No action yet on campaign ethics proposals

By Steve Terrell: The Santa Fe New Mexican

With the ticking of the clock on the New Mexico Legislature’s 30-day session growing louder every day, no legislative committee so far has acted on an ethics bill designed to prohibit political campaign contributions by lobbyists and contractors.

The House Voters and Elections Committee on Tuesday discussed House Bill 118, sponsored by Rep. Joe Campos, D-Santa Rosa. But the panel decided to delay any action until it hears a separate bill, HB172, sponsored by Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque.

Chasey’s bill, which is backed by Gov. Bill Richardson, has some similarities to HB118, which is the brainchild of Think New Mexico, the Santa Fe-based think tank.

Despite the fact that just over two weeks remain in the session — according to the state constitution the session must end at noon Feb. 18 — Think New Mexico director Fred Nathan believes that there’s still time to get a bill through the House and over to the Senate.

Nathan said he expects legislators to hammer out a compromise bill consisting of parts of both ethics proposals.

Both bills seek to restrict the influence of big-money interests in state politics. And backers of both bills said some differences in how to stop the flow of money from lobbyists and contractors should be relatively easy to reconcile.

But there are a couple of differences in the bills that could prove more difficult to work out.

The Think New Mexico bill would ban contributions from people or businesses seeking “targeted subsidies” from state government. Examples include large developers who seek tax breaks and other help from the state to finance their projects. The governor’s bill doesn’t cover this area.

“It is especially important that these decisions be made based on the merits rather than on `shock and awe’ — lobbyist firepower and political contributions.,” Nathan said in an e-mail Tuesday.

HB118 also requires disclosure of campaign contributions to nonprofit groups that get involved in political advocacy.

But that idea is controversial and the governor’s bill doesn’t have such a provision.

The most obvious example of advocacy groups making waves in the political arena came in 2008 when the Center for Civic Policy, its affiliate New Mexico Youth Organized and the Southwest Organizing Project created mailers about the voting records and campaign contributions of several legislators, three of whom went on to lose re-election bids in the Democratic primary.

The groups claimed their message was educational, not political. The state attorney general disagreed, but the groups won a decision in federal court, which last year ruled that the state acted improperly by requiring the groups register as political committees. Attorney General Gary King has appealed that decision.

That is one reason the American Civil Liberties Union opposes HB118. ACLU of New Mexico policy director Diane Wood told the committee Tuesday that bill would create “a confusing scheme for determining what is and what isn’t electioneering speech. If passed it will chill legitimate public education efforts” and would lead to civil rights suits filed against the state.

Another area of difference between the two bills is that the governor’s bill would prohibit political contributions from corporations. The Think New Mexico bill would prohibit contributions from companies that have contracts or are competing for contracts with the state.

Nathan touts bi-partisan support for HB118. However, at Tuesday’s committee meeting several Republicans, while saying they support the concept of the bill, said they don’t believe the measure is quite ready. Some members of both parties were concerned whether ranchers who lease land from the State Land Office would be forbidden to contribute to campaigns. Campos said that only those with leases worth more than $20,000 would be prohibited from contributing.

Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, said he was concerned whether the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision means that HB118 is unconstitutional.

The committee is scheduled to hear Chasey’s HB172 on Thursday.

Contact Steve Terrell at 986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com