Thursday, June 29, 2006


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 29, 2006

A state task force looking into ethics and campaign-finance reform is working hard on some essential issues.

But watching this panel at work is almost like watching a movie when you know all the good guys are going to be slaughtered in the last scene.

I hate to sound like a gloom monger, but having observed the Legislature’s reactions to “reforms” in recent years, I just can’t help it.

The task force, meeting in the Roundhouse on Wednesday, had an engaging discussion about possible public financing of state campaigns with Todd Lang, the executive director of Arizona’s public-campaign-funding program.

It wasn’t clear whether the task force eventually would recommend a similar plan for New Mexico. Some members had serious questions about how public financing would work in New Mexico elections. Republicans generally oppose the idea on philosophical grounds. And some of the most probing questions came from Rep. Kenny Martinez of Grants, the House Democratic floor leader.

It was clear the panel is taking its job seriously. Every member seemed engaged.

And nobody argued with member Matt Brix, executive director of New Mexico’s Common Cause chapter, when he said the state is one of the least restrictive in campaign finance. There are no limits on the contributions of individuals, businesses, unions or political-action committees. The disclosure requirements often make for ambiguous reports.

Gov. Bill Richardson appointed the task force during this spring’s corruption trial of former state Treasurer Robert Vigil (which ended in a mistrial.)

But the earnestness of the task force only makes the probable fate of any of its recommendations sadder.

Anyone who watched the state Senate in action last February knows that body’s attitude toward ethics reform.

Despite the fact the state-treasurer follies were being called the biggest political scandal in state history, basically, the Senate this year ripped out the heart of the effort for ethics reform.

Ripped out the heart and stomped on it.

Only one bill out of an entire package of “anti-corruption” bills backed by Richardson made it through both houses.

One measure sponsored by Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, would have required candidates to disclose their contributor’s employers — as opposed to just the donor’s occupation, as now required.

“I think that’s too much information,” said Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, during the floor debate on a bill, which was defeated on a 22-12 vote.

That bill also would have required more frequent campaign-report filings and would have required campaign-disclosure reports to list the cumulative amount of contributions received from a donor.

These were some of the possible reforms discussed by the task force Wednesday.

So what has changed since that stormy legislative session?

Feldman, a member of the task force, who has sponsored several ethics bills through the years, said she couldn’t say.

Still, she expressed reserved optimism about a new ethics package arising from the task force. “It’s an educational process for the public and the Legislature,” she told me after the meeting.

“Things don’t happen overnight.” She said she hopes the task force is able to form a public consensus on the issues, which will give it a smoother ride in the Legislature.

Former Gov. Garrey Carruthers, a co-chairman of the task force, had a slightly more ominous reason to think the Legislature might react differently to ethics reform.

Talking first about the treasurer scandals and the conflict-of-interest allegations that led to the resignation of state Insurance Superintendent Eric Serna, Carruthers said: “If you listen to the rumors, there’s some other problems out there. If the rumors come to pass, there may be more public support for ethics reforms.”

The task force meets again today.

Always a loophole: Brix pointed out an interesting little flaw in the state’s campaign-finance-disclosure system.

One of the few restrictions on campaign contributions in New Mexico’s law is that it’s illegal for a legislator, candidate for legislator or the governor to “knowingly solicit a contribution for a political purpose” during a regular or special legislative session.

However, Brix pointed out, there is nothing against a legislator, candidate for legislator or the governor accepting campaign contributions during a session.

That must be why the Richardson river of campaign cash slowed to a sad little trickle between Jan. 17 and Feb. 16.

During that period, he only reported $11,560 in contributions, plus about $8,500 in interest from campaign bank accounts.

The biggest chunk — $10,000 from a Santa Fe media consultant named David Horowitz — is dated Feb. 3, about halfway through the session.

In fairness, some of the contributions might have come in before the session started. Sometimes the mail is slow around here.

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