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Toulouse Oliver proposes new campaign spending rules

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Massage? Satellite TV? Nike sportswear? A new pickup truck?

Over the last decade or so, a handful of New Mexico politicians thought it was OK to spend campaign donations on all of those items – and openly report it.

Now, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver aims to bring more clarity to New Mexico’s hazy guidelines for political spending.

She is planning to move ahead with new campaign finance rules that could be implemented in October – in time for the state’s 2018 election cycle.

“It’s been very high on my agenda to make sure we have some of those clarifications in place,” she said in a recent interview. “You do feel sometimes (under the current system) you’re navigating in the fog.”

Toulouse Oliver, a first-term Democrat who was elected to office last year, said some of the proposed rules would be based on legislation vetoed last month by Gov. Susana Martinez that would have changed state law to require more disclosure of political spending.

While the changes won’t be rolled out for several more weeks, they’re also likely to include more specifics on what are allowable campaign expenditures – and what are not – and more precise definitions of campaign loans and other terms, Toulouse Oliver said.

There are currently no rules in place governing New Mexico campaign reporting practices and expenditures, which has led to thorny questions in recent years about whether candidates may spend money donated to them on medical co-pays, massages and more.

With no rules in place, candidates and political committees must rely on broad wording in state law, along with previous rulings from the secretary of state and the attorney general.

Viki Harrison, the executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a group that has pushed for enhanced disclosure laws, said the greatest need for clearer enforcement policies from the secretary of state is in the area of campaign reporting requirements for non-candidates – including political committees and other independent groups who pay for political advertising.

She said much of the state’s current campaign laws have been essentially nullified by court rulings, making them difficult to navigate and enforce.

The bill vetoed last month by Martinez would have required 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.

In her veto message, the governor said the increased disclosure requirements could have unintended consequences, such as discouraging charities from advocating for their causes.

With the governor striking down the Legislature’s latest attempt at changing the state’s campaign finance laws, Harrison said the time is right to pursue changes via rule, which can more easily be altered in the future.

“This is the perfect time to do it,” said Harrison, whose group is working with the Secretary of State’s Office on the new rules.

The Secretary of State’s Office will, per state law, hold at least one public hearing on the proposed campaign finance rules once they’re unveiled.

Toulouse Oliver said her office is considering holding multiple hearings around the state on the subject.

“It’s good for the citizens of the state, because they’ll have clearer information about who’s spending money on campaigns,” she told the Journal.

She also said that having new rules in place will make it easier for candidates to know what’s allowable in New Mexico campaigns, while also potentially making it easier for Secretary of State’s Office staffers to provide guidance.

“In a way, it’s going to make our jobs somewhat easier,” Toulouse Oliver said.

This won’t be the first time campaign finance rules have been proposed. Former Secretary of State Dianna Duran also came up with a package of proposed guidelines.

However, those rules were not implemented before Duran resigned from office in October 2015 and pleaded guilty to violating state law by using campaign funds to cover her gambling habit.

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