Money Trail

City eyes campaign finance law rewrite ahead of election

A flurry of campaign mailers are likely to hit voters’ mailboxes later this year as voters select four councilors. But whether third-party spending must be reported would change under a new proposal. (Anson Stevens-Bollen)

One election year may have just ended, but another is only getting started.

Voters will choose four city councilors in November, potentially reshaping Santa Fe’s governing body, and may also decide on changes to the city’s charter. Before campaigns and advocacy groups begin spending to sway voters, however, the city’s campaign finance laws could be in for a major rewrite.

City councilors are considering a 49-page bill that would change Santa Fe’s campaign finance laws in what backers say is a bid to make the dense code easier to understand. But the city’s ethics board has raised concerns that the changes could lead to less transparency heading into election season.

The changes backed by the city clerk would slash the section of the municipal code regulating what are known as “independent expenditures,” for example—that is, advertising and other campaigning by advocacy groups that are not formally connected to a candidate’s campaign.

The city’s current law requires groups that spend more than $500 on any form of “public communication” supporting or opposing a candidate to report the spending and identify anyone who donated over $25 to the efforts.

Yet, advisory board members worry the proposed changes would narrow the existing law to only require the disclosure of spending on advertising, not other campaign activities. That could allow groups to spend thousands of dollars campaigning for or against a candidate without having to say where they got their money.

Moreover, the proposed changes would only regulate ads that are “an appeal to vote for or against a clearly identified candidate or ballot question.” Some board members worry that definition of advertising could create legal wiggle room for groups to create ads that fall outside the city code by not directly mentioning voting.

“On the one hand, it’s certainly a positive thing to make the rules easier,” Paul Biderman, a member of the Ethics and Campaign Review Board, tells SFR. “If you make them really arcane and complex and lengthy, some people might be discouraged from running or might run but accidentally violate the rules.”

But he added: “We don’t want to let some important principles fall by the wayside.”

City Clerk Kristine Bustos-Mihelcic told the board March 9 that the proposed changes are meant to streamline the sprawling code and align the wording with state laws.

“The state definitions are much shorter, are much more concise and they’re a bit more user-friendly, I’ll say, for individuals,” she told the board.

Bill sponsor District 2 Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth, who is working with the city clerk on the proposed revisions, said she welcomes the Ethics and Campaign Review Board’s input.

“This is a first step to align our definitions more clearly with the state definitions,” she tells SFR.

Spending this year is unlikely to top that of a mayoral race or hot-button special election, such as the soda tax vote in 2017 that included a flurry of spending from third parties and featured sparring between city regulators and a dark money group opposed to the tax that refused to play by Santa Fe’s campaign finance laws.

But the election could still be contentious.

The proposed changes would slash other provisions of Santa Fe’s campaign finance code, too.

Campaigns would no longer need to include the phone number of a campaign representative on yard signs, for example—a proposal that concerned District 1 Councilor Sig Lindell.

“I don’t think that’s the greatest idea,” she told the Finance Committee during a hearing Monday night.

The proposed changes would also eliminate the requirement that campaigns file a finance report the day before an election, reducing from five to four the number of such reports candidates must file during an election. But candidates would have to begin filing reports earlier—60 days before Election Day instead of 40, for example.

Some provisions of the election code may not be missed under the proposed changes. Campaigns would no longer have deputy treasurers, for example. And the city might scrap an effectively toothless requirement that each candidate sign a form saying they’re familiar with the city’s campaign code. A candidate can still get on the ballot if they don’t sign, making it more or less pointless.

The proposal passed the Finance Committee on Monday night and heads to a vote of the Quality of Life Committee. It is scheduled to get a vote of the full council on March 29.

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