New Mexico lawmakers snub lobbying transparency. In other states, it’s business as usual.

Despite some early optimism from advocates, state lawmakers took a pass this year on requiring greater transparency around the work of lobbyists. In fact, lawmakers didn’t even give the topic a full hearing during the recent legislative session.  That’s despite a significant lack of disclosure about how powerful lobbyists work to influence legislation in New Mexico.  In a 2015 report, the Center for Public Integrity graded the state an “F” for lobbying disclosure, the 43rd worst in the country. It’s not improved since then. Drive a few hours north, and the sort of transparency proposed for New Mexico is just business as usual.

Why should we care about dark money?

If there’s one thing that’s dominated my reporting over the eight months I’ve spent with New Mexico in Depth, it’s dark money; it was the subject of my first story, and almost half the stories I’ve reported since then. Bryan Metzger

For the uninitiated, “dark money” typically refers to outside spending by nonprofit entities that are not obligated to disclose their donors, at least under federal law. In 2019, New Mexico passed a law to force these kinds of organizations to disclose their donors, but in 2020, two groups challenged the law rather than comply with it, underscoring the difficulty in bringing to light what special interests are behind political spending. 

This morning, we published a story that took a deep dive on one of these groups– the “Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers”– which spent $264,000 advocating for the passage of a constitutional amendment to change the state’s Public Regulation Commission (PRC) from a five-member elected body to a three-member appointed body, beginning in 2023. It was the first time I’d really attempted to get to the source of a dark money group’s funds, rather than simply report on a lack of disclosure. What we found were some strange bedfellows.

Dark money group pushing PRC reform tied to major oil company

Exxon Mobil Corporation contributed to a dark-money group that supported a successful November referendum reforming the state’s Public Regulation Commission (PRC), according to a campaign finance report filed by one of its lobbyists. One of the largest oil and gas producers in New Mexico, the multinational conglomerate gave at least $10,000 to the “Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers,” a nonprofit that spent a quarter of a million dollars touting the merits of a constitutional amendment, which eventually passed handily. The contribution can be found in an Oct. 7 report filed by Exxon Mobil lobbyist Deanna Archuleta. The Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers refused to disclose its donors when the State Ethics Commission (SEC) demanded it do so despite new campaign disclosure laws requiring groups like it to say where the money they spend on political campaigns comes from.

Lawmakers, and lobbyists too, push through in the midst of COVID

The pandemic legislative session (as it will go down in history) lived up to its name just a week in, with at least one House Republican lawmaker and four Roundhouse staff testing positive for COVID-19. Given that lawmakers aren’t required to be tested, there may be more. Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf said he was “dismayed” Republicans had a catered lunch, a characterization Republican House Minority Leader Townsend disputed to the Santa Fe New Mexican. Townsend urged delay of the session before it began, and is now calling for a temporary halt.It’s not surprising there’s been a COVID outbreak at the Roundhouse. We are in the midst of a deadly pandemic that has killed more than 3,200 New Mexicans in under a year, closed schools and businesses, and created untold anxiety and stress. Should the Legislature be meeting? It’s questionable.

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.

Lobbying influence game largely in the dark

A reporter sits at her desk looking at a spreadsheet. The rows and columns show the spending lobbyists reported to the Secretary of State’s Office for the first five months of 2019, which includes the 60-day legislative session.  She wants to tell a story about what that spending bought. But there’s only so much to glean, because so much isn’t reported. That was me the other day.

Senators reject lobbying reform

A near empty Senate Rules committee hears sponsors of a lobbying reform measure present their bill on Monday, March 13. One could say whether a bill makes it out of a legislative committee has everything to do with the lawmakers sitting on the committee. But Senate somersaults this week pretty much lay to rest the notion that the vote of a committee always matters. If lawmakers really want to pass something, they will. The example this week: ethics commission legislation.

Roundhouse hall talk: “The barber is in the House”

*This article has been updated twice

A stylist applies make-up to a state lawmaker at a pop-up salon at the New Mexico state capital on March 4. Stacked on the table are make-up compacts, and in the background another stylist is blowdrying hair. Need a haircut? If you know a lobbyist, and you’re a lawmaker, you might get a free cut. And conveniently, you could get the cut, or a blow-out, or even help with your make-up, right here in the Roundhouse.

Lobbyist transparency bill headed to House floor

Legislation to require more public transparency about lobbying that goes on during legislative sessions passed its second committee yesterday, House Judiciary. HB 131 would require lobbyists to report to the Secretary of State all the bills they lobbied on, and their position on the bills if they took one, within 14 days of the end of the session. It’s “a transparency bill, obviously. We think it’s short, sweet and to the point,” said Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, an Albuquerque Democrat. Her co-sponsor, Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said the bill would bring “all those players out into the sunlight and have all that be disclosed to the citizens of the state.”

A concern first raised last week during its first committee hearing continued to be a focus yesterday.

Public disclosure of legislation a lobbyist works on moves forward

Lobbyist Tom Horan talks to the House State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs committee about why he opposes a lobbyist disclosure bill during the 2019 legislative session. An effort to require more transparency from lobbyists passed its first hurdle in the House. The idea behind HB 131 is pretty simple: lobbyists would report a few weeks after a legislative session ends what bills they worked on, including their position on each bill, if they had one. One of the bill co-sponsors said the measure aimed to help the public have a greater understanding of how policy is made. “We’re approached in the hallway, approached in the bar, people talk to you at a reception,” Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, told the House’s State Government, Elections, and Indian Affairs Committee Monday.