Bills flounder on both transparency, secrecy in New Mexico

SANTA FE, N.M. — Residents of New Mexico may be none the wiser when it comes to information about independent political expenditures and everyday spending by lobbyists after key transparency measures were vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez. At the same time, a long list of anti-transparency initiatives designed to restrict access to government information floundered during this year’s 60 day legislative session.

“Nothing passed that would undermine the public’s access to public records and public meetings,” said Peter St. Cyr, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and a former investigative reporter.

The defeat of a proposal to make more information available about so-called dark money political donations drew broad criticism, with backers including prominent Democrats and local and national policy groups expressing disappointment.

The initiative from Republican Rep. James Smith and Democratic Senate majority leader Peter Wirth would have created rules for disclosing contributions to political committees that do not coordinate directly with candidates. The bill responded to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United case that opened the door for corporations and unions to make unlimited independent expenditures in elections.

In her veto message, Martinez said the bill would hamper charities that are primarily nonpolitical from certain advocacy work and discourage charitable donations. A Virginia based, conservative-backed organization called Concerned Veterans for America lobbied against the bill and described its defeat as a victory for open debate.

Backers of the bill called the governor’s criticism misleading, noting that the bill was narrowly tailored to spending to influence election results.

“It’s very disingenuous for people to say this would discourage charities form doing their work or that this would discourage donating,” Common Cause New Mexico Executive Director Viki Harrison said. Charitable organizations that did end up spending money for political purposes would only have to disclose donors who explicitly gave for political purposes, she said.

Martinez also effectively vetoed a bill requiring disclosure of expenditures of less than $100 by lobbyists that would have covered meals and entertainment — a decision criticized by the state’s top regulator of campaign finance disclosures, Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver. Larger contributions currently must be reported.

Meanwhile, advocates for greater transparency in government were breathing a sigh of relief Monday after the demise of a bill to prohibit law enforcement authorities from releasing the names of victims and witnesses in sexual assault and stalking cases.

Other failed legislation would have created a Spaceport Confidential Records Act to block the release of information about contractors and prospective contractors who seek to use New Mexico’s publicly financed launch facility for the commercial space industry.

Another bill would have prevented the release of names of job applicants for government positions. Backers said current public disclosures discourage applications, while opponents said the bill would have eliminated a safeguard against jobs being handed out to friends or relatives.

Greg Williams, president of the board at the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said he remains concerned about the elimination of transparency requirements from a proposal to create an independent ethics commission.

Voters will decide in November 2018 general elections whether to create the commission, while provisions about public access to ethics complaints won’t be written into law until after the vote.

Many lawmakers fear the commission could be used as a forum for frivolous complaints and have expressed a reluctance to ensure complaints are made public.

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