Fixes to NM Campaign Reporting Act near the finish line

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The House approved two bills to bring New Mexico’s campaign finance laws up to date Monday night, clearing a years-long hurdle.

While Senate Bill 96 clarifies state disclosure law when it comes to independent spending in campaigns, it also doubles contribution limits for lawmakers.

It’s likely the Senate will concur with House amendments. The next question is whether Gov. Susana Martinez will sign the measures into law.

“It’s a big night,” said Senate Majority Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe. “I’ve carried this bill (SB 96) four times and it’s always gone through the Senate unanimously and always got stalled at the last minute.”

The House approved SB 96 41-24, with only Republicans in opposition.

House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, voted for the bill along with GOP Reps. Jim Dines, of Albuquerque, Rebecca Dow, of Truth or Consequenses, Kelly Fajardo, of Belen, and Sarah Maestas Barnes, of Albuquerque.

And Rep. Jim Smith, R-Albuquerque, sponsored the measure in the House, replying to a barrage of seemingly scripted questions from some of his fellow Republicans.

Some questioned why the bill applies to ballot measures. Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, brought up the case of a Silicon Valley executive who lost his job after donating to an anti-gay marriage initiative in California.

Roch said such donations could end up becoming “thought-crimes.”

Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, agreed: “This could cause some people to not get involved in the process here. It could cause some people not to contribute, not to give.”

But Smith said the changes are needed to clear up inconsistencies in laws approved in 2009, before the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. the FEC. That decision allowed unlimited contributions to political action committees and spending as long as there is no coordination with candidates or political parties.

SB 96 defines such coordination, and requires disclosure by nonprofits that mention candidates within a certain time frame before a primary or general election.

But it wouldn’t apply to TV ads like the ones ProgressNow and other groups ran last summer criticizing Martinez, because she wasn’t running for office.

Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, lauded the House vote.

“This is a historic day in New Mexico,” she said. “It will make our campaign reporting act constitutional… This gives clear, bright lines.”

Both Harrison and Wirth said they weren’t thrilled by the increase in campaign contributions for lawmakers. The limits will go from $2,500 each for the primary and general election to $5,000. That means House candidates could raise $10,000 from a single donor over two years, while Senate candidates could raise $20,000 over four years.

“We are not willing to give up progress to get to perfection,” Harrison said.

Senate Bill 97 refines and clarifies state law on public financing, which applies to  judges and public regulation commissioners.

The two campaign finance measures weren’t listed on the digital House floor agenda until after discussion on SB 96 began, and committee amendments to the bills weren’t posted until an hour into the debate.

Harrison said she didn’t know the bills would be heard until about an hour in advance, and she got in her car and drove to Santa Fe from Rio Rancho.

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