CHUGGING ALONG: Candidates in New Mexico are often allowed to use campaign funds to pay for repairs and upkeep on vehicles.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE, N.M. — It’s said you don’t ever want to get between country folk and their pickup trucks.
And in most cases in New Mexico, if you’re a candidate for statewide office, using campaign funds to fix and maintain your vehicle is considered an allowable expense.
For example, a glance at candidate filing forms shows that Public Regulation Commissioner Pat Lyons listed more than $5,100 in repairs on his 1999 Ford F-250 in his paperwork with the Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees the paperwork turned in by candidates for statewide office.
“You don’t know what it’s like to campaign in the fifth-largest state (in area), in a state that big,” an irritated Lyons told New Mexico Watchdog of PRC District 2, which he says consists of 5 million acres. “You want to stir up controversy.”
SOS Chief of Staff Ken Ortiz told New Mexico Watchdog in an email, “based on past records in this office, this appears to be an allowable expense.”
That’s because state law provides candidates wide latitude when it to comes to defining the use of campaign expenses. The statute in New Mexico allows for expenditures “that are reasonable related to the performing of the duties of the office held, including mail, telephone and travel expenditures.”
Lyons is running for a second term on the PRC in a district that’s composed of the eastern part of the state. Lyons, a Republican, is running unopposed in both the party primary in June and the general election in November.
A cattle rancher in the town of Cuervo, Lyons said he uses the truck strictly for campaign purposes.
“I’ve put on a million miles in New Mexico,” Lyons said of his time in the Legislature, as State Land Commissioner and in his four years at the PRC. “My district makes up half the state … Let me point out that that money was not taken out from the public … That’s (campaign) money I raised myself. There’s not any taxpayer money involved.”
“Repairing your vehicle, I guess it does fit the letter of the law,” said Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, an advocacy group that calls for campaign finance reform. “It’s good that it’s not taxpayer money, but is this what people expect when they write a check for 25 or 50 bucks?”
Harrison said the New Mexico statute is similar to campaign expenditure guidelines in other states.
In the filings to the Secretary of State, Lyons listed the following expenses from an auto shop in Portales:
Lyons is hardly the only New Mexico politician who has used campaign funds for expenses associated with driving,
Two years ago, longtime state Sen. Phil Griego, a Democrat from San Jose, cited $3,000 on upkeep and maintenance on a 1955 Chevy pickup truck Griego used on the campaign trail.
One of Greigo’s opponents in the Democratic primary complained to the secretary of state’s office and Griego defended the expenditures, saying the classic truck “is used for attention and is a popular attraction at events such as parades and other related campaign rallies.”
The secretary of state’s office eventually OK’d Greigo’s expense.
Lyons’ colleagues on the PRC have listed similar campaign expenses. A search of SOS filings by New Mexico Watchdog showed:
Democrat Theresa Becenti-Aguilar, listed $446.40 in the space of seven weeks on trips to the gas station during her successful run for commissioner in District 4 in 2010.
New Mexico Watchdog found no vehicle-related expenses from Commissioner Karen Montoya, who spent the vast majority of her campaign expenses in 2012 on media, advertising and consulting fees.
Contact Rob Nikolewski at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski