ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO: The alcohol department at an Albuquerque grocery store. CREDIT: Adria Malcolm for New Mexico In Depth
A proposal to raise New Mexico’s alcohol tax to a flat 25-cents per drink in a bid to curb the state’s exceptionally high rate of alcohol-induced deaths has disappeared behind closed doors.
Both House Bill 230 and its companion in the Senate were tabled by their respective tax committees, leaving them in legislative limbo, even while lawmakers said they’d be considered for inclusion in a larger tax bill in the late hours of the session.
From the start, the legislation faced a rocky path. In a year when the state is swimming in oil and gas money, opponents questioned raising alcohol taxes at all, even if public health experts say the primary reason to do so in this case is not to raise revenue but to hike the price of excess drinking in order to deter it. Others wondered if the bill would hurt small brewers, distilleries and wineries or would impoverish low-income New Mexicans who don’t cut back on drinking.But another factor weighs on the measure: the alcohol industry itself and the lobbyists it employs to make its case. They have attended every hearing, sometimes muddying the discussion about whether raising alcohol taxes can save lives, as most scientific evidence suggests.
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.
State lawmakers have repeatedly killed efforts to require greater disclosure by lobbyists that also would clarify the rules, reducing the ambiguity. Bills to tighten lobbyist reporting laws, including requiring details on all expenses, died in committee during this year’s 60-day session.
Lobbyists reported spending more than $690,000 during the first four months of the year to influence legislators and other public officials. Much of the money went to food, drinks and gifts for lawmakers and other public officials. But nearly $244,450 went to advertising and phone calls aimed at motivating constituents to contact their lawmakers on a variety of issues. That advocacy spending, by 11 different groups, is considerably higher than the $106,000 reported by two interest groups in 2015, the last 60-day session. Much of the 2017 advocacy focused on failed efforts to increase background checks on gun purchases, but lobbyists reported trying to rally constituents to contact lawmakers on other issues as well.
Before the House began to debate a budget on Feb. 22, there were burgers and fries. And there was a thank you from Rep. Patty Lundstrom, the Democratic House Appropriations and Finance Committee chairwoman from Gallup, to the seven lobbyists who bought the food. “Let’s thank them, because we’re getting some real food tonight, Mr. Speaker,” Lundstrom said after citing Vanessa Alarid, Mark Duran, Mark Fleisher, Charlie Marquez, John Thompson, Jason Thompson and Jason Weaks. But spending for that meal doesn’t show up in the latest reports by the lobbyists, because the cost wasn’t $500 or more.
Reported lobbying efforts to influence New Mexico legislators neared $178,000 this week. A new big spender took over, as the National Rifle Association spent more than $44,000 on an internet campaign aimed at stopping two gun background check bills. That effort created by Starboard Strategic is aimed at generating public opposition to House Bill 50 and Senate Bill 48. Lobbyists and their employers are required to report any spending of $500 or more within 48 hours during the legislative session. That typically encompasses dinners, breakfasts, receptions and gifts doled out to lawmakers, as well as interest group spending such as the NRA’s.
The sponsor of legislation that would require lobbyists to disclose more about what they spend each year on state lawmakers and other public officials said he was considering changing the bill after a fifth state lawmaker publicly stated his opposition Friday morning. “Clearly there is heartburn with some of the progressive ideas that I’ve proposed” in SB 168, Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said. Steinborn’s reconsideration came after Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, became the fifth lawmaker on the Senate Rules Committee to openly block the legislation. On Wednesday Candelaria had voted against a motion to not pass SB 168 out of the Senate Rules Committee, joining three other Democrats against four Republican Senators who wanted to table the legislation. The bill’s main goal is to fix a transparency loophole the Legislature created last year that allows lobbyists to disclose much less about how they spend money on public officials.
A state Senate committee failed to muster enough votes Wednesday morning to pass a bill that would fix a transparency loophole the Legislature created last year. But the bill sponsor said he’ll try again to get the measure through the Rules Committee. The loophole allows lobbyists to disclose much less about how they spend money on public officials than they used to. It removed a requirement for lobbyists to report expenses spent on individual lawmakers below $100. Previously, lobbyists had to report all spending, itemizing expenses spent above $75 per lawmaker and reporting the cumulative amount of expenses below $75 per lawmaker.
Registered lobbyists and their employer campaign donations made up about 25 percent of what legislative candidates spent during the 2016 election. And most of that money went to House Republicans. Despite that lobbyist largesse, the GOP lost control of the House to Democrats, while Senate Democrats increased their margin. Lobbyists and their employers reported donating more than $2.8 million to candidates and political action committees in 2016. That brings their total for the 2015-16 elections cycle to nearly $4 million, with more than 90 percent of that money going to legislative candidates or partisan PACs.
New Mexico In Depth downloaded data on campaign contributions reported by individual lobbyists, and extracted employer contributions from PDFs of their filings to analyze 2016 donations. In this detailed table, candidate or committee names were standardized. Note that information on a few donations could not be discerned. More Info
House Republicans benefit the most from lobbyist campaign cash
2015 lobbyist and employer detailed contributions
Get a full Google spreadsheet of the data from 2015 and 2016 here.