Government transparency is more than good, it’s essential. The dark corners of government make it difficult for the people (as in, all of us) to exercise our right and our duty to ensure those we elect are governing in our best interest.
In a cash-strapped state like New Mexico, transparency in how elected officials spend public money is even more important. For that reason, we applaud the publication of a list of how individual lawmakers spent public infrastructure funds under their control. Lawmakers have long resisted making that information public, but finally relented this year after sustained public pressure. We’ll be able to see the so-called capital outlay spending of individual lawmakers from now on.
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.
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.
A year of tumult over race and policing is coming to a head in New Mexico’s busy legislative session. With just weeks to go before it ends on March 20, lawmakers have introduced dozens of bills aimed at reforming law enforcement and several have progressed through committees. As a share of total introduced legislation, bills related to policing doubled this year over previous sessions, according to data from Legislative Council Service.
But it’s uncertain whether the state, which has one of the highest rates of fatal police shootings in the country, will take significant action. Save a requirement passed in last July’s special session that law enforcement statewide wear body cameras, the Legislature hasn’t enacted any major legislation related to policing in years. According to Rep. Antonio Maestas, D-Albuquerque, the quantity of proposals this year reflects the urgency of the moment.
Three years ago, New Mexico incarcerated about 7,400 people. Since then, the prison population has dropped, mirroring a national trend. It’s estimated that by 2025 the average prison population could be 4,938. The reasons for the declining prison population are unclear, according to a report prepared by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico for the New Mexico Sentencing Commission.
But if that trend continues, legislative analysts say, the Department of Corrections would have to find just 456 new beds, on average, if New Mexico were to end the use of private prisons after more than two decades and transfer all privately held prisoners to public facilities by 2025.The statistic is buried in a legislative analysis prepared for lawmakers considering legislation introduced by Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, the latest attempt to end New Mexico’s use of private prisons.
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.
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.
If there’s one thing that’s dominated my reporting over the eight months I’ve spent with New Mexico in Depth, it’s dark money; it was the subject of my first story, and almost half the stories I’ve reported since then. Bryan Metzger
For the uninitiated, “dark money” typically refers to outside spending by nonprofit entities that are not obligated to disclose their donors, at least under federal law. In 2019, New Mexico passed a law to force these kinds of organizations to disclose their donors, but in 2020, two groups challenged the law rather than comply with it, underscoring the difficulty in bringing to light what special interests are behind political spending.
This morning, we published a story that took a deep dive on one of these groups– the “Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers”– which spent $264,000 advocating for the passage of a constitutional amendment to change the state’s Public Regulation Commission (PRC) from a five-member elected body to a three-member appointed body, beginning in 2023. It was the first time I’d really attempted to get to the source of a dark money group’s funds, rather than simply report on a lack of disclosure. What we found were some strange bedfellows.
The pandemic legislative session (as it will go down in history) lived up to its name just a week in, with at least one House Republican lawmaker and four Roundhouse staff testing positive for COVID-19. Given that lawmakers aren’t required to be tested, there may be more. Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf said he was “dismayed” Republicans had a catered lunch, a characterization Republican House Minority Leader Townsend disputed to the Santa Fe New Mexican. Townsend urged delay of the session before it began, and is now calling for a temporary halt.It’s not surprising there’s been a COVID outbreak at the Roundhouse. We are in the midst of a deadly pandemic that has killed more than 3,200 New Mexicans in under a year, closed schools and businesses, and created untold anxiety and stress. Should the Legislature be meeting? It’s questionable.
With the demise of “moderate” Senate Democrats in the 2020 election, New Mexico’s Legislature again shifts leftward. As New Mexicans turn their attention toward 2021 the state remains in the throes of COVID 19 and the virus shows no signs of letting up. Paul Gessing, President, Rio Grande Foundation
What does all of this mean for the 2021 Session? For starters there are real questions about the logistics of a 60-day session under COVID. A “Zoom” special session like we had in June is one thing, but a 60-day session is much different.
The New Mexico Legislature has made great strides in the last few years toward opening up our state elections to more voters. Same-day voter registration was passed in 2019, automatic voter registration was codified and they made it easier to vote absentee. Historic turnout in 2020, especially among first time and younger voters is evidence these democracy reforms worked.
Eric Griego, Executive Director of Working Families Party New Mexico
The 2021 session has several proposals that build on past success, including increasing access to polling sites especially in tribal communities, opening primaries to independent and minor party voters, and using ranked choice voting for certain elections.
You may also hear about an important “new” proposal called “fusion voting.” While new to many, fusion voting has been used successfully in several states for centuries, before it was targeted by major parties for elimination. In the simplest terms, fusion voting is a system that allows multiple political parties to support the same candidate. Under fusion voting, a Democratic candidate nominated by the Working Families Party would appear on the WFP ballot line in the election, or similarly a Republican candidate endorsed by the Conservative Party would appear on their line. Fusion voting was a common practice in New Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1896 the Populist Party in New Mexico endorsed Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate Harvey Butler Ferguson and the platform of the state Democratic party as well. There were fusion candidates in Rio Arriba, Socorro, Sierra, Lincoln and Otero counties in the 1910 election. In the 1916 elections, “Independents fused with Democrats in the counties of the Hispano north; the Progressive Party handed its delegates over to the Democratic nominating convention; and county Democrats effectively invited unhappy Republicans into their camp,” wrote Dr. Phillip Gonzales in the New Mexico Historical Review in 2015.
But like in many other states, progress made under fusion was targeted for elimination as major parties made a play to consolidate power.