This is an example of New Mexico In Depth’s mid-week newsletter. We think it’s crucial to stay in touch and tell you what’s on our minds every week. Please let us know what’s on your mind as well. Or, got tips? What do we need to know?
Senate Bill 42 would add a new requirement for when outside groups can not report their donors. There were bound to be gaps in a 2019 revision to New Mexico’s dense elections transparency law that sought to force independent groups who aren’t required to register as political committees to disclose the money they spend in elections.
The changes were quickly put to the test the next year, during the 2020 election cycle, when a new independent expenditure group found a loophole so big it evaded reporting who donated hundreds of thousands of dollars it spent on political advertising.
Under the current law, if a group crosses a spending threshold for political advertising, it must report all of its donors who’ve given more than $5,000 – with one exception. If a donor puts in writing that their donation can’t be used for politics, the group isn’t required to disclose in its campaign finance reports who that donor is or how much they contributed.
That provision was exploited by a nonprofit formed in May of 2020, called the Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers.
To get around reporting its donors, the group claimed that because it had it in writing from its donors that their funds couldn’t be spent on politics, it didn’t have to report the amount given or by whom.
Never mind that the group went ahead and spent the money on political advertising anyway, despite the written instructions. They followed the letter of the law even if they flouted its spirit. The group initially argued it didn’t have to report its spending, as well, because advertising in support of a ballot measure to transform the state’s Public Regulation Commission from an elected to an appointed body was educational, not political.
In the final week of the 2022 general election, almost $350 thousand dollars went to candidates that wasn’t reported until this month when the election was long over.
That’s because smaller cash contributions in the final days of a New Mexico general election aren’t reported under New Mexico law until two months later when “no one cares because we’re off to other things,” said Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, who with Sen. Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, is sponsoring a bill that would speed up the reporting cycle.
Under their bill, the campaign reporting period would end on election day, for both the primary and general elections, and a report would be due a week later.
“Lawmakers should file their reports when the public is paying attention,” McQueen told members of the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee Friday morning.
The legislation cleared the committee on a 7 to 2 vote. It now heads to the House Judiciary Committee.House bill 103 makes several other changes, as well, that would lead to more timely disclosure of money collected by certain public officials. It speeds up the timeline for reporting money contributed during legislative sessions.
Currently, certain elected officials are prohibited from soliciting donations from Jan. 1 through the end of the legislative session when they’re making or changing laws.
New Mexico lawmakers in 2019 doubled campaign contribution limits for those seeking seats in the Legislature or running for governor, arguing they needed more money to compete against a deluge of outside spending.
Now, in the first gubernatorial election since 2019, those higher limits appear to have paid off for incumbent governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, and her Republican challenger, Mark Ronchetti.
They’ve both already raised more than candidates raised in 2014 and 2018 during the same time period under the previous, lower contribution limits. Lujan Grisham raised by the first week of September as much as she did for the entire 2018 election.
But there’s another difference too, one that if it was foreseen wasn’t mentioned when lawmakers in years past debated increasing the limits: the majority of the cash used by Lujan Grisham and Ronchetti to run for office this year comes, so far, from a small set of well-heeled groups of individuals and businesses, unlike the previous two gubernatorial elections.
Campaign finance reports reveal multiple instances of tens of thousands of dollars coming from groups of people related through business or family connections, such as spouses, children, and parents.
The higher limits mean such groups can collectively give a much greater amount than before, and in turn garner the greater access and influence that potentially follows.
It’s unclear if one person acts as a “bundler” of such donations, because New Mexico doesn’t require people to disclose the fundraising they do among friends, family or colleagues to support particular candidates.
But groups of related businesses or families and the amounts they’ve given can be identified by examining information reported by candidates, particularly the physical or mailing addresses of donors.
Sixty percent of around $10 million raised by Lujan Grisham through the first week in September has come from donors at just 357 of the more than 13,000 donor addresses provided in her reports.
And 53% of the almost $6.5 million Ronchetti has raised comes from donors at just 206 of the 9,112 addresses in his reports.
From each address in those small groups, the candidates gathered at least $10,000. In many cases there is one donor at the address giving the maximum of $20,800 (half for the primary, half for the general election), but there are many instances in which the total given by multiple people or businesses sharing an address is double that individual legal limit or much higher. The giving reported so far spans the entire primary election cycle, which began Jan. 1, 2021, plus general election donations through early September.
Big questions loom as the 2022 primary election nears. Who will Democrats nominate for Attorney General, State Auditor Brian Colón or Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez? Who among a lengthy list of Republicans will challenge Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham this fall? Will a concerted effort by conservative forces to unseat a group of progressive Democratic incumbents succeed? I would add, will the oil and gas industry feel like a winner after the election?
