January 17, 2017

Proposal aims to close campaign donation loophole

A legislator from Santa Fe County is proposing to close a loophole in the state’s campaign finance law that allows state lawmakers to accept campaign donations while they are in session.

State law bans state representatives, senators and candidates for the Legislature from raising money from Jan. 1 until they adjourn.

But the statute only prohibits soliciting contributions. It says nothing about legislators accepting money.

So politicians can take cash for their campaigns during a legislative session as long as they did not ask for it.

“The current statute just seems odd to me,” said Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, who filed the bill to close the loophole. His bill would change only a few words in the law to ban accepting — not just soliciting — contributions during what are known as prohibited periods.

“It makes perfect sense that we, as elected officials working on legislation, shouldn’t ask for money during the ‘prohibited period,'” McQueen wrote in an email Monday. “Why then is it OK for us to accept money without asking for it? Isn’t the risk of undue influence the same or similar? I think we should hold ourselves to a higher standard.”

At least 55 members of the state Senate and House of Representatives reported receiving donations totaling nearly $108,000 during the 30-day legislative session last winter, according to an analysis of campaign finance contributions by The New Mexican.

In addition, at least 53 legislators reported receiving donations during a weeklong special session last fall that came at the height of campaign season, about one month before the general election. Those contributions totaled more than $102,000.

State law prohibits legislators from soliciting donations from the moment the governor issues a proclamation calling a special session until they adjourn.

Most legislators and candidates reacted to the special session by removing links on their websites for campaign contributions. Opponents swiftly filed ethics complaints against those who did not.

But that did not stop money flowing from donors to candidates. Some party leaders raked in more than $10,000 during the special session. McQueen himself reported receiving $100 in the middle of the special session.

Some of those thousands of dollars were donated by political action committees that employ lobbyists, even though a separate section of state law already prohibits lobbyists and their employers from making political contributions during legislative sessions.

The National Conference of State Legislatures in 2015 found that 29 states limit political contributions during legislative sessions. A total of 14 states only restricted donations from lobbyists. The other 15 states limited donations from anyone. But most of those states did not have the sort of loophole enshrined in New Mexico law, meaning they ban accepting as well as soliciting contributions.

Of neighboring states, Colorado, Arizona and Oklahoma only ban donations by lobbyists. Texas prohibits contributions by anyone during a legislative session.

McQueen’s measure is just one of the campaign finance reform bills proposed so far this year.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, has called for a series of changes to the Campaign Reporting Act. His bill, similar to one he has pushed unsuccessfully each year since 2011, would require more reporting of campaign spending and fundraising, restricting so-called super political action committees from coordinating with candidates, and giving prosecutors more power to enforce the law.

Wirth also has proposed prohibiting candidates from using public campaign financing for personal expenses, to pay immediate family members or to donate to other campaigns.

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