The People, Power and Democracy project is focusing on state government ethics and transparency in the 2016 legislative session. Correspondent Gwyneth Doland spoke with KUNM's Chris Boros.
HOST: Gwyneth, for the past month we’ve been talking about the different ways state lawmakers are trying to get a grip on money in politics and make sure folks are honest about where the money’s going. Now that we’re nearing the end of the session, I’m wondering, which of these ideas has made it this far?
DOLAND: Well, a lot of them are dead. But today [Monday] the Senate Rules Committee passed a House bill that would give the public a much better picture of money in politics. It would add some open data features to the state’s electronic campaign finance system.
HOST: “Open data,” can you explain that a little?
DOLAND: Well, simply put, it would kind of tweak the system that candidates use to file their campaign finance reports so that you can cross reference, if a lobbyist gave a $100 check to this lawmaker and the lawmaker is reporting that and the lobbyist is reporting that, that everything adds up.
HOST: And then because it’s “open data” that means the public can access it, too, right?
DOLAND: Yeah, some other tweaks would make it easier for the public to scrape that data and use it. The chief information officer of the Secretary of State’s Office said the change would make the information “slice-and-diceable.”
HOST: Is this related to the problems we saw with the former Secretary of State Dianna Duran?
DOLAND: That’s a good point, it is really an exact response to that. Although, I have to say, this isn’t necessarily a new idea. Yes, Duran faked some of her reports and so the numbers did not add up, and we didn’t really have a way to find that out. But some people just don’t think that what is essentially an honor system is the right way to do this. We don’t audit these reports, we barely audit them at all and when we do there’s no real checking.
HOST: I heard about another bill on this same topic, right?
DOLAND: Yeah, as I reported today, the same committee approved a bill that would allow the Secretary of State’s Office to look in candidates’ bank accounts to make sure they’re telling the truth.
HOST: Wow! That seems like kind of a big deal.
DOLAND: Well, yeah, some members of the committee really thought so. There was pushback on the idea. Especially, I mean, A: it’s sort of invasive to look in bank accounts, but B: especially because the secretary of state is also an elected official and she oversees this and there was, I mean, it could be a he, I’m sorry, but there is paranoia that the power might be abused.
HOST: They are seriously being paranoid about this?
DOLAND: Maybe. One senator pointed out that the guy who managed his opponent’s campaign last election ended up being given a political job in the Secretary of State’s Office. And he was basically like, ‘Hey, this guy could look in my bank account, that’s not cool!’
HOST: But that’s probably not a very common situation.
DOLAND: Probably not. Some of the other senators said they couldn’t believe that the secretary of state can’t already do this kind of checking. It is kind of a big loophole.
HOST: What else is going on in Santa Fe?
DOLAND: There’s big bill that would have a big impact on what the public knows about money in politics. And that’s about independent expenditures.
HOST: Independent expenditures. That’s money spent not by the candidate but by corporations or political action committees. So, how would this bill change things?
DOLAND: Because of Citizens United, states can’t put contribution limits on this money. But the U.S. Supreme Court said it’s OK to make the groups tell the public how much money they’re spending. So this bill would require that—and it would force them to identify who paid for and authorized TV ads and mailers and the like.
HOST: This has passed the Senate three times before.
DOLAND: It has. Last year it made it all the way through the House but didn’t make it to the floor over there.
HOST: There are only a few days left. Sounds like that might happen again.
DOLAND: It might. But then again, anything is possible.
Check out all of the content from our People, Power and Democracy project. It's a collaboration between KUNM, New Mexico In Depth, New Mexico PBS and the New Mexico News Port at UNM. Funding for the project comes from the Thornburg Foundation.