Lawmakers running for Congress don’t have to disclose fundraising during session. We asked them to.

Legislators are barred from soliciting campaign contributions while the Roundhouse is in session– unless they happen to be running for Congress. 

During the state’s prohibited fundraising period, lasting from January 1st to the end of the session, lawmakers may not solicit any campaign contributions and lobbyists may not donate to any state campaigns. But federal campaigns aren’t subject to state law. This means four Democratic state lawmakers running for an open congressional seat may fundraise at the same time they’re conducting state business during the 2021 legislative session. New Mexicans won’t officially know who contributed to them until after the session. 

“The original intent of having a prohibited period for state lawmakers was so that the public wouldn’t have the perception that lobbyists were literally giving our elected officials money for their state campaigns while they’re in the middle of a legislative session,” said Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico. On Wednesday, the Senate Rules Committee unanimously endorsed a bill sponsored by Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, that would require state elected officials running for federal office to disclose their donors every ten days during the prohibited period.

Absence of watchdog groups means lawmakers must proceed with caution

With news that the 2021 legislative session would be held virtually – with the public and lobbyists prohibited from being in the capitol building – it’s likely that legislative agendas are being adjusted. For interested citizens, lobbyists and state agencies charged with reporting to or suggesting reforms to the Legislature, the most important question may be how to participate in the upcoming session – in floor sessions, committee meetings, and with all important personal visits with individual legislators – in order to protect the public interest. Kathleen Sabo, Executive Director, New Mexico Ethics Watch

Because we have a citizen legislature, with short sessions and limited full-time and seasonal staff available to legislators, lawmakers often rely upon lobbyists to educate them about legislation, particularly complex legislation.  That element will also be missing. So, what do we wish for in the upcoming session and how do we accomplish it? The newly formed State Ethics Commission filled a void in state government.  Within the legislation enabling the commission (2019’s SB 668), not only is the commission required to submit an annual report to the Legislature and governor that includes recommendations regarding state ethics laws, the Legislature was specifically charged with making recommendations during this upcoming session on any changes to the Campaign Reporting Act, the Voter Action Act and the Lobbyist Regulation Act, “necessary for the efficient administration and enforcement of the provisions” of these acts.

Lawmaker, advocates pursue greater sunshine from lobbyists

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.