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Parts of State’s Public Campaign Financing Law at Stake

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Republicans are challenging another state law designed to reduce the influence of money in politics.

The target this time is provisions of the law providing for public financing of campaigns for the Appeals and Supreme courts and the Public Regulation Commission. The GOP calls it “welfare for politicians.”

The Republican Party previously challenged some of the state’s new ceilings on the size of political donations, and a federal judge in January tossed some limits on contributions to political committees.

The latest lawsuit was filed last month in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque. The defendant is Secretary of State Dianna Duran, who oversees the voluntary public-financing system for statewide judicial and PRC candidates.

Colin Hunter, a vice chairman of the Bernalillo County Republican Party and the lawyer who filed the case, says it’s a conservative principle that the making of campaign contributions is free speech protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

But Hunter acknowledges there might be a “self-interest component” in the GOP challenging restrictions on campaign finance.

Under New Mexico’s system for public financing of campaigns, candidates for statewide judgeships and the PRC qualify for public financing by collecting a certain number of $5 donations. Candidates receive differing amounts of money, depending upon the number of voters in their parties and whether they face opposition in the primary or general elections.

The publicly financed candidates for the two PRC seats up for election this year will receive up to $80,796. The only statewide judicial race is for a slot on the Appeals Court, and candidates for that will get a maximum of $260,677.

Here’s the major legal issue:

Publicly financed candidates are eligible for additional money if they are outspent by their opponents — whether publicly or privately funded — and the independent supporters of their opponents.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar matching provision in Arizona last year, citing the free speech rights of privately funded candidates. They might be reluctant to spend money on speech if they know it’s going to be countered by publicly financed speech, the court said.

In its session that ended in February, the Legislature considered but failed to pass a bill that would have done away with the matching provision based on opposition spending and replaced it with a matching provision based on the number of $5 donations collected by candidates.

The lawsuit asks that the matching provision based on opposition spending be declared unconstitutional. It also is challenging a provision that requires additional filing of campaign finance reports by candidates who decide not to accept public financing.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the Bernalillo County Republican Party, New Mexicans for Economic Recovery and Albuquerque lawyer Dan Dolan.

The treasurer for New Mexicans for Economic Recovery is Christopher Collins, chairman of the county Republican Party and a lawyer with the firm of former state Sen. Mickey Barnett, a former member of the Republican National Committee. Hunter also is a member of that firm.

The lawsuit appears almost certain to succeed at least in part, given the Supreme Court ruling in the Arizona case and other federal court decisions in recent years on campaign finance.

The question is how the case will affect public financing for this year’s Appeals Court and PRC elections. Will candidates accept public financing without a mechanism to obtain additional money should they be outspent by privately financed opponents?

The office of Secretary of State Duran, a Republican, says it hopes to have the lawsuit resolved quickly.

Hunter says he expects Duran to agree not to enforce the matching provision.

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.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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