Big money flows to most powerful lawmakers

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As this year’s legislative session kicked off, the public was blind to the total amount of money lawmakers raked in from special interests in 2023. That’s because state law doesn’t require timely reporting for contributions that come at the end of a non-election year. 

Reports showing those final 2023 collections came in on April 8, the deadline for the first 2024 primary election report. Looking through them, the fundraising of two lawmakers in particular puts in sharp relief how special interest money follows power. 

A little back story is in order. 

When Albuquerque Democrat Javier Martinez became Speaker of the House in January 2023, one of his first acts was to depose the chair of the House budget committee, McKinley County Democrat Patricia Lundstrom. He replaced her with Nathan Small, a Doña Ana County Democrat in the south. 

Lundstrom had long reigned as budget chair and was widely lauded for the financial expertise she’d earned over the years. But the progressive wing of the Democratic party, with which Martinez aligns himself, often considered her a block to its goals. 

It was a highly public power move on Martinez’s part that many found shocking. But a House Speaker unilaterally selects members and chairs of most committees.  And the Democratic caucus selected him to lead – so it’s reasonable to suspect that removing Lundstrom was supported by many of her fellow Democrats. 

The chair of the House budget committee holds enormous sway over how billions of state dollars are spent. It’s this committee that constructs the state budget – which the Senate then amends on its way to legislative passage. 

Lundstrom’s removal and Small’s installation offers context for what appears to be shifting loyalties among special interests as they attempt to curry power through campaign contributions. That money doesn’t flow just because a lawmaker is likable. It flows because of the power a lawmaker wields. 

Looking at the past three years, Small trailed Lundstrom in fundraising in 2021 and 2022, but leapt ahead in 2023. 

Rep. Nathan Small raised a miniscule amount compared to Rep. Patty Lundstrom, chair of the powerful house budget committee, in 2021. In 2023, after he replaced her as chair of that committee, special interests flocked to contribute to him, while her donations declined. 

The most constructive comparison is between the years 2021 and 2023, two non-election years when there were no highly contested campaigns to attract giving from the public at large, making it easier to see giving from those who give year in and year out, and in many instances, who employ lobbyists.

In 2021, Small raised less than 10% of Lundstrom’s haul, which was slightly less than $100,000. Last year? Small raised $165,000 to Lundstrom’s $79,000. Small received $105,000 in the fundraising period just after the 2023 legislative session (which runs from early April to early October) when he moved into Lundstrom’s former seat as chair of the budget committee. 

Who’s giving all this money? About 90% of Lundstrom’s contributions came from corporations, lobbyists, trade associations, and other groups. A much smaller percentage but still a majority of Small’s contributions came from similar entities, rather than individuals.

It’s not just the House budget chair who attracts special interest money. The Senate budget committee chair, George Muñoz, who like Lundstrom represents a swath of McKinley County, raised more than any other lawmaker from early October through early April, the period captured in the April 8 reports.  

Following him are leaders of the House and Senate, or influential committee chairs. The top recipients of campaign contributions are all Democrats and are, from largest to smallest: Speaker Javier Martinez, Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, House budget chair Nathan Small, chair of the House Commerce and Economic Development committee Doreen Gallegos, Senate Majority Floor Leader Peter Wirth, Senate Judiciary committee chair Joseph Cervantes, and House Majority Whip Reena Szczepanski.

The leaders of each chamber also control fat political action committee accounts that they use to support their fellow incumbents’ campaigns. 

That’s already happening. You can see donations from some of these legislative leaders to colleagues in contested races this year. That’s one way they shore up a base of support among their peers. 

My take? 

I’ve never heard lawmakers acknowledge that money influences the positions they take or the policies they endorse (I do know of lawmakers who as a rule of thumb don’t take donations from lobbyists, and a few who do make the argument that rampant corporate and lobbyist donations create a harmful public perception of undue influence). 

But when one looks at campaign contributions and sees that the vast majority of contributors to incumbent lawmakers are lobbyists, corporations, trade associations, and other groups, and the people who get the most money are in positions of power, it’s hard to ignore how integral these donors are to incumbent lawmakers, helping them stay in office and, for some, to amass power.

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