The 2020 elections in New Mexico produced some decisive results. By a margin of 55 to 43 and a half percent voters rejected President Donald Trump. But by an even bigger margin, 56 to 44 percent, New Mexico voters “reformed” their Public Regulation Commission in what I would call a perfectly Trumpian way.
They amended the state constitution to make the Public Regulation Commission smaller, weaker and empowered directly by whomever happens to be governor of the state. The very boss-first governance “the former guy” was brought up to believe in and tried to install at the White House.
The centralization of regulatory or de-regulatory power in allegedly liberal Democratic New Mexico — changing a commission of five folks independently elected by voters to three appointed by the governor, and eradicating the PRC’s constitutional mandate to protect consumers was done the Trumpian way. It was pushed by an expensive media campaign financed by “dark money.”
Hiding in the darkness were the funders who bankrolled the campaign to knee-cap an often troublesome commission.
Then, a light went on. A lobbyist’s report identified Exxon Mobil as a $10,000 contributor to the Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers which paid for a barrage of mailings and tv ads — helping the governor’s PRC reform win the vote.
You could see why an oil and gas company like Exxon Mobil might want to shrink the powers of the regulator of pipelines in our high-energy state, but — as we would say in New York, “10 grand is peanuts.” The committee spent $264,000 pushing for the constitutional amendment. Where did the other quarter of a million come from?
Might some (or much) of it come from the state’s biggest utility, PNM (Public Service of New Mexico) the number one target on the PRC’s oversight list? A reason to think so came from another product of a 2019 reform of New Mexico’s campaign finance laws that produced the bombshell lobbyist’s report on Exxon Mobil.
The State Ethics Commission, using 2019 powers, outed PNM as the secret dark funder behind the “Council for a Competitive New Mexico, set up to launch mailings and media ads defending five “dinosaurs” — five conservative senior state senators under progressive assault in the June 2020 Democratic Primary.
The campaign failed and four out of five reliable votes for the New Mexico energy industry bit the dust. But even with all the 2019 reforms, it was eight months after primary day that PNM had to show its unsuccessful thumb on the scale.
So what do the failure of the “Council for a Competitive New Mexico and the success of the Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers tell us about “dark money?”
First, it doesn’t always succeed. Second, it is thoroughly bi-partisan. And third, its biggest weakness is its very nature — polls show Americans despise “dark money.” Between 80 and 94 percent, say they want transparency in American political funding. And most of them don’t even know about “gray money.”
Bryan Metzger is a recent graduate of Stanford University, where he wrote for the Stanford Daily. He studied International Relations and Arabic while attaining honors in international security. In 2020, he is a reporting fellow for New Mexico, focused on the influence of money in politics. Bryan grew up in Albuquerque and has family roots in New Mexico going back several generations.