Trip Jennings/New Mexico In Depth
A who’s who of lobbyists watched on Wednesday as Republicans on a legislative committee shelved two bills that would cap what storefront lenders can charge people in need of cash for loans.
There was former House Speaker Raymond Sanchez, brother to Democratic Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez. Former Republican National Committee man Mickey Barnett. Longtime lobbyist Scott Scanland.
The powerhouse lobbyists were hired by the lending industry that was targeted by the legislation. And their presence Wednesday afternoon offers a glimpse into the mechanics of how the Roundhouse works, the role of lobbyists, and the amount of money that sometimes lubricates the legislative process.
From May through December of last year, Barnett, Scanland, Sanchez and a number of other lobbyists hired by the payday lending industry spent more than $300,000 on New Mexico’s public officials — wining, dining and contributing to the campaigns of state lawmakers, political candidates and other elected officials, according to a New Mexico In Depth analysis of data from the New Mexico Secretary of State’s office.
Most of that was campaign donations — $270,000 — with lobbyists giving some of those contributions on behalf of various clients, the analysis found. Meanwhile, more than $35,000 of the $300,000 went toward paying for meals and other expenses for New Mexico public officials, including state lawmakers and legislative committees that met around the state.
Ona Porter, president of Prosperity Works and co-chairman of the New Mexico Fair Lending Coalition, which supports the bills that would cap interest rates at 36 percent, didn’t hesitate when asked what she thought the effect of the money was.
“They are buying votes,” she said.
Two Republican lawmakers who voted to hold up the bills Wednesday swatted away that accusation.
“I came up here to represent the people, and if the lobbyists contribute to my campaign, that has no effect on my vote at all,” said Rep. Bob Wooley, R-Roswell.
“Honestly, I don’t ever think, ‘There’s Mr. So-and-So and his company gave me money,’” said Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-Alamogordo. Herrell chairs the House Regulatory and Public Affairs Committee — the body that tabled the two interest-cap bills on a party-line vote.
A check of campaign finance records show storefront lending companies and affiliated associations have given $2,650 since early 2013 to three of the four GOP lawmakers on the House Regulatory and Public Affairs Committee.
Rep. Nora Espinoza of Roswell received the most — $1,300 — with $1,100 to Herrell and $250 to Rep. James Smith of Sandia Park. No contributions went to Wooley, the records show.
None of the three Democratic committee members received money from the companies and associations. However, two of the three Democrats are new to the Legislature, having only been elected last year.
Herrell said the Republican majority on her committee tabled the two bills that would cap interest rates Wednesday because lending to New Mexico’s under-banked population is a complicated issue and the industry planned to offer its own bills.
She also stressed finding a solution will require work. Storefront lenders cater to a population that can’t get loans from mainstream financial institutions such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America.
“This is a very important issue,” Herrell said. “We’ve got a fine line between free trade and free market and consumer protection.”
The role of lobbyists
Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause, an organization that supports more openness and disclosure from New Mexico government, said the money lobbyists spend on campaign donations and wining and dining decision-makers isn’t about buying votes so much as it is about building and maintaining relationships.
In the Roundhouse, relationships matter. Many lobbyists are former state lawmakers, state government officials or legislative staffers who have known legislators for years, either as colleagues or friends; sometimes as both. Some like Raymond Sanchez have the bonus of being related to legislative leaders.
“It’s creating a relationship where you know everybody, so people will listen to your bills,” Harrison said of campaign contributions and meals and drinks. “If someone gives me $15,000 versus $15, I’m going to pay more attention to the person who gave me $15,000 than $15.”
Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law professor and prominent opponent of the nation’s campaign finance system, calls such behavior the “gift economy” in his books. The well-connected few give contributions and pay for meals and drinks — not in exchange for favors, necessarily, but as a way of building and maintaining relationships and creating very human feelings of obligation with decision makers who, in turn, can affect their business.
In a 2012 interview with Harvard Magazine, Lessig, speaking of Congress, said members have developed a “fearsome dependency: campaign cash.”
The author of the article quotes him as saying, “They’re raising money; they are spending time connecting to people. That ignores the fact they are connecting to 0.1 percent of the people, which is not ‘connecting to people.’”
To a smaller extent, the same happens in states such as New Mexico, critics say.
On the lending bills, industry outfits such as Fast Bucks, Community Loans of America and Speedy Loan have the all-star list of lobbyists to make their case in New Mexico.
Because New Mexico doesn’t require lobbyists to disclose how much they are paid by their employers, it is impossible to know how much the companies are paying for the lobbyists’ services.
It is also nearly impossible to know how much of the $300,000 the lobbyists spent on New Mexico public officials last year came from the industry, which critics call predatory lenders for the sometimes-exorbitant interest rates they charge mostly low-income New Mexicans.