Another political season. Another new political group with a forgettable but vaguely feel-good name.In March, a new entity registered with the Secretary of State: Working Together New Mexico. Albuquerque City Councilor Louie Sanchez, who represents part of the city’s westside, has said its purpose is to support the campaigns of particular candidates. Sanchez didn’t file a report last week saying how much the group has raised and spent despite a state deadline. Nor did he file a no activity report, a minimum requirement of groups that register with the Secretary of State under the campaign reporting act. Yesterday, six candidates in the June 7, 2022 Democratic primary wrote Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver to request an immediate investigation of Working Together New Mexico for not filing a report. “This PAC has developed a website, launched a PR campaign, raised funds, and retained a prominent consultant…to say they haven’t spent $1,000 yet just doesn’t pass the smell test,” Tara Jaramillo, running for State House District 38 in central and southern New Mexico, stated in the press release sent out by campaign consultant, Neri Holguin. This analysis originally appeared in our Friday newsletter.
Update: Shortly after publishing the following newsletter on Friday, Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, wrote in an email to New Mexico in Depth that lawmakers would include transparency in a revised junior bill during an upcoming special session. She said lawmakers would use as a model new transparency measures passed last year for capital outlay allocations. “I wish we had done this originally but we think we have an answer to how to make those changes,” she wrote. Later on Friday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislative leaders announced a special session of the Legislature would convene on April 5, to take up a revised junior bill and consider measures they can take to help New Mexicans in the face of rising inflation. After sending out our newsletter last week about lawmakers’ outrage over the governor vetoing their dark spending bill, I had a moment of deja vu.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, has vetoed lawmakers’ dark spending bill, casually called the “junior bill”, and they don’t like it.
The vetoed Senate Bill 48 cobbles together spending by individual lawmakers into one long list of projects worth $50 million in total.
The junior bill doesn’t happen every year but when it does, it’s held sacrosanct by lawmakers, who each get part of the pie to divvy up. The junior bill doesn’t disclose which lawmaker makes which appropriation, and lawmakers exempt that information from state transparency laws. The public is simply left in the dark.
Lawmakers put the bill together behind the scenes, not in public. They each get a slice of the money and some guidelines to follow (what those guidelines are, from whom they’re given, and whether lawmakers have total carte blanche is unclear because the process is not public). Senators put their list together, the same goes for representatives, and those two combine to form the junior legislation.
Across the country, “our whole democratic system is under attack.”So said New Mexico’s Senate Majority leader, Peter Wirth, a Democrat from Santa Fe, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday as he presented Senate Bill 8, now poised to pass the Senate having cleared three of that chamber’s committees with Democratic but no Republican support. The effort comes in an election year in which Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, is running for re-election and all seats in the state House of Representatives are up.
The legislation would allow people who’ve committed a felony to vote before completing their probation or parole. It would ensure ballot access on tribal land, make it easier for New Mexicans to stay registered, and cast a ballot too. According to Wirth, the bill responds to frustration over the failure of the U.S. Senate in January to pass a voting rights measure called the Freedom to Vote Act. The federal legislation would have expanded voting rights and prohibited gerrymandering of political districts to favor one political party over another.
Lessons were learned during the “COVID voting cycle of 2020” about voter disenfranchisement, and the value of mail by vote, the Senate majority leader said.
Once a person has taken out a loan from a storefront lender in New Mexico, interest rates up to 175% can quickly spiral out of control. Because they target lower-income people who don’t have bank accounts, these storefront outfits are often referred to as “predatory lenders.” A 2020 Think New Mexico report describes New Mexico as “saturated”: In New Mexico there is a small loan store for every 3,819 residents, according to the report. By comparison, there is one McDonald’s restaurant for every 23,298 New Mexicans. As lawmakers attempt to cap interest rates at 36% this session, they might keep in mind a new New Mexico Ethics Watch report that took a look at the industry’s lobbying efforts. It’s a report that quantifies some of the spending but also gets across just how much we can’t know about the influence peddling that goes on at the Roundhouse, bringing up an issue New Mexico In Depth has reported on repeatedly over the years: lobbying disclosure.
Legislative Finance Committee analysts described over reliance on emergency procurement as resulting from mismanagement in their October report. Legislative analysts have repeatedly warned since 2016 that government agencies’ increasing reliance on no-bid contracting puts New Mexico at increased risk of waste and fraud. Their most recent admonition came a month after a state grand jury indicted a former powerful lawmaker for racketeering, money laundering and kickbacks related to a no-bid contract.
Lawmakers have largely ignored those warnings; in fact, a bill pre-filed for the legislative session starting Tuesday in Santa Fe appears to create new exemptions to the procurement code. Nor is reform a high priority for Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, whose three years in office have been marked by a sharp rise in no-bid contracting.
“Such an item is not currently an element of the agenda,” said Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham, who has the power to set this year’s 30-day legislative agenda, as lawmakers are otherwise limited to budget matters. “But the governor’s office will, as always, review and evaluate potential initiatives.”
Since 2019, Lujan Grisham’s first year in office, her administration has circumvented competitive bidding on at least 886 occasions, approving sole-source and emergency contracts worth more than $796 million, greatly outpacing her Republican predecessor, according to New Mexico In Depth’s analysis of reports from state agencies under Lujan Grisham’s control.