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Crank it up!

Less money, mo’ problems: welcome to the 2009 legislature.

January 14, 2009, 12:00 am

The issue: In the spring of 2007, nearly two years ago, Richardson gave the Legislature a heads-up that he was going to call them back into special session to tackle ethics reform. For various reasons, the session was pushed to the back burner.

Gov. Bill Richardson is back and—guess what—ethics reform is on his plate.So, perhaps there is a silver lining to the pay-to-play scandal hanging around Richardson’s neck: The recommendations put forth by his Task Force on Election Reform might finally be seriously considered.
These include limits on campaign contributions, the creation of an independent commission and public campaign financing. The problem is, some of these ideas take money.

The politics: “One would presume that given Richardson’s disappointment rising out of the wheeling and dealing that lacks transparency and accountability, he would see that it would be in everybody’s benefit that we inject mechanisms of transparency and accountability into the electoral process,” Professor Sierra says. “I just don’t know that he’s going to go there.”

But you can count on the attorney general and certain members of the Legislature going there.

“Getting campaign-contribution limits finally passed has been [at the] top of the list for some time,” Common Cause Executive Director Steve Allen says. “It’s even more obvious now that the state needs this. There’s only a handful of states—Illinois being another one—that don’t have some kind of campaign contribution limits.”

Attorney General Gary King’s office is drafting up that legislation, as well as a bill to create an independent ethics oversight committee. Simultaneously, freshman Rep.-elect Eric Griego, D-Bernalillio, will spearhead a public campaign-finance initiative similar to the one he got passed in Albuquerque as a city councilor.

“When I did it at the city of Albuquerque, I couldn’t get anybody, including some of the advocates, to support it,” Griego says. “In the end, I got a watered-down version on the ballot and the voters passed it overwhelmingly. This time, I have to say there has been similar reluctance on the part of advocacy groups and certain members of the Legislature.”

The problem may be that it would require new spending in an already hurting budget. A hybrid system that allows candidates to collect small donations to augment public funds could be a successful compromise. Griego is also eyeing corporate-tax loopholes (watch out, Wirth).

“I don’t think we can do it for free,” Griego says. “I’m going to introduce, and I don’t care if it’s dead on arrival.”

Griego also has a bill to bar legislators from becoming lobbyists within a year of leaving office.

The Office of the Secretary of State also is asking for a few tweaks related to ethics law. For one, the office found itself struggling with vague language in the Voter Action Act, the public funding law for Public Regulation Commission races, when trying to fine Democratic candidate Jerome Block Jr. for misusing and misreporting campaign funds. The SOS also wants the Legislature to reapprove $176,500 granted the previous session to build a new online campaign-finance database.

Even with a tight budget, Deputy Chairman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee Varela says he can imagine setting aside money for ethics reform.

“Given the recent events with the pay-to-play, this may be a major issue,” Varela says. “Now that we’re under investigation in New Mexico, I think this will highlight campaign reform. I don’t think it’s something that will be on the back burner.”

At least not for the governor, who released a press release reiterating his support for passing comprehensive ethics reform this session.

The opportunities: Good government organization Center for Civic Policy has been keeping an eye on ethics reform and its sister organization, Center for Civic Action, maintains a blog at
Common Cause New Mexico will also be lobbying for ethics reform at the Capitol. Their Web site provides form letters and reports. (They’re also raising money for public campaign-finance lobbying thanks to a $25,000 matching-fund program.)

You can also serve as a government watchdog yourself, using SFR’s campaign-finance links.

Related Features:
Politics Online—Keep up with the Legislature, virtually
What it’s Wirth—Santa Fe’s freshman senator talks transition

Video Extra: 

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