Update: Shortly after publishing the following newsletter on Friday, Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, wrote in an email to New Mexico in Depth that lawmakers would include transparency in a revised junior bill during an upcoming special session. She said lawmakers would use as a model new transparency measures passed last year for capital outlay allocations. “I wish we had done this originally but we think we have an answer to how to make those changes,” she wrote. Later on Friday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislative leaders announced a special session of the Legislature would convene on April 5, to take up a revised junior bill and consider measures they can take to help New Mexicans in the face of rising inflation. After sending out our newsletter last week about lawmakers’ outrage over the governor vetoing their dark spending bill, I had a moment of deja vu.
We are digesting the news this week that investigators at the Attorney General’s office suspect Democratic House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton of Albuquerque funneled almost a million dollars of public money out of Albuquerque Public Schools, her employer, to benefit herself.
To learn that a trusted champion of under-served communities and one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state may have orchestrated a long-running scheme to grab a slice of public money for herself, is sad news. We are holding out hope that it’s not true, not one more tragic episode in the annals of corrupt New Mexico leaders. The investigation is laid out in a 32-page search warrant, centered on discoveries of money from a company with a sole source contract with the school district going to organizations or businesses she appears to have substantial control over.
Buried among the details in the damning search warrant is $50,000 in state capital outlay money that in 2007 Williams Stapleton directed to the New Mexico Office of African American Affairs to purchase and equip vans for the African American Performing Arts Center at the State Fairgrounds in Albuquerque. In a 2008 email between Williams Stapleton and Expo New Mexico, she explained the vans were for programs at the center. Their upkeep would be the responsibility of the Charlie Morrisey Education Center and a company called Robotics Learning Management Systems.
The search warrant makes the case that the Charlie Morrisey Education Center is an organization that Stapleton had substantial influence over, and that she directed capital outlay money to it.
Government transparency is more than good, it’s essential. The dark corners of government make it difficult for the people (as in, all of us) to exercise our right and our duty to ensure those we elect are governing in our best interest.
In a cash-strapped state like New Mexico, transparency in how elected officials spend public money is even more important. For that reason, we applaud the publication of a list of how individual lawmakers spent public infrastructure funds under their control. Lawmakers have long resisted making that information public, but finally relented this year after sustained public pressure. We’ll be able to see the so-called capital outlay spending of individual lawmakers from now on.
The Legislature concluded today, which also happens to be the final day of Sunshine Week, so it’s only fitting that we review a couple of transparency measures taken up by the Legislature.
In short: it’s a mixed bag. One prominent measure five years in the making passed, and if the governor signs the bill, lawmakers will no longer be able to allocate public works dollars in secret. But another measure that sought to fix a loophole in campaign finance disclosure laws was dead in the water.
Lawmakers shine light on themselves
Once a contentious measure among lawmakers, a bill that requires a list of how lawmakers allocate public infrastructure dollars be published on the legislative website sailed through the 2021 session. It’s momentous, considering the long history of secrecy surrounding how lawmakers decide what projects to fund. The public list will only pertain to projects this year and in the future.
The Senate passed a measure Wednesday that would enable New Mexicans for the first time to see how each lawmaker spends public infrastructure money under their control.
Should House members agree with Senate amendments, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham sign it into law, the measure would require legislative staff to automatically publish a list 30 days after the session ends that details how individual lawmakers spend millions of dollars in most years — a far cry from the secrecy that has surrounded such decision making at the Roundhouse for as long as people can remember.
House Bill 55, sponsored by Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, sailed through the Senate after some debate, a much different outcome than in previous years.
In 2015, New Mexico In Depth discovered that such information was a secret after filing a public information request for a list of individual lawmaker’s infrastructure spending allocations and finding out that information wasn’t subject to public scrutiny. That’s because of a long established statute that makes confidential any communication between individual lawmakers and legislative staff. That statute still stands, but now, if the measure becomes law, details about lawmakers’ individual spending choices will be exempt from the rule.
During the February House floor debate on the bill, McQueen said it’s important to make the information readily available to everyone who’s interested. Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said during Wednesday floor debate in the Senate that making the allocations public was long overdue and “fundamentally the right thing to do.” He listed three reasons: it’s public money that the public has the right to see; making it public prevents fraud; and transparency will result in money better spent.
Since 2016 when the first bills were introduced by McQueen and former senator Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, the transparency measure has been hotly debated, with opposition largely hinging on the political costs to lawmakers if their spending decisions are known to the public. This concern has been voiced largely by rural lawmakers who represent multiple counties, who say they must juggle many more funding requests from their constituents than they can possibly fill.
But a 2019 investigation by New Mexico In Depth found the issue wasn’t a cut-and-dried example of a so-called rural/urban divide.
That year, we asked every lawmaker to give legislative staff permission to share their capital outlay allocations with the public.
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.
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.
Legislators will make another push this year to make public how individual lawmakers divvy up capital outlay money.
New Mexico In Depth discovