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Matching Funds Provision Challenged

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A conservative political action committee is suing to block a provision in Albuquerque’s public-financing system that provides matching funds to participating candidates who are outspent by privately funded opponents.

The nonprofit group, New Mexico Turn Around, filed a complaint in federal court against City Clerk Amy Bailey, alleging that the system of matching funds violates the First and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.

The committee said it wants to spend money opposing City Council incumbent Rey Garduño but won’t do so because he’d get matching funds that neutralize the PAC’s spending. New Mexico Turn Around might want to get involved in other council races, too, it said in the federal complaint.

The matching funds provision “creates a chilling effect on New Mexico Turn Around’s free exercise of protected speech, and imposes a climate of self-censorship that is inimical to our American heritage of unfettered political discourse,” the group said.

Bailey, whose name is misspelled in the lawsuit, said she was just served with the complaint Tuesday and couldn’t offer any immediate comment.

Garduño, a Democrat whose district lies in the Southeast Heights, qualified for about $29,000 in public campaign money this year. He would be eligible for matching funds beyond that if any opposing candidates or groups – privately funded, of course – spent more than that amount in total.

His only opponent in the race so far is Jean Griffin, an independent who’s gathering petition signatures to secure a spot on the ballot. Griffin is a part-time medical laboratory scientist and part-time massage therapist.

She said Tuesday that she has never heard of New Mexico Turn Around and wasn’t aware of its lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in New Mexico.

Garth Simms, a former New Mexico House Republican whip, is NMTA’s president; Robert Aragon, a Democrat and former state legislator, is vice president; and Harvey E. Yates Jr., a former state GOP chairman, is the group’s treasurer.

New Mexico Turn Around is committed to free-market principles, lower taxes and cutting the size of government, according to its website. The group was founded in 2001 and has offices in Albuquerque.

Josiah Neeley, an Indiana-based attorney for New Mexico Turn Around, said the U.S. Supreme Court is already considering a “matching funds” case, which could be decided in the next few weeks.

“We’re confident that they’re going to rule the use of matching funds violates the First Amendment rights of these independent groups,” Neeley said in an interview.

Albuquerque voters adopted the city’s public-financing system for campaigns in 2005. Four years later, all three candidates for mayor participated in the system. That included Richard Berry, a Republican who served in the state House before winning the Mayor’s office.

The Journal wasn’t able to reach Garduño for comment Tuesday.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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