Santa Fe mulls pro­posal to halt bal­lot ini­tia­tive fi­nance re­ports

Ethics board ar­gues against mak­ing change be­cause of law­suit; crit­ics say move would gut cam­paign dis­clo­sure rules

Santa Fe New Mexican - - LOCAL & REGION - By Tripp Stel­nicki

A pro­posed change to the city cam­paign code would re­move a dis­clo­sure re­quire­ment for peo­ple and groups spend­ing on ad­ver­tise­ments for bal­lot ini­tia­tives. It was a move op­po­nents on Thurs­day said would flood the bal­lot­mea­sure ques­tions with so-called dark money and amounted to a ca­pit­u­la­tion to a law­suit fac­ing the city.

An Al­bu­querque non­profit that op­posed Mayor Javier Gon­za­les’ un­suc­cess­ful sug­ary-drink tax ear­lier this year has sued the city in fed­eral court, ar­gu­ing the re­port­ing re­quire­ment in­fringes on con­sti­tu­tion­ally pro­tected speech and vi­o­lates non­profit donors’ pri­vacy.

The new or­di­nance, which would strip men­tion of bal­lot ini­tia­tives from the sec­tion of the city code cov­er­ing cam­paign fi­nance re­ports, is in­deed in­tended to limit the city’s ex­po­sure in the Rio Grande Foun­da­tion’s pend­ing suit, Coun­cilor Carmichael Dominguez said.

“There are a lot of ob­nox­ious law­suits out there,” said Dominguez, who spon­sored the or­di­nance. “This is one we do have to take care of.”

But the city’s ethics and cam­paign re­view board Thurs­day ar­gued the law­suit should not dic­tate city pol­icy and is­sued an ad­vi­sory rec­om­men­da­tion that the City Coun­cil not pass it.

Ethics board mem­ber Paul L. Bi­der­man said the city’s prin­ci­ples on cam­paign fi­nance dis­clo­sures shouldn’t change be­cause there might be “some­one out there mak­ing a threat.”

“I think that’s a very poor way to make

leg­is­la­tion,” Bi­der­man said.

The pro­posal also earned the ire of gov­ern­ment trans­parency non­profit Com­mon Cause New Mex­ico. The or­di­nance “would take a wreck­ing ball” to the city’s cam­paign fi­nance dis­clo­sure rules, said Jim Har­ring­ton, the group’s chair­man.

He added that the bill would cave to the Rio Grande Foun­da­tion’s “out­landish as­ser­tion” that cities do not have the au­thor­ity to com­pel po­lit­i­cal spenders to dis­close their iden­ti­ties.

The head of the foun­da­tion, a lib­er­tar­i­an­lean­ing think tank, Paul J. Gess­ing, said the leg­isla­tive re­sponse to the law­suit was an en­cour­ag­ing sign.

“The fact that it’s been pro­posed il­lus­trates maybe they agree there’s prob­lems with the cur­rent law,” Gess­ing said.

The pro­posed or­di­nance would re­move a re­quire­ment that any per­son or group spend­ing more than $250 for or against a bal­lot propo­si­tion — in any form of pub­lic com­mu­ni­ca­tion that has reached at least 100 el­i­gi­ble vot­ers — must file reg­u­lar cam­paign fi­nance state­ments with the city clerk.

As the code is writ­ten now, any such ex­pen­di­ture — whether it’s on be­half of or against a can­di­date or bal­lot propo­si­tion — com­pels the reg­u­lar re­ports.

The new or­di­nance sim­ply strikes the lan­guage from the code that refers to bal­lot propo­si­tions, leav­ing the dis­clo­sure re­quire­ments for can­di­date elec­tions in­tact.

Dur­ing the run-up to the city’s con­tentious sug­ary-drink tax elec­tion in May, out­side groups on ei­ther side of the pro­posal to charge more for so­das and other bev­er­ages to fund an ex­pan­sion of early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion poured in mil­lions for ad­ver­tise­ments that blan­keted the city.

The Rio Grande Foun­da­tion ran afoul of the re­port­ing re­quire­ments by virtue of an in-kind con­tri­bu­tion above the $250 thresh­old that funded an anti-tax web­site and video.

Gess­ing ini­tially re­sisted the City At­tor­ney’s Of­fice when it said his group would have to file cam­paign re­ports but did ul­ti­mately file one.

The re­port shows a Wash­ing­ton, D.C.based group called In­ter­state Pol­icy Al­liance made a $7,500 in-kind con­tri­bu­tion for the re­port­ing pe­riod end­ing April 6 and that a Santa Fe res­i­dent wrote the foun­da­tion a $250 check.

“Just be­cause we ac­tu­ally do fol­low through and fol­low the law doesn’t mean we agree with it,” Gess­ing said. “We would say it is oner­ous and con­trary to the First Amend­ment and our abil­ity to en­gage in these kinds of ed­u­ca­tional cam­paigns.”

Dominguez said he’d take the cam­paign re­view board’s rec­om­men­da­tion against his pro­posal un­der con­sid­er­a­tion but that it would likely still be brought for­ward for pub­lic com­ment at ei­ther the Fi­nance Com­mit­tee or coun­cil.

City Coun­cilor Carmichael Dominguez said the pro­posed or­di­nance, which would strip men­tion of bal­lot ini­tia­tives from the code cov­er­ing cam­paign fi­nance re­ports, is in­deed in­tended to limit the city’s ex­po­sure in a pend­ing law­suit.

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