What is the Council for a Competitive New Mexico, Inc.?
If you Google the group, you’ll find a lot of news stories about it, but not much else. The group’s Facebook page shows it has 15 followers, nine “likes” and two profile pictures, both of which are symbols. Some high school reunion Facebook pages have more followers and information.
“Established in 2020, The Council for a Competitive New Mexico has one primary mission – to promote policies and initiatives that advance lasting and meaningful economic growth and opportunities for our state,” says the About section of the council’s Facebook page.
So why does this matter? Because the Council for a Competitive New Mexico spent nearly $131,000 on political advertisements last year – exerting considerable influence with mailers, radio ads and robocalls – while not disclosing its funding sources.
The group was supporting five incumbent, moderate Democratic state senators in hotly contested legislative primary races, including former Sen. John Arthur Smith of Deming and former Senate President Pro Tempore Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces. Some of the group’s expenditures in the weeks and days before the June 2 primaries included mailers targeting their primary opponents.
The group disclosed its campaign-related expenditures, but won’t disclose its donors. It argues it doesn’t have to under the state’s Campaign Reporting Act based upon the act’s definition of a contribution. The council contends that because its donors were not specifically solicited for political activities, their donations aren’t political contributions under the law, even if donor money was later used for political campaigning.
The nascent New Mexico Ethics Commission has filed a lawsuit aimed at forcing the Council for a Competitive New Mexico to disclose its donors. The group’s attorney says ambiguity in the law prevents state officials from forcing donor disclosure, but the executive director of the Ethics Commission says the council’s donations are “dark money” that is required to be disclosed.
The Secretary of State’s Office had directed the council to disclose its donors in September, but later rescinded the order and referred the matter to the Ethics Commission. Kicking the buck to the Ethics Commission was itself evidence of the act’s ambiguity.
Changes to New Mexico’s campaign finance laws in 2019 were aimed at requiring more disclosure from independent expenditure groups that can spend unlimited amounts of money on political ads. Anyone with a TV last year saw the considerable influence these independent groups wielded with barrages of negative ads, or ads favoring a candidate, although the groups are not supposed to coordinate with candidates or campaigns.
But loopholes a mile wide persist in the Campaign Reporting Act.
A separate group, the Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers, spent more than $260,000 on “educational” mailers advocating for passage of Constitutional Amendment 1 restructuring the Public Regulation Commission in November, but wouldn’t disclose its donors. That group said its contributors asked that funds not be spent on political advocacy, and such written requests make them exempt from disclosure under the state act, regardless of how the contributions are spent. The group reached a settlement with the Ethics Commission, but continued to shield its donors.
The Ethics Commission’s lawsuit against the Council for a Competitive New Mexico could be a test case on dark money disclosure. But it shouldn’t have to come to that. Any group whose primary purpose is political spending for education or other purposes should be required to register as a political committee and be required to disclose its contributors.
State lawmakers can negate the need for a series of precedent-setting lawsuits by rewriting the Campaign Reporting Act. Money given to an organization is a contribution, and money spent on an election is a political expenditure. Keep it simple.
Voters deserve to know who is behind election expenditures, whether it’s a mailer bound for one’s “circular file” or TV ads one can’t avoid. Sunshine is the best disinfectant in political spending, and New Mexico law needs to reflect that.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.