In December the National Institute on Money in State Politics graded all 50 states on how much information they require independent groups to disclose about their donors. New Mexico got an F. In fact, we were one of only four states to score a zero.
That’s because loopholes in the state’s campaign finance laws allow nonprofits, and other groups trying to influence elections, to keep the names of their donors secret. Unlike traditional political action committees, which are subject to campaign donation limits, these so-called Super Pacs are allowed to accept unlimited amounts of money—as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates or give the money directly to them.
These are groups such as New Mexico Competes, a tax-exempt 501(c)(4) aligned with Gov. Susana Martinez, and New Mexico Prosperity, headed by the former director of the New Mexico Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. The Albuquerque Journal recently editorialized that the proliferation of these groups is “a bad omen for transparency and accountability” and warned that they are ‘spreading …like fleas on an old dog.’
As New Mexico in Depth has reported, there’s big money involved here. New Mexico candidates and political action committees spent more than $12 million on over 250 hours of television commercials during the 2014 election. But there was much more money than that spent on last year’s elections. New Mexico laws just didn’t require its disclosure, however.
This year reform advocates will try again to close the loopholes in the law.
State Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, is proposing that all groups that spend money pushing for or against candidates and issues should have to make public the list of people who funded their efforts.
Wirth said Monday he wants to shine a light on the dark money that’s come into elections.
The effort has bipartisan support. Rep. Jim Smith, R-Sandia Park, is a prominent supporter of transparency.
“We want to have to have open and fair elections,” Smith said Monday. “We want transparency in these elections and people want to know where this money’s coming from. We don’t know right now who’s donating to various independent expenditures, and we want to know who’s donating the money and how that money is flowing through these campaigns.”
Of course not everyone agrees that more disclosure is always better. Linda Siegle, a lobbyist for healthcare groups including the American Cancer Society, says some nonprofits worry that they won’t be able to raise as much money if donors know the information will be made public.
The American Cancer Society, for example, has a political arm, the Cancer Action Network, which is active in advocating for and against legislation in New Mexico.
Wirth has carried similar bills before, and the proposals have passed the Senate unanimously, only to die in the House. With new Republican leadership in the House this year, bipartisan support will be essential.
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.