Thursday, March 01, 2007

ROUNDHOUSE ROUNDUP: GUTTING ELECTRONIC DISCLOSURE

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
March 1, 2007


The only campaign-finance bill to speed through the state Senate this session is one that would have the effect of slowing down campaign-finance reporting.

Senate Bill 363, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, was passed unanimously by the Senate on Wednesday with virtually no discussion.

This on the day after senators killed the latest attempt to open the Legislature’s conference committees to the public.

Basically, SB 363 would make it optional for a candidate for state office to file campaign finance reports online. A requirement for online reports went into effect only last year. The idea was to let the public click on the secretary of state’s Web site and see all the money coming into the various campaigns and how it was being spent.

“This bill certainly will significantly increase the amount of time between the filing of a report and the ability of people to view them,” Matt Brix, executive director of New Mexico Common Cause, told me Wednesday.

“Common Cause believes that a robust electronic filing system is one of the basic tenets of good disclosure laws, especially in 2007,” Brix said.

Sanchez argues his bill isn’t intended to thwart electronic reporting. “This isn’t trying to hide campaign-finance reports,” he told me a couple of weeks ago. “It’s for people like me who aren’t very good at computers or access to the Internet.”

Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, who sponsored the legislation that created the electronic filing system, voted for Sanchez’s bill.

Immediately after the vote, Feldman said some amendments to the bill made in committees made it more palatable. “It’s still not a good measure,” she admitted. “But given the difficulty that some legislators had with electronic filing, it’s probably the best we could do.”

The best they could do.

I was afraid of that.

SB 363 seems to be on the fast track in the House as well. House Speaker Ben Luján, D-Nambé, assigned it to only one committee — the House Voters and Elections Committee.

However, there could be hope on the Capitol’s Fourth Floor. Gilbert Gallegos, spokesman for Gov. Bill Richardson, declined Wednesday to say whether the governor would veto the measure. But he stuck by a statement he made to The Associated Press: “Gov. Richardson continues to support a firm requirement for candidates to file campaign reports electronically. The governor believes New Mexicans are better served if campaign finances are as transparent as possible.”

SOS for the SOS Web site: Critics of the current electronic filing system do have one valid point. Simply put, the system doesn’t make it easy for anyone.

About the only discussion of Sanchez’s bill Wednesday was by Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española, who spoke about the difficulty he had trying to file his last report. And he said he was trying to file from the Secretary of State’s Office.

And it’s difficult — in fact impossible in recent months — on the public’s end as well.

Backers of the original electronic filing requirement said the public no longer would have to travel to Santa Fe and go to the Secretary of State’s Office during business hours to review campaign reports.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way.

As faithful readers of this column know, the section of the SOS Web site with campaign finance reports basically broke down sometime last October. Almost none of the reports that were due after an early October deadline are available on the site. If you want to know who made last-minute contributions to most candidates last year, you’ll have to pay a personal visit to the Secretary of State’s Office.

James Flores, spokesman for new Secretary of State Mary Herrera, told me recently that his office has hired a computer expert to revamp the Web site.

But if you thought the SOS Web site couldn’t get any more useless, SB 363 could prove you wrong.

Let’s play nice: Gov. Bill Richardson’s most-quoted moment from last week’s presidential candidate forum in Carson City, Nev., was his call for Democratic candidates not to attack one another. Lots of national press quoted him in context of a feud between U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Barak Obama concerning nasty remarks that an Obama supporter made about Clinton and her husband, former President Clinton.

However, Richardson’s stance on campaign negativity aroused memories for a Republican operative and blogger from Albuquerque.

Whitney Cheshire was the press spokeswoman for John Sanchez, Richardson’s GOP opponent in 2002. In her Wednesday Morning Quarterback blog on Monday she wrote, “... we remembered that Richardson called for no negative campaigning in his first race for NM Gov against John Sanchez, and then he launched the first SCUD, so we’re inclined to believe the `cease fire' will only remain in effect for him if and only if HE DOESN’T CHANGE HIS MIND.”

Indeed, in 2002, it was Richardson who aired the first negative television ads in that race, which was notorious for its attack ads.