Police reform bills sweep the virtual statehouse, but outcome uncertain

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.

Push to end private prisons stymied by concerns for local economies

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.

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.

Why should we care about dark money?

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.

Dark money group pushing PRC reform tied to major oil company

Exxon Mobil Corporation contributed to a dark-money group that supported a successful November referendum reforming the state’s Public Regulation Commission (PRC), according to a campaign finance report filed by one of its lobbyists. One of the largest oil and gas producers in New Mexico, the multinational conglomerate gave at least $10,000 to the “Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers,” a nonprofit that spent a quarter of a million dollars touting the merits of a constitutional amendment, which eventually passed handily. The contribution can be found in an Oct. 7 report filed by Exxon Mobil lobbyist Deanna Archuleta. The Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers refused to disclose its donors when the State Ethics Commission (SEC) demanded it do so despite new campaign disclosure laws requiring groups like it to say where the money they spend on political campaigns comes from.

It’s unclear whether vaccines are reaching hardest hit New Mexico communities

As New Mexico continues to amp up vaccine distribution, health officials don’t appear to be allocating a greater number of doses to those living in low-income areas that have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. Those areas include McKinley County, the southern border region, and communities in central New Mexico where some of the highest rates of positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths have occurred. 

Other than some targeted distribution to congregant facilities like nursing homes and prisons, as well as health care and medical workers, the state is taking an approach of calling up individuals who’ve registered on the state vaccine portal. People are prioritized based on various risk categories, such as age, underlying conditions, or being an essential worker. “…basically we’re randomizing them to see who will receive that vaccine dose,” New Mexico Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said at a Wednesday afternoon press conference. It’s an approach designed to ensure there is no favoritism in vaccine access, Collins said. 

But the hardest hit populations are low income communities that are disproportionately Native American and Latino, Black and other communities of color, and there is currently no publicly available information about whether or not vaccine distribution is sufficiently reaching these groups.

Lawmakers, and lobbyists too, push through in the midst of COVID

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.