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Secretary of state planning new campaign funding rules

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Dark-money groups active in New Mexico campaigns would have to disclose their donors if they spend more than $1,000 on political advertising during an election cycle, under new rules proposed by Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver.

In addition, candidates would have to provide more detailed information about how they spend campaign funds – on airfare, vehicle travel and more – to show their spending meets the requirement of being campaign-related.

Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat who was elected to office last year, has moved to administratively enact the rules after Republican Gov. Susana Martinez earlier this year vetoed legislation that would have required more disclosure of political spending.

Large chunks of the proposed rules are based on that legislation, Secretary of State’s Office officials said Tuesday.

“New Mexicans expect and deserve a modern, efficient 21st century campaign finance system, and with this rule I’m pushing to make that a reality,” Toulouse Oliver said in a statement. “This rule will provide much-needed clarity and guidance to help candidates, elected officials and political committees comply with the law.”

The rules unveiled Tuesday would be the first of their kind to be implemented in New Mexico. Candidates and political committees currently rely on broad wording in state law, along with previous rulings from the secretary of state and the attorney general.

However, the proposed rules could face legal challenges, as previous attempts to impose restrictions on independent expenditure groups have been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts.

“If the rules were adopted as they are currently drafted, I would expect to see immediate legal challenges by a number of interested parties based on First Amendment concerns,” former state Elections Director Bobbi Shearer said.

Critics of the legislation vetoed this year by the governor argued it would have curtailed free speech rights and silenced potential donors who could be targeted for supporting controversial political causes.

However, backers of the legislation say those proposed rules would not have gone too far and would merely have required disclosure from big-spending groups and individuals.

Two recent polls by Albuquerque-based Research & Polling Inc. have shown broad public support for increased disclosure requirements on independent political expenditures.

“Everything (the secretary of state) is proposing in these rules is absolutely constitutional,” said Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a group that has pushed for enhanced disclosure laws. “We feel very confident that these rules can withstand any court challenges.”

Under Toulouse Oliver’s proposed rules, any independent expenditures – or political spending not coordinated with a candidate or campaign – would have to be reported, along with the name of the person making the expenditure, if such spending topped $1,000 in an election cycle.

But groups making such expenditures would not automatically have to register with the state as political committees, and bumper stickers, buttons, pins and other small items would be exempt from the reporting requirement.

Independent groups that spend on elections – but for whom electioneering isn’t a primary purpose – don’t currently have to disclose where they’re getting their money and what they’re using it for. Such groups can include nonprofits, unions and business associations, all of which could be covered under the proposed rules.

Meanwhile, allowable campaign spending by candidates under the rules would include campaign-related legal expenses and wear and tear on vehicles used for campaigning, though candidates should be reimbursed for mileage, not actual repairs.

Candidates or campaigns could also seek advice from the Secretary of State’s Office about whether a specific expenditure is allowable before any final ruling is issued.

Three public hearings will be held next month on the proposed campaign finance rules – in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Las Cruces – and they’re expected to be in effect for the 2018 election cycle.

This is not the first time campaign finance rules have been proposed. Then-Secretary of State Dianna Duran also came up with a package of proposed guidelines.

However, those rules were not implemented before Duran resigned from office in October 2015 and pleaded guilty to violating state law by using campaign funds to cover her gambling habit.

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