SANTA FE — The amount of money from political action committees going to New Mexico campaigns more than doubled following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the 2010 case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
The head of a statewide government watchdog group says that makes it more difficult for citizens to find out who really is paying for political campaigns.
The Citizens United case resulted in a controversial ruling that established that corporations and unions have the same political speech rights as individuals under the First Amendment and can spend as much as they like to elect or defeat political candidates.
The effect in New Mexico was immediate, according to a new study by New Mexico Common Cause that looked at all contributions from political action committees in the state between 2006 and 2012. In the 2006 election cycle, PACs spent $6.1 million in the state. In 2010, that number shot up to $14.3 million.
"While we certainly support citizens being able to publicly express support for their favorite candidates, voters deserve to know who funds the numerous TV ads aired each election year, the postcards that flood our mailboxes and the hundreds of radio ads that run for candidates and issues," said Vicki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause.
In the study, Common Cause looked at PAC contributions reported to the Secretary of State's Office. Thus, Harrison noted, none of the figures include money spent by groups classified as "social welfare" nonprofits, which are popping up more frequently as players in the political process.
A recent example in New Mexico is the Republican-friendly New Mexico Competes, which has run radio ads praising Gov. Susana Martinez and blasting her critics. Legally, such groups do not have to report their contributors. Many of these promise anonymity as a way to attract donors.
Out-of-state PAC contributions in the 2010 election cycle were more than $6.1 million, nearly triple the total of the 2008 cycle. That number dipped slightly, to just under $5.5 million in 2012.
But in 2012, about 80 percent of the money raised by the top two New Mexico PAC spenders (Reform New Mexico Now and Patriot Majority New Mexico) came from out-of state.
Reform New Mexico Now is operated by Martinez's political adviser, Jay McCleskey. Patriot Majority, the major independent expenditure group for Democrats, has ties to some of former Gov. Bill Richardson's political team.
One of the main problems in trying to track who is really behind political action committees, Harrison said, is a big portion of PAC contributors are other PACs. According to the study, between 70 percent and 80 percent of the contributions made to PACs in New Mexico were from companies or other PACs.
This makes following the money something of a shell game. "Many of the 'company' contributions are really PACs, often from out-of-state, contributing to other PACs, obscuring the money's true source," the study said.
The top PAC contributor to New Mexico PACs in 2012 was the Washington, D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Committee, which gave more than $1 million to Reform New Mexico Now. Though Reform New Mexico Now mainly spent money on behalf of Republican legislators, it also supported a handful of Democrats running in primary races against candidates thought to be less friendly to Martinez.
The next four largest PACs that gave to PACs were unions and other Democrat-friendly groups: The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ($423,770); the National Education Association Advocacy Fund ($398,500); the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local No. 412 ($252,716); and the Center For Civic Action ($202,000).
The top individual PAC contributor in 2012 was Sheldon Adelson, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation and a major GOP contributor. He dropped $250,000 in contributions in New Mexico. That amount went to McCleskey's Reform New Mexico Now.
Adelson contributed $200,000 more than the next highest individual New Mexico PAC contributor in 2012, Stephen Chazen, president and CEO of Occidental Petroleum. Chazen's $50,000 also went to Reform New Mexico Now.
Common Cause, in its report, suggests some changes that would make it easier to track PAC contributors.
One is Senate Bill 18, which has been prefiled by Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe and would would require "independent expenditure" groups, including political action committees, to disclose their contributors.
Another recommendation is to improve campaign finance reporting forms. The forms, Common Cause saod, should include spending purpose categories: "Is the money spent on advertisements, robo-calls or campaign managers?" And the forms should require more specific information about contributors. "For instance, 'CEO, businessman or consultant' does not give any information about which industry a contributor represents," the report stated.
The Secretary of State's Office should do more audits of PAC reports submitted, Common Cause suggested, and all fields on the report forms should be filled in properly and all appropriate boxes checked before the system accepts the form. The report also recommended that the secretary of state "eliminate 'dirty data,' such as misspellings and inconsistent abbreviations and formatting."