Santa Fe’s transparency regulations withstand final appeal

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a challenge to Santa Fe campaign disclosure requirements stemming from a failed city ballot initiative in 2017 to tax sugary beverages.

The 10th District Court of Appeals in Denver last year rejected the lawsuit from the Albuquerque-based Rio Grande Foundation that sought to shield future financial contributions from public disclosure in defiance of requirements enacted by the city of Santa Fe. That ruling now stands.

The failed city ballot initiative would have shored up spending on early childhood education. It was marked by millions of dollars in campaign spending.

The Rio Grande Foundation issued an online video that was critical of the soda tax proposal, prompting an investigation into possible violations of the city’s campaign finance code.

The foundation complied with a city order and disclosed two relatively minor donations of $7,700. Later it sought to invalidate the city regulations, citing a “chilling effect” on political contributions and, thus, free speech.

The appeals court said the Rio Grande Foundation failed to show that speech would be silenced by the city’s campaign finance regulations.

Foundation President Paul Gessing said Monday that the group “will more carefully consider restrictive local campaign finance rules if (and) when we choose to engage in efforts to educate voters on local ballot measures like Santa Fe’s soda and sugary drinks tax.”

The city’s defense was supported by several advocacy groups for transparency in political spending, including the Brennan Center for Justice, New Mexico Ethics Watch, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause.

“Special interests often run elections ads that are deliberately misleading, and today’s ruling means Santa Fe voters will be able to weigh the credibility of those ads and cast an informed vote,” Paul Smith, a vice president at the Campaign Legal Center that served as defense counsel, said in a statement.