The Center for Civic Policy in Albuquerque is among the most active – and controversial – groups on the left when it comes to attempting to influence the making of laws and other public policy.
As a tax-exempt organization under 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, the center can engage in only limited lobbying of public officials and cannot endorse or oppose candidates in elections. It can, however, educate the public about an official’s voting record or other conduct, and the center has gone after Republicans and Democrats. (Groups on the right are also involved in voter education.)
“We strive to engage everyday New Mexicans in public policy decisions that impact their lives directly,” says Stephanie Maez, chief executive officer of the Center for Public Policy.
As part of that work, “We educate them on how their elected representatives are representing them,” Maez says.
Last month, the center launched a public campaign attacking the votes of state House Speaker Ken Martinez, D-Grants, and three other lawmakers who supported an omnibus tax bill approved by the Legislature in March.
In automated telephone calls to the lawmakers’ constituents, the Center for Civic Policy says the legislators took part in a massive tax giveaway to corporations at the expense of families.
The center also planned “thank-you” calls to constituents of some lawmakers who opposed the tax bill.
The tax measure included a reduction in the corporate income tax backed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, but its other provisions included tax changes for the film industry and big-box retailers that were supported by many Democrats.
Martinez also has been a target of the Center for Civic Policy, which last year joined with two other liberal groups in a media campaign – billboards, radio ads and Internet – accusing the governor of killing legislation to create jobs, including funding for public works projects.
During the session of the Legislature this year, the center reported spending more than $28,000 on lobbying activities, including support for increased penalties for oil and gas producers that pollute water, according to The Associated Press.
Last year, the center aired radio ads against a proposed rate increase by the PNM electric utility, but the group is perhaps best-known for what happened in the run-up to the 2008 election.
In 2008, New Mexico Youth Organized, a project of the Center for Civic Policy, and the Southwest Organizing Project mailed fliers to constituents of nine state legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, suggesting their votes had been influenced by corporate and other special interests that funded their campaigns.
Some of the targeted lawmakers weren’t running for re-election or had no opposition, but five others – three Democrats and two Republicans – lost their seats.
Because of those mailers, then-Secretary of State Mary Herrera and the office of state Attorney General Gary King tried to force New Mexico Youth Organized and the Southwest Organizing Project to file with the state as political committees, which would have required disclosure of their financial supporters.
New Mexico Youth Organized and Southwest Organizing Project filed a lawsuit in federal court. A district judge and later an appeals court ruled neither group met the definition of political committee under state law or federal case law, because neither was controlled by a candidate or operated primarily to influence elections.
In part because of the controversy, bills have been introduced in the Legislature to force nonprofits that purchase political advertising to disclose their donors under certain circumstances. So far, lawmakers have refused to approve the legislation.
501(c)(3) groups aren’t required by federal law to publicly disclose their contributors because of the constitutional right to freedom of association and the chilling effect that disclosure could have on members or potential members of such organizations.
The Center for Civic Policy voluntarily named some of its donors several years ago but no longer makes such disclosures. Because of those past disclosures and because some other groups have disclosed grants to the center, there is a good deal of publicly available information about the center’s institutional backers.
Not surprisingly, the Center for Civic Policy has gotten money from the left. Groups founded by billionaire financier George Soros have provided support. So has the foundation headed by investor Rob McKay, who is chairman of the Democracy Alliance, a group of major liberal donors formed in 2005 with backing from Soros and Colorado software entrepreneur Tim Gill.
The Center for Civic Policy has also received money from more mainstream groups, like the Santa Fe and New Mexico community foundations and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
For the 2011 tax year, the center reported revenue of $1.6 million and expenses of nearly $1.1 million. An affiliated group, the Center for Civic Action, reported revenue of $295,000 and expenses of about $201,000.
The Center for Civic Action is an organization under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code and can advocate for or against candidates for public office, as long as that isn’t the primary business of the group.
In addition to collaborating with other liberal groups, the Center for Civic Policy has provided financial support to some organizations, including the immigrants’ rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido and New Mexico Vote Matters, a voter-registration and get-out-the-vote organization.
The website www.clearlynewmexico.com, which provides commentary on public policy issues, is a project of the Center for Civic Policy.
Maez, the center’s CEO, worked on policy in the administration of Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson. She also has worked for the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and New Mexico Voices for Children. She says her annual compensation is $88,200.
The Center for Civic Policy was founded in the mid-2000s by Democratic consultant Eli Lee and others, and Lee later served as executive director.
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