Senate majority leader aims to tighten campaign finance laws

Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe. Courtesy photo

With his colleagues returning to the state Capitol in January after a particularly divisive and costly election, the new Senate majority leader hopes the time may finally be right for an overhaul of New Mexico’s campaign finance laws.

Sen. Peter Wirth said recently he will again propose a series of changes to state law that would require more reporting of campaign spending and fundraising, restrict so-called super PACs, or political action committees, from coordinating with candidates and give prosecutors more power to go after violators of campaign finance laws.

The Santa Fe Democrat has pushed similar legislation since 2011, the year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission upended local, state and federal campaign finance laws.

The Citizens United ruling struck down a federal law that prohibited corporations from spending money on elections. The court’s decision allows super PACs to raise and spend unlimited sums as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates.

But unlike other states and the Federal Election Commission, New Mexico has never defined in law or rules what coordination is, allowing super PACs to operate without much fear of state penalties, should they collude with candidates. Wirth’s bill would change that.

“It has bipartisan support and, frankly, bipartisan opposition,” Wirth said.

In an analysis of the bill Wirth sponsored in 2016 with Rep. James Dines, R-Albuquerque, legislative staffers wrote New Mexico’s campaign finance laws will “continue to have serious holes” without a new law.

The Senate approved the bill 36-0, but it died in the House, which has consistently been the cemetery for Wirth’s previous legislation on campaign finance.

Hopes for the bill faring better in 2017 have been buoyed by the victory in November of Maggie Toulouse Oliver as secretary of state. She took office in December after campaigning for greater transparency in election finance, and she is responsible for overseeing compliance with campaign finance laws.

Wirth said Gov. Susana Martinez has signaled interest in his bill.

A spokesman said that while Martinez had yet to see the proposal for 2017, she “has always been open to discussing various proposals on these issues.”

The 2017 proposal is expected to be identical or nearly identical to the 2016 bill. Under that legislation, super PACs would have been prohibited from making an expenditure of $500 or more “at the request or suggestion of, or in cooperation, consultation or concert with, a candidate, campaign committee or political party” or their representatives.

Super PACs got the name because of their legal ability to raise and spend as much money as they want as long as they do so independently of candidates. A regular PAC can coordinate with candidates, but it is subject to contribution limits set by law.

Political action committees, both the super kind and the traditional type, outgunned parties and candidate campaigns this year, raising about $16.5 million from 2015 through Dec. 3 and spending nearly $15.8 million during that same period, according to an analysis by New Mexico In Depth.

The two committees that spent the most money are super PACs.

Advance New Mexico Now, associated with Martinez, and the union-backed Patriot Majority PAC, spent a combined $3.9 million. The groups are required like other PACs to disclose their donors.

Advocates of campaign finance reform say the state is generally limited under the ruling in Citizens United to requiring greater transparency in spending and fundraising.

States that have tried updating their laws since Citizens United have either loosened rules even further or tightened regulations by requiring that campaigns and committees provide more information about donors and expenses, says Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

New laws have spurred new legal challenges, she added.

“Opponents of disclosure are targeting disclosure requirements and contribution limits,” she said.

Legal challenges have generally been unsuccessful in rolling back rules requiring more information on donors and political spending, Roth Barber added.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.

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