Politicos who remove journalists from public events disrespect democracy

Over the weekend our former colleague, Sandra Fish, was kicked out of the Colorado statewide GOP assembly for doing her job. Sandra works for the Colorado nonprofit news organization, the Colorado Sun, which has gotten crosswise with the chairman of Colorado’s Republican party for fair but hard-hitting journalism. Her ejection has generated national headlines. 

But before Sandra worked for the Colorado Sun, she worked for New Mexico In Depth from 2014 through 2017, using her formidable data analyzing skills to report on hard-to-get-at issues such as New Mexico’s less-than-ideal process for funding brick and mortar projects around the state, the flow of money in politics and the role of lobbyists in lawmaking. 

Sandra Fish

To our knowledge, she is the only reporter to have spent months rifling through contracts to determine how much lobbyists working for public institutions in New Mexico collected from their employers over a period of time: $7.2 million in 2014-15. Because of lax New Mexico’s transparency laws, Sandra couldn’t do the same rifling to see how much private-sector corporations spent on lobbyists, a lack of disclosure that obscures how much is really spent on lobbying in New Mexico. 

Nearly a decade later, that secrecy is still intact.New Mexicans also can thank Sandra, in part, for the Legislature’s decision a few years ago to finally disclose how much each state lawmaker spends on brick-and-mortar projects. She broke the news in 2015 that state law prohibited disclosure of that information unless a state lawmaker consented to allowing the public to see how they individually spent public dollars. 

During her three years with us, Sandra’s reporting sometimes ruffled elected and public officials, some of whom complained.

NM In Depth editors and reporters discuss 2024 legislative session outcomes

New Mexico In Depth reporter Bella Davis joined Executive Director Trip Jennings and Managing Editor Marjorie Childress on Tuesday for a chat about the 2024 legislative session, which ended Feb. 15. 

Childress began by reminding everyone that all bills passed by the Legislature are still subject to vetoes from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Jennings added that the $10.2 billion dollar state budget and $1 billion dollar capital outlay legislation are subject to line item vetoes. That’s because they appropriate money and the state constitution gives a governor the power to eliminate words, passages and individual appropriations in any bill that spends state money. 

The audience asked what New Mexico In Depth was least happy about coming out of the session. “I’m upset that I don’t know more about how much money lobbyists spend on lawmakers,” Jennings said.

Lawmakers for second year kick ethics fixes down the road

An effort to fix the state’s anti-corruption statute after the New Mexico Supreme Court barred prosecutors from bringing criminal charges under several of its provisions died in the state Senate. The legislation languished in a committee after clearing the House 66-0 with two weeks to go in the legislative session, which ended at noon today. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham greenlighted the effort to fix the ethics law as the session kicked off in January. House Bill 8, sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Cates, D-Rio Rancho, would have fixed the Governmental Conduct Act, which provides standards for ethical conduct on the part of public officials, employees of state or local agencies, and lawmakers. 

The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that three of the statute’s four provisions used by prosecutors were too vaguely written to result in criminal charges.  

Justices considered the statute in a consolidated case involving a county treasurer who offered money to an employee for sex; a district attorney who used her position to intimidate officers investigating her use of a public vehicle for personal reasons; a judge who illegally recorded private conversations in a courthouse; and a state cabinet secretary who used her position to access the tax records of a previous employer. In the latter case, prosecutors alleged she was trying to prevent an audit of that employer because she had embezzled money from them. (Her embezzlement conviction was later overturned on appeal with the court saying the statute of limitations had run out.)

After the Supreme Court ruling, prosecutors couldn’t criminally charge these public officials for state ethics violations. 

The proposed fixes to the ethics law included barring partisan political activity while on duty or undertaking it in a way that uses public resources.

Bill would amend current law to allow lawmakers into cannabis biz early

Back in 2021, before voting to make recreational use of cannabis legal, lawmakers on the Senate floor barred any lawmaker serving at that time from getting a commercial cannabis license until 2026. Lawmakers debating the provision that year brought up potential conflicts of interest among voting lawmakers who might have plans to participate in a future cannabis industry. 

Now, lawmakers have removed that prohibition in a bill that is making its way through the Senate. The Senate Judiciary committee last week created a substitute bill that included the change. 

Senate Bill 6 contains numerous changes to the cannabis regulation act, which its sponsor, Sen. Katy Duhigg, said stem from lessons learned in the almost three years cannabis has been legal in New Mexico. Duhigg said she was carrying it on behalf of the agency that regulates cannabis companies. 

The original bill this year kept the prohibition on lawmakers who voted on legalization in 2021 from getting into the cannabis business until 2026. Lawmakers on the judiciary committee discussed several changes to the bill, including one that would outlaw cannabis sales through drive-up windows, but skipped right over the change allowing them to open cannabis businesses two years early. 

The bill later in the week passed the Senate Finance committee, where Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, questioned why the prohibition was removed.

NM In Depth editors and reporters discuss government transparency, ethics and the Governmental Conduct Act

New Mexico In Depth editors held the third of five online chats about the 2024 legislative session last week. Professor of Practice of Journalism at the University of New Mexico, and occasional contributor to New Mexico In Depth, Gwyneth Doland, joined Executive Director Trip Jennings and Managing Editor Marjorie Childress to discuss government transparency, legislative modernization efforts, and the Governmental Conduct Act. Doland kicked off the conversation talking about the 14 students she takes to the Roundhouse every Wednesday and their experience thus far. “It’s interesting and cool to see things through their eyes,” she said, while noting that for newcomers, navigating the state capitol during a legislative session can be a lot to take in. 

