New Mexico Black leaders challenge tricultural myth

In popular mythology, New Mexico is a “tricultural” state–– one where Hispanic, Anglo, and Native American communities live in relative harmony, an exemplar for the rest of the nation. But the persistent myth leaves out other groups with long histories in the state, appearing in state-produced documents as recently as 2019. Then, there were contentious remarks at a very public forum this February that led Black leaders to call for a formal statement from the Legislature denouncing the remarks. At a legislative hearing to confirm Veteran’s Service Secretary-designate Sonya Smith, a Black woman, Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen, noted that 2.6% of New Mexico’s population is African American. He then asked Smith if she felt “comfortable adequately representing… cultures of white, Native, Hispanics.” 

Black community leaders issued a statement characterizing Baca’s words as racist and calling on legislative leaders to issue a formal denouncement.

Democratic candidates for New Mexico congressional seat disclose funding to date, with some prodding

Following the confirmation of New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior, New Mexico will hold a special election on June 1st to fill her seat representing the Albuquerque-centered first congressional district. But the public doesn’t get a say in who the nominees will be. 

Rather than a primary election, state law allows the political parties themselves to select their own candidates. These choices are being made even while there’s been a gap in public disclosure of who’s contributed money to the various candidates. 

Yesterday, the Republican state central committee, with less than 140 members, convened over Zoom to choose State Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, while about 25 members of the Libertarian Party chose Chris Manning. 

The Democratic state central committee will select their candidate on Tuesday, a highly anticipated choice given the Democratic tilt in the district for more than a decade. Just over 200 people–– a smattering of local party members, elected officials and other party insiders–– will be eligible to vote for one of eight different candidates seeking the nomination. On March 23rd, the Democratic Party of Bernalillo County held a virtual candidate forum exclusively for their members.

New Mexico lawmakers snub lobbying transparency. In other states, it’s business as usual.

Despite some early optimism from advocates, state lawmakers took a pass this year on requiring greater transparency around the work of lobbyists. In fact, lawmakers didn’t even give the topic a full hearing during the recent legislative session.  That’s despite a significant lack of disclosure about how powerful lobbyists work to influence legislation in New Mexico.  In a 2015 report, the Center for Public Integrity graded the state an “F” for lobbying disclosure, the 43rd worst in the country. It’s not improved since then. Drive a few hours north, and the sort of transparency proposed for New Mexico is just business as usual.

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Political spending transparency bill clears Senate

The Senate approved a bill Wednesday that would close a “loophole” in the state’s transparency laws, and would require legislators running for federal office to disclose their contributions every 10 days during the legislative session. The loophole allows nonprofit organizations to avoid disclosing donors behind political spending if those giving the money requested in writing that their donations not be spent for political purposes, even if the group decides to use the money for politics anyway. The amended SB 387 ultimately passed the Senate on a 35-3 vote after clearing the Senate Judiciary Committee last Friday, where State Ethics Commission Executive Director Jeremy Farris spoke in favor of the bill. The bill now heads to the House for consideration. “I think it closes the gap,” said Farris, noting that Wirth’s bill was similar to recommendations the commission made in its 2020 annual report.

Independent voters surpass 20 percent, but lack representation. Lawmakers unswayed.

When New Mexicans head to the polls during a general election, they usually have just two viable options: a Democrat or a Republican. There may be a Libertarian or unaffiliated candidate on the ballot, as well. Sometimes there may even be just one candidate on the ballot, as was the case in more than a quarter of the 112 state legislative races in the 2020 general election, all of whom represented a major political party. 

Meanwhile, in the last 30 years, the number of independent voters has more than quadrupled, registering at just under 5% in 1990 and almost 22% in 2021. In three of the state’s counties–– Santa Fe, Taos, and McKinley–– independent voters actually outnumber Republican voters. “I think the tipping point is that we’re seeing especially newly registered voters– and even some voters who are longtime active voters– have become jaded by the two party system,” said Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause NM.

Lawmakers running for Congress don’t have to disclose fundraising during session. We asked them to.

