Talking ethics with New Mexico Ethics Commission director, Jeremy Farris

State ethics officials grapple with a paradox in their daily work, said Jeremy Farris, executive director of the New Mexico State Ethics Commission. On the one hand, the heart of their work is designed to ensure the public knows that elected officials and government workers are held accountable in how they use the powers and resources entrusted to them.  Why? Because those powers and resources belong to the people, not individuals holding public positions. This is one of two “big ideas” that motivate the commission, Farris said. The commission does that work by enforcing state ethics laws through investigations and in some cases, suing people.

Lawmakers water down alcohol proposals amid public health crisis

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO – JUNE 26, 2022: The alcohol department at a grocery store Albuquerque, NM on June 26, 2022. CREDIT: Adria Malcolm for New Mexico In Depth

The alcohol industry notched a victory Saturday as the Legislature approved an alcohol tax hike of less than a penny-a-drink on beer and hardly more than that for liquor and wine, a fraction of the 18- to 20-cents public health advocates pushed for in this year’s session. 

Lawmakers also rejected a $5 million request from the Department of Health for a new Office of Alcohol Prevention, despite the state’s historic budget surplus. A DOH spokesperson said its epidemiology division would create a smaller version of the office anyway, using an additional $2 million lawmakers added to the agency’s budget. 

Public health experts say the tax increase is so small that it’s unlikely to have any effect on excess drinking, let alone tackle New Mexico’s worst–in-the-nation rate of alcohol-related deaths. The chair of the House tax committee, Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, who had rejected a compromise 5¢-per-drink proposal passed by his counterparts in the Senate, acknowledged the final increase was minor on the floor of the House of Representatives on Saturday morning. “If we want to call it minimal, we can call it minimal,” he said.

House kills effort to increase campaign sunshine and prevent corruption

The New Mexico House of Representatives rejected a package of reforms to the state’s Campaign Reporting Act that would have closed a loophole allowing independent groups to evade reporting their donors. 

Senate Bill 42, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, would have fixed language in the law that a nonprofit organization exploited in 2020 to get around disclosing who gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for political advertising in support of a ballot referendum on converting the Public Regulation Commission from an elected to an appointed body. 

Eleven Democrats joined all Republicans to kill the bill. 

Eleven House Democrats joined all Republicans to defeat Senate Bill 42 on March 15, 2023. Image from the House of Representatives vote tally board. “I’m very disappointed that members of my own party joined all of the Republicans to prevent the public from knowing who is paying for, among other things, political attack ads,” McQueen said after the vote. 

Other reforms in the package included changes to ensure candidates don’t charge interest on personal loans they make to their own campaign accounts, thereby profiting from campaign contributions used to pay off such loans. 

It would have changed reporting dates to provide more timely information about contributors to their campaigns. Currently, the public is in the dark for months about who gives money to campaigns on election day, or in the months preceding the legislative session in non-election years. 

The bill also would have barred  lawmakers from accepting contributions from lobbyists or political committees during the legislative session. 

During the floor debate on the bill, McQueen fielded a wide range of questions, many of them about existing provisions under the Campaign Reporting Act that wouldn’t have been changed under Senate Bill 42. Numerous questions were fielded about provisions related to personal loans made by candidates to their own campaign accounts.

Money in politics transparency nears finish as legislative session winds down

An effort to close a significant loophole in New Mexico’s campaign disclosure laws and  bar campaign contributions from lobbyists and political committees to lawmakers during legislative sessions has a tailwind heading into the final week of the legislative session. 

And at a key committee Monday night before heading to the House floor, lawmakers added new provisions to Senate Bill 42 to give the public more timely information about who is giving to campaigns. Those additions come from a bill sponsored by Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, that’s unlikely to clear the Legislature, having passed the House but not the Senate with five days left in the legislative session. 

The newly combined bill, sponsored by Sen. Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, and McQueen, adds new requirements to prevent tactics used by a nonprofit group in 2020 to avoid disclosing who contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to support a ballot referendum on converting the Public Regulation Commission from an elected to an appointed body. 

The non-profit argued it followed the letter of the law by not disclosing contributors who put in writing that their money should not be used for politics, even though the nonprofit spent that money on the ballot measure. The measure the nonprofit campaigned for passed but the public still doesn’t know who was behind their deluge of advertising. 

Senate bill 42 would change the letter of the law, requiring groups such as the nonprofit that spent on the 2020 campaign that want to avoid disclosing certain donors to deposit those contributions in a separate bank account that isn’t used to pay for political activity.   

The bill also bars lawmakers, the governor and other statewide elected officials from accepting donations from lobbyists or political committees during the legislative session. 

The bill would require candidates who loan their own money to their political campaigns to offer proof they actually made the loan, and they wouldn’t be allowed to charge interest on the loan. Candidates often loan their campaigns money, especially when running for office for the first time, and can later pay the loan back from future campaign contributions. This provision would prevent a scenario in which a candidate made money off interest on a loan they carried on their books over many years. 

New additions to Senate bill 42 from McQueen’s other bill, House Bill 103, would require more timely reporting of campaign contributions so the public has more complete information just before elections and just before the legislative session each year.

Powerhouse lobbyists on tap for alcohol industry

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO: The alcohol department at an Albuquerque grocery store. CREDIT: Adria Malcolm for New Mexico In Depth

A proposal to raise New Mexico’s alcohol tax to a flat 25-cents per drink in a bid to curb the state’s exceptionally high rate of alcohol-induced deaths has disappeared behind closed doors. 

Both House Bill 230 and its companion in the Senate were tabled by their respective tax committees, leaving them in legislative limbo, even while lawmakers said they’d be considered for inclusion in a larger tax bill in the late hours of the session. 

From the start, the legislation faced a rocky path. In a year when the state is swimming in oil and gas money, opponents questioned raising alcohol taxes at all, even if public health experts say the primary reason to do so in this case is not to raise revenue but to hike the price of excess drinking in order to deter it. Others wondered if the bill would hurt small brewers, distilleries and wineries or would impoverish low-income New Mexicans who don’t cut back on drinking.But another factor weighs on the measure: the alcohol industry itself and the lobbyists it employs to make its case. They have attended every hearing, sometimes muddying the discussion about whether raising alcohol taxes can save lives, as most scientific evidence suggests.

Lawmakers seek to close big transparency gap

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.

Lawmakers want more timely reporting of campaign cash

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.

Big donors giving most of the cash for governor’s race

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.

Oil and Gas: Big giving, Big statehouse influence

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?