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Public funding for District Court races advances

A bill extending New Mexico’s public campaign financing system to district court judges passed the Senate on Tuesday via a 22-13 vote. The bill, Senate Bill 160, now advances to the House with less than two weeks remaining in the 60-day legislative session. (Eddie Moore/ Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A bill that would make New Mexico the first state to extend public campaign financing to district judges is on its way to the House after winning Senate approval Tuesday.

The legislation, Senate Bill 160, would allow District Court candidates to avoid privately funded campaigns – which often include campaign contributions from attorneys – if they qualify for public campaign dollars.

Some judges have argued for the change, saying it would bring more transparency, reduce awkwardness and remove any appearance that state courts are a pay-to-play system of justice.

“It does undermine people’s confidence in the judiciary when you have the kind of fundraising that goes on now,” said Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, whose husband is a state judge.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, passed the Senate on Tuesday on a largely party-line 22-13 vote. All Senate Democrats present for the vote supported the measure, while all but one GOP senator voted in opposition.

Some senators raised procedural concerns during the debate, with Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, saying it would be harder for judicial candidates in rural parts of New Mexico to qualify for public financing than it would be for candidates in more populated areas.

New Mexico has allowed statewide judicial candidates – or those running for Supreme Court and Court of Appeals seats – to qualify for public financing since 2008.

Candidates who qualify get distributions from a public election fund that is financed in part by proceeds from unclaimed property, such as abandoned personal bank accounts and stocks.

How much candidates receive in public financing is based on numbers of registered voters eligible to cast ballots in their races.

New Mexico also offers public financing for Public Regulation Commission candidates, but voters approved a constitutional amendment last year that will turn the PRC into an appointed – not elected – body, and the bill passed Tuesday would remove them from the state’s law that governs public financing.

Backers say that would offset much of the cost posed by adding district judges to the mix, although they warned that it’s unclear exactly how many candidates would seek public campaign funds.

However, a fiscal analysis of the bill estimated it could cost $950,000 to provide the public funds to an average number of District Court candidates during an election year.

To qualify, candidates would have to obtain a number of small contributions from voters, although the exact figure would depend on which judicial district they were running in.

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