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As It Is: An unlevel playing field

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By David Giuliani

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against longtime bans on corporate and union contributions to political campaigns.

The court said such bans infringed on First Amendment rights.

Really?

No law has prohibited people from exercising their free-speech rights, especially when it comes to politics. Yet some argue that restrictions on contributions are a form of free-speech infringement. If so, then wealthy people have been suffering for years. Or have they really?

After all, the rich have always been able to contribute more to politicians than the rest of us. And that’s why the federal government and many states have passed campaign finance laws.

Even with those laws, the playing field is not level by any standard.

For instance, all of our state representatives are up for election this year. And most of them have a huge fundraising advantage. Not because they are somehow better than their challengers. It’s because they’re already in office.

The big special interests are hoping to influence the votes of incumbents.

In the last election, state Rep. Thomas Garcia, D-Ocate, got his share of big donations: $1,500 from the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 412, $1,300 from Phelps Dodge, $1,300 from the New Mexico Automotive Dealers Association, $1,250 from the New Mexico Home Builders Association, $1,100 from the Angel Fire resort and $1,100 from ConocoPhillips. And the list goes on and on.

State Rep. Richard Vigil, D-Ribera, got plenty of big checks in the last go-around — $2,000 from the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association, $1,000 from the New Mexico Education Association, $1,000 from Richardson for Governor, $700 from the New Mexico Federation of Teachers, $650 from Qwest Communications and $600 from the New Mexico Horsemen’s Association.

Their challengers got only a few small donations, usually from people who are actual constituents. None of the big special interests gave them the time of day.

But let’s make it clear: Garcia and Vigil are by no means alone in the Legislature. Just about every lawmaker from both parties in the Legislature enjoys this inherent advantage.

Every once in a while, some lawmakers refuse all donations. For the first decade and a half of his political career, state Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, rejected contributions to his campaign. But he gave up that practice when he decided to run for Congress in 2002.

As a journalist, I can see the arguments in favor of the First Amendment. But I get sickened when I see that wealthy interests have much more money to throw to politicians. Average people don’t get that kind of influence at the Roundhouse or on Capitol Hill.

Garcia, Vigil and all of the other legislators will argue that contributions to their campaigns have absolutely no influence on their votes. And maybe that’s true.

Still, I don’t like to see incumbents have a huge money advantage over any potential rivals.

• • •

When it comes to his legislative duties, state Rep. Thomas Garcia has a record of showing up to work. In the last two years, he hasn’t missed a single roll call vote, according to the Albuquerque-based Rio Grande Foundation, which logs such numbers. That’s quite impressive when one considers that there were 997 roll call votes in that period.

No other lawmaker matched that record — in either the House or the Senate.

In this year’s legislative session, Rep. Richard Vigil missed 26 out of 313 roll calls. State Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, only missed 12 of 240 roll calls, which is better than nearly every other senator. State Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, didn’t show for 26 of them, which is about average.

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