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As It Is: Remove the cloud

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By David Giuliani

Incumbents have a big advantage when it comes to raising campaign funds. Lobbyists and big business shower those in office with money.

Just look at the last local race for state representative. Incumbent Richard Vigil got thousands and thousands of dollars in out-of-town special interest money. In total fundraising, Vigil raised $60,000 to Travis Regensberg’s $12,000 and Naomi Montoya’s $6,000.

Regensberg got just one out-of-town special-interest donation, $500 from the New Mexico Federation of Teachers. Montoya got none.

Vigil got 66 special-interest donations; some organizations gave to him repeatedly.

This is not an unusual case. All over the state, incumbents have a big advantage in fundraising. That’s not because they’re somehow better than their opponents. It’s because the system is self-perpetuating: The big donors know the incumbents are likely winners, so they want to put their money on victors.

We need to demand that our politicians change this unsavory system. I hope our local lawmakers, Reps. Vigil and Thomas Garcia and Sens. Phil Griego and Pete Campos, reject the old ways at last and lead the charge for comprehensive campaign reforms in the Legislature.

Earlier this month, Think New Mexico, a Santa Fe-based nonpartisan think tank, proposed new rules for contributions. The group’s goal is to improve the integrity of state government.

It’s hard to have much faith when state contractors and lobbyists can give thousands of dollars to incumbents, in their apparent attempt to win business. For years, Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration has given huge contracts to his political contributors, and in each case, his spokespeople insist that these are amazing coincidences.

Maybe that’s so. But there’s a way to solve the perception problem — get money out of the system.

Think New Mexico looked at a number of states’ regulations for campaign contributions, and the group is proposing the toughest of them all, rules that would even apply to municipalities, most of which have no rules for campaign fundraising.

The think tank recommends that the state ban all government contractors from making campaign contributions to state or local government officials with the power to influence the awarding of their contracts.

Amen.

What makes this better is that it would cover all contracts of any value and contributors who own as little as 1 percent of a company. The rules would apply not just to candidates, but to parties and political action committees.

The group also wants to ban lobbyists from donating to the campaigns of public officials they lobby. Many lobbyists are reportedly uncomfortable with such practices anyway, but none stop, for fear of allowing their competition an edge.

Moreover, Think New Mexico would prohibit lobbyists, contractors and seekers of government subsidies from collecting the contributions of others.

Three years ago, Patricia Madrid, a congressional candidate in Albuquerque, said in a debate that a contribution wouldn’t guide her to vote in a certain way, but then she added something unsettling.

“You have to be careful about taking large sums of money from lobbyists. But even if you do, it is only to give access to let you know about what their concerns are. Certainly, it’s not to have you vote or rule in any certain way or obligate you in any way,” she said.

But a donation shouldn’t even give a special interest enhanced access.

During next year’s legislative session, our lawmakers need to remove the ethics cloud over state government. They need to pass strong legislation to ban contributions from state contractors and lobbyists — mediocre is not good enough.

David Giuliani is managing editor of the Las Vegas Optic. He may be reached at 425-6796 or dgiuliani@lasvegasoptic.com.