Senate sets limits on campaign contributions

By Kate Nash: The New Mexican

Ethics reform advocates say they made progress with the approval by the Senate on Thursday of a campaign contribution limit measure, but still have other reforms on their to-do list this session.

“It is a big step forward,” Steve Allen, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico said of the limits measure. “Is it the end of the line for ethics reform in New Mexico? It can’t be.”

With eight days to go in the session, supporters say they’d still like to win approval for measures to set up an independent ethics commission, to expand the state’s public financing system and to open conference committees to the public, among other things.

In a year that’s been slow going for reform, though, they are focusing on one win at a time.

“New Mexico is joining the 45 other states in the country who have said that these gigantic contributions in the tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of dollars shouldn’t be allowed in the political process,” Allen said.

The Senate voted 40-1 to approve limiting campaign contributions to $2,300 from a person to a candidate in a calendar year. The bill applies to legislators, statewide and nonstatewide candidates, including county officials but not city officials who are covered by a city charter.

Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, presented the measure in the Senate, which is a committee substitute for several related proposals.

“This bill may not be perfect, but I think it’s an important first step and direction this state needs to go,” he said.

Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, applauded the move.

“To the extent that we can limit the money that goes into campaigns, we should seize every opportunity to do it, however imperfect that measure may be,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, sponsored an amendment that takes out a sunset clause, under which the bill would have expired in 2013, something Allen said improves the bill.

Sen. Tim Keller, D-Albuquerque, said that because the limits are for each calendar year, candidates could spend every year campaigning. Waiting until the election year to raise funds would mean a candidate for the Senate, for example, could only get a fourth of what he or she could collect if they held fundraisers every year.

Sen. Rod Adair, R-Roswell, was the only vote against the bill. One of his objections was that it takes effect in 2011 — after the next gubernatorial election.

“Don’t beat your chest about being ethics-reform champions,” Adair said in explaining his vote on the Senate floor. “You’ve had a chance to do the right thing over and over — you took 2009 off and put 2011 on.”

Adair also tried an amendment that would have prohibited a judge from taking campaign contributions from lawyers or law firms.

“If there is anything fundamentally and structurally basic about ethics and campaigns in New Mexico, it is that this state does not prohibit the wholesale solicitation # and acceptance of massive sums of funds from lawyers who practice before the very judge who renders decisions.”

The amendment failed.

The Senate already has approved another related measure by Wirth (SB218), which mandates candidates to file campaign finance reports twice in nonelection years. Currently, in nonelection years, candidates are only required to file one report in May. The bill is pending the House.

The Senate also spent about two hours Thursday on another campaign-related measure, which it approved.

The proposal (SB652) allows a candidate to seek a court injunction against an opponent employing illegal campaign tactics.

“As the law stands now, an election could be over by the time an attorney general or district attorney is able to find the time to file a civil complaint to stop violations of the Campaign Reporting Act. It’s too late,” said Senate Minority Whip Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque. “Under my bill, no more waiting for the DA or AG. Candidates themselves can take immediate legal action to stop the unprincipled, illegal activity that we hear so much about in New Mexico campaigns.”

Campaign contribution limits

Under a measure approved by the Senate on Thursday, a person could give no more than $2,300 to a candidate. It also imposes the following limits in a calendar year, starting in 2011:

• From a person to a Political Action Committee: $5,000

• From a person to political party: $10,000

• From a PAC to a candidate: $5,000

• From a PAC to political party: $5,000

• From a political party to a candidate: $10,000

• From a political party to a PAC: $10,000