Money and politics have been intertwined since the beginning of government. Today is no different. While bribery laws have been around in the United States since the founding, an increasing amount of states have enacted specific laws related to bribery in politics in an effort to address pay to play operations. Pay to play is the term used to describe a situation where money, typically in the form of political donations, is exchanged for specific political favors, often in the form of a regulation carve out or an award of a government contract. In an effort to curb political favoritism, states have regulated, or completely prohibited, political donations from lobbyists and government contractors. New Mexico is no exception. The New Mexico House of Representatives passed a bill that significantly impacts who can donate to political candidates and political parties. The bill did not make it through in the Senate, but supporters are hopeful it will pass in the next legislative session.
The text of NM House Bill 118 widely prohibits lobbyists and government contractors from donating to a political candidate or any political committee. It also prohibits “seekers of targeted subsidies” from political donations. This is defined as “a person, including a business entity or nonprofit organization, that will directly benefit financially from a targeted subsidy.” A “targeted subsidy” is further described as “a financial benefit, including a tax exemption, credit or reduction in taxes, that is conferred by proposed legislation or the enactment of law on an entity that is: (1) named in the legislation or law as its beneficiary; or (2) described in the legislation or law in a particularized manner that is the functional equivalent of naming the entity as its beneficiary.”
Think New Mexico, a think tank located in Santa Fe, issued a policy report on the pay to play scandals in New Mexico and has been a primary voice in crafting legislation to end pay to play. Kristina G. Fisher, Associate Director of Think New Mexico, says that “New Mexico has a long history of corruption.” In addition to the national headlines of pay to play allegations that derailed Governor Bill Richardson’s nomination to President Obama’s cabinet, there have been convictions of state officials on counts of fraud and bribery. Two state treasurers were convicted and sent to jail on counts of extortion and attempted extortion in 2007 from a case that began in 2004. Fisher says, “there is a fine line between bribes and campaign contributions,” when one of the treasurers asserted that cash in a paper bag in the amount of $11,500 was simply a legal campaign contribution, not a bribe. Think New Mexico believes that by prohibiting campaign contributions by lobbyists and government contractors, politicians and private citizens will begin to understand that exchanging money for political favors is not “how business is done in New Mexico.”
Although NM House Bill 118 didn’t make it through the Senate, Think New Mexico says there is a strong possibility it will pass in the next legislative session. The bill passed 46-24 in the House, and Fisher says that it was timing more than anything else that prevented the legislation from getting a hearing in the Senate. By the time the bill passed the House, there was not enough time to get the legislation through the Senate before the session ended.
Looking ahead, all of the former living governors have given their support of Think New Mexico’s initiative, and while HB 118 may not be specifically mentioned, current candidates are campaigning on a general theme to end corruption. Especially in the race for governor, campaign ads show Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish distancing herself from the previous governor and any associated corruption while Susana Martinez isn’t afraid to bring up that association through references to pay to play allegations. In a state that has been riddled with cases of corruption, it does seem likely that strong provisions attempting to solve the corruption will be entertained by the legislature. While some legislators may raise questions of free speech since Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, where the United States Supreme Court addressed free speech issues related to election laws, HB 118 passing in some form is probable.
Money and politics will always go hand in hand, but certain states, including New Mexico, are taking steps to ensure that monetary donations do not equal political favors. New Mexicans, citizens and politicians alike, are working hard to wrestle back their government from the tentacles of corruption.
Rebekah Miller is a second-year student at William & Mary Law School.