A state Senate committee failed to muster enough votes Wednesday morning to pass a bill that would fix a transparency loophole the Legislature created last year.
But the bill sponsor said he’ll try again to get the measure through the Rules Committee.
The loophole allows lobbyists to disclose much less about how they spend money on public officials than they used to.
It removed a requirement for lobbyists to report expenses spent on individual lawmakers below $100. Previously, lobbyists had to report all spending, itemizing expenses spent above $75 per lawmaker and reporting the cumulative amount of expenses below $75 per lawmaker.
As of July 1, 2016, lobbyists didn’t have to report any spending below $100 per lawmaker.
That wasn’t the intent of the 2016 transparency bill in which the loophole was found, one of the sponsors, Sen. Daniel Ivey Soto, told New Mexico In Depth last year:
“It was not our intent to get rid of cumulative reporting. That’s a vital indicator of what people are doing and what people are spending.”
Committee members voiced virtually no objections to Senate Bill 168 during Wednesday’s Senate Rules Committee, while Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver and Common Cause New Mexico spoke in support.
Bill sponsor Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said the bill was aimed at fixing what some said was an oversight in a lobbyist reform measure last year.
But in what appeared to be an unexpected move, Sen. Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, asked the committee to table the bill and not approve it.
He said his concern was language the committee had added minutes earlier that would require lobbyists and lobbyists’ employers to report every year the total value of gifts “given to each state officer, state employee or candidate for state office by the lobbyist or lobbyist’s employer in the previous calendar year.”
“That amendment is hideous,” Ingle told New Mexico In Depth after Wednesday’s committee meeting. “We report so much more than we ever used to.”
Reminded that other states such as Colorado require lobbyists to report more than New Mexico currently does, Ingle said, “I don’t care what other states do.”
Steinborn said the amendment might result in more reporting than is currently required.
“We have a gift act, but apparently the gift act doesn’t require that to be reported as I understand it,” he said. “It probably would capture some things that aren’t being captured now.”
But many New Mexico lobbyists do report gifts they give to lawmakers, including teddy bears, ski passes and rounds of golf.
Ingle and the committee’s three other Republicans – Mark Moores of Albuquerque, Cliff Pirtle of Roswell, and Greg Baca of Belen – voted to table the bill and the same number of Democrats opposed that action.
The 4-4 tie vote effectively means the bill stays in the Senate Rules Committee. But the group could take another vote and potentially move it to another legislative committee.
Steinborn said he hopes to revive the bill when more committee members are available, as he discusses the merits with opponents.
“It was the composition that was in the room at the time,” he said. Hopefully with the full committee, the support would have been there to pass the bill. I’m definitely not giving up.”
Wednesday’s action caught some supporters of the lobbying fix by surprise.
Heather Ferguson, legislative director for Common Cause, noted that the lobbying bill is one of a handful that her organization is scoring lawmaker votes on. And she noted that polls the group conducts indicate strong support for full disclosure by lobbyists.
“The percentage of the public in favor of better lobbyist disclosure has only increased every year,” Ferguson said. “We would certainly hope the Rules Committee will give this bill another opportunity.”
In a Legislature timing is everything. A chairman or chairwoman of a legislative committee does not call for a vote if the goal is to pass legislation. They wait until there are more votes to support the bill than oppose it.
That didn’t happen Wednesday morning. Three Democratic lawmakers assigned to the committee were not in the meeting at the time of the vote, including Sen. Daniel Ivey Soto of Albuquerque.
Ivey Soto told New Mexico In Depth last summer that he’d work to fix the loophole this year.
Ivey Soto said he was presenting a bill before the Senate Education Committee when the Senate Rules committee took its vote Wednesday morning. He added that he had helped Steinborn write the amendment that Ingle disliked.
Ivey Soto said Wednesday he remained committed to fixing the 2016 loophole.
Sen. President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces and Clemente Sanchez of Grants were the two other Democrats not in the room at the time of the committee vote.
Senate Rules Committee chairwoman Linda Lopez of Albuquerque said that another vote could be taken if the bill’s sponsor wanted to bring the legislation back up for a vote.
“We still have a meeting Friday,” Lopez said. “Let’s see what happens.”
It is difficult to say with certainty how much in lobbying expenses went unreported as a result of last year’s law.
Earlier this year, New Mexico In Depth reported that lobbyists and their employers spent more than $595,000 on gifts, meals and more for lawmakers and other public officials in 2016. But that number is likely tens of thousands of dollars too low because of the loophole created last legislative session.