The secret sauce of the alcohol industry’s statehouse success

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The alcohol department at a grocery store Albuquerque, NM in 2022. CREDIT: Adria Malcolm for New Mexico In Depth

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new report brings into focus the insidious nature of alcohol industry lobbying at the New Mexico statehouse. “Still Under the Influence: A Look at the Alcohol Industry and Its Influence on New Mexico Elected Officials,” by Common Cause New Mexico, underlines the entrenched power of the industry. Sadly, 20 years after the good government group issued a similar report about alcohol, New Mexico leads the country with the highest alcohol-related death rate.

Common Cause documents a decades-long history of failed efforts to raise alcohol taxes in New Mexico – a history capped with a surprising success this year when lawmakers raised the excise tax by a small amount, only to then watch Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham veto it. 

The report details money flowing from alcohol interests into campaign accounts of the most powerful lawmakers and spending on food and social events for lawmakers during the annual legislative session. The industry hires the most powerful contract lobbyists, some of whom are family of legislators, or friends after years, even decades, of lobbying at the Roundhouse. 

Last year, New Mexico In Depth published an exhaustive series focused on the harms of alcohol and possible strategies to address the crisis. We then followed efforts by state lawmakers earlier this year to implement key reforms – in particular, to raise the state alcohol excise tax. Raising taxes, experts across the country told us, is the single most important action for reducing consumption among the young and those who drink excessively. 

Part of our reporting examined lobbying by the alcohol industry. But the Common Cause report added a new dimension, telling us it’s not just alcohol producers, distributors and restaurants/bars that go all in on keeping taxes low. 

The authors of the report note that the New Mexico Petroleum Marketers Association also strongly opposed the liquor tax increase this year. Why would an association representing oil and gas companies weigh in on alcohol? The association represents retail gasoline businesses, Common Cause tells us, many of which sell beer. 

The report also points to local breweries, wineries, and distilleries as a rising force in efforts to stop tax increases, in a section aptly titled Move over, Joe Sixpack: Gary Growler has arrived!  These companies don’t spend the fortune on lawmakers that one sees from a company like Anheuser-Busch, and because lawmakers give them preferential treatment they don’t stand to lose from a tax increase, but they’ve aligned themselves with the industry. 

Common Cause concludes that despite the severity of the alcohol public health crisis in New Mexico, efforts to pass meaningful mitigation measures have had “rough sledding” among lawmakers. “Meanwhile,” the authors state, “the alcohol industry—including its lobbyists, PACs (political action committees), and allies—have never had a bad session.”

What’s behind that success? According to Common Cause: 

“We conclude that the industry’s secret sauce is its lobbyists, some of the best known and effective lobbyists in the Roundhouse. Many are second generation lobbyists, with fathers who walked the same halls; others are the daughters or spouses of legislators. Still others are contract lobbyists with scores of clients giving them influence beyond just one of them. Together these lobbyists gave $1,179,056 in contributions to legislators and statewide candidates and spent $456,388 to wine and dine policy makers from 2013-2023.”

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