Legislators are barred from soliciting campaign contributions while the Roundhouse is in session– unless they happen to be running for Congress. 

During the state’s prohibited fundraising period, lasting from January 1st to the end of the session, lawmakers may not solicit any campaign contributions and lobbyists may not donate to any state campaigns. But federal campaigns aren’t subject to state law. This means four Democratic state lawmakers running for an open congressional seat may fundraise at the same time they’re conducting state business during the 2021 legislative session. New Mexicans won’t officially know who contributed to them until after the session. 

“The original intent of having a prohibited period for state lawmakers was so that the public wouldn’t have the perception that lobbyists were literally giving our elected officials money for their state campaigns while they’re in the middle of a legislative session,” said Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico. On Wednesday, the Senate Rules Committee unanimously endorsed a bill sponsored by Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, that would require state elected officials running for federal office to disclose their donors every ten days during the prohibited period.

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Sen. Wirth seeks to close dark money loophole

Sen. Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, is seeking to tighten a so-called “loophole” in New Mexico’s campaign finance laws that allowed a dark money group to hide its donors during the 2020 election. “I do think we need to continue our work to be sure that voters know who’s donating to independent expenditure committees,” Wirth said during a hearing today before the Senate Rules Committee. “This bill is a baby step.”

In 2020, the nonprofit Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers (CPNMC) argued it didn’t have to disclose who funded $264,000 spent on mailers sent to voters, taking advantage of an exception in the campaign reporting act that allows a group to keep donors secret when they request in writing that their contributions not be used for political spending. 

Underlined language that SB 387 would add to the Campaign Reporting Act. Wirth’s Senate Bill 387 would require outside spenders to separate those kinds of contributions from money given for political spending, keeping them in a segregated bank account in order to be legally shielded from disclosure, leaving less room for groups to use that exemption to their advantage. “It’s an attempt to just figure out where the dollars are coming from,” Wirth said about the fix to outside spending transparency laws that Wirth championed for more than a decade and that became law in 2019

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver spoke briefly in support of the bill, praising Sen. Wirth’s prior work on bringing more transparency to political spending.

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PRC commissioner urges PNM to “come clean” on dark money

New Mexico Public Regulation Commissioner (PRC) Joseph Maestas on Wednesday demanded that Public Service Company of New Mexico disclose whether it contributed to a dark money group that supported a November ballot measure seeking to overhaul the agency charged with regulating the utility. “I’m just simply calling on PNM to come clean, you know, disclose whether or not you donated to this dark money PAC [sic],” Maestas said during a PRC hearing, referencing the nonprofit group Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers. PNM may not be under legal obligation to disclose its involvement, Maestas said, but it had a “moral obligation” to do so. “I agree, we’d love to hear,” Stephen Fischmann, the PRC commission chairman, said. “I think there’s a strong possibility that it’s the case that they did donate to it.” 

New Mexico In Depth received no response Wednesday from PNM spokesman Ray Sandoval despite multiple requests for comment, continuing weeks of silence on whether or not the utility contributed to the nonprofit.

New Mexico largest electric utility bankrolled dark money group in 2020 election

The New Mexico State Ethics Commission announced on Friday that PNM Resources, Inc, the state’s largest electric utility, was the sole funder of a dark money group called the “Council for a Competitive New Mexico,” giving the group almost half a million dollars. The nonprofit entity, founded in March 2020, spent over $130,000 on mailers and robo-calls in five state senate Democratic primary races last spring after receiving $470,000 from the utility, seeking to boost powerful incumbents while attacking their opponents. The disclosure by the Council for a Competitive New Mexico (CCNM) that PNM Resources had bankrolled its campaign sheds light on the increasingly active role the utility is playing in New Mexico politics.In 2018, the company intervened in two Public Regulation Commission (PRC) races, spending $440,000 to try to influence the outcome of those contests. The PRC is the state’s main regulatory agency for public utilities. In August, a separate dark money group called the “Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers” spent over $260,000 advocating for a complete overhaul of the PRC, leading some to suspect that PNM helped fund that campaign as well.