Proposed 'dark money' rules draw praise, criticism

SANTA FE – Some much-needed light on “dark money” spending or an infringement on free speech rights?

New Mexico campaign spending rules that would require more donor disclosure from groups spending big money on political advertisements generated strong reactions Thursday, at the first of three scheduled public hearings.

More than 50 people showed up for the hearing at the state Capitol, and the proposed rules received support from more than a dozen local residents who say they would make New Mexico's campaign finance laws more transparent and less confusing.

“Free speech is vital to our democracy, as is knowing who paid for these (political) advertisements,” said Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a group that supports the proposed rules and worked with Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver's office to help draft them.

However, the rules were the target of stinging criticism from several conservative-leaning groups, whose members said they could lead to donors being harassed and intimidated if their identities were to be made public.

Burly Cain, the New Mexico state director of Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit group linked to conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, called the rules an “unconstitutional power grab” by the secretary of state.

“You're actively working to try to take away the rights of people to speak their mind,” he said during Thursday's hearing. “The right of voters to freely speak their minds, and not disclose their information, is important.”

The rules, unveiled last month, would require groups active in New Mexico campaigns to disclose their donors if they spend more than $1,000 on political advertising during an election cycle.

In addition, they would require donor disclosure if a political advertisement meeting the spending threshold had “no other reasonable interpretation” than as an appeal to vote for or against a candidate or ballot measure.

Several national nonprofit groups launched a barrage of opposition against the proposed campaign spending rules in the days leading up to Thursday's hearing.

Concerned Veterans for America, a Virginia-based group that's also backed by the Koch brothers, sent roughly 20,000 mailers to New Mexico residents and launched a digital ad blitz targeting the rules.

Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat who was elected last year, told reporters after Thursday's hearing that she will listen to feedback from all parties but that she would put an emphasis on comments from New Mexico residents.

She also defended her authority to administratively implement the rules, which are based in part on legislation that Republican Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed earlier this year, and said some critics have tried to distort their intent.

“I think there has been a misrepresentation by certain groups and individuals … that this is about requiring individuals to disclose,” she said, adding that it would be the responsibility of qualifying groups to disclose donor information.

The Secretary of State's Office is holding its two other public hearings on the proposed rules next week – in Albuquerque and Las Cruces – and accepting written feedback through July 19.

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