Holding back the tide of big money in New Mexico politics
By Steven Robert Allen
John Gardner was a moderate Republican who served in the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat. Gardner founded Common Cause in 1970 after observing firsthand how our nation’s capital was being overrun by lobbyists from every well-heeled industry and special interest under the sun. As he put it at the time, “Everybody’s organized but the people.”
In the intervening years, Common Cause has successfully advocated for campaign finance laws designed to ensure that the voices of ordinary Americans won’t drown beneath tsunamis of special interest campaign cash. A major part of that effort has included programs that provide public financing to candidates who don’t want to have their campaigns bankrolled by deep-pocketed folks. Those fancy suits may feel the candidate owes them special favors after the election is over.
Albuquerque passed such a system in 2005, with a whopping 69 percent of Duke City voters supporting the measure. New Mexico lawmakers passed a similar system for Public Regulation Commission races in 2003 and expanded it to include appellate judicial races in 2007. Santa Fe voters created a program of this kind for municipal races in 2008.
That’s what I call progress. Unfortunately, five justices on the U.S. Supreme Court seem hell-bent on dismantling campaign finance laws designed to prevent the wholesale buy-off of the American democratic process. The judges’ efforts are based on an eccentric interpretation of the First Amendment that could only be concocted by a bunch of insulated eggheads who are completely out of touch with political reality.
Exhibit A is last year’s infamous Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which has made it easier for corporations—including those owned by foreign interests—to spend limitless amounts of cash to sway American elections in their favor. Citizens United was the worst in a string of Supreme Court decisions that dramatically strengthened the political hands of powerful industries and lobbyists at the expense of ordinary citizens.
A couple weeks ago, the court issued Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett, a decision that directly addresses public campaign financing. Thankfully, this opinion isn’t nearly as awful as some folks feared. Yes, it will have an impact here in New Mexico. But the good news is the decision also makes it crystal clear that the concept of public campaign financing is here to stay.
“We couldn’t even call our form of government a ‘democracy’ if it weren’t for the campaign finance reforms put into place over the last four decades.”
A little bit of background: For almost 40 years, the Supreme Court has held that public campaign financing is a constitutionally permissible way to reduce the improper influence of wealthy interests on the political process. In Arizona Free Enterprise, the court reaffirmed that long-standing position. But at the same time, it struck down one mechanism used in certain types of public campaign financing programs, including those in operation in New Mexico.
Here’s how these programs work: In all three New Mexico systems, candidates who want to use public financing must show there's some support for their candidacy by gathering a certain number of $5 contributions from voters in their districts. If the candidates receive enough contributions, they then qualify for a block grant to run their campaigns. The amount is sufficient to allow candidates to run a basic campaign. This core part of public financing remains untouched by the Arizona Free Enterprise decision.
However, the three New Mexico programs also allow additional money for publicly financed candidates if their privately financed opponent outspends them. This is the concept that was struck down in Arizona Free Enterprise, based on the Supreme Court’s loony interpretation of the First Amendment.
For the most part, Arizona Free Enterprise was not a surprise. Public campaign financing advocates anticipated this ruling from as far back as two years ago. They’ve been pondering alternatives ever since.
One possibility that’s well worth considering is the model found in the Fair Elections Now Act, a federal bill that was drafted in anticipation of Arizona Free Enterprise. As with the New Mexico programs, this act would allow candidates to obtain public funds by voluntarily agreeing to limit their acceptance of large, private donations.
Yet unlike New Mexico’s programs, the Fair Elections Now Act also allows candidates to accept small donations of $100 or less, which the candidate can then have matched with additional public funds on a five-to-one basis. For example, if the candidate collects a $50 contribution, she can have it matched with $250 of additional public money.
Such a system would allow publicly financed candidates to raise additional money to remain competitive without running afoul of the new criteria concocted by the U.S. Supreme Court.
I believe we couldn’t even call our form of government a “democracy” if it weren’t for the campaign finance reforms put into place over the last four decades. It’s up to lawmakers to ensure that our elections are of, by and for the people—not bought and paid for by special interests. In that regard, we need to protect and continue to expand public financing in New Mexico. Nothing short of our democracy is at stake.
Friday, July 15, 11 a.m.
Allen will join Josephine Porter from the League of Women Voters of New Mexico in providing an update on Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett to the state Legislature’s Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee. This meeting, which is open to the public, will be held at the Children, Youth and Families Department Protective Services Office (1031 Lamberton NE) in Albuquerque.
Steven Robert Allen is the executive director of Common Cause New Mexico and a former Alibi editor.
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