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Transparency needed for a business-friendly NM

In the eyes of most business leaders, New Mexico just took a giant step toward a better, more professional image of our state when the Legislature signaled its support of an independent ethics commission. Until now, national report cards consistently flunked New Mexico on corruption indexes and difficult places to do business. But the battle is not over. Transparency and disclosure are critical ingredients for the ethics puzzle. A measure, which passed both houses handily, fills a loophole which currently allows some independent political action committees to avoid identifying their donors. A huge segment of the business community wants more sunshine on campaign contributions so that the public can see clearly who is influencing whom.

A few months ago, CED commissioned a poll to assess New Mexico business leaders’ perceptions of the influence of money in politics, campaign finance reform and transparency. Research and Polling surveyed 251 business leaders from across the state from Dec. 2016 to Jan. 2017. Nearly nine in 10, 86 percent, of them said that big campaign donors have either a great deal of impact, 39 percent, or some impact, 47 percent, on state government corruption. More importantly, over nine in 10, 92 percent, of business leaders somewhat support, 17 percent, or strongly support, 75 percent, the proposal requiring all political contributions and expenditures from individuals, corporations, political action committees (PACs), nonprofits or unions be made public.

Why the overwhelming support for transparency from the business community? Partly, it’s a recognition of reality: A huge amount of independent money is flowing into the state – over $17 million in the last election – threatening to overwhelm local candidates, business contributors and ordinary citizens. In the aftermath of the Citizens United decision, it’s becoming harder and harder to follow the money through the maze of one political action committee giving to another, and to figure out where the slew of negative ads is coming from – candidates? Independent PACs? Or groups coordinated with candidates?

Also, business owners rely on government to be even-handed in its procurement process and regulation of industry. We need to know that state government is not playing favorites but allowing merit and fair competitive markets to determine what’s good for the state. To do that, business leaders need to know who is funding campaigns. When contributions are made to candidates, disclosure is a must. The current system helps big special interests avoid identification by contributing to independent PACs that don’t have to disclose their donors. It just does not seem fair to small business.

Disclosure and transparency preserve the rights of political speech guaranteed under Citizens United, a decision which also allowed the states to require disclosure measures to ensure the kind of accountability that is an ordinary requirement in the business community. The measure simply requires that independent expenditure groups that have spent over $3,000 to support a candidate’s election or defeat right before the election report the expenditure and the donors. It also requires PAC expenditures that are coordinated with a campaign to fall under the state’s campaign contribution limits. Because the New Mexico campaign reporting act did not include a definition of “coordination,” it’s been an open question whether there is actually a great deal of coordination between the huge groups and the individual campaigns. No one can tell for sure.

Closing the loopholes that currently exist in our campaign system restores the trust of the business community in a level playing field and in an election process that improves New Mexico’s reputation as a healthy business community.

Michael J Petro is Executive Vice President of the Committee for Economic Development, a nonpartisan, business-led public policy organization that delivers well-researched analysis and reasoned solutions from business in the nations’ interest.