Curbing Money in Politics the Key to Restoring Public Trust

February 10, 2015

Voices, Politics / Current Events

Early last month Common Cause New Mexico commissioned a poll to find out how New Mexico voters felt about money and politics in the wake of the 2014 elections.  The results from Research and Polling are now in, and one thing that is abundantly clear is that disclosure of campaign finances of all sorts—candidates, lobbyists and independent groups—is important to voters.  

The telephone poll of 450 randomly selected voters, both Republicans and Democrats, was taken Jan. 9-Jan. 13 and has a margin of error of 4.5%.

The results confirm what we’ve been saying for several years, namely that everyone wants and deserves to know who is lobbying and paying for the campaigns of our elected officials.  And according to these results, transparency is almost a magic word.  Specifically,

-92% of respondents support requiring all large political contributions from individuals, corporations, PACs, nonprofits and unions be made public

-88% support a bill in this year’s session to require independent political groups to report their donors and how the money is being spent

-89% think it is a good idea to require lobbyists to make public the bills and issues they have been hired to lobby on

In keeping with these responses, Common Cause New Mexico, in alliance with the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (FOG), is backing several pieces of legislation to increase transparency and allow the public to follow the money. Voters can then decide for themselves whether elected officials are acting in the public interest—or following the lead of contributors and special interests.

HB 278, sponsored by Rep. Jim Smith (R- Bernalillo and Santa Fe), and its companion bill SB 384, sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth (D- Santa Fe), will shine a light on independent expenditures, which are now crowding out the efforts of local candidates and contributors.   From 2006-2012 independent spending in NM more than doubled from $6 million to $14 million here, with much of it coming from anonymous donors, often located outside of New Mexico.  This money is uncoordinated with candidates, and often used to buy TV ads sponsored by a benign sounding group like “People for A Better Tomorrow.”

The bills we are backing will allow citizens to better trace the deluge of money back to its sources, and make sure than it is truly independent, and not just skirting existing contribution limits.

The distrust of lobbyists was palpable in this survey, way beyond just making them report on what they are lobbying.  According to the survey only 19% of voters felt that elected officials were more responsive to voters; 64% (including a majority of Republicans, Democrats and Independents) said they were more responsive to lobbyists.  This session, Rep. Jeff Steinborn (D- Dona Ana) is sponsoring HB 155, a far-reaching bill to improve the process by which lobbyists and their employers disclose contributions, their spending and the issues on which they are lobbying. We support it.

In 2013 there were approximately six lobbyists for every one of New Mexico’s 112 legislators.    Lobbyists and their employers currently register and report through the Secretary of State’s office but access to meaningful information is difficult, postings delayed and records removed after only a few years. Steinborn’s bill will fix that.

Public financing of campaigns, now in effect for the PRC and state appellate courts was also a subject of the survey with these results:

-76% support revising the system to prohibit unopposed candidates from receiving public funds

-61% want to change the system to provide matching funds to candidates who agree to raise only contributions under $100

-50% want to expand the voluntary system to include candidates for other judicial races

We think Sen. Peter Wirth’s SB 58, which includes the first two items above, also fixes the system so it complies with recent court decisions.  We’re supporting it because public campaign financing—done right—is the best way to give influence back to everyday New Mexicans and give elected leaders the opportunity to put down the phone and focus on what really matters, our economy and our children’s future.

The most amazing part of this poll, for me, was the last question when respondents were asked whether these issues were voting issues. 59% of respondents said they were more likely to support a candidate who pushes for campaign finance and ethics reforms.  That tells me that voters are paying attention to all this, and are not just cynically throwing up their hands. Ordinary people still believe in something called democracy—one person = one vote—and they are willing to act on it.

That gives me hope that, Republicans and Democrats together, here in this still-small state, can enact some practical reforms to make campaign information more transparent and hence restore the public trust on which democracy is based.

You can read the complete poll results here.

This piece was written by:

Viki Harrison's photo

Viki Harrison

Viki E. Harrison is Common Cause's New Mexico Executive Director.

Viki joined Common Cause in 2012 to manage the state office in Albuquerque, organize and coordinate legislative programs, conduct research, direct fundraising initiatives and serve as a lobbyist.

Before joining Common Cause, Viki was the Executive Director of NM Repeal, where she led the winning campaign in New Mexico to abolish the death penalty. Earlier in her career she was the Program Manager for Animal Protection of New Mexico, and part of the team that successfully banned cockfighting in the state.

Contact Viki Harrison

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