Editorial: Public campaign financing rules in need of a revamp

When a politician has no opponent in an election, all it really takes to get elected is one vote.

So why should unopposed candidates receive the state’s public campaign funding intended to reduce the influence of private money in politics?

They shouldn’t.

The way current campaign financing law is written, unopposed candidates for the Public Regulation Commission and statewide judicial offices get to dip into the public kitty just like candidates in contested races. Yes, unopposed candidates are given half of what candidates in opposed races receive. But in some races this last election season that amounted to tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars for the lucky recipients.

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Unopposed Public Regulation Commission candidates Pat Lyons, a Republican, and Lynda Lovejoy, a Democrat, were both unopposed and each drew 100 percent of the votes cast in their districts in November, according to unofficial election results.

Lyons received $29,444 in public financing to run his general election campaign, and Lovejoy got $27,574 for hers. Both used some of the money for campaign ads and travel. Lyons bought tires, a battery and brakes for a campaign truck. He is the same official who, when running for re-election as state land commissioner in 2006, spent $29,700 in campaign funds to buy a Ford F-250 SuperCab to take him around the state. “You can’t run a campaign without a truck,” Lyons said at the time.

Lyons was also unopposed in this year’s PRC primary, and for that non-race he got $12,186. So far, he’s returned $8,700 that he didn’t spend and says he plans to return some more of the money.

Lovejoy, after winning a three-way race in the primary, paid $10,000 to a campaign consultant and lobbyist – who just happens to represent several clients regulated by the PRC. That’s not a conflict of interest, consultant Mark Fleisher says, because other lobbyists make donations to candidates or help them raise private money.

Both Lyons and Lovejoy appear to be operating within the rules. So the fact that none of this appears to be a problem is the problem.

The state has provided optional public financing to candidates for the PRC since 2006 and for candidates for the state Appeals and Supreme courts since 2008. The money comes from the Public Election Fund, which is financed with fees the PRC levies on companies it regulates and with $1.2 million a year from the state’s proceeds from unclaimed property.

Former state Sen. Dede Feldman, a Democrat from Albuquerque, helped push for public financing of campaigns. “That is a mistake we made,” she noted concerning the ability of unopposed candidates to take the money. Indeed, it would appear so.

State Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who says he is opposed to public funding for unopposed candidates, says he plans to propose an overhaul of public financing in the next legislative session and funding for unopposed candidates can be considered.

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Appeals Court Judge Miles Hanisee this year became the state’s first judge to be elected with public financing. His race included opposition. He would like to see public financing no longer available to candidates in uncontested judicial races.

Instead, that money could be used to expand the program to candidates for state district courts. Not a bad idea. Do we really want our judges taking money from lawyers and others who may someday appear before them?

Common Cause New Mexico says it will propose that public financing for uncontested elections either be eliminated or reduced.

The Legislature should consider making this reform one of its priorities when it convenes in January because New Mexicans shouldn’t be in the business of financing candidates’ free rides.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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