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Secretary of state prepared to defend new rules in court

SANTA FE – Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said Wednesday she’s prepared to go to court to defend proposed New Mexico campaign rules aimed at requiring more disclosure in political spending.

However, the first-term Democratic secretary of state also acknowledged her office will have to educate candidates and the general public about the rules’ impact when they are enacted by the Secretary of State’s Office later this year.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver

“There is a lot of misunderstanding about what’s currently in statute, what the courts have decided and what this rule is trying to address,” Toulouse Oliver told reporters.

Her comments came after the fourth – and likely last – public hearing on the proposed rules, which have been revised from their original form based on feedback and could be changed again before being enacted. That’s expected to happen by mid-October.

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The rules, which would be the first of their kind in New Mexico, have been touted as bringing more transparency to state campaign spending laws, large parts of which have been struck down by courts.

However, they have been greeted by sharp criticism from several conservative-leaning groups, who claim the rules would curb free speech rights and could lead to individuals being harassed because of their political donations.

Roughly 25 people showed up for Wednesday’s public hearing at the state Capitol, which turned testy at times. At one point, a critic of the proposed rules bristled at a suggestion “paid operatives” were leading the opposition to the proposed rules.

Many of those present who opposed the rules were volunteers with Concerned Veterans for America, a Virginia-based group that has sent roughly 20,000 mailers to New Mexico residents and launched a digital ad blitz.

Several critics have suggested legal challenges could be forthcoming if the Secretary of State’s Office implements the rules, which are largely based on bipartisan legislation that was vetoed earlier in April by Gov. Susana Martinez.

“I believe I have First Amendment rights that are slowly being abridged,” said Leland Thomas Taylor of Albuquerque.

But backers of Toulouse Oliver’s proposed rules say the secretary of state is on solid legal footing, while also expressing concern about the influence of “dark money” in New Mexico elections.

“There’s not a thing in here that’s unconstitutional,” said Viki Harrison of Common Cause New Mexico, a group that supports the proposed rules and worked with the Secretary of State’s Office to help draft them.

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Democratic Party of New Mexico Chairman Richard Ellenberg testified Wednesday he believes the secretary of state has the authority to enact the rules, and said the party supports increasing political disclosure requirements.

However, Ellenberg also expressed concern about several provisions in the proposal, including a section dealing with allowable campaign debt that he said could cause confusion in the final frantic days of a political campaign.

The rules would require groups active in New Mexico campaigns – but not coordinating with candidates – to disclose their significant donors if they spend more than $2,500 on any single political advertisement for a statewide race or more than $7,500 total in an election cycle. Those figures would be lower for races or ballot measures that are not statewide, including legislative races.

New Mexico already requires candidates and political committees to file reports disclosing the identities of all their donors, regardless of contribution size.

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