The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Campaign finance changes may polarize


August 21, 2019

For years, transparency advocates have been raising hue and cry for campaign finance reform that generally accomplishes two goals: First, reform should create an environment where the person or group with the biggest piggybank isn’t the de facto winner. And second, voters should be able to find out where campaign money is coming from so they can have a clear picture of who is propping up what.

New campaign rules in New Mexico hit the second mark, but unfortunately miss the first by about a mile.

According to an Associated Press story, legislation signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham earlier this year included, among many (largely positive) changes, the creation of so-called “legislative caucus committees.”

These committees essentially allow the top-ranking official from each party of both the House and the Senate an unprecedented amount of power by allowing them to establish funds that can make unfettered non-cash contributions to individual political campaigns. Political parties now have the same ability, thanks to the new law.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, has heralded the change as a boost for first-time candidates and newly elected officials — political newbies who may not have a war chest or much fund-raising savvy.

Sounds good, until you look a little closer.

A campaign finance reform advocate calls the move a “power grab by legislative leadership.” A donor who bumps up against New Mexico’s newly instituted $5,000 limit for a candidate is now able to turn around and donate far more to a caucus committee or political party.

How much more? A tidy $25,000 per donor in the primary, another in the general election. All to a committee that can give unlimited in-kind donations to a candidate. And in-kind donations can go a long way: legal services, printing, polling, food for campaign workers, etc. It’s a neat workaround to donation limits via a middleman with everything to gain by controlling which campaigns succeed and fail.

If there’s any doubt about whether massive amounts of cash will continue to be funneled into New Mexico politics under the new system, consider that Egolf in June hosted a “Speaker’s Fund Dinner” at Sandia Resort for the House Democratic Caucus that offered at the top end a package of eight dinner and VIP reception tickets for $25,000.

While the new bill requires committees document and report the money coming and going, these changes put an unprecedented amount of power into the hands of politicians like Egolf, House Minority Leader James Townsend of Artesia (who along with most of his Republican cohorts voted against the measure), or their equivalents Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, and Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, in the state Senate — and all of their successors down the line.

Will that dynamic really be positive when it comes to the long-term health of New Mexico’s political scene? Consider the low-key civil war going on right now in the state’s Democratic Party, where centrists are under fire from further-to-the-left progressive compatriots. Will putting more power in the hands of a few in party leadership do more to hollow out the middle and further polarize the left from the right?

Good campaign finance reform is a hard needle to thread. But it’s important to get right, because New Mexicans need a system they can trust. And any system that encourages more political division by putting the fate of political campaigns in the hands of a powerful few party operators does exactly the opposite.

— Albuquerque Journal


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