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Voters are right to wonder about the role of campaign contributions in New Mexico politics


  Commentary: New Mexico voters need more information about how money is working through the political process, if a recent poll commissioned by Common Cause New Mexico is any measure.

A majority of voters feel the state is headed in the wrong direction. They believe campaign ads by political action committees affect the outcome of elections. They believe public financing of elections ought to be expanded. They want to know what legislation lobbyists are being paid to pass or kill when they’re wining and dining legislators.  And they believe limits to campaign contributions can help prevent corruption.

When reading through the poll, I remembered a comment state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, made in a legislative committee hearing this year about whether lobbyists should be required to disclose the bills they’re working on:

“The reality is, and we all know this, the bills and actions that happen in our government are not just what we see in front of us in this committee room. It’s what may happen down on the street, it may be what happens in the hallway, or on the telephone. You, quite frankly, may not know the mechanics behind what was working to kill a bill, to pass a bill. But I believe it’s every bit in the public’s interest knowing that as what’s happening in front of you.”

Steinborn didn’t get very far with his bill.

While it’d be nice to think the shadowy world of money or other favors traded for political acts is just a plot device in a movie, New Mexicans have witnessed one scandal after another exposed at the highest levels of government over the past decade. Use of public funds for personal gain is particularly egregious in a state like New Mexico with high rates of poverty, where families often struggle to put food on the table.

Election season in New Mexico is heating up, with the state’s primary in early June. The latest campaign finance reports, filed Monday, show an avalanche of cash pouring through campaigns. Political action committees are assembling war chests.  Given the streak of public pessimism about politics evidenced in the Common Cause poll, the public needs to know who is giving what to whom to influence the election, and what the money is buying.

We took a look at the biggest donors in the race last week in advance of the latest reports, making the point that wealthy donors can get around contribution limits by giving the maximum through each of their various companies.  The data shows it’s a common strategy, and it’s perfectly legal.

Approaching the new campaign reports this week, we pivoted from individual donors to industries that give the most. Figuring that out is tricky also, because there isn’t a report we can access called “industry donors to political campaigns.” All we have to go on is the name of companies and the “occupation” required for each donor. What we’ve found was a million dollars rolling into campaigns since the election cycle began from attorneys, and near that from the oil and gas industry. The two industries have clear partisan preferences. Look for that story this weekend.

What’s the purpose of all that giving, really?

What sort of influence does the oil and gas industry have when some of its members fork over $100,000 apiece to bolster re-election prospects for Republican lawmakers and to support Steve Pearce in his campaign for governor?

What sort of influence do New Mexico’s trial lawyers wield after giving almost half a million dollars, altogether, to Michelle Lujan Grisham, should she win her bid for governor?

The large sums of money by donors through their companies and by particular industries have to be weighed against the even larger bucket of donations that come from small donors. The biggest question is whether each elected official can keep that perspective during the legislative process.

These are perennial questions in political reporting.

My take is that our democracy is good, but has to be continually safeguarded and improved upon with the goal of making all people feel enfranchised.