.
The group also has produced a radio ad applauding Martinez and legislative leaders for passage and enactment of an omnibus tax bill last spring. Among other things, the bill cut the top-end corporate tax rate and allowed some TV shows filmed in New Mexico to receive larger rebates.
This month, New Mexico Competes has mailed fliers supporting the administration’s new evaluation system for public school teachers and accusing APS superintendent Brooks of misleading the public about the system.
A 501(c)(4) like New Mexico Competes can engage in political activities as along as it is “primarily engaged in promoting in some way the common good and general welfare of the community.”
New Mexico Competes, for example, could expressly advocate for Martinez’s re-election next year, although it hasn’t done so in its broadcast and printed materials.
Use of 501(c)(4)s as political tools has spiked since the Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, which freed such organizations, businesses, unions and others to spend as much as they want on elections as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates.
If New Mexico Competes were to coordinate with Martinez’s re-election campaign, the governor would have to publicly report the value of the support, and the support would be subject to state limits on the size of campaign contributions.
A 501(c)(4) is different from a plain Jane political action committee or a super PAC. Those groups are formed for primarily political purposes and must publicly disclose donations and expenditures.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.