Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Campaign finance reporting legislation on its way to the governor is touted as a way to increase transparency and accountability in New Mexico elections.
But some Republican lawmakers are crying foul because the measure – years in the making – was amended just days before final consideration to give top legislative leaders of both parties authority to create, in the words of one lawmaker, “super-caucus PACs,” that would be allowed to accept contributions up to $25,000 from a single donor for a primary election and another $25,000 for the general.
Further, there would be no limit to in-kind contributions to a candidate from a legislative caucus committee.
The additional fundraising ability – which also applies to political parties – puts legislative leaders in position to help boost political campaigns for chosen candidates and initiatives.
Republican leaders also say House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, gave lawmakers “incorrect” information earlier this month in arguing for the amendment when he told a House Committee it wouldn’t change contribution limits. Egolf said Tuesday that he should have used different language.
Under the amended bill, individual campaign contributions to most candidates would be capped at $5,000 for the primary and $5,000 for the general election.
The current limit for statewide candidates and political action committees is higher – $5,700 for each election cycle, with contributions to non-statewide candidates limited to $2,600 each election cycle, according to the Secretary of State’s website.
Under the bill, contribution limits to gubernatorial candidates would be twice that of other candidates – or $10,000 for primary and another $10,000 for the general election.
The designated leaders of the legislative caucus committees would be two Democrats and two Republicans – House speaker and minority floor leader and the Senate majority and minority floor leaders. Each would form one legislative caucus and would be the designated leader of his or her caucus committee.
“This was a complete surprise to me,” said Senate Minority Floor Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, this week, “I sure as hell should have known about this if they’re going to change something like this. It’s huge. I don’t want this to where the leadership can get this kind of money and they’re the only ones that can get it.”
The measure, approved by both the House and Senate last weekend along mostly party lines, is SB3. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is required to act on the measure this week.
The controversial amendment creating the “legislative caucus committee” as a political committee under New Mexico law surfaced in House Judiciary Committee on March 2, and was approved by a vote of 7 to 2.
The amendment, unveiled by Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, a committee member, hadn’t been included in an earlier campaign finance reporting bill. That measure passed the Legislature in 2017, but was vetoed by then-Gov. Susana Martinez.
During the House Judiciary Committee, Egolf told his fellow committee members, “This amendment absolutely does not give any sort of financial advantage or disadvantage to either party,” according to a webcast of the hearing.
He went on to say: “This doesn’t change limits, Mr. Chairman, this doesn’t allow things to be done that aren’t currently allowable, this doesn’t broaden the range of what the parties or the caucus committees can do. It doesn’t restrict them. It simply clarifies what needs to be reported and what doesn’t and put in a mechanism for the floor leader and the speaker to designate these caucus committees.”
Several lawmakers took exception to those comments in recent days, saying they weren’t accurate – because the legislation does, in fact, raise contribution limits.
On Tuesday, Egolf told a Journal reporter he had since reviewed his comments and said he should have said it differently. Egolf insisted he wasn’t trying to mislead anyone on the committee about the proposed higher contribution limits.
“I was trying to make the point that both parties were treated equally and fairly in the amendment and it was not done to have either side obtain a partisan advantage.”
Egolf noted that Republican leaders who form legislative caucus committees can raise the same level of contributions as the Democrats. The bill also allows political parties in New Mexico to accept the higher contributions.
As for the critics of the SB3 amendment, Egolf added, “That might be the first time I’ve heard a Republican complain about money in politics.”
He said the amendment doesn’t create any “new campaign practices,” adding, ” I don’t think there’s going to be more money spent. I don’t have a long line of people just itching to give $25,000. The bill doesn’t create new donors.”
Ingle said he and other Republican senators learned of the amendment shortly before it came up for a concurrence vote Sunday.
“It was handed out on the floor, that’s the first time I’d seen it,” Ingle said. “We’ve never had anything in New Mexico political rules or law that has to do with fundraising like this.”
He said he voted against the bill, even though Republican legislative leaders could also benefit from the higher contribution limits.
“If I can raise that kind of money, my goodness sakes, I could certainly use that in a way that’s to me not the way it’s supposed to be used at all.”
House Minority Floor Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, told the Journal he voted against the bill.
“It was troubling to me that we called for transparency on one hand and then we go against what I believe to be an effort of transparency and bring this kind of amendment forward.”
The Senate agreed Sunday to the amended version of Senate Bill 3 on a 23-18 vote, with two Democrats joining all Republicans in opposition.
Before the Senate vote – the last stop before final passage – Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, told his colleagues, “We know the real politics here. This is creating a lot of money into one caucus and under one powerful leader. We’re increasing more money into politics when we should be going away from the scheme we’ve been having … “.
Moores said the measure would allow “super caucus” political action committees, adding, “I think this is a very dangerous situation we’re moving to.”
Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who voted for the measure, said the amended version of the bill was intended to add clarity to the campaign finance system. Under the current system, there are often a series of committees that donors are asked to give to, he said, sometimes with misleading or vague names.
The amendment was intended to make it clear that each caucus would have one committee, headed by the leader of the caucus, Ivey-Soto said.
It also clarifies that when a new leader of a caucus is elected, that person takes over the caucus PAC, rather than allowing the person who stepped down to remain in charge of the money, he said. In other words, the donated money would be for the benefit of the caucus, rather than the previous leader, Ivey-Soto said.
Reporter Dan McKay contributed to this story.