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.
A near empty Senate Rules committee hears sponsors of a lobbying reform measure present their bill on Monday, March 13. One could say whether a bill makes it out of a legislative committee has everything to do with the lawmakers sitting on the committee. But Senate somersaults this week pretty much lay to rest the notion that the vote of a committee always matters. If lawmakers really want to pass something, they will. The example this week: ethics commission legislation.
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.
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.
Lobbyist Tom Horan talks to the House State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs committee about why he opposes a lobbyist disclosure bill during the 2019 legislative session. An effort to require more transparency from lobbyists passed its first hurdle in the House. The idea behind HB 131 is pretty simple: lobbyists would report a few weeks after a legislative session ends what bills they worked on, including their position on each bill, if they had one. One of the bill co-sponsors said the measure aimed to help the public have a greater understanding of how policy is made. “We’re approached in the hallway, approached in the bar, people talk to you at a reception,” Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, told the House’s State Government, Elections, and Indian Affairs Committee Monday.
A bill requiring full disclosure of lobbyist expenditures is heading to the governor’s desk after being fast-tracked through the Legislature as part of the “rocket docket,” a set of bills prioritized after gaining legislative approval in previous sessions only to be vetoed by former governor Susana Martinez. Meanwhile, lobbyists or their employers have already reported spending almost $90,000 during the session. SB 191 fixes a mistake made by legislators in 2016 when they inadvertently got rid of a requirement that lobbyists and their employers report a total of smaller lobbying expenses. Transparency advocates characterized it as a step backward in an ongoing effort to create more transparent government. If Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs the bill, which she has indicated she will, all expenditures will have to be reported in the future, including the total of individual expenses under $100.
It can be tough to figure out how private money influences government as it flows through the political process. Not only are there gaps in required reporting about money and gifts showered on politicians and elected officials, the data that is publicly available is often unwieldy to work with, found in hundreds of individual reports or in spreadsheets that may have both duplicative and missing data. One of our jobs as journalists is to make sense of it all, so that it informs our reporting on the political and governance process. At New Mexico In Depth, we’ve acquired skills and tools that help us crack open large sets of data, and we are able to work with talented data analysts and coders. But we also believe it’s super important for the public to be able to search data, bringing their own knowledge to bear on the issue of how money affects political outcomes.
Lobbyists and their employers reported spending of $207,215 during the just-concluded legislative session. That’s just a slice of the total spending to influence legislation, as amounts spent under $500 won’t be filed until May. Many of the expenditures were on events or gifts that are almost rituals at this point, annual occasions where lawmakers are wined, dined, and feted. New Mexico In Depth found that 84 percent of the spending was made by companies and organizations that spent similar amounts on similar events or gifts in 2017. A few examples:
The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA) spent almost $28,000 for legislators at the Casa Espana Hotel in Santa Fe.
Gov. Susana Martinez wants each state lawmaker to disclose how much he or she spends on projects around the state. Making their emails public would be nice, too. However, the governor isn’t keen on sharing information about legal settlements the state negotiates. As for state lawmakers, they aren’t rushing to support calls from Martinez or some of their colleagues to shine more light on how the Legislature works. Legislation that would help New Mexicans better understand New Mexico state government is going nowhere fast in the legislative session that ends Thursday, a review by New Mexico In Depth has found.
In our society, money buys things. That includes at places like the Roundhouse in Santa Fe, where the textbook ideal is an informed citizenry empowered to ask elected officials educated questions about how decisions are made but where the reality often is more muddy.
What money buys in Santa Fe is a pressing question these days in New Mexico, where in the past three years, a former secretary of state has pleaded guilty to embezzlement and a former state senator has been convicted of bribery.