Legislature shines light on itself

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The Legislature concluded today, which also happens to be the final day of Sunshine Week, so it’s only fitting that we review a couple of transparency measures taken up by the Legislature. 

In short: it’s a mixed bag. One prominent measure five years in the making passed, and if the governor signs the bill, lawmakers will no longer be able to allocate public works dollars in secret. But another measure that sought to fix a loophole in campaign finance disclosure laws was dead in the water. 

Lawmakers shine light on themselves

Once a contentious measure among lawmakers, a bill that requires a list of how lawmakers allocate public infrastructure dollars be published on the legislative website sailed through the 2021 session. It’s momentous, considering the long history of secrecy surrounding how lawmakers decide what projects to fund. The public list will only pertain to projects this year and in the future. Remaining secret will be details about how lawmakers allocated such funds in years past. 

New Mexico In Depth discovered that lawmakers had exempted themselves from disclosure in 2015 after filing a public records request for the list. Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, promptly introduced a bill in the 2016 legislative session to make the list public. Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, joined Rue a year later in advocating for disclosure, filing his own bill in 2017. Both lawmakers pushed to make the spending public over the years. Rue lost re-election last year, leaving only McQueen among the the reform’s earliest sponsors to carry the idea forward in 2021. 

Lined up against them was a bipartisan collection of opponents, including what can only be called the “old guard” of the Senate, with a few new faces joining them. But in 2020, a significant number of the opposition lost their seats. Their replacements promised during their campaigns to support greater transparency, and in 2021, there was little debate against the idea. 

Nonprofits still have a disclosure loophole at their disposal

The Legislature failed to amend the state’s Campaign Reporting Act to close a loophole used by a dark money group in 2020 to hide political donors who had funded its campaign in favor of overhauling the state’s Public Regulation Commission.

The measure sponsored by Sen. Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, also contained a Senate floor amendment put forth by Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, that would require state elected officials running for federal office to disclose any contributions made to their federal campaign every 10 days during the legislative session, when solicitation of contributions for state office is prohibited.

Currently, there are four sitting lawmakers running for the Democratic nomination in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District special election. Two agreed to disclose some of their donors to New Mexico in Depth in February. A fifth lawmaker, Sen. Mark Moores R-Albuquerque, has announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination, though he does not yet appear to have established a federal account.

Both of these transparency measures appeared to have support, passing the Senate with wide, bipartisan agreement. 

Inkling of reform efforts to come

In November, New Mexico in Depth published a story in collaboration with Washington D.C. based The Fulcrum on the issue of “gray money”–– when political action committees (PACs) are funded primarily by other political organizations, obscuring the real identity of donors to political campaigns. Together, dark and gray money account for about a third of all PAC spending in New Mexico in the last few years. The story pointed to how other states regulate gray money, in particular California. 

In December, Wirth told New Mexico in Depth that he was looking at potentially addressing the issue in this year’s session. Though he didn’t move forward with that effort this year, citing the virtual nature of the Legislature and the need to have a “constitutional lawyer sitting next to you at every step,” he did begin talking about it to other lawmakers. 

“There are always efforts to figure out how not to disclose,” Wirth said during the Senate Rules committee hearing on SB 387, the loophole disclosure bill that ultimately wasn’t taken up by the full House. “…we have dark money where there’s no disclosure, there’s gray money where things get blended.”

Closing the loophole would be a “baby step” toward ensuring voters know who’s donating to dark money groups, Wirth said, mentioning the detailed and extensive statute governing gray money in California. 

During the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill, he said, “I really think we need to take another big step. It’s called ‘gray money.’”

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