Lawmaker, advocates pursue greater sunshine from lobbyists

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Lobbying at the Roundhouse is a little bit different from other states. Put a crop of unpaid “citizen legislators” and well-paid professional lobbyists in a building together, and a certain culture develops in which lobbyists become key sources of information for lawmakers.

“When I have colleagues that come in here from other states, or from the national level, they’re amazed at the degree of access that folks have here, and it’s more of an informal kind of a situation than it is at a lot of other venues,” said Dan Weaks, a professional lobbyist.

In contrast to unpaid, understaffed legislators, lobbyists—many of whom have significant monetary resources at their disposal—can play an outsized role in the policymaking process, said Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, who has witnessed employers hire as many as 10 lobbyists for a single issue. 

“They had a lobbyist posted at every elevator.”

Another senator didn’t mince words. The system we have “empowers lobbyists over the people’s elected representatives, and that’s a pretty dysfunctional system, in my view,” said Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque.

Some argue that the public would be better served if there was more transparency regarding the work of lobbyists to change, pass or stop legislation. In 2021, some advocates think a new crop of freshman lawmakers plus fewer lobbyists in the Roundhouse due to the pandemic may help the prospects of new disclosure laws. 

Lobbying and Power

In normal times, New Mexicans can engage with their representatives with relative ease. The state capital is open and during the annual legislative session throngs of people from all over the state gather there. Back home when the Legislature isn’t in session, lawmakers tend to be readily accessible, back at their day jobs and otherwise engaged in community meetings. 

Lobbyists have ready access to lawmakers, too, but some have much more after years spent building relationships as they seek to influence the outcome of legislative action each session.

Lobbyists advance the interests of an employer, industry association, government agency, or other organized group that’s hired them or for whom they volunteer and they’re required to register under the state’s Lobbyist Regulation Act. In 2020, they numbered 616.  

But only a fraction are professionals who may represent multiple clients and are usually hired based on their experience and relationships with legislators and staff, or their subject matter expertise. Roughly 30% spend money to further their interests, whether through political contributions, expenditures on meals and other activities, or gifts.

“We are primarily, first and foremost, the frontline spokesperson for whomever hires us to convey their issues and their messages to lawmakers,” said J.D. Bullington, a professional lobbyist in Santa Fe who represents over 20 different entities. Bullington is one of several so-called “super-lobbyists,” defined in a 2020 New Mexico Ethics Watch report as any lobbyist representing more than nine clients at once.

Some lobbyists are able to leverage their family relationships, experience as former lawmakers, or staff positions in state government into lucrative lobbying careers. The nonprofit government reform group Common Cause published a report in 2013 that exposed the revolving door of former lawmakers becoming lobbyists. Not only do they have personal relationships, but “they know the legislative history of an issue, e.g. who was opposed to it ten years ago, whether it was vetoed and why, or whether a measure is even constitutional.”

Dan Weaks worked on staff at the Legislature decades ago and knows the inner workings, and people, as well.

“I have great relationships with staff people,” said Weaks, a professional lobbyist who represents multiple clients. “Most of the folks that are in these positions are not brand new to the state. So you kind of have a lot of personal relationships that you’ve been able to build up over time.”

For legislators, lobbyists are unavoidable, and for some, they become an important resource.

“What it looks and feels like when you’re a new legislator is different from what it feels like when you’re an old hand,” said former Democratic senator Dede Feldman. “You begin to find out who are the lobbyists that you can trust, and who are the ones that, you know, you ought to have a jaded eye about.”

Steinborn regularly sponsors bills to increase lobbying transparency and says his experience with lobbyists is professional. “Someone will approach me, they’ll say, ‘Senator, I’d like to talk to you about this issue, here’s who I’m representing.’ And they will just lay it out. I think at its best, that’s what it should be.”

Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences

Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, said lobbyists help her gather information and do reconnaissance as an unpaid lawmaker. “When a lobbyist comes to me, the first thing I ask them is, who is opposing this?” she said, which helps her identify who else she needs to talk to. 

Candelaria, however, dislikes the set up.

“It shouldn’t be up to special interests and paid lobbyists to educate the Legislature on what the important issues are regarding a public policy problem,” said Candelaria. “It basically allows the lobbying class to define what the issues are.”

And the dependence doesn’t stop there.

“Sometimes it’s like, hey, I’ll watch your kids and take them to the casino while you’re in committee tonight,” said Feldman. “Or I’ll take your dry cleaning over to the dry cleaners tonight and pick it up tomorrow for you.”

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque

In a practice that has been described as part of the “fabric” of the process, lobbyists and other outside groups frequently provide food to legislators. 

“[The per diem] maybe covers your hotel room. So, you know, you’re happy when there’s an invitation to dinner,” Feldman said of the amount of money state lawmakers are given for each day they perform their legislative duties. New Mexico lawmakers are not paid a salary like their counterparts in more than 40 states. 

“In committee hearings, it is not uncommon for lobbyists to donate food,” said Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-Albuquerque. “I tell that to most people, and they think that’s crazy. Like, how could you have an entity, a private entity who has business before the committee, donating something to the committee? Well, exactly.”

Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-Albuquerque

For Bullington, providing meals for lawmakers simply offers the best chance to do effective advocacy.

“Lunch is just a natural time of the day when you can get a lawmaker’s undivided attention,” said Bullington. “And that’s what you’re really looking for.”

At the end of the day, legislators say, the real concern remains the relationship between lobbying, power, and elections, not meals.

“My problem is when the lobbyists use their clients’ great money and power to influence elections and to sort of preordain what the verdict will be before even starting the actual lobbying process,” said Feldman.

Dow agreed. “Are you more concerned about a lunch during the 60 day session or a million dollar contribution through 10 different subsidiaries to one person who gets to decide whether that bill is assigned to one committee, three committees, or if it even gets heard?”

Compounding the problem is a weakness in disclosure laws. Currently, there’s no publicly available information about which lawmakers or what bills are being targeted by lobbyists, as New Mexico’s lobbying laws do not require it. 

Pandemic may present a reform opportunity

Year after year, Steinborn has proposed legislation to increase public disclosure by lobbyists about the bills they seek to advance or stop, so that the legislative process is more transparent. 

“The important thing is that citizens know what are the mechanics, the power behind each policy that’s considered,” said Steinborn. “That levels the playing field away from those with money to hire lobbyists, and in favor of citizens– and legislators, for that matter– to be able to understand those mechanics.”

Steinborn will again pursue a bill to require lobbyists to file a report within 14 days of the end of the session that discloses which bills a lobbyist or their employer lobbied on, he said.

Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces

He will also re-introduce a measure to mandate lobbyist employers disclose the total amount of money that they invest in lobbying each year, including the compensation paid to lobbyists. “The question New Mexicans deserve to know, is not ‘gee, did they take five legislators out to the Rio Chama?’ That doesn’t tell you anything,” said Steinborn. “What you need to know is they [the employer] spent a million dollars on lobbyists to try to get a $600 million subsidy.”

This session, a variety of factors have given reformers hope, including the newly established state ethics commission, a new crop of legislators and the departure of some who have blocked transparency legislation, and, interestingly, the fact that lobbyists will not be present in the building because of the pandemic. 

“We actually feel that this would be a very ideal time,” said Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, and herself a registered lobbyist. “Typically, those bills have suffered when contract lobbyists have been able to grab our legislators out in the hall and change their mind or move a vote. This is an opportunity where lobbyists won’t be in the building.”

Lawmakers decided to bar the public from the Roundhouse this session due to the pandemic, and that includes lobbyists.

Feldman remains optimistic that new legislators will be open to changing the process.

“I think they’re much more willing to support transparent and open, good government measures that reduce the power of lobbyists, special interests, than are legislators who— that’s the system that brought them there, that have come to depend upon it,” she said.

The ethics commission, though not formally proposing changes to lobbying regulations this session, issued “recommendations” to the Legislature in an annual report

“I hope that the commission can be a helpful resource for the legislators and for the lobbyists to promote more full and fair disclosure that’s in the public interest,” said Stuart Bluestone, one of the commissioners.

These recommendations include a measure similar to Steinborn’s bill to allow greater disclosure on exactly which bills lobbyists are seeking to influence, though with two additional disclosures: once a week after the start of a session, and another due one week after the bill introduction deadline.

“I’m frankly not sure that a report after the session is helpful to inform the public as a couple of reports during the session,” said Bluestone, a former deputy state attorney general.

Emphasizing that he was speaking for himself, Bullington said he would support measures to increase transparency around lobbying.

“I strongly believe that our political process is overly complicated and not very conducive to public access, it could be greatly improved,” said Bullington. “Because lobbyists are sort of a unique category of players and influencers of the process, I think the public has a right to know about every penny that we are spending to influence the process.”

Weaks, on the other hand, was more skeptical about Steinborn’s disclosure efforts. He and others fear transparency measures might go too far.

“Why must it be incumbent upon me to report to the Secretary of State everything I say to everybody I come in contact with relative to any piece of legislation? I think it’s ridiculous,” he said. “As far as what my salary is, or what my contract is for a private client? I personally don’t care, but it’s an intrusion of privacy.”

For her part, Minda McGonagle, another paid lobbyist, said that she understands Steinborn’s position on transparency but wondered if too much disclosure would hinder important give and take that goes on. “It’s like, if you’re always under a very bright, very public light, how can you sometimes work through the sensitive issues to get to what the resolution is?” she said.

Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque

Other legislators were generally supportive of greater disclosure around lobbying, with some caution. Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, said she is supportive of transparency in principle, but wants to be sure that further disclosure measures don’t have a chilling effect on advocates.

“I think we need to remember that lobbyists aren’t just for big corporations,” said Louis. “I don’t want to pass a bill and then later find out it causes harm, because we’re not hearing from certain people. 

Whether or not the upcoming session sees the passage of more transparency measures, structural issues are likely to persist.

“The single most important thing we can do to address lobbying, transparency, and good policymaking in New Mexico, is to professionalize our Legislature with a paid legislature and paid staff,” said Stansbury. 

“There is no other professional sphere in which we expect people to perform well at their jobs without pay and without staff.”

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