Take Back Our Republic (www.takeback.org) is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to common-sense, conservative solutions to campaign finance reform. I ran political campaigns for decades before becoming the executive director of Take Back and I know how well-funded special interests manipulate the system for their own benefit.
Right now, “Concerned Veterans for America” – a Koch Brothers-funded organization fighting against transparency in our elections – is targeting New Mexico.
Over the last two months, CV4A placed op-eds in at least three different newspapers, each time defending Gov. Susana Martinez’s veto of Senate Bill 96 – a bill that 9 out of 10 New Mexican voters want. It was also supported by a bipartisan majority in the state Legislature. (An anti-SB 96 op-ed by the group appeared in the Journal on May 26.)
SB 96 would have closed a loophole that “dark money” groups use to get around campaign finance disclosure laws. These groups, often from out of state, run vicious and frequently unfounded attacks – and in return want special consideration to influence government at the expense of local citizens.
SB 96 would have delivered to New Mexico the kind of transparency that allows voters to see who their elected officials really represent, shining a light on who funds the campaigns in exchange for access to state money once a candidate is elected. It was supported by 92 percent of the state’s business community. Democrats and Republicans in New Mexico’s House and Senate worked together to send it to the Governor’s Office to sign into law.
Then it was vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez.
Because of that veto, New Mexico still has two sets of rules. If an individual voter donates more than $200 to a candidate’s campaign, that person’s name, address and occupation are publicly disclosed in campaign finance filings. But nonprofit 501(c)(4) organizations like CV4A can take money without disclosing their donors and then use the money for electioneering, like attack-ad TV commercials and editorial pieces in newspapers.
Virginia-based CV4A is one of the organizations that would have been affected by the provisions of SB 96. CV4A spends millions of dollars each year – including money to support specific candidates and campaigns – but CV4A isn’t required to report who gave them the money they spend.
SB 96 would have leveled the playing field in New Mexico. If Gov. Martinez had signed the bill, donors who pay for political spending through dark money shell groups would have had to meet the same disclosure standards as New Mexico residents who donate directly to candidates’ campaigns.
As the amount of money spent to influence elections continues to increase, transparency in our electoral process becomes even more crucial. Voters deserve to know exactly who is spending money to influence the outcome of a campaign – because it is a clear indication of whose interests might ultimately be served if the candidate is elected.
Special interest influence isn’t a “victimless crime.” It has real, calculable costs to taxpayers that add up to billions of dollars each year. Research shows that states with higher levels of corruption spend more on budget items that benefit special interests and less on issues that benefit citizens. Studies also tie special-interest influence to higher levels of public debt, e.g. debt to fund private construction projects that are touted as “economic development.”
Each state resident pays more than $1,300 extra per year when these practices are allowed to continue, according to a University of Indiana study.
SB 96 wasn’t just a theoretical exercise in good government. It was an effort by citizens, acting through elected representatives, to institute common-sense transparency in New Mexico’s elections, and minimize political favors and access to public officials after the elections.
There will be another legislative session next year and hopefully the state Legislature will again send a disclosure bill – maybe even the same one – to the governor. The integrity of our democratic elections is at stake. New Mexico deserves common-sense, non-partisan disclosure, free from outside dark money influence.
John Pudner managed political campaigns for almost three decades, including Dave Brat’s 2014 upset win over U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.