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Santa Fe ethics board wants donors to remain public

SANTA FE – Santa Fe’s Ethics and Campaign Review Board on Thursday unanimously declined to endorse a proposal that aims to lift a requirement that independent committees participating in issue-based elections have to disclose their donors.

The proposed amendment to the city’s campaign code introduced by City Councilor Carmichael Dominguez appears to be in response to a pending lawsuit filed against the city by the Rio Grande Foundation – a “free market” and libertarian-leaning public policy nonprofit group – which disseminated an online video in opposition of a proposal to tax sugar-sweetened beverages. Santa Fe voters in May soundly defeated the proposed 2-cent-per-ounce tax on the distributors of sugary drinks, proceeds of which would have helped fund early childhood education programs.

The lawsuit challenges a city ordinance that requires 501(c)3 organizations to disclose donor information if they spend more than $250 on a ballot initiative.

“I think that’s a very poor way to make legislation,” said board member Paul Biderman, adding that principles shouldn’t be compromised because of a lawsuit or the threat of one.

Biderman went on to say that voters’ rights seem to be eroding through gerrymandering, picture ID laws, and the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision. He said voters should know who is behind campaign material that arrives in their mailbox, or is broadcast on TV and radio or promulgated through social media.

“If we are going to have any basis for judging as a citizenry how to vote on these things, the best available measure we actually have is to know who is behind it,” he said. “That tells us something.”

Two members of the public spoke against the proposal.

Jim Harrington, state chair for Common Cause New Mexico, a nonpartisan group that advocates for open and accountable government, said adopting the amendment could lead to political committees redefining themselves as independent groups so they wouldn’t have to report who is behind the money they spend. “And we would have ballot measure elections with huge amounts of money spent and voters would have no idea who’s spending it and where it’s coming from,” he said.

Former city councilor Karen Heldmeyer said she feared that, if adopted, the amendment would open the door for the rule to be applied to candidate elections.

The Ethics and Campaign Review Board is an advisory committee, so their vote serves as a recommendation to the City Council, which will consider the proposed amendment next month.