Inside the Capitol

Friday, May 05, 2006

5-10 Public Financing of Political Campaigns

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- Public financing of political races is a good deal, but it can also be a big pain. That's what three candidates for the state Public Regulation Commission tell us.
Back in the 1990s, the Legislature restructured the regulation of gas, electricity, telecommunications and insurance. One of its major desires was to eliminate the influence of big contributions from major utilities to the people who regulate them.
So the PRC became a testing ground for experimenting with laws to clean up political campaign financing. One of the primary restrictions was a $500 limitation on contributions from corporations being regulated.
As you might guess, corporate lobbyists found many ways to get around that. The latest tinkering with the law was to allow public campaign financing for those who desire.
Numerous good government organizations have advocated the idea in New Mexico for years. PRC races are a good place to test such a law because three positions are the most that will be open at one time.
This year, 13 candidates are running for those three positions. Four, including one incumbent, chose to take the public money. One of those has been disqualified for failure to comply with one of the requirements.
The remaining three candidates were still waiting for their money with only six weeks left before the election. Since companies doing business with political candidates aren't inclined to let them run a tab, campaigns are hampered.
Several other states, including our neighbor, Arizona, now have forms of public financing that seem to work. The idea is more popular with Democrats than Republicans, who see any limitation on political contributions as a violation of free speech.
Public financing can be very helpful to candidates with limited resources. Former state treasurer Michael Montoya is quoted as saying that his temptation to steal came from incurring large campaign debts in an unsuccessful race four years before he was elected.
Winning candidates don't have much trouble raising money after an election. Losers do, and it happens often. You'd be surprised at the number of people in this state with old campaign debts hanging over their heads.
Presidential candidates have a public financing option open to them. Most take it. The danger is when a candidate chooses private financing and accumulates a huge war chest.
Congressional candidates don't have a public financing option. They have to raise money practically full time. Some of the most expensive congressional races in the nation, recently, have been in the 1st Congressional District.
Rep. Heather Wilson spent over $3 million to retain her seat in 2004. Her Democrat opponent, Patricia Madrid, says Wilson had better plan on spending more than that this year.
We spent a few days last week in the Palm Springs area, where U.S. Rep. Mary Bono, wife of the late Republican congressman Sonny Bono, expects a tough race. She says it may cause her to have to raise more than the $609,000 it took to win two years ago.
The political watchers in that paradise of rich folks were aghast at the amount of political spending.
But then, Bono likely isn't in as tough a race as Rep. Heather Wilson in New Mexico. Her challenge by Attorney General Patricia Madrid makes this the sixth most competitive congressional race in the country according to one political analyst.
The race is close enough that one of Wilson's biggest political enemies in Washington is closing Republican political ranks behind her.
According to political blogger Joe Monahan, House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton allowed Wilson to be the chief sponsor of the anti-gouging bill on gas prices. Two years ago, Barton tried to kick Wilson off his committee when she broke ranks over the Medicare prescription drug bill.
Barton figured that if the GOP loses too many members of Congress, he'll no longer be a committee chairman.
WED, 5-10-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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