New Mexico also doesn’t require lobbyists to report what issues and bills they are working on, as states like Colorado do. So for most New Mexicans wandering the halls of the Roundhouse or watching state lawmakers doing the public’s business via webcasts it would be difficult to know what lobbyists are working what issues unless they are in a legislative hearing when a lobbyist speaks for or against legislation.
And even then it might be a challenge. The Legislature doesn’t require lobbyists to wear name tags, so it’s not always clear who they are.
The money flows
But one thing is clear: The lobbyists hired by the storefront lending industry spent tons of money last year on New Mexico’s public officials.
For example, lobbyist Anthony (T.J.) Trujillo, who with his brother was hired by Community Loans of America, spent more than $70,000 last year as he lobbied for clients including Community Loans of America, according to a report he filed with the New Mexico Secretary of State’s office in January.
Most of that – around $66,000 — came in the form of campaign contributions, the majority given to state lawmakers and legislative candidates on behalf of clients.
Trujillo spent another $6,000 last year wining and dining state officials, but listed only details for $2,047 — $1,500 of which was spent feeding state lawmakers and legislative staff from the New Mexico Finance Authority Oversight committee and staff, the campaign finance report shows.
The first expense for that committee – $800 – paid for dinner at Ranchers Restaurant in Ruidoso, where the committee met in July. He spent another $768 on lunch in November from Whole Foods in Santa Fe, where the committee met that month, the report shows.
In September, Trujillo spent $215 in Taos at Martyrs Steakhouse for state lawmakers and staff serving on the Economic and Rural Development Committee.
And in December, he spent $264 to buy lunch from Upper Crust Pizza in Santa Fe to feed state lawmakers and staff serving on the Water and Natural Resources Committee.
Barnett, the former National Republican Committee man who is representing the New Mexico Independent Finance Association as a lobbyist, contributed $100,000 to campaigns from May through November of last year, many on behalf of clients, a report he filed in January shows.
Meanwhile, lobbyist, J.D. Bullington, hired by Fast Bucks, gave more than $40,000 in campaign contributions from May to December, according to his campaign finance report filed last month with the Secretary of State’s office.
A week before Thanksgiving, Bullington also paid $256 for breakfast burritos from Santa Fe’s Tia Sophia restaurant to feed help state lawmakers on the New Mexico Finance Authority Legislative Oversight Interim Committee.
Scanland, who has been hired by Community Finance Service Center, which does business under the name Speedy Loan, bought food for several legislative committees from May to December, including the Legislative Finance Committee, the Legislature’s budget arm, and the Tax Committee.
And Sanchez, the former House speaker hired by the Consumer Installment Loan Association, contributed $2,350 to several state lawmakers’ campaigns from May through October.
It is that sort of spending that maintains relationships, Harrison said. At the same time most New Mexicans don’t have that kind of access to their state lawmakers.
Lawmakers acknowledge tension
It is a tension Herrell, the Republican state lawmaker, said she is aware of — knowing that only a few have access to state lawmakers while most New Mexicans don’t.
“I see it,” Herrell said. “The lobbyists are there or they’re putting into your campaign account, or there’s dinners or these things. I’m really super mindful of that. I am very well aware of that.”
For that reason, Herrell said she doesn’t attend many events in Santa Fe sponsored by lobbyists and organizations that are part of the legislative session’s social calendar.
Wooley also acknowledged being on friendly terms with lobbyists. “We have a good relationship,” he said. “But that does not influence how I vote.”
Supporters of the two bills tabled Wednesday call what the industry does “predatory lending” because it targets primarily low-income New Mexicans who are predominantly people of color.
Karen Meyers, an attorney who testified before lawmakers at the legislative hearing in favor of House Bill 36, said rates on some loans were in excess of 1,000 percent. The average hovers around 350 percent, she said.
Democratic Rep. Wonda Johnson, D-Church Rock, who is Navajo, called the lending a “human rights” issue because of how it had devastated the finances of many of her fellow Navajos.
“Their lives are getting worse every day because they can’t pay back these loans,” Miguel Gomez, another critic, told lawmakers of New Mexicans taking out such loans.
But industry lobbyists and owners of storefront lending stores said many of them would go out of business if New Mexico capped rates at 36 percent. And if they go away, a population that already can’t get loans from main street banks and financial institutions would lose a resource for loans for such things as emergencies.
“In trying to cure an ill, you create a bigger ill,” Andrew Morrison, executive vice president of Brundage Management Co., which manages Sun Loan Co., said.
Jack Cook, a small business owner in Farmington, agreed.
“Banks are not interested in giving short term loans,” Cook told lawmakers.