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New Mexico zeroes in on corporate political influence

Via ElGritoNM BY  ON 

The power of corporations to influence elections has emerged as a strong theme during New Mexico’s 2012 legislative session. In the final weekend of the 30 day session, the Senate joined the House in sending a message to the U.S. Congress that steps need to be taken to reign in corporate spending on elections.  It also passed a law requiring public disclosure of funds spent to influence the outcome of elections.

The message to D.C. via a Memorial passed by both chambers of the New Mexico legislature is to fix the 2010 Citizen’s United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, which serves to allow unlimited corporate spending to influence elections. The only way a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court can be changed short of its own reversal of itself, is for the U.S. Constitution to be amended.

There’s a long history of such amendments, starting with the First Amendment itself that  enshrined the right to free speech. There have been 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, in all, with six occurring since 1950.

It was the First Amendment that the U.S. Supreme Court used as a basis in the 2010 Citizen’s United case to dismiss almost a century of case law that supports regulation of corporate and union spending in elections.  The Citizen’s United decision is expected to unleash a torrent of money into the U.S. election campaign process.

The New Mexico memorial asks the U.S. Congress to move to amend the U.S. Constitution to allow regulation, or outright bar, such spending by non-people in the political election process. In the meantime, the state senate took concrete steps to do what it can do–create an enforceable law requiring that electioneering expenditures be publicly disclosed.

As it happens, New Mexico’s legislature has been debating how to fix its own Campaign Reporting Act for a few years, in light of a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 2010 that said the Act was ‘constitutionally infirm.’ Efforts to create a fix have been stymied by a lack of agreement between New Mexico Attorney General Gary King, and Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who’s worked for a number of years with good government advocates to fix the Act.

This year, however, the specter of money flooding the state during the 2012 election year created the added urgency necessary to get a bill addressing disclosure out of the Senate.

“This bill addresses life after Citizens United”, the sponsor of SB 11, Sen. Peter Wirth, said during the debate of the bill on the Senate floor.

It passed the Senate unanimously, and now has three days to make its way through the House.

Basically, the bill defines what an independent expenditure is, and requires organizations or groups of people to set up a separate bank account for such expenditures. It also creates a window of almost 60 days prior to both the primary and the general elections during which a public official running for office becomes unquestionably a candidate. During that window, public communications about that person by two or more people would trigger the Campaign Reporting Act.

While the bill passed unanimously in the Senate, there will likely be continued debate before it reaches the House floor. The specter of Super-Pacs flooding the state with money has served to bridge differences between legislators, adovactes, and the Attorney General, but state-based non-profits in particular point out that the bill as currently written still threatens their ability to effectively advocate on issues.

In particular, the labeling of issues based advocacy as electioneering for four months out of the year creates onerous conditions for small non-profits that don’t have the budgets necessary to jump through the hoops established by the bill. The result could be that big wealthy Super-Pacs who have those budgets are allowed plenty of free speech, while groups who just want to do issue advocacy will be iced out for a considerable portion of the year.

These issues will likely be discussed in the one House committee to which it’s been assigned, House Voters and Elections. The big question now is whether the political will exists to push it through the rest of the legislative process in the final three days of the session.

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