Wednesday, January 11, 2006

ROUNDHOUSE ROUND-UP: TAX-FUNDED POLITICAL ADS?

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
January 12, 2006

"America the Beautiful" plays in the background as state Land Commissioner Pat Lyons, surrounded by the bucolic beauty of the Rio Grande Nature Center, talks about the importance of conservation and how his office takes care of public land.

A new political-campaign ad for Lyons, who is running for re-election to a second term?

Absolutely not, said Kristen Haase, spokeswoman for the state Land Office.

“The Land Office is an important, but little-known agency, therefore during the commissioner’s tenure we have produced a total of four public-service announcements, all part of a media campaign to inform and educate the public about trust lands and the work we do at the Land Office on behalf of public education in New Mexico,” Haase said.

However, former Land Commissioner Jim Baca — a Democrat who hopes to get the nomination to run against Republican Lyons in this year’s election — says the ads are nothing but political commercials paid for by taxpayers.

“What it’s really about is informing the public about a little-known land commissioner,” Baca said. “I feel like I’m up against the eight ball here, going up against a taxpayer-financed campaign.”

In a letter to Lyons e-mailed Wednesday, Baca wrote, “I demand that you reimburse the state land maintenance fund for any and all dollars used to fund these political commercials.”

Other announced Democratic candidates are Ray Powell Jr., who also is a former land commissioner, and LeRoy Garcia, chairman of the San Miguel County Commission.

The Land Office spent about $100,000 to buy television time for the spots, which cost about $1,500 each to produce, Haase said. The ads are running in rotation on KOB, KRQE, KOAT and Comcast cable.

“I’m about to buy a month of time with Time Warner so we can hit Las Cruces,” Haase said. That time will cost $1,496, she said.

While all broadcast stations run public-service announcements for free, Haase said, “we wanted guaranteed and decent hit times, so we went through the advertising (departments)” of the stations.

Though Baca said he thought the Land Office ads were illegal during an election year, Mary Lynn Roper, general manager of KOAT, said there are no laws or regulations prohibiting such commercials.

“While it may be an issue for public discussion, it’s not an FCC issue,” Roper said.

Roper said if someone is upset about a political commercial, the Federal Communications Commission requires a station to provide “equal time.” But all that means is that the station must give the complaining party a chance to buy ads at the same rate as the offending ad.

Other spots: Lyons is not the only state official to be criticized for his television spots.

Incumbents in important but better-known agencies also have used television ads to inform the public — and, cynics, would say, increase their recognition.

Attorney General Patricia Madrid has appeared in several commercials warning consumers against possible rip-offs. Last year, she appeared in spots lambasting the payday-loan industry.

Gov. Bill Richardson currently appears in two PSAs. One is about ignition interlocks for drunken drivers. The other ad uses the most memorable slogan to come out of the administration: “You drink, you drive, you lose.”

In late 2004, U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici called for a federal investigation of New Mexico Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron, who produced several publicly funded television, radio and print ads concerning the Help America Vote Act.

Domenici and other Republicans charged that Democrat Vigil-Giron — who wasn’t running for office in 2004 and isn’t running for anything now — was using the ads to bolster her own name recognition.

However, Vigil-Giron was formally cleared early last year by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

The offices of both Lyons and Richardson say they will stop running their respective commercials Feb. 13.

That’s the day before filing day for state offices.

One of our 33 is missing: Lt. Gov. Diane Denish has a Web site where supporters can download nominating petitions for her re-election effort. The site asks for the names and addresses of those getting petitions. But a drop-down menu for the counties is short by one.

There’s no Santa Fe County.

A spokesman for Denish said Tuesday this is only an oversight and that the lieutenant governor expects to get a lot of support from Santa Fe Democrats.

But the county was still missing early Thursday morning.

UPDATE: At 8:26 a.m. Thursday I was informed by Steve Fitzer, finance director for the Denish campaign, that Santa Fe County is back on the menu.

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