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Monday, June 27, 2011

US Supreme Court Upholds Public Campaign Financing, Strikes Down One Element

The U.S. Supreme Court today reaffirmed the constitutionality of public financing of campaigns in the case Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett (also known as McComish v. Bennett), while striking down one mechanism used in these types of programs by a 5-4 vote, saying it violated the First Amendment. The foundation of public campaign finance systems remains strong -- and it is more important than ever that we preserve and extend those reforms -- campaign finance group Common Cause said in its response to the ruling.

The case has been closely watched by public financing advocates who feared the high court would use the case to rule broadly on the constitutionality of programs that provide public money to candidates. Of late, the court has issued sweeping rulings striking down campaign finance restrictions as violations of free speech -- for instance, in the notorious Citizen's United ruling -- and which give massive power to corporations to affect elections. Instead, the court issued a relatively narrow ruling striking down only one provision in the Arizona law that provided additional funds to publicly funded candidates running against opponents who outspend them outside the system.

Impact on New Mexico Law
Common Cause noted that New Mexico boasts three public campaign financing systems -- two municipal systems, one in Albuquerque and another in Santa Fe, and a state system for Public Regulation Commission candidates and appellate judges.

“This ruling maintains the constitutionality of public financing as a method for curtailing the unfair influence of wealthy interests over our democracy,” Steven Robert Allen, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, said. “It’s true that Arizona Free Enterprise affects one element of public campaign financing as it exists in New Mexico, but the core of the systems have been upheld.”

In all three New Mexico systems, candidates who wish to use public financing must prove support for their candidacy by collecting $5 contributions from voters in their districts. If the candidates reach a certain threshold, they receive a block grant to run their campaigns. In all three systems, the amount of this initial grant is set at a level sufficient to allow candidates to get their message out and to run a basic campaign. This part of public campaign financing remains untouched by the Arizona Free Enterprise decision, Common Cause explained.

However, these programs also allow for the distribution of additional “matching” funds to publicly financed candidates if a privately financed candidate outspends them. This is the concept that has been struck down in the Arizona Free Enterprise case.

“Even with this decision, publicly financed candidates in New Mexico will still receive generous grants to run their campaigns,” said Allen. “The question is whether we need to replace the matching fund provision that was struck down by the court with an alternative.”

Pending Fair Elections Now Act Addresses Issue
In that regard, public financing advocates anticipated this ruling as far back as two years ago, according to Common Cause. In the interest of addressing the majority’s anticipated objections, the Fair Elections Now Act was developed and is now pending in Congress. Common Cause explained that this act was written to meet the criteria laid out by the high court today. As with the New Mexico programs, it allows participating candidates to obtain public funds by voluntarily agreeing to limit their acceptance of large, private donations. Yet unlike New Mexico’s programs, the Fair Elections Now Act also allows candidates to accept small donations of $100 or less which are then matched on a five to one basis.

Federal Complaint Filed Against Albuquerque Law
Last week, the conservative political action committee New Mexico Turn Around filed suit in federal court against City Clerk Amy Bailey to block the provision in Albuquerque’s public-financing system that provides matching funds to participating candidates who are outspent by privately funded opponents. The suit alleges that the matching funds provision violates the First and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.

The PAC stated it wants to spend money opposing City Council candidate Rey Garduño -- an incumbent who has qualified for public financing -- but will not do so because the matching funds he would get would allegedly "neutralize" the PAC’s spending. New Mexico Turn Around noted in the complaint that it might want to get involved in other council races, too where public financing is in place for candidates.

Councilor Garduño, a Democrat who represents District 6 in the Southeast Heights, qualified for approximately $29,000 in public campaign money this year. He'd also be eligible for matching funds beyond that if any opposing candidates or privately funded groups spent more than that amount in total.

Of Critical Importance
As Common Cause's response emphasizes, whatever course is taken, it’s critically important that we change the way we pay for our politics in this country by moving to a publicly-financed, small-donor system that gives the public a voice back in government. Obviously, for American democracy to survive and flourish, wealthy corporate interests can’t be granted greater influence over the political process than ordinary American voters.

It’s up to lawmakers in New Mexico to ensure our elections are of, by and for the people -- not bought and paid for by special interests. Fair Elections laws prevent wealthy interests from exerting an unfair influence over policy-making at the local, state and federal level. Such programs allow ordinary citizens to have a voice in the political process, ensuring that elected officials pay attention to the people who elected them, not just the special interests that bankrolled their campaigns.

“We need to protect and expand public financing in New Mexico,” says Allen. “The future of our democracy depends on it.”

Note: For background, click to see our previous posts that relate to New Mexico Turn Around, the PAC that filed suit to stop the matching-fund provision:

June 27, 2011 at 12:25 PM in 2011 Albuquerque Municipal Election, Corporatism, Ethics & Campaign Reform, Legal Issues | Permalink


Could have been much worse but this is still an attack on the effort to keep corporate money out of campaigns. Shame on the Supreme Court!

Posted by: Erin | Jun 27, 2011 1:23:28 PM