Oil and Gas plays big in elections, despite COVID-19

Crude oil storage tanks dot the landscape in San Juan County. Marjorie Childress/New Mexico In Depth

The oil and gas industry may have cratered over the last few months due to a steep drop in consumer demand brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s still a major player in shaping New Mexico’s state Legislature. 

Oil companies have pumped $1.1 million dollars into 2020 New Mexico primary election campaigns since last October. The industry distributed $180,000 of that total since March 11, the date the first COVID-19 case was identified in New Mexico and the economy subsequently began rapidly shutting down. 

The industry contributes large amounts to New Mexico politicians every election cycle, and runs its own campaigns independently as well. Such political spending by the industry occurs whether the oil industry is in one of its notorious “bust” cycles, or booming. Over the last couple of years, the industry has been booming, fueling an injection of billions of dollars into the state budget. 

Kathleen Sabo, executive director of New Mexico Ethics Watch, said the sheer size of the industry, and its importance to the state budget, gives it a great deal of influence. 

“Most legislators seem to be very careful around the industry,” said Sabo, “it’s not partisan.” Sabo said efforts to regulate the industry can generate comments at the statehouse from both sides of the aisle about “killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”

Indeed, New Mexico In Depth found in 2019 that no regulatory bills targeting oil and gas were successful during the legislative session without the blessing of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, despite strong Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate and a new Democratic governor. 

Its influence goes beyond campaign contributions, Sabo said.

New Mexico native Shaun Griswold joins New Mexico In Depth team

New Mexico In Depth welcomes reporter Shaun Griswold to our team beginning next week. Shaun is Pueblo from Laguna, Jemez and Zuni, and grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. 

He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience to our team. He’s covered Rocky Mountain fire seasons, local police reform, and, as he is sure to note, the Denver Broncos and Kendrick Lamar. 

Shaun Griswold

We’re thrilled by the opportunity to work with Shaun, thanks to Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities through its reporting corps. Report for America is an initiative of the nonprofit news organization, The GroundTruth Project. He joins 225 reporters placed by the program in 162 newsrooms around the country, from a pool of more than 1,800 applicants. 

For New Mexico In Depth, Shaun will focus on issues important to urban Indigenous people in Albuquerque, as well as tribal communities throughout New Mexico, including education, child welfare, and more. 

“I’m excited to join the ranks of Indigenous journalists at Indian Country Today, Navajo Times, High Country News and every publication focused on expanding news for thriving Indigenous communities that demand coverage,” he says about this opportunity. 

Native Americans compose 11% of the New Mexico state population, and Albuquerque is home to one of the largest communities of urban Indian  people in the country.

Lobbying influence game largely in the dark

A reporter sits at her desk looking at a spreadsheet. The rows and columns show the spending lobbyists reported to the Secretary of State’s Office for the first five months of 2019, which includes the 60-day legislative session.  She wants to tell a story about what that spending bought. But there’s only so much to glean, because so much isn’t reported. That was me the other day.

NM doles out billion dollars in capital outlay, funding decisions remain secret

As New Mexico’s 2019 legislative session draws to a close, lawmakers are poised to allocate almost a billion dollars to infrastructure projects around the state. The Senate Finance committee approved $933 million yesterday for capital projects statewide. For comparison, just a year ago capital outlay money totaled $364.5 million. The state is so flush with cash, that each chamber is moving an additional “junior” appropriation bill of about $30 million, HB 548 and SB 536, for $60 million total that individual members will parcel out. The bill, SB 280, holds $385 million going to statewide projects designated by state agencies.

With days to go, ethics commission legislation stalls

A few weeks ago, Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, mentioned the option of passing a memorial creating a task force to study an independent ethics commission through 2019. Just in case, he said. Nibert wanted to see legislation that dictates what powers such a commission would have and how it would operate. But it was clear, even weeks ago, that agreement on a subject the Legislature has debated for 13 years might be difficult despite 75 percent of New Mexicans voting to enshrine the idea in the state constitution this November. But Nibert waited before asking a legislative agency to draft the memorial.

Lobbyists weigh in on disclosure, ban on spending proposals

House State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs committee discussing HB 131. As the House of Representatives geared up for a late night on the floor last Monday, a group of lobbyists were asked to provide dinner for legislators: green chile cheeseburgers from Lota Burger. A few days later, on Thursday, Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Albuquerque, thanked a group of “lobbyists, about 40” who paid for what’s now an annual tradition — a catered lunch for House members from her extended family’s restaurant, Powdrell’s barbeque. The mood on the floor was jovial. To some, the displays did not quite square with the lawmakers’ vote the previous Sunday to ban lobbyist spending on lawmakers during a legislative session.

Roundhouse hall talk: “The barber is in the House”

*This article has been updated twice

A stylist applies make-up to a state lawmaker at a pop-up salon at the New Mexico state capital on March 4. Stacked on the table are make-up compacts, and in the background another stylist is blowdrying hair. Need a haircut? If you know a lobbyist, and you’re a lawmaker, you might get a free cut. And conveniently, you could get the cut, or a blow-out, or even help with your make-up, right here in the Roundhouse.

House ups the ante in lobbyist regulation bill

Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil responds to questions about HB 131 on the House floor, while her fellow Democrat and co-sponsor, Sen. Jeff Steinborn, looks on. It was originally just a simple bill requiring lobbyists to report to the Secretary of State all the bills they lobbied on, and their position on the bills if they took one, within 14 days of the end of the session. But before HB 131 was passed by the House of Representatives last night 62-0, it was amended to include a sweeping ban on lobbyist spending on lawmakers during a legislative session. “My intention is to limit a lobbyist from making any expenditure, whether they’re providing a committee dinner, whether they’re putting drinks in your office, whether they’re putting cookies on your table, it’s removing them from the process,” Republican Minority Leader Jim Townsend of Artesia said when explaining the amendment. State legislators are already barred from soliciting campaign contributions from January 1 through the end of each legislative session.

Lobbyist transparency bill headed to House floor

Legislation to require more public transparency about lobbying that goes on during legislative sessions passed its second committee yesterday, House Judiciary. HB 131 would require lobbyists to report to the Secretary of State all the bills they lobbied on, and their position on the bills if they took one, within 14 days of the end of the session. It’s “a transparency bill, obviously. We think it’s short, sweet and to the point,” said Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, an Albuquerque Democrat. Her co-sponsor, Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said the bill would bring “all those players out into the sunlight and have all that be disclosed to the citizens of the state.”

A concern first raised last week during its first committee hearing continued to be a focus yesterday.