New Mexico is on the verge of joining those happy few states that have acted to rein in the extreme influence of corporate money on US politics. Whether New Mexico actually does so is almost certainly in the hands of Governor Bill Richardson.
New Mexico’s government is unusual in that it has a powerful five-seat commission that oversees and regulates the electric utilities, the transportation sector, the insurance companies and other corporations. The five members of the Public Regulation Commission are elected officials–and they have a miserable time holding public attention for their wonkish doings, to say nothing of raising money for their electoral campaigns that isn’t tainted by association with the industries they regulate.
Reform activists have teased out a solution: Let candidates for the PRC opt to fund their election campaigns with public money. To qualify, candidates would have to raise a certain number of $5 contributions from New Mexicans (how many is still a matter of horse-trading), forcing would-be commissioners to connect with at least a few of the ordinary citizens they’re supposed to represent.
As of Tuesday, all five of the sitting PRC members–two Republicans and three Democrats–had endorsed legislation to publicly finance PRC elections. The two biggest papers in the state, the Albuquerque Journal and the Santa Fe New Mexican, also back the idea, as does Richardson’s lieutenant governor, Diane Denish. In the House, the legislation is bill 420, sponsored by the Speaker of the House, Santa Fe Democrat Ben Lujan; in the Senate, it’s bill 222, co-sponsored by Democratic majority leader Manny Aragon. Both bills could be voted on by the week’s end.
Richardson is reluctantly coming around. In the past he has opposed full voluntary public financing of elections, which is available next door in Arizona, and also in Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont. But lately he’s left the door open to having New Mexico join the fourteen other states that have partial public financing for some offices. Gilbert Gallegos, the Governor’s spokesman, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that “Governor Richardson is intrigued with the idea because of the special nature of the PRC.” (That nature being: It’s a powerful body whose officials must go hat-in-hand to the industries they regulate; and a body that happens to have some quasi-judicial functions, a fact that strengthens arguments that it must be absolutely above suspicion or influence.)
Richardson is a state official with a national image. A former Energy Secretary for Bill Clinton and ambassador to the UN, the Governor raised eyebrows last month when he hosted North Korean emissaries for tea and talks in Santa Fe. (Hey, someone’s got to talk to them, right?) Gallegos says the governor’s office is still working on an improved website, so he could not offer a good Internet option for contacting Richardson; but the phone number is (505) 476-2200, and Common Cause New Mexico has some ideas on their website, too. Surely a governor who meets with North Koreans will weigh the opinions of North Carolinians, North Dakotans and other fellow citizens–tell him to put the people back in charge of the PRC!