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Legislative leaders take command of campaign resources

July 30, 2019

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New rules for funneling resources toward political races in New Mexico may provide legislative leaders and political parties with a stronger hand in influencing the outcomes of elections, as Democrats assert their control over the Legislature and key statewide elected offices.

The Democratic House speaker and Republican minority leader registered specialized political committees this month that can command vast resources and make unlimited non-cash contributions to political campaigns. The so-called “legislative caucus committees” can collect five times as much cash per donor as other New Mexico political committees.

Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf, an architect of the legislative caucus committees, said he foresees a new path for providing campaign strategy services in key legislative races and potentially coordinating door-to-door canvassing with U.S. Senate or presidential campaigns. He said those “in-kind” contributions must be publicly reported.

“I believe first-time candidates in the general election as well as our freshmen will see a big benefit,” Egolf said. “We’ll be able to help them — and have a lot more disclosure and transparency.”

The caucus committees are one outcome of legislation signed in April by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham aimed at disclosing more about the sources of political spending by independent expenditure groups and others.

The new legislation also removes limits on in-kind contributions by political parties to candidates.

All state House and Senate seats are up for election in 2020. In 2018, Democrats expanded their House majority to 46 out of 70 seats, while consolidating control over all statewide elected offices beyond the judiciary.

Austin Graham, legal counsel to the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center that advocates for full disclosure of spending sources in elections, said the new category of political committee places more power in the hands of legislative leaders and he worries it could become a “vehicle to potentially circumvent the contribution limits on candidates.”

He said a donor who reaches the state’s new $5,000 limit on direct campaign contributions to a candidate per election cycle might still channel in-kind resources toward a candidate through contributions to a caucus committee or political party.

“This is essentially a power grab by legislative leadership that is coupled with otherwise good disclosure changes,” he said.

One caucus committee can be designated for each party in both the House and Senate.

Egolf designated the Brian Egolf Speakers Fund as the caucus committee for House Democrats. On the GOP side, Republicans will rely on the New Mexico House Republican Campaign Committee.

Though he designated that committee, Republican House minority leader James Townsend said he worries about outsized influence the committees may bring to bear on elections in key districts.

“I don’t think it is probably a good thing for the state of New Mexico,” he said.

Additional changes in direct campaign contribution limits will allow candidates for state Senate and statewide elected offices such as governor to collect up to $20,000 per donor over the course of four years, up from as much as $11,000 under prior rules.

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This story has been corrected to show that there are 70 seats in the state House, not 72.

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