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.
One way to cut through the din of constant political noise during an election is to look at the money flowing through the political system. Laws that require campaign and lobbying reports are meant to help the public learn about groups or people attempting to influence election outcomes through donations, or official decisions by spending money on elected officials once they’re in office. Those laws are only worthwhile, though, when they are followed. Take, for example, Albuquerque’s lobbying ordinance. It looks good on paper.
While New Mexico’s colleges and universities are hoping today’s special legislative session restores hundreds of million worth of funding, the Secretary of State’s office is yearning for something more modest. That’s $950,000 for a new online reporting system. New Mexico In Depth reported last week on lobbying records that revealed nearly $318,000 in advertising spending in 2016 and 2017 that was undisclosed because the reports exist only in paper form. The Secretary of State’s online system isn’t set up to receive and post the advertising-only filings online and the agency has requested the software upgrades the past two years. The upgrades would allow filers to submit such reports online, rather than on paper forms.
But for now, data downloads for lobbyists don’t include all the available information.
Mining, developers and film interests reported wining and dining New Mexico lawmakers last week. Lobbyists and their employers have reported spending nearly $203,000 through Monday. They must report any spending of $500 to the Secretary of State within 48 hours. Last week’s biggest event was a $15,845 dinner at the Hilton sponsored by the New Mexico Mining Association. The IATSE Local 480, a union for film employees, spent $6,378 on a reception at the Pink Adobe.
Plenty of wining and dining of lawmakers occurred in the past week, as lobbyist spending during the session neared $107,000. The University of New Mexico threw a reception at the La Fonda at a cost of $11,146. Comcast spent $10,341 feting legislators to dinner at Restaurant Martin. But not all 112 lawmakers were invited to every event as the Legislature neared the end of the third week of the session. The Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee lunched at the Inn at Loretto courtesy of New Mexico Gas Co.