The three discussed efforts over the past 15 years to make the statehouse more accessible and understandable, including webcasting, budget transparency efforts, and showing what is stricken or added through amendments lawmakers adopt to change legislation, and making bills easier to track. One step backwards Jennings mentioned is that certain areas of the capitol have been closed to the public, making it more difficult to reach lawmakers for a conversation.

Oil and gas gave big in 2023. The industry flexed its muscles this week.

Large oil and gas companies gave nearly $800,000 in the past 12 months to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, partisan legislative political action committees and individual state lawmakers, according to a partial review of campaign finance reports filed by lobbyists. That amount almost certainly will grow in coming months due to a quirk in New Mexico’s disclosure laws. Elected officials don’t have to report contributions they received in the last quarter of last year until this spring. 

The amount of money the industry showers on elected officials offers a glimpse into the influence it has at the state capitol during legislative sessions. 

The industry’s ability to shape legislation was on full display Thursday when a House committee substantively stripped a bill of new regulations that would have required oil and gas infrastructure to be set back more than a third of a mile from schools, health facilities, multifamily housing, occupied homes, and at least 300 feet from waterways.The political giving reflects the industry’s outsized dominance in a state that ranks second in oil production nationally and where more than 40% of funding for New Mexico’s state budget can be tied directly to the industry.The money spread around to New Mexico’s elected officials has been well-documented, as has its power. A March 2020 report by Common Cause New Mexico and New Mexico Ethics Watch detailed the largess over the years 2017-2019, with almost $12 million funneled into political campaign coffers, and more than a million more was given by October of that year.New Mexico In Depth also has documented the political spending and the push and pull over regulation through the years. In 2019, the first year Lujan Grisham took over as governor from Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, there was a push by environmentalists to implement greater regulations for the oil and gas industry, but in the end, the oil and gas industry had little to fear. 

The industry far exceeds other industries in its political giving, and has for many years.

New Mexico In Depth editors chat about the state budget, public safety, and transparency

New Mexico In Depth editors held the first of five online chats about the 2024 legislative session yesterday. In a wide-ranging conversation, Executive Director Trip Jennings and Managing Editor Marjorie Childress covered the highlights of the first week, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s State of the State address which was disrupted by young protestors on three different occasions. New Mexico In Depth will host weekly conversations each Thursday at 12:30 during the 30-day legislative session that kicked off on Tuesday. 

Jennings and Childress, with 30 years or more combined reporting at the Roundhouse,  discussed the competing state budget proposals from Lujan Grisham and the Legislature at a time when New Mexico is swimming in money thanks to a historic surplus. A theme of the coming budget discussions between the governor and state lawmakers will center on how much to spend and how much to save, they said. New Mexico relies heavily on the volatile oil and gas industry to pay for services and programs, with more than 40% of the state’s spending every year underwritten by revenues generated by the industry.

Public blind to money flowing to lawmakers as session kicks off

As the New Mexico legislative session kicked off this week, the public was blind in one very important respect. 

Marjorie Childress, New Mexico In Depth

In the next four weeks, lawmakers will create a state budget worth at least $10 billion dollars, pass another quite large capital outlay budget, and pass influential tax and policy bills. But who gave money to those lawmakers in the last quarter of the year – in the form of campaign contributions – will largely be a mystery. That’s because lawmakers aren’t required to file a public report in January about campaign contributions they received in the run-up to the legislative session, if they didn’t run for office the year before. 

Since no lawmakers ran for office in 2023, we do not have a comprehensive data set showing the money that flowed into campaign accounts in the final months of 2023. Their last reports reflect contributions through Oct. 7, 2023, and we won’t have an update until April, when their next reports are due.I’ve been looking at campaign filings for many years. I promise you that among year-end contributors will be corporations and often, their owners and employees. There will be executives and public relations specialists for trade associations, labor unions, and public policy organizations. 

Some of those contributors will be registered as official lobbyists for their organizations, and in those cases we can see what they gave because lobbyists must file a January report. But while the reports of 100 or so lobbyists, or of their employers, are highly consequential, they are just a slice of the money flowing into the campaign accounts of lawmakers. A fuller picture would allow the public to comb through reports by address, employers, and occupation, and better understand how much money lawmakers are getting from a particular industry, special interest group, or simply from a handful of big donors. Last year, lawmakers were poised to pass a bill with several transparency measures, including one that would have shifted the reporting schedule to capture donations at the end of the year in a January report, showing how much money was given to lawmakers in the run-up to the legislative session.

Talking ethics with New Mexico Ethics Commission director, Jeremy Farris

State ethics officials grapple with a paradox in their daily work, said Jeremy Farris, executive director of the New Mexico State Ethics Commission. On the one hand, the heart of their work is designed to ensure the public knows that elected officials and government workers are held accountable in how they use the powers and resources entrusted to them.  Why? Because those powers and resources belong to the people, not individuals holding public positions. This is one of two “big ideas” that motivate the commission, Farris said. The commission does that work by enforcing state ethics laws through investigations and in some cases, suing people.