January 9, 2015

$$$ in Politics: We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know | By Viki Harrison

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[box type=”info” style=”rounded”]VIKI HARRISON is the Executive Director of Common Cause NM and the former Executive Director of NM Repeal, where she led the successful campaign to abolish the death penalty in NM. A stalwart of NM politics and advocacy and a graduate of UNM, Viki was also part of the team that secured NM’s historic cockfighting ban.[/box]

There’s an old classic by Ray Charles titled “You Don’t Know Me,” that features these lyrics:

No you don’t know the one
Who dreams of you at night;
And longs to kiss your lips
And longs to hold you tight
Oh I’m just a friend.
That’s all I’ve ever been.
Cause you don’t know me.

And boy is that an apt description of all the money flowing into our elections here in New Mexico! The influence of independent spending over our political process is growing with each campaign season, and this money is often drowning out the voices of everyday New Mexicans. From 2006 to 2012, spending by non-candidates in New Mexico more than doubled, from $6 million to $14 million, and in 2014, more than $2 million was spent in October alone. At the same time, New Mexico currently has a set of laws for disclosure that are in dire need of reform, as they are unclear and largely unenforceable due to recent court rulings.

Given the current laws in New Mexico, the above song might as well apply to independent campaign contributors and lobbyists who are not required to identify themselves clearly to the Secretary of State – or to the general public. And without the basic information to identify the people seeking to influence public policy through their contributions and conversations, we’ll never know whether our elected officials are truly responsive to us.

How can we? In 2009, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a major section of the New Mexico law governing the disclosure requirements for independent groups. Consequently, the current system legally allows for millions to be spent on campaign activities undetected, such as mailers, robo calls, and opposition research. This ruling created a huge gap in our system that Common Cause New Mexico has been trying to fix for several years with a requirement that contributors to all those TV ads be identified and “coordination” between candidates and independent groups be exposed. This year, Rep. Jim Smith is carrying a bill to do just that. It is co-sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth.

In addition, information on lobbyists in New Mexico, who have extraordinary access to citizen legislators, is often dated or indecipherable, leaving ordinary citizens wondering, like Butch Cassidy, “Who are these guys?” We think New Mexico ought to update its lobbyist regulation act so citizens – and the legislators themselves – can see clearly who is seeking to influence them and on what issue. Rep. Jeff Steinborn is carrying another bill to do that.

Then perhaps the lobbyists and special interests will not be crooning that old tune.

“You think you know me well, Well you don’t know me.”

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