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Legislator again seeks campaign finance reform

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s campaign finance law is cluttered with provisions that are outdated and unconstitutional, and it has gaping holes in the area of independent spending.

While previous attempts to clean it up and fill the gaps have fallen short, supporters of updating it are hopeful this is the year the bill will pass.

Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe – the Senate’s new majority leader – has been pushing the legislation since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 cleared the way for unlimited spending by some political action committees.

Super PACs, or independent expenditure committees, can spend as much as they want to support or oppose candidates, as long as they don’t coordinate with the candidates or their campaigns.

But New Mexico has never defined an independent expenditure, nor what it means to coordinate.

So there’s no guidance for such PACs and there’s little risk of legal action if they engage in coordination.

“It’s a huge deal,” said Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico.

“We literally have no rules in place for all of the independent spenders – your nonprofits, your unions, your business groups” whose primary purpose is not electioneering, she said.

Wirth’s bill, which hasn’t yet been filed, would establish those rules. It also would expand to nonprofits the requirement to disclose where their funds come from, eliminating the anonymity of donors – the “dark money” aspect of independent spending.

That’s “the one thing the U.S. Supreme Court said we could do in Citizens United, which is require disclosure,” Wirth said.

New Mexico’s campaign finance law is outdated because a series of court rulings has invalidated key portions.

“As a result … we have a campaign finance code sitting there that is full of unconstitutional provisions, and it’s incumbent on us to clean this up and do the additional step of requiring this disclosure,” Wirth told the Journal .

The current law also never contemplated the variety of ways in which groups other than candidates and political parties would participate in elections, Common Cause says.

Wirth’s legislation would tighten reporting requirements, and broaden the authority of the attorney general and district attorneys to pursue violations.

His bill has passed the Senate in four legislative sessions – three times unanimously – only to die in the House.

Opponents have included some nonprofits that worry their occasional advocacy for or against candidates could subject them to having to disclose their donors, he said.

Wirth is optimistic that strong support from the newly elected secretary of state, Maggie Toulouse Oliver, and the House’s new Democratic leadership will help the effort.

And Common Cause’s Harrison says that, “after such an ugly election with so much independent spending,” the issue is fresh.

“We’re going to be putting a lot of pressure on to get this through, letting legislators know this is our top priority,” Harrison said. “They’re going to be hearing about it at every turn.”

Wirth is also dusting off another piece of legislation he has introduced previously, an update to the law that regulates the public financing of elections for appellate-level judges and members of the Public Regulation Commission.

It would get rid of a provision that has been ruled unconstitutional, which boosts the public funding to candidates whose non-publicly funded rivals outspend them. Other changes include reducing the amount of public financing to which candidates are entitled if they’re unopposed.

“Candidates are actually using the public financing system, so we should really make it work as well as possible,” Wirth said.