Lobbying influence game largely in the dark

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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. Let me walk you through what I mean.

Let’s say we want to illustrate how companies pay lobbyists to influence legislation, and the methods lobbyists use to develop the relationships they need with lawmakers. We look through the reports (filed in May and during the session) and we find Claire Chase, a lobbyist for Mack Energy Co. who reports spending $2,200 in total at various Santa Fe restaurants and lists the lawmakers she treated. Bingo! A lobbyist working in a big industry with a lot on the line during the session, wining and dining lawmakers, their names listed.

Could be a great story, right? Maybe it’s one we should tell, since it’s one we have.

But telling that story obscures how much one can generally learn about the overall influence game played at the statehouse from lobbying reports.

Chase reported more than she’s required to: who she spent money on. New Mexico law doesn’t require that she say who she spent money on, just that she describe the expenditure.

There are other lobbyists who, like Chase, report the specific lawmakers they spend money on. About a quarter of the 101 lobbyists filing reports listed lawmakers they spent money on, for a total of $13,600, with Chase being the top spender.

But most don’t disclose that level of detail, nor are they required to.

There are plenty of lobbyists working on contract to numerous companies or organizations, and little can be gleaned from their reports, other than the amounts they spent. The rules don’t require them to report much. Even those like Chase who give more information than required don’t disclose what legislation they sought to influence. There is no rule requiring it.

More common is someone like Arthur Hull, who has 21 clients and is one of the biggest spenders. He spent over $11,000, five times Chase’s expenditures, and indicated in his report that all of the spending was in amounts under $100, most during the session. That’s a little more than 100 times, at least, Hull spent money to, as he stated in his report, “inform and discuss concerns with elected officials.”

Hull’s reports don’t break down which of his employers paid for what or on whom he spent the money. Much less what issues or pieces of legislation he talked to lawmakers about. His reports follow the letter of New Mexico law, which doesn’t require him to list the lawmakers he hopes to influence, or the legislation he is working on.

The result? All we know is that he spent a lot of money in small amounts during the session. We don’t know what his lobbying goals were, on behalf of which clients, or what lawmakers he most hoped to persuade. And Hull is just one of many lobbyists we can say this about.

(It should be noted that Hull reported more than required as well. Back in 2016, lawmakers inadvertently dropped a requirement that lobbyists report amounts under $100. A new law this year restores the requirement that lobbyists report such smaller amounts in the aggregate but doesn’t take effect until this summer. Hull, like other lobbyists, has continued to report small spending all along despite the 2016 flub.)

Here’s a breakdown, in big strokes, of what we can glean about the $296,000 lobbyists have spent this year, based on their varied descriptions:

  • $48,000 spent on meals for legislative committees or groups of lawmakers during the 60-day session.
  • $46,000 reported in the aggregate, because each expenditure was under $100.
  • $13,600 reported on specific, named lawmakers. Mainly meals at restaurants.
  • $44,000 on communications or advertising campaigns. $15,000 of this was spent by the National Rifle Association, and $20,000 by the National Restaurant Association.
  • $27,250 on ski passes.
  • $51,000 on large social events during the session

And the organizations and corporations that hired the lobbyists spent an additional $132,000, mostly on big receptions during the session. But even pulling back the lens to tell a big picture story misses that there’s a much larger amount of money spent on lobbying that’s never reported.

The spending reports of lobbyists are just that — reports about spending. Only about 20 percent of registered lobbyists file them, because most lobbyists don’t spend money on lawmakers during the session, or at any time of year. But many of them are at the statehouse full-time while legislation is being hammered out, being friendly and helping New Mexico’s volunteer lawmakers understand complex issues. Outside the session, some of them are volunteering on those same lawmakers’ political campaigns, contributing sweat equity if not actual campaign cash.

In other words, many lobbyists actively cultivate relationships in order to effectively advance their employer’s legislative interests. But state law doesn’t require lobbyists to report what they were paid to lobby, as the federal government does. Imagine if the compensation of all 714 registered lobbyists in 2019 was reported. We’d come a lot closer to knowing the true scale of lobbying in New Mexico.

This article originally appeared in New Mexico In Depth’s weekly newsletter. Don’t miss out, sign up to receive our newsletter in your inbox every Friday.


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