Commentary: The NM Senate today concurred with the House of Representatives on two bills sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth to update the NM election code. One will require greater transparency from large independent donors and the other will require accountability from candidates using the state’s public financing system.
SB 97 and SB 96 are now headed to the Governor for her signature.
“This is truly a great day for New Mexico,” said Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, which has been promoting the disclosure bill for over six years. “Both of these measures are exactly what New Mexico voters have been clamoring for since the horrible decisions by the Supreme Court in Citizens United and Arizona Free Enterprise.”
SB 96, sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) and Rep. Jim Smith (R-Tijeras), has passed the Senate four times with bipartisan support. It had passed many House committees over the past four years, but never cleared the floor. The bill is narrowly tailored. It is aimed at “dark money” coming from non-profit organizations that pretend to be non-political but which in reality spend millions of dollars in negative ads on TV.
“During the past few election cycles it’s been increasingly difficult for the public to follow the money—especially the big money that comes into New Mexico campaigns from out of state,” Sen. Wirth said. “Yet an informed electorate is the basis of democracy. This bill will help, and it builds on the one value that is supported across the board: transparency.”
“There are lots of holes in our code, especially when it comes to the coordination of spending between independent groups and candidates,” said Rep. Jim Smith. “Co-ordination is a ‘no-no’ according to Citizens United yet we had no definition of coordination in state law. Now we have the opportunity to correct this and assure our citizens that no one is taking advantage of this loophole, which allowed spending in excess of state contribution limits.”
SB 97 on pubic financing of state court and PRC elections was sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth as well, The state set up a public financing system for the Public Regulation Commission in 2003 and for higher state courts in 2007. Wirth’s measure passed the Senate 33-7 and the House 68-0 back in 2013 before Governor Martinez vetoed it – citing concerns about its constitutionality, which have been addressed in this version.
Both Democrats and Republicans have expressed satisfaction with the voluntary public financing system, which allow Supreme Court, Appeals judges and PRC commissioners to run for office without raising large sums of money, sometimes from the very people who appear before them. However, the system was not without its flaws. Wirth’s bill corrects them--prohibiting candidates who run unopposed from receiving more than 20% of the public funding available to them, using campaign funds for living expenses or compensation to the candidate or candidate’s family.
Public financing of elections was upheld by the US Supreme Court in 2011 in the Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett decision. SB 97 neither expands the program nor does it cost the state more money – in fact, with a provision included around unopposed candidates, the state could actually save money.
“This is a fix that will serve taxpayers as well as voters who would rather see candidates out talking about the issues than collecting money from special interests,” said Wirth.
Harrison said that the NM legislature is now on board with 90% of NM voters who support disclosures from large independent spenders and the 76% who want to curtail public funding for unopposed candidates. Common Cause New Mexico polls registered voters every January with the help Research and Polling.
“Needless to say, we encourage the Governor to sign the bills,” Harrison said.
Common Cause is a nonpartisan grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy. It works to create open, honest, and accountable government that serves the public interest; promote equal rights, opportunity, and representation for all; and to empower all people to make their voices heard as equals in the political process.