Legislature must restore funding to public election fund - Albuquerque Journal

Legislature must restore funding to public election fund

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Over 10 years ago, in 2007, when then-N.M. House Speaker Ben Lujan and I succeeded in pushing through a bill to publicly finance elections for the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals, we rejoiced at the prospect of keeping big money and special interests out of some of the state’s most important courtrooms.

Since then the system has worked, with candidates from both sides of the aisle spending much less on races than their counterparts in other states, where the cost of judicial campaigns – and the influence of big contributors who have business before the court – has skyrocketed.

But in the past few years, the N.M. Legislature has raided the public election fund, which provides the funding for candidates for the higher courts and the Public Regulation Commission. The money has been used to help the Secretary of State’s Office run regular elections, despite a clear statutory obligation to use the funds to implement the Voter Action Act. Now, as we enter the 2018 election season, the fund is more than $1.5 million short, and the 15 candidates who want to run for some of the state’s highest offices are left in the lurch.

It’s time for the Legislature to keep its promises. In 2015, then-Secretary of State Brad Winter went to the Board of Finance for an emergency loan to cover the costs of financing candidates in five races. He got it. This year, the money is there – and so is the public support.

A University of New Mexico survey taken this fall found that about 55 percent of voters support public financing for all campaigns – and some consider court races to be among the most important to shield the judiciary from the influence of powerful contributors.

In order to qualify for the New Mexico system candidates must raise a large number of small – $5 – contributions from a percentage of registered voters in their districts. In statewide races, it’s usually well over a thousand. They must also agree not to raise private funds and limit their expenditures to the amount they get from the state. It’s not easy, but a large number of judicial candidates have participated since 2014. As a result, costs have remained low, although there is always the possibility that an independent PAC could get into the act, something that the Voter Action Act did not anticipate and cannot prevent.

In 2014 both Republican Miles Hanisee and Democrat Kerry Kiernan ran for the Court of Appeals using the system, keeping the cost of that race down to about $450,000. Two years later when Republican Judith Nakamura ran against Democrat Michael Vigil for the Supreme Court, the race cost $464,000. All four are supporters of the system.

Meanwhile in states like Pennsylvania, without public financing, candidates for three Supreme Court seats spent $15 million, with parties and independent groups kicking in another $5.75 million. In Louisiana, races for the higher court have cost $4.9 million.

But the main benefit of a judicial public financing system is not keeping costs down. It is maintaining an independent judiciary, a bedrock American principle ever since the founding fathers set up three branches of government. Judges elected with public financing are shielded from conflicts and they are no longer dependent on the contributions of those they meet in court, either as lawyers, defendants or plaintiffs.

In New Mexico, we are in danger of losing the high ground we’ve established here thanks to the Voter Action Act. To regain it, the Legislature should replenish the public election fund to fully enable candidates who want to participate in the voluntary system.

Dede Feldman served 16 years in the New Mexico Senate representing Albuquerque. A Democrat, and the sponsor of the Voter Action Act, she is the author of “Inside the New Mexico Senate: Boots, Suits and Citizens and Another Way Forward: Grassroots Solutions from New Mexico.”

 

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