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Campaign finance overhaul clears hurdle

1370941

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A proposal aimed at shining more light on political spending by “dark-money” groups started moving through the Senate on Monday – amid renewed optimism by supporters that it will become law this year, after nearly a decade of efforts.

The bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, is similar to a measure vetoed by then-Gov. Susana Martinez two years ago. But newly elected Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who took office Jan. 1, says she is open to the legislation and generally supports transparency in campaign spending.

Wirth said the proposal, Senate Bill 3, is necessary because court rulings have blown holes in New Mexico’s campaign reporting law. In 2009, for example, a federal court blocked the state from requiring disclosure by nonprofit advocacy groups that kept their donors secret but targeted some legislators in glossy fliers.

The legislation “is not going to make these dollars go away,” Wirth said, “but at least the voters will know when they’re in the voting booth who’s funding what.”

Under the current law, donations to a candidate’s campaign are publicly reported. But donations to independent organizations, even groups that appear to have partisan motives, don’t always have to be disclosed.

Wirth’s bill proposes that when there’s independent spending above a certain threshold near an election – $3,000 for a statewide race, for example – the group would have to report the spending and the source of contributions used to make it.

Senate Bill 3 would make a variety of other changes to New Mexico’s campaign law, too, including adjusting limits on the size of campaign contributions. There would be a $5,000 cap for each primary and general election cycle for all candidates, regardless of the race. That would be nearly twice what legislative candidates can now accept and a decrease from the $5,700 limit for statewide candidates.

Opponents of the bill raised a variety of concerns. Some said the contribution limits should be abolished altogether, and others said the bill is too complex.

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said the donation cap puts lawmakers at a disadvantage because some political groups – those that don’t coordinate with a candidate – can accept unlimited contributions. It gives donors an incentive to give to outside groups rather than to candidates, who are less willing to engage in negative campaigning, opponents said.

“We just get nuked from the outside,” Moores said. “The limits – we’re just handcuffing ourselves.”

The measure cleared the Senate Rules Committee 7-4 Monday morning and now heads to Senate Judiciary, potentially its last stop before it reaches the Senate floor. It wasn’t entirely along party lines, with one Democrat joining Republicans against it and one Republican joining Democrats in favor.

Supporting the measure were Republican Greg Baca of Belen and Democrats Linda Lopez of Albuquerque, Daniel Ivey-Soto of Albuquerque, Gerald Ortiz y Pino of Albuquerque, Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen of Las cruces, Clemente Sanchez of Grants and Bill Tallman of Albuquerque.

Voting against it were Democrat Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces and Republicans Moores, Cliff Pirtle of Roswell and Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales.

Steinborn said he objected to raising the contribution limit for non-statewide races, though he liked the bill in general.

Supporters said the bill would strengthen new disclosure rules imposed by Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, putting them into law and making changes beyond what she had power to carry out.

Her authority to issue the rules is the subject of a lawsuit pending before the state Supreme Court.

In any case, several senators said Monday that the bill is necessary, even if they aren’t entirely happy with the contribution limits or other sections. Parts of the state law on the books now are unenforceable because of court decisions, they said.

“If you follow what’s in the election code right now, you are violating the law,” said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque. “That’s why, to me, this is an incredibly important bill to get passed.”

In 2017, when the bill passed both chambers of the Legislature, then-Gov. Martinez, a Republican, vetoed the proposal, arguing that it was poorly written. People might be reluctant to donate, she said, if they fear their names will be disclosed.

But lawmakers this year have a chance to win over the new governor, a Democrat.

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Claudia Tristán said the governor is open to supporting the bill but will need to review the details if it reaches her desk.

“She does recognize the need for transparency in campaign reporting,” Tristán said.

Under the proposal, independent expenditures would be disclosed under certain circumstances. The ad would have to refer to a clearly identified candidate, for example, within 30 days of a primary election or within 60 days of a general election.

The requirements would also kick in only if the independent spending by the group exceeded $3,000 for a statewide race or $1,000 if it isn’t statewide.

Wirth said the state is limited in how it can regulate independent spending because of the legal protections enshrined in the First Amendment.

Dark-money spending often comes from nonprofit groups, unions and business associations, though some do file reports voluntarily.

“This isn’t a partisan issue,” Wirth said. “The same rules apply to both sides.”

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