March 3, 2015

House panel votes to beef up campaign finance disclosures

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A bill that would shed more sunlight on campaign ads and so-called dark money political donations gained approval today during the first of three scheduled committee hearings in the House.

Roundhouse RotundaThe measure, co-sponsored by Rep. James E. Smith, R-Sandia Park, and Rep. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, saw only one dissenting vote in the House Safety and Public Affairs Committee.

Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, said she wasn’t surprised by the wide margin of support.

“A much more complicated version of this bill has passed the Senate three times, the last two times unanimously,” Harrison said. “This is not a partisan issue. This is about leveling the playing field, because if candidates and parties have to report, then we should expect anybody else who’s involved in elections to report.”

Revised language inserted in the committee makes the measure easier to understand, said Harrison, plus helps government agencies enforce requirements for so-called “covered transfers” of money.

Harrison said she was optimistic other changes can be added down the line to alleviate lingering concerns, including those brought up by Rep. Rick Little, R-Chaparral, who voted against the bill.

“We just want to make sure that people aren’t playing a shell game,” said Harrison, comparing covered transfers to a Russian doll.

“Peeling back the layers, you never find out who wrote the check, other than these innocuous-sounding [political action committee] names.”

Imagine for example, said Harrison, that a look into the finances of the I Love New Mexico PAC reveals only that its money was derived from the I Really Love New Mexico PAC, which reports that its funds came from the I Really, Really Love New Mexico PAC.

“You never know who really wrote the checks,” said Harrison.

Other states are beginning to include covered transfers in their campaign finance disclosure laws, she added, to address gaps in information created by the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United v. FEC.

The New Mexico Foundation of Open Government also voiced support for the bill.

“Sometimes who is speaking is as important as what is being said,” said NMFOG’s Executive Director Susan Boe. “This bill will help that.”

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