October 20, 2017

Report shows high support for public financing

A new report may shed some light on how New Mexico voters feel about campaign public financing and groups who raise money independently of candidates.

It comes as ethics complaints related to Albuquerque’s election stack up and congressional and gubernatorial candidates fill their campaign accounts.

The 2017 Campaign Finance Report released by the University of New Mexico shows most registered voters favor public financing and making public financing available to more candidates. The report also shows many New Mexicans disagree that independent expenditure groups should be able to raise and spend money unregulated as a form a free speech.

The report from the political science department found 70 percent of voters would like public financing to be available for more elected offices. Currently, candidates for the Public Regulation Commission and the State Court of Appeals are eligible for public financing. Some municipalities like the city of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County also allow candidates to receive public money.

University of New Mexico political science professor Lonna Atkeson, one of the report’s authors, said the high level of support for public finance might highlight a public perception that donations go towards a “private good as opposed to a public good.”

According to the report, 60 percent of voters believe politicians are more responsive to financial donors than to individual voters.

The numbers, Atkeson said, reflect a growing public attitude that large organizations are buying elections in their own interest, leaving voters with less of a voice.

“All of this is responding to this gut feeling that spending is out of control and that a private good is not something you’re supposed to purchase,” Atkeson said.

But even publicly-financed candidates can receive help from private donors.

State election law allows for Political Action Committees (PACs) and some municipalities allow for some form of independent expenditure groups. Both those fundraising groups can independently spend money on ads or mailers in support of any candidate, including those who are publicly financed.

The UNM report says most voters disagree with the idea that those independent political groups should be unregulated because their spending is a form of free speech. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruled that political spending from corporations or PACs is a form of free speech and therefore should not be regulated. But, Atkeson said, the UNM report seems to show that New Mexico voters disagree with the high court.

Everyone can speak, but everyone doesn’t have money and I think the public has a sense of that,” Atkeson said.

Viki Harrison, the Executive Director of Common Cause New Mexico, which advocates for clean elections, said the report aligns with research her organization has done. Harrison said voters have expressed disappointment in the large role private money has in elections.

“We’ve had to say over and over, ‘We agree with you,’” Harrison said.

Common Cause has lobbied legislators and city councilors for years to clean up election code language and increase transparency in election money.

Harrison said she hopes the UNM report will encourage lawmakers to reform state and local election laws to allow for more publicly-financed candidates. She also said she hopes the report “sparks a conversation” amongst the public as well.

New Mexico Speaker of the House Brian Egolf said it’s unlikely the Legislature will move ahead with campaign finance reform before 2019.

Gov. Susana Martinez would have to give a nod to election bills during the 2018 session, a 30-day session devoted to budgetary and tax issues. Martinez can give legislators permission to consider other topics.

NM Political Report asked Martinez’s office if the governor would consider adding election reform as a legislative topic in 2018, but did not receive a response.

Egolf isn’t holding his breath.

“I don’t think we can make a go of it,” Egolf said.

There are other problems.

Egolf said opening up more races to public financing would add stress to the already flimsy state budget. He estimates the judicial seats already eligible for public financing will cost the state about $3 million.

“We’re still in a budget situation that is pretty serious,” Egolf said.

Read the report below