COMMENTARY: It’s going to be exhausting and, too often, impossible to follow the money spent on elections in New Mexico next year.
I expect the state to be flooded with political spending. In addition to the presidential race, several members of our congressional delegation are up for re-election.
On a state level, there’s a fight brewing for control of the New Mexico House of Representatives and Senate. Dianna Duran’s resignation also means a secretary of state race.
So-called “dark money” – cash funneled through nonprofits that don’t have to disclose donors – is a big problem on the right and on the left. It’s so pervasive that Democratic members of Congress recently complained about dark money in a video created by a left-leaning group funded by dark money.
Weak laws, a lack of enforcement, and ethically challenged decisions add to the problem in New Mexico. Duran was stealing money from her campaign for years before anyone noticed. Many others have been sloppy, at best, about reporting campaign donations and spending.
State law isn’t clear on how lobbyists should report donations to candidates. KOB-TV in Albuquerque recently identified hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to 10 legislators that were nearly impossible to track because of discrepancies between how candidates and lobbyists reported them.
And Court of Appeals Judge J. Miles Hanisee intentionally concealed use of a political operative’s services when he ran for election in 2014. Hanisee paid Jay McCleskey’s company, McCleskey Media, through a DBA (a company “doing business as” a different name) instead of writing checks directly to McCleskey Media – which, as a result, didn’t appear on public finance reports.
All this reveals that the state’s campaign finance reporting system is a joke. This crisis should spark action in the next legislative session in January. Gov. Susana Martinez, who controls the agenda, hasn’t decided whether to allow consideration of reform.
There are local-government problems too. Some residents in my hometown of Las Cruces received an anonymous mailer a few weeks ago attacking a city council candidate. City law forbids anonymous mailers. But it’s difficult to find the offenders.
Even if we could identify those responsible, there’s no penalty for violations. Lawbreakers apparently operate with impunity.
Las Cruces’ election will be remembered for an out-of-town super PAC’s immense spending. While GOAL WestPAC is disclosing donors, there are still barriers to transparency. The city doesn’t require candidates or groups to file finance reports in the two weeks before an election. We know nothing about the mad dash to the finish line until a month after the election is over, when a final report is due.
And the big money that has seeped into local elections doesn’t show up at FollowTheMoney.org – a national database of money in state politics – or the federal money-in-politics database OpenSecrets.org.
Another group’s spending in the Las Cruces election was small but illustrates how difficult it is to track money. The ProgressNow New Mexico PAC raised about $3,100. Almost half came as donations from individuals whose identities the group was required disclose. Another $400 came from a different ProgressNow PAC. You’ll have to look up finance reports for that PAC if you want to know how it’s funded.
Finally, $1,247.04 came as an in-kind donation of staff time from ProgressNow’s nonprofit, which is allowed to keep its funding secret.
Confused? I am. It’s hard to keep up with all of this. I suspect that’s intentional.