The Republican Party of New Mexico and others have filed a lawsuit challenging the state law that limits the size of campaign contributions.
The lawsuit seeks to void the $5,000 limits placed on donations to political parties, from national parties to state parties, from state parties to county parties, from parties to candidates or candidates’ political action committees, and on contributions made for the purpose of forming independent expenditures. It doesn’t challenge limits on the size of donations individuals can make to candidates.
“Today we filed a lawsuit to protect New Mexicans’ right to freedom of speech,” state GOP Executive Director Bryan Watkins said in a news release. “We are confident that we will be successful in this case, as cases from around the country have found in favor of protection of freedom of speech, including a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.”
Read the lawsuit here.
The law in question was enacted in 2009 and took effect following the 2010 election. It limits contributions to non-statewide candidates for office to $2,300 per election from any entity except a political committee, which can give $5,000 to non-statewide candidates. It limits contributions to statewide candidates for office, political action committees and political parties to $5,000 per election from individuals and groups.
The GOP lawsuit challenges the limits on several points, but the underlying issue – freedom of speech – comes largely in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case. More than once the lawsuit claims a provision in the law is “unconstitutional because it burdens and chills First Amendment speech and associational rights without adequate justification and is not properly tailored, thereby failing constitutional scrutiny.”
Steven Robert Allen, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, said the GOP will likely prevail on at least one point in the lawsuit: It’s pretty clear that states can’t limit the size of contributions to groups creating independent expenditures.
“So they’re probably right on that point,” he said.
However, Allen had some negative things to say about the attorney bringing the lawsuit on behalf of the state GOP – James Bopp Jr. from Indiana, a conservative who has been behind other efforts to undo campaign finance and disclosure laws and worked as a legal adviser to Citizens United in its case against the FEC.
“He’s got a vision for the United States that I personally find terrifying,” Allen said. “Part of what he wants to accomplish is to create a complete lack of transparency in campaign finance.”
“At the very least, for a democracy to function, we need to have transparency over that type of money,” Allen said. “If this guy accomplishes what he wants to accomplish, it would be difficult for me to even label the American government a form of Democracy anymore.”
Allen added that Bopp’s involvement in the state GOP’s lawsuit is indicative of “a national strategy to dismantle our campaign finance laws in the United States.”
The GOP lawsuit doesn’t seek to undo any state disclosure laws. Watkins said Republicans “believe information about contributors should be publicly available on the Internet, so New Mexicans can easily access donor information.
Watkins also alleged that it’s “liberal special interest groups in New Mexico” who have sought to work around finance laws “by forming nonprofit and charitable organizations to shield their donors and activities from the public.”
Law had bipartisan support
The GOP news release points out that the contribution-limit law was passed “by the Democrat controlled Legislature and signed by former Governor Richardson,” but it fails to mention that every GOP senator except Rod Adair, R-Roswell, voted in favor of that 2009 bill. The effort to impose contribution limits took years, and though support wasn’t unanimous (17 House members and 1 senator – Adair – voted against the final bill), it was widespread and bipartisan.
There are several other plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including Adair and Rep. Conrad James, R-Albuquerque. Also listed as plaintiffs are the Republican parties of Bernalillo and Doña Ana counties, the PACs New Mexico Turnaround and New Mexicans for Economic Recovery, former state GOP Chairman Harvey Yates, Santa Fe resident Howard James Bohlander, and Hobbs resident Mark Veteto.
Update, 5:05 p.m.
Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, who sponsored the 2009 contribution limit bill, wrote this in an e-mail:
“This challenge, if successful, would open the floodgates to special interest cash from outside New Mexico and dwarf the effect of small donors to local campaigns. The days of Tom Delay and his massive transfer of funds from K-Street and national Republican organizations to state and local ones would be back – in spades. Although Tom Delay is now in jail, in 2010, the Republican State Leadership Committee spent nearly $20 million on state legislative races, taking control of 20 legislative chambers around the country (‘Republicans Ramp Up Redistricting Efforts,’ Washington Post, Aaron Blake, 5.31.2011). They were unsuccessful in New Mexico and now want to use national money to try again to crowd out the voices of ordinary New Mexico voters.”