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Saturday, March 1, 2003

House OKs Public Money for Campaign

By Loie Fecteau
Journal Politics Writer
    SANTA FE The House on Friday approved a pilot project for public financing of campaigns in New Mexico, using the five-member Public Regulation Commission for the 2004 experiment.
    Supporters said public financing of political campaigns will help restore confidence in elections.
    The bill (HB 420), sponsored by House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, was approved on a 40-24 vote. It now goes to the Senate for consideration.
    Lujan told his House colleagues that public financing of PRC elections would remove "the perception that those candidates were taking contributions from individuals or organizations that do business with them." The PRC regulates utility, transportation and insurance companies.
    "A candidate doesn't have to do this," Lujan said of the campaign finance proposal. "It's voluntary."
    House Minority Leader Ted Hobbs, R-Albuquerque, argued against the measure, under which Hobbs said "my tax money can be given to people I do not support."
    "That's a violation of my free speech," Hobbs said. "I'm not sure it's constitutional."
    But Lujan said public financing of campaigns has been done in other states, such as Arizona, "and proven to be successful."
    Lujan noted that the campaign finance proposal for PRC candidates is backed by New Mexicans for Campaign Reform, a statewide coalition of nearly 30 groups, including Common Cause.
    "I'm delighted," Jack Taylor of Common Cause said of the House vote. "I think it's good to start with a pilot and then see where it needs to be tweaked."
    Under the proposal, candidates for the regulatory agency who agreed to cap spending and refuse private contributions would get public money for their campaigns. The pilot project would take effect in the 2004 election, when two of the five PRC seats are up for grabs, supporters said.
    The public campaign fund would cost about $300,000 a year. It would be paid for by regulatory fees collected by the PRC.
    To qualify for public financing, PRC candidates would need to collect $5 donations from a certain number of registered voters. The amount of public financing would be based on past PRC campaign costs.
    An identical Senate bill (SB 222), sponsored by Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, has been awaiting action by the Senate Finance Committee.