Sunday, September 15, 2013

ROUNDHOUSE ROUNDUP: Get Ready for the Invasion of Independent Expenditure Groups

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
Sept. 15, 2013

Next year will be the first gubernatorial race in which campaign contribution limits — approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor back in 2009 — will be in effect. Finally, we’ve taken care of the money-in-politics problem.

In your dreams.

It’s true that in the 2014 election, candidates for governor and other statewide office can receive contributions  up to $5,000 for the primary and another $5,000 for general election. That definitely will eliminate those $50,000 contributions from out-of-state billionaires that were becoming commonplace in the past dozen years or so.

But as anyone who knows anything about politics realizes, the U.S. Supreme Court, not long after the campaign contribution law was signed by then-Gov. Bill Richardson, basically knocked the chessboard off the table and started an entire game as far as far as campaign finance reforms go. That decision — which helped fortify the rise of “independent expenditure” groups that can spend all the money they want building up or tearing down candidates without the inconvenience of having to report their donors.

Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, has made several efforts in recent legislative sessions to pass a bill to require disclosure for independent expenditure groups. He’s been successful in getting these bills through the Senate by wide bipartisan margins. But somehow this legislation always seems to stumble in the House.

I saw it as an omen last week that the first radio ads related, if indirectly, to the governor’s race were produced by nonprofit organizations that aren’t connected to anyone’s campaign committee and that do not have to disclose their contributors.

First there was the ad praising Gov. Susana Martinez for her handling of the controversial mental-health system shake-up. This was produced by a group called New Mexico Competes, which turns out to be operated by Sara Lister, a longtime New Mexico Republican operative who has worked in the Martinez administration.

Back in A Las Cruces Sun-News reporter James Staley, “I am not involved in the ongoing affairs of this organization and have no information that may be helpful to you.”
pril, a prominent GOP lawyer in Washington, D.C., named Craig Engle filed the incorporation papers for New Mexico Competes Inc. Engle never returned my phone calls about it, but later in the week he told

So what is Engle’s connection? I can’t say for certain, but the website of his law firm, Arent Fox has this tidbit: “We handle all the corporate aspects of a Super PAC’s operation, from filing the certificate of incorporation; preparing bylaws, articles of incorporation, and preparing and filing your committee’s annual reports.” (Nonprofits, even political nonprofits, aren’t super-PACs. The latter has to disclose their contributors. But perhaps Engle’s firm provided similar services for New Mexico Competes.)

On the opposite side of the issue was an ad blasting Martinez for what it called the “disaster” of the behavioral-health situation. This was by a coalition called “New Mexicans Fighting For Behavioral Health,” which, according to spokeswoman Linda Siegle, is made up of several organizations as well as individuals, including some of the New Mexico behavioral-health providers who had their Medicaid payments suspended after an outside audit reportedly showed possible fraud.

This ad, which used lobbyist and former state Sen. Tom Rutherford for its narrator, seemed somewhat lower-budget than New Mexico Competes spot. For one thing, the anti-Martinez ad didn’t have that piano playing what sounds almost like the theme from The Exorcist. And Rutherford doesn’t sound nearly as intense as the woman on the pro-Martinez ad.

Both Lister and Siegle will tell you that their respective ads are have nothing to do with the governor’s race. But I have no doubt we’ll be hearing more and more of these nonprofit radio messages as we get closer to November 2014.