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Legislators re-gift campaign dollars

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State legislators reported receiving more than $1.1 million in campaign contributions over a six-month period that ended last month.

The overwhelming majority of the money came from business interests, unions, political committees, lobby shops and American Indian tribes.

But in following money in politics, where legislators get their campaign funds is half of the equation. The other half is how they spend it.

Lawmakers reported spending more than $570,000 from their campaign accounts in the six months that ended April 7. All 70 seats in the House are up for election this year, but none of the 42 seats in the Senate is.

An analysis of where the money went found legislators like re-gifting campaign dollars.

Lawmakers reported making more than $160,000 in contributions to fellow legislators, candidates for public office and political committees. They also made more than $25,000 in charitable donations.

In addition to permitting campaign funds to be spent on actual campaign expenses, New Mexico law allows candidates for state and county offices to contribute to other candidates and political parties, as well as make donations to nonprofit groups or the state general fund.

Legislators also created another spending category in law solely for themselves: “expenditures of legislators that are reasonably related to performing the duties of the office held, including mail, telephone and travel expenditures to serve constituents, but excluding personal and legislative session living expenses.”

The reason for the provision is that compensation and expense reimbursements for lawmakers are limited. They receive a per diem, or daily payment, while the Legislature is in session and for committee hearings between sessions. They also receive mileage reimbursements, although reimbursements during sessions are limited to one round trip.

I analyzed more than 1,800 expenditures by legislators over the six-month reporting period. Excluded from the analysis were expenditures by three senators on their campaigns this year for statewide office.

The amount of campaign money spent by legislators varied widely. Three lawmakers reported more than $23,000 in expenditures; four reported spending nothing. The average was about $5,100.

Because of a lack of detail with some reported expenditures and because some legislators lump together expenditures of different types, it was impossible to categorize each expenditure.

However, it was clear that political donations represented a major spending category for legislators.

With about $51,000 in contributions and nearly $25,000 in expenditures over the six-month period, Rep. Brian Egolf ranked in the top 5 in both categories despite having no primary election opposition and no Republican opponent in the fall election.

The expenditures by Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat, included $8,000 in donations in other Democratic House candidates. He said the reason for the contributions is to try to ensure that his party remains the majority in the House.

“I know for certain that the great majority of the things I care about and the things my constituents care about would be impossible in a Republican-controlled House,” he said.

Legislators also spent a large chunk of their campaign funds on constituent mailings and other printing costs. Those expenses totaled more than $97,000.

Other big spending items, in addition to charitable donations: advertising, food, travel, phones, consulting and travel.

Some of the expenditures reported by legislators:

  • House Republican floor leader Donald Bratton of Hobbs contributed a total of $16,000 to legislators and legislative candidates after announcing he would not seek re-election.
  • Democratic Rep. Henry “Kiki” Saavedra of Albuquerque, who also isn’t seeking re-election, donated $5,000 each to the leadership fund of House Speaker Ken Martinez, D-Grants; the Keep New Mexico House Majority political action committee and New Mexico Freedom PAC.
  • Rep. Emily Kane, D-Albuquerque, reported spending $5,000 in campaign funds on legal services. Kane, a firefighter elected to the House in 2012, has challenged a provision in the Albuquerque City Charter that seeks to bar city employees from holding state elected office.
  • Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, paid son Jeff Varela a total of $3,580 for constituent services during the monthlong legislative session that began in mid-January.

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 www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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