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Public Funds Proposed For State Elections

By Gabriela C. Guzman
Journal Capitol Bureau
    SANTA FE— A state ethics task force is proposing public financing of statewide election campaigns and judicial races, limits on campaign contributions and gifts and a commission to oversee the conduct of New Mexico's public officials.
    The recommendations, which are to be finalized by the task force on Oct. 3, will move on to Gov. Bill Richardson, who appointed the task force and who is expected to propose ethics law reforms to the Legislature next year.
    The independent commission to investigate possible misconduct and public financing of many election campaigns were the task force's boldest steps, said former Gov. Garrey Carruthers, the task force co-chairman.
    Carruthers said the ethics commission must have a whistle-blower protection because employees otherwise would never speak up to expose problems, he said.
    The commission must also have the power to subpoena people to testify, Carruthers said. "I would not even bother having an ethics commission without the subpoena power," he said.
    Task force members agreed that running for office is becoming increasingly expensive, but they could not agree to having every election campaign publicly financed.
    Instead they recommended expanding publicly financed elections to include campaigns for all statewide offices, including the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, as well as District Court judge seats.
    The state, so far, has experimented with public financing of only the five districted Public Regulation Commission seats.
    Candidates would have to collect a certain percentage of voter signatures and a nominal amount of financial contributions to qualify for public funds.
    Elected officials on the task force said candidates have to spend too much time soliciting money instead of talking with voters.
    "It is having its effect in terms of loss of confidence" in elected officials, said state Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque.
    The strongest support for publicly financed elections came from former U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, who lives in Santa Fe.
    Voters want the elections system cleaned up, Udall told the task force earlier this week. "I think they are sick of the old system. It has an odor."
    How to fund publicly financed election campaigns, as well as the amounts candidates would receive, were questions left for a later date.
    The task force used federal guidelines to recommend limits on campaign contributions in New Mexico. The state currently has no limits on the amounts that can be given.
    Carruthers supported the limits but said that, if the recommended $2,100 limit per individual for primary and general elections in a statewide race had been in place when he ran for office in 1986, it's unlikely he would have won.
    "You have to make your fortune before running for office," Carruthers said.
    But Feldman said publicly financed elections would make living with the limits easier.
    Publicly financed election campaigns and limits on campaign contributions would lessen the influence that private contributions have on New Mexico's elections, said Jim Noel, the executive director of the state's Judicial Standards Commission.
    Carruthers agreed, adding that one of the task force's goals is to do away with now-commonplace contributions of $20,000 to $50,000, which Carruthers called "obscene."
    The task force proposed limiting the value of gifts lobbyists or their employers can give to any single public official to no more than $1,000 per year.
    This would put an end to free tickets to the Super Bowl or other high-value items, Carruthers said.
    "Limiting those extraordinary gifts to legislators would be the wise thing to do," he said.
    No single gift accepted by public officials could exceed $250. Gifts to legislators during legislative sessions would be limited to $100 per gift.
    There is no law on gifts in New Mexico now.
    In a recent Journal poll, New Mexicans overwhelmingly supported limiting campaign contributions and gifts to candidates and elected officials.
    Instead of a salary for the state's 112 part-time legislators, the task force recommended that legislators be reimbursed up to $10,000 a year for duties related to their office.
    They would still receive a per-diem during the legislative session, which covers living expenses during legislative sessions and meetings.
    Suggested Reforms
    Here are the preliminary recommendations to Gov. Bill Richardson from the Governor's Task Force on Ethics Reform:
  • Create a state ethics commission that would investigate allegations of unethical behavior. The recommendation calls for ethics training for all public officials. The commission would have the authority to subpoena individuals. The recommendation also includes a whistle-blower protection provision.
  • Ban all gifts valued over $250 to any public official. All gifts over $100 must be reported. During a legislative session, the allowable amount for gifts would drop to $100 and would not have to be reported.
  • Individual campaign contributions would be limited to $2,100 for statewide offices for the primary and general election cycles; an individual could contribute up to $4,200 a year. Districted races would be limited to $1,050 for the primary and general election cycles.
  • Contributions over $100 would require the donor to report name, address, employer and the last four digits of their Social Security number. Current law requires donors giving more than $250 during a campaign to report only a contributor's occupation, not his or her employer.
  • Amend the state constitution to allow legislators to be reimbursed for costs of serving in public office. Legislators would no longer be able to use campaign funds for official duties.
  • Allow state legislators to be reimbursed up to $10,000 a year for conducting official legislative business. They would continue to receive per-diem during legislative sessions to cover living expenses.
  • Amend the state constitution to make the offices of treasurer and auditor appointed rather than elected.
  • Designate the governor to appoint a treasurer, who meets certain basic professional qualifications. The Senate would confirm the nominee.
  • Propose that the state auditor be appointed by either the Legislature or an independent commission. Set out basic requirements for the auditor position.
  • Expansion of publicly financed elections. The task force recommends New Mexico begin with all statewide races, from governor down the ballot, in addition to state District Court judges, Court of Appeals and Supreme Court races. A funding source was not identified.

    E-MAIL writer Gabriela C. Guzman