Thursday, January 24, 2008

ROUNDHOUSE ROUND-UP: A TOOTHLESS CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTION BILL?

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
January 24, 2008


Ethics-reform advocates were disappointed last week when Gov. Bill Richardson gave the issue about 20 seconds in his State of the State address. They were even more disappointed with the only bill to emerge so far, one that deals with limits on campaign contributions.

“We’re not supporting that bill as it stands,” said Steven Allen, director of Common Cause New Mexico, a watchdog group that for several years has been pushing for ethics and political reforms.

He was referring to Senate Bill 264, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen — a bill Allen called weak and toothless.

Richardson told reporters Wednesday that he’d like to see a stronger bill, one closer to what his Ethics Task Force has recommended.

SB 264, in its current form, calls for a limit of $2,300 on contributions from an individual to any candidate for state office. Actually the limit would be $4,600 — $2,300 for the primary election, $2,300 for the general.

That’s the same as the federal limits for candidates for president or Congress. There’s a mechanism in the bill to adjust the maximum contribution amount by linking it to the Consumer Price Index.

Allen and other reformers aren’t quibbling with the amount of the limit in the bill.

But Allen said the bill covers only individual contributions to candidates. “It should cover contributions from corporations, unions and (political) parties as well.” he said, noting this would be more in line with the Ethics Task Force recommendation.

In New Mexico politics, it’s often the corporations and unions that provide the lion’s share of money.

For instance, in Richardson’s 2006 re-election effort (at $13.3 million, the most expensive campaign in state history), only two of Richardson’s top 10 contributors were individuals (racetrack owner Paul Blanchard, who gave $120,000, and Univision chief executive Jerry Perenchio, who gave $102,443). Of the other donors, four were companies (Cap II Properties, Gulfstream Lomas, Controlled Recovery and Forest City Covington, each of which gave $100,000 or more); three were labor organizations (Federation of Teachers; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; and Laborers International Union of North America, each of which gave $100,000); and one political action committee, Richardson’s own Moving America Forward — which received contributions from individuals, corporations and unions. The campaign reported $487,000 from that PAC.

But changes apparently are afoot for the contribution bill.

Sanchez couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday, but Stuart Bluestone of the state Attorney General’s Office confirmed the majority leader had told him he had made some changes to SB 264 and wanted Bluestone to go over them.

“I haven’t seen (the changes) yet, so I don’t know what they are,” said Bluestone, who served on the Ethics Task Force for two years.

But if the bill doesn’t change in the Senate, House Speaker Ben Luján, D-Nambé, said Wednesday that he’s considering introducing a bill of his own that would include PACs and the other contributors.

Public finance of campaigns: So far nobody has introduced any bills to expand public financing of campaigns. Some were worried the Richardson administration had become lukewarm to the idea — even though in the final days of his presidential bid, as he campaigned in Iowa and New Hampshire, the governor almost always called for public financing, saying that might have given him a better shot to compete with U.S. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, each of whom dwarfed Richardson in campaign spending.

But Richardson on Wednesday told reporters he’s still behind the idea. He said to expect him to issue a message by today that would allow a public-financing bill to be considered in the current session. Some kind of bill should be released shortly thereafter.

The state currently makes public funds available to state judiciary and Public Regulation Commission candidates who agree to campaign spending limits.

Ethics report card: After the legislative session ends next month, New Mexico Common Cause will publish a report card scoring lawmakers on how they vote on ethics bills, Allen said. He said the report card will include committee votes as well as floor votes, which is appropriate because many bills die in committee.

The report card could become fodder for political campaigns in a year in which all legislators are up for re-election.

Just one problem though. In recent years only a fraction of senators or House members face any opponents when they run for re-election.

In 2004, the last time state senators were elected, 25 of the 42 seats had only one candidate running in the general election.

In 2006, when all House members were up for re-election, only 29 out of 70 House seats were contested in the general election.

Vote on your own time: The state Personnel Office last week distributed a memo reminding state workers they do not get time off to participate in the Feb. 5 Democratic presidential caucus.

Unlike the state primaries and general elections, which are operated and paid for by the state and thus covered by the state election code, the presidential caucus is completely the responsibility of the Democratic Party.

Arcie Baca, the local head of AFSCME, at first was concerned about this policy. But, after thinking about it, he said, there might be privacy issues if employees got time off to caucus. “Everyone would know you’re a Democrat,” he said.

“I just wish the Republicans would have (their caucus) at the same time,” Baca said. The state GOP chose not to have a caucus Feb. 5 and will instead vote for Republican presidential candidates in the June primary.

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