COMMENTARY: Just as 2005 was the year of New Mexico Treasurer Robert Vigil’s indictment and his near-impeachment and trial for accepting kickbacks in return for handling the state’s investments, 2015 will be remembered as the year of Secretary of State Dianna Duran’s guilty plea to the use of campaign funds for casino gambling.
This year’s scandal involving the state’s top ethics officer ought to spur reform in the state’s inadequate campaign finance reporting system, better enforcement of the laws, and, finally, the establishment of an independent ethics commission. Those reforms would address the violations in both the Duran case and the discrepancies in legislative and other campaign finance reports recently highlighted on TV and in various media outlets.
That’s what happened in the wake of Vigil’s conviction. The Legislature took notice, and it acted. Public financing measures were passed at both the state and local levels, a pay-to-play measure for government contractors was enacted, and lobbyists were limited to $250 in gifts to individual legislators.
At Common Cause New Mexico we’re hoping – and working – to get the Legislature to take action again. There are only two paths forward – more scandals, more plea bargains, more bad report cards and further erosion of public confidence, or enforcement of the law and passage of real reform that sheds light on campaigns and prevents corruption in the first place.
Even though this is a short session of the Legislature, where only budget and revenue issues are typically considered, the Legislature should prioritize restoring the public trust it has lost during the past months by putting these issues on the agenda, in one way or another.
This is an old refrain from us, but one worth repeating. We’ve contacted legislative leaders to ask, “if not now, when?”
Over the past four years we’ve offered many commonsense solutions to reduce the influence of money on politics, and conducted several studies of New Mexico PACs, lobbyists and campaigns. With the help of Research and Polling, we survey voters’ opinions on these issues every year. Their opinion each year is overwhelmingly (80-90+ percent) in favor of transparency measures for PACs, candidates and lobbyists and the establishment of an ethics commission.
Among the recommendations we’ve made:
- Regular audits of campaign finance reports, and using fines and other enforcement mechanisms for both lobbyists and candidates in violation
- Improvements to the Secretary of State’s website to allow cross checking of contributions to candidates, expenditures and donations from lobbyists and PACs
- An independent, nonpartisan ethics commission with enough funding to educate public officials, investigate conflicts of interest and recommend sanctions
- Disclosure of who is paying for advertisements sponsored by independent groups
- More specific reporting requirements for lobbyists, including disclosure of what bills the lobbyist is spending money on and what legislators are the recipients of that spending
- Limitations on lobbyists as fundraisers and donors to campaigns
- Limitations on former legislators and relatives of legislators acting as lobbyists
Usually, with great effort, one or two of our recommendations will be adopted each year, in a piecemeal fashion. That is fine. That is the way the system works. But now we need sweeping reform.
To aid in that effort, Common Cause has posted a menu of possible reforms on our new solutions webpage at nm.commoncause.org/solutions. The site includes a compendium of recent articles and editorials from around the state on these issues, polling data, and links to studies that Common Cause New Mexico has done in the past few years. We hope it will provide a baseline for action – by the public as well as legislators. We invite you to visit it. These issues are not new, and they are not going away. The time for action is now.
Contact your legislator and ask about his or her position on some of these issues, and keep that information handy in 2016.
Harrison is executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a nonpartisan grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy. It works to create open, honest and accountable government that serves the public interest; promote equal rights, opportunity, and representation for all; and to empower all people to make their voices heard as equals in the political process.