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Bill would revamp campaign reporting

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A bill aimed at reshaping New Mexico’s political spending landscape has caught the attention of several national groups that have been lobbying Gov. Susana Martinez over the last two weeks to veto the legislation.

But backers of the measure, which would increase disclosure requirements on “dark money” groups and modernize definitions in the state’s Campaign Reporting Act, have begun to push back with a lobbying effort of their own – with just one week left until the April 7 bill action deadline.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who has tried to pass the legislation for six years, said Friday he’s not surprised by the efforts to sway the governor.

“This is one of those bills that has always had bipartisan support, but there’s also been groups on both sides (of the political spectrum) that have opposed it because they prefer the status quo,” Wirth told the Journal.

He also said he hasn’t discussed the bill with Martinez or top Governor’s Office staffers since this year’s session ended March 18, but said they have had conversations about it in the past.

Specifically, the measure, Senate Bill 96, would require more disclosure – including donor names – for spending by political committees, nonprofits and independent expenditure groups on most types of political advertising in excess of $1,000.

While some groups already provide that information, independent groups that spend on elections – but for whom electioneering isn’t a primary purpose – don’t currently have to disclose where they’re getting their money and what they’re using it for. Such groups can include nonprofits, unions and business associations.

Two recent polls by Albuquerque-based Research & Polling Inc., have showed broad public support for increased disclosure requirements on independent political expenditures. One of the polls, a survey of 251 New Mexico business leaders conducted for the Washington D.C.-based Committee for Economic Development, found that 92 percent of those surveyed in support of public disclosure of all contributions and expenditures from individuals, corporations, political committees, nonprofits and unions.

‘A chilling effect’

Groups opposing the legislation argue it would curtail free speech rights and could silence potential donors who could be targeted for supporting controversial political causes.

“If passed, this bill would have a chilling effect on free and open debate within the state of New Mexico,” said Mark Lucas, the executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, a Virginia-based group backed by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch. “No one should fear retaliation, discrimination or harassment simply for standing up for their beliefs.”

The group, as part of a coalition with nearly a dozen other groups from both outside and within New Mexico, sent Martinez a letter last month urging her to veto the bill. They’ve also set up an online petition form for people to fill out and send to the governor.

Another prominent right-leaning national group, the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, has also joined the crusade against the legislation.

In response, Common Cause New Mexico, a group that supports the measure and has advocated for its passage, sent a letter to the governor this week citing the recent polls and describing the bill as narrowly focused and on solid legal footing.

“We believe this bill will increase the public’s trust in our system and clarify the duties of all those who are spending money to influence our elections,” Common Cause officials wrote in their letter.

The letter said the bill would update a 40-year old campaign finance law by “requiring disclosure of basic information by PACS and other independent groups who sponsor advertising in our elections.” It also said the bill would not affect churches and other charities that do not explicitly engage in political advertising.

Doubling the cap

New Mexico’s campaign spending guidelines have shifted dramatically in recent years, in part due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which cleared the way for unlimited spending by some political action committees.

The 2010 ruling came just one year after then-Gov. Bill Richardson signed legislation limiting the size of donations to and from New Mexico candidates and political committees, though the limits didn’t take effect until after the 2010 election cycle.

The bill awaiting final approval on Martinez’s desk would double the current cap on campaign contributions for legislative candidates – from $2,500 per election cycle to $5,000 per cycle – but would slightly lower the maximum allowed donation for statewide candidates.

Other provisions include:

⋄  Providing a definition of political “coordination” in state law. Coordination between political committees and candidates is not currently defined in statute.

⋄  Barring individuals from making contributions or expenditures with an intent to conceal the identify of the actual funding source.

⋄  Eliminating various provisions that have been found by courts to be unconstitutional in recent years.

A Martinez spokesman said Friday the two-term Republican governor has not yet fully scrutinized the bill.

“As with all legislation, she’ll review it thoroughly before making the best decision for New Mexico,” Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan said.

Wirth, who co-sponsored this year’s legislation with Rep. Jim Smith, R-Tijeras, said the bill is an attempt to make election-related spending more transparent while complying with both First Amendment rights and court rulings.

“We can’t limit the money, but we can turn the lights on about who’s spending money in elections and give voters that information,” he said.

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