A group that claims it doesn’t have to disclose what it is spending in the political fight over a proposed soda tax in Santa Fe or where the money is coming from received a letter Wednesday stating otherwise.
A spokesman for Smart Progress New Mexico told The New Mexican this week the nonprofit organization doesn’t intend to file a finance statement with the city clerk concerning campaign activities associated with the May 2 special election on whether the city should tax sugary beverages to fund early childhood education programs.
However, Assistant City Attorney Zach Shandler wrote in a letter to the group: “Based on information in the newspaper, it appears your organization has spent more than $250 on broadcast advertisements referring to a ballot proposition, which have reached more than 100 eligible voters. If so, your organization must file a campaign finance statement.”
The group is among three political committees involved in what has become an expensive contest involving mailers, fliers, telephone surveys, door-to-door canvassing, newspaper and radio advertising, and at least one focus group.
Two opposing committees that registered with the city — Pre-K for Santa Fe and Better Way for Santa Fe & Pre-K — last month reported they had raised a combined $551,000 in cash and in-kind donations. Updated reports are due Friday.
Under the city campaign code, Smart Progress New Mexico appears to meet the definition of an independent expenditure group and the threshold for filing campaign finance reports.
When asked what would happen if the group didn’t file a campaign finance statement, Shandler said “any person can file a complaint with the city clerk.” Shandler said the City Attorney’s Office also can file a complaint. If the city Ethics and Campaign Review Board finds the group in violation of the city code, it can issue a fine.
But, Shandler said Wednesday, “As of today, the City Attorney’s Office has not made a determination whether it will file a complaint.”
In his letter to Smart Progress New Mexico, the attorney wrote, “Please contact the City Clerk’s Office immediately to obtain the CD disk needed to file the campaign finance statement. If you disagree, please contact the City Clerk’s Office immediately in writing to explain why you believe your organization is exempt.”
Representatives of Smart Progress New Mexico, which registered as a political action committee with the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office in February, did not return messages seeking comment Tuesday and Wednesday.
Documents filed with the state list Heidi R. Pierce, principal of Moonstar Healing and Massage LLC, and Tate Mruz, one of the owners of Boxcar restaurant and bar in the Santa Fe Railyard, as officers of the group.
Hutton Broadcasting confirmed Wednesday that Smart Progress New Mexico paid for 24 radio spots on each of its six radio stations. The radio ads, which started airing March 30, are scheduled to run through Friday.
Hutton declined to disclose the cost of the ads, saying the broadcaster isn’t required to disclose rates for issue-related advertising under Federal Communications Commission guidelines.
Paula Maes, president and CEO of the New Mexico Broadcasters Association, said she checked with the association’s attorneys in Washington, D.C., about public reporting requirements after she was contacted by Hutton.
“The only thing that they [Hutton] should keep in their public file is a list of the board of directors for either the nonprofit or the PAC that’s buying the [radio] spot, and they should be identified on the spot,” she said.
A spokesman for Smart Progress New Mexico, Loveless Johnson III, told The New Mexican in March that his group paid people to collect petition signatures and spent money “for radio commercials and all the other stuff you do.”
Earlier this week, Johnson declined to disclose how much money the group has spent or the sources of its funding, saying it is a nonprofit advocacy organization that doesn’t have to file campaign finance reports.
“You can ask me every day, but I’m never going to tell you,” he said Monday.
A spokesman for the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office has said that under state rules, the organization has until April 10 to file a campaign finance statement with that office concerning any political activity.
Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 505-986-3089 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @danieljchacon.