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Rio Grande Foundation sues over Santa Fe campaign disclosure rule

SANTA FE — Saying it was acting on behalf of other non-profit groups and free speech, the Rio Grande Foundation on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against Santa Fe city government, challenging an ordinance that requires 501(c)3 organizations to disclose donors if a non-profit spends more than $250 in support of or opposition to a ballot initiative.

Earlier this year, the Rio Grande Foundation — an Albuquerque-based “free market’ and libertarian-leaning public policy group that advocates for limited government — was reprimanded by the city’s Ethics and Campaign Review Board for violating the ordinance.


Matt Miller, left, senior attorney with the Goldwater Institute, and Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, speak outside the Santa Fe federal courthouse on Wednesday about a lawsuit the Rio Grande Foundation has filed against a Santa Fe campaign finance disclosure ordinance. (T.S. LAST/JOURNAL)

The foundation had distributed an animated video over social media mocking Mayor Javier Gonzales’ ballot proposal to tax distributors of sugar-sweetened beverages. The proposal was soundly defeated in a May special election.

Matt Miller, senior attorney with the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix policy group representing the foundation, said at a news conference in front of the Santa Fe federal courthouse that the lawsuit was aimed at preventing the names, addresses and occupations of donors from becoming public and potentially opening them up to harassment and intimidation from ideological opponents.

Miller said laws such as the one passed in Santa Fe in 2015 are spreading. Albuquerque and Las Cruces have similar laws, he said, and so do cities in Delaware, Missouri, Montana and South Dakota.

“These laws are different from traditional campaign finance regulations where you are required to submit disclosures when you support or oppose a candidate for office,” he said. “These laws involve support or opposition to a municipal ballot initiative, and the (U.S.) Supreme Court has held that the donors of 501(c)3s are protected by the First Amendment.”

Miller said the civil rights laws preventing such disclosure have been on the books since the 1950s, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit has twice made rulings upholding the law.

Asked for comment on the lawsuit, a spokesman said the city does not comment on pending litigation.

The federal lawsuit about protecting people’s privacy, said Paul Gessing, the foundation’s president.

“A mother or someone who is engaged in a political campaign who had nothing to do with the Rio Grande Foundation … those folks shouldn’t have to deal with exposure or having their names out in a public database,” he said.