Lost in the drama of Saturday was the death of legislation that would have exposed so-called "dark money” groups to more public scrutiny.
The cause of death?
Late-session disagreements and wariness in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Increasingly, “social welfare” groups -- 501(c)4 nonprofits are a common incarnation --dump big money into state and local political races without having to disclose publicly where their money comes from.
The legislation in question, House Bill 278, sponsored by Republican Rep. Jim Smith of Albuquerque and Democratic Sen. Peter Wirth of Santa Fe, would have required the groups to disclose the names of donors whose dollars were used for political purposes as long as those amounts were above certain dollar thresholds.
In recent years, the New Mexico Senate has passed similar legislation. Leaders of both political parties on Saturday said they supported the idea of exposing “dark money,” but the legislation never seemed an easy sell in the Republican-controlled New Mexico House of Representatives, where the bill bumped up against constant resistance.
The bill also seemed to have been a victim of late-session back-room disagreements.
Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez told reporters Saturday that there were negotiations between the House and Senate as to what to include in House Bill 278, including whether to wrap his own proposal to repeal limits on campaign contributions. New Mexico adopted limits on campaign contributions in 2009 following years of hard-fought lobbying by advocates, but they went into effect after the 2010 election.
“At some point in time there was some negotiations – if that’s the right term -- between the Senate and the House,” Sanchez said. “The negotiations I guess didn’t go as well as they could have. It’s a shame because taking the limits, taking the caps off, will end the dark money in politics. That disclosure would have really helped so that we could see who was giving money to whom. I’m disappointed.”
Sanchez has said that removing limits would give him and other political candidates a weapon against the “dark money” groups swooping into his and other candidates' local elections.
In 2012, Sanchez survived an onslaught of attack ads and mailers paid for by groups affiliated with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and her political consultant, Jay McCleskey.
There could be additional reasons for Sanchez's hope to repeal limits. Before limits were New Mexico law, large campaign contributions went to leadership political action committees run by legislative leaders, who used the money to shore up power each election cycle: they distributed dollars to legislative candidates of their own choosing.
Republican House Majority Leader Nate Gentry of Albuquerque on Saturday chalked up the failure of the “dark money” bill to the Legislature running out of time.
“We got a lot of big-ticket bills like capital outlay very late in the game,” he said. “So we were unable to act on a lot of pieces of good legislation.”
The proposal to pry open the door, just a bit, on “dark money” came in response to how hard-fought elections are increasingly funded in New Mexico and across the U.S.
Very large donors increasingly are choosing to use “dark money” groups to hide their monetary contributions fueling elections. These “social welfare” groups can engage in politics as long it does not become their primary focus. As long as they abide by those rules, these groups don’t have to turn over the names of all their donors.
States can’t require “dark money” groups to disclose all their donors. But states can pry open the doors a little, which is what the legislation in question would have done.
This story is part of a reporting partnership between New Mexico In Depth, KUNM and NMPBS, People, Power and Democracy, that attempts to pull back the curtain on how the New Mexico Legislature works and, in some cases, doesn’t. It's funded by the Thornburg Foundation and the Loeks Family Fund.