Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Roundhouse Roundup: PAC Disclosure Battle Ahead

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
Dec. 2, 2012

After the hard-fought, grueling and expensive ordeal that was the 2012 election campaign in New Mexico, one issue the state Legislature is bound to tackle next year is possible changes in the election laws.
Sen. Wirth

“We’re going to have 112 experts on election laws in here, because we’ve all been through it,” Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said at an interim committee meeting last week. (In case someone didn’t get the reference, there are 112 members of the Legislature.)

Once again, Wirth will be sponsoring a bill that would require independent-expenditure groups, including PACs, super-PACs — and I suppose bat PACs, spider PACs and wonder PACs — to disclose their contributors.

Wirth has carried the bill during the previous two sessions. Both times, he has been successful in the Senate, getting bipartisan support. (This year it passed the Senate 40-0.) However, both years the bill died in the House.

As Wirth has explained before, the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision determined that capping the amount of money people can spend on ads favoring one candidate or bashing another is an unconstitutional assault on freedom of speech. But the high court still allows governments to require disclosure of who’s spending money on the ads.

It’s true that independent expenditure groups spent millions of dollars in the state during the last campaign — in some cases advertising on statewide TV to try to influence the outcome in local legislative battles.

But lack of disclosure wasn’t a problem with the political action committees this year. And knowing that their names would be disclosed — available for the world to see right on the Secretary of State’s campaign finance website — apparently didn’t stop people from writing big checks to the PACs.

The major political action committees spending money in the races governed by state election law disclosed all of their donors. Whether or not you liked the heavy-handed ads and alarming mailers that bombarded your brain cells and mailboxes during the closing days of the recent campaign, at least we know who was paying for them.

But both Wirth and Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause, who is helping draft the bill, said there’s a real question whether those PACs actually had to disclose under current state law. “I’ve talked to lawyers, and there’s good arguments on both sides,” Harrison said.

His bill would clear up any confusion in the law about having to disclose, Wirth said.

Wirth said he fears there will be a serious effort next year to do away with the campaign contribution limits for individual candidates that went into effect this year. Legislators already are grumbling about having to compete with groups that can spend unlimited amounts against them.

He said his bill will draw a clear line between campaigns and independent expenditure groups.

Coordinated efforts: One strict rule about independent expenditure groups is that they can’t coordinate with any candidate — at least under federal law. Spend all the money you want saying the candidate you like is a saint and his opponent is a loathsome danger to the very fabric of civilization itself. But you can’t work with any candidate’s campaign to craft your message.

Many casual observers of our political process are skeptical about this. But there was one instance in the last month of the campaign that showed a complete lack of coordination.

Crossroads GPS, that Republican-friendly PAC associated with former George W. Bush political director Karl Rove, sent out a mailer blasting Democratic Senate candidate Martin Heinrich for supporting “Amnesty legislation that would give illegal immigrants a free ride … while New Mexico families are stuck footing the bill.”

Footnotes on the mailer made it clear that this “path to citizenship for illegal aliens” was the DREAM Act, which would give the children of illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship via military service or enrollment in college.

The only trouble is that this was mailed right about the same time that Republican Heather Wilson, who Crossroads GPS supported for U.S. Senate, said in a televised debate that she, too, would have voted for the DREAM Act.