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
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.