Political action committees affiliated with elected officials proliferate

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They’re sharing visions, moving New Mexico forward, promoting families and prosperity, empowering and advancing the state.

Political action committees are proliferating this election year as Democrats and Republicans battle for control of the state House and Senate.

There are the standbys – Patriot Majority New Mexico for Democrats and Advance New Mexico Now for Republicans.

And the newbies – Affordable Energy PAC, NM PAC WEST, Share the Vision, and Prosperity and Action for New Mexico on the Republican side; Adelante New Mexico, Zia 52, Empower New Mexico and New Mexico Sunrise on the Democratic side, to name just a few.

New Mexico In Depth analyzed 42 PACs that appear solely devoted to partisan purposes using campaign finance reports filed with the New Mexico Secretary of State’s office during all of 2015 through April 4.

These PACs are typically affiliated with particular elected officials or groups of elected officials, but aren’t part of the formal party structure.

Not included are business, industry or union PACs or the primary Democratic or Republican party PACs. But those business, industry and union PACs, as well as individual companies, are among the big donors to PACs affiliated with elected officials.

While Democratic interests lead in political action committee creation, with 12 to the Republicans’ seven, the GOP is winning the fundraising contest, with Republican PACs raising $2.1 million compared with about $834,000 for Democratic counterparts.

Political action committees are important to candidates and campaigns because they can act as intermediaries as money passes through them to their ultimate destination. That could be an individual candidate’s campaign or independent spending on fliers, ads and phone calls.

They also are important fund-raising vehicles for both candidates and campaigns because they enable candidates and legislative leaders to raise far more money from individuals, unions and companies than they normally could, said Common Cause New Mexico Executive Director Viki Harrison.

“If you create four different PACs, you can hit the contribution limit from each contributor in each PAC,” she said.

Legislative candidates may collect up to $2,500 for the primary election and $2,500 for the general election from each individual donor, company or union. (UPDATE: This post originally included incorrect limits for legislative candidates.)

But if they also create a political action committee, that PAC may also collect up to $10,800 from each of those same donors, more than doubling their money.

Both Republican and Democratic incumbents are creating such PACs, often with the aim of helping peers in competitive districts.

Harrison said it’s difficult to distinguish between traditional PACs, which have contribution limits and may donate to and coordinate with candidates, and super PACs, which may take unlimited donations but aren’t supposed to coordinate with candidates.

State law doesn’t differentiate between the two types of PACs and it doesn’t define coordination.

Susana PAC, a traditional PAC named after Gov. Susana Martinez, leads in fundraising with more than $725,000 among all political action committees. Advance New Mexico Now, which accepts unlimited donations and makes independent expenditures, is second with more than $680,000.

The top Democratic PAC thus far is the House Democratic Campaign Committee, which has taken in more than $261,000. That’s behind another GOP PAC – the Don Tripp Speaker PAC, which has taken in more than $309,000.

Here’s a look at the top 20 PACs in terms of fundraising thus far:

Oil and gas companies are fueling the GOP PACs, while unions are the big donors for Democrats.

Oklahoma oil company Devon Energy tops the list of donors, having given more than $197,200 to GOP PACs from 2015 through April 4. That’s in addition to $50,000 the company has donated to Republican candidates in this cycle thus far.

Here’s a look at the top 20 donors (you can see all the contributions to the 42 PACs:

Then there’s the complicated and convoluted activity among PACs and nonprofits as they pass money around.

Last fall, new GOP PAC Prosperity and Action New Mexico received $30,000 from nonprofit Southern New Mexico Business Alliance in Las Cruces among other donations. Prosperity and Action then donated $50,100 to Advance New Mexico Now Las Cruces, another new PAC, which spent the money on Las Cruces city elections in November.

More recently, AFSCME, a public employee union, donated $50,000 to Patriot Majority New Mexico, an established super PAC making independent expenditures on behalf of Democrats.

Patriot Majority then donated $27,900 to America Votes and $22,100 to Progress Now New Mexico. Both America Votes and Progress Now are nonprofits with a track record of supporting progressive causes.

And two different PACs affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers spread $76,300 among 17 different Democratic PACs.

Of that, $17,000 went to Better New Mexico PAC in early 2015. That PAC, which listed ProgressNow New Mexico Executive Director Pat Davis as treasurer, is no longer active according to the Secretary of State’s office.

But many of the AFT-related PAC-to-PAC donations mentioned specific lawmakers. Here’s a look:

Harrison of Common Cause said the proliferation of PACs affiliated with various lawmakers is relatively new.

“It used to be just leadership that had a PAC. Now everybody’s got a PAC,” she said.

The Affordable Energy PAC, for instance, was created by House Energy Committee Chairman James Strickler and Rep. Rod Montoya, both Farmington Republicans, and Rep. David Gallegos, R-Eunice.

Montoya said the PAC will support candidates from energy-producing counties.

“Our No. 1 priority is going to be the House,” Montoya said, referring to Republicans’ effort to keep control of that legislative chamber after winning it in 2014 for the first time in 60 years.. “Maybe this year, where I think money is going to be tight, … our priorities we set out are Republicans at this point.”

He doesn’t include support of solar and wind power as part of the PAC’s mission.

“When we’re saying reliable, at this point that really excludes wind and solar,” he said.

Two of the Democratic PACs, Zia 52 and MOE PAC, weren’t registered with the Secretary of State until after the first filing period of 2016.

Zia 52 filed a report on April 15, four days after reports were due, with this explanation: “Zia 52 created on 1/8/16. Sec. of State office rejected application on 1/14/16. Zia52 reapplied and approved on 4/13/16.”

Moe PAC filed papers to create a PAC on April 19, and filed its contributions and spending report April 28.

Rep. Antonio Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said he didn’t get around to opening an account for Moe PAC or depositing the AFT check until after the legislative session.

The Secretary of State’s office is looking into the registration, Interim Election Director Kari Fresquez said in an email:

“Moe PAC submitted a registration to our office after the 1st primary report, however, we are investigating what further action, if any, will be taken by our office regarding the timing of the registration and the timing of the reported contribution to the PAC.”

Maestas said several House members in safe seats are forming political action committees to try to take the House back from Republicans.

“I don’t have an opponent. The PAC is simply a way to be transparent about raising money and helping good candidates who support the future of New Mexico,” he said. “The House Democrats have never been more unified. Losing the House was a huge wakeup call.”

New Mexico In Depth wants to see the messages that campaign money is paying for this election year. Email [email protected] with photos of fliers, mailers, digital ads or audio of radio ads or robocalls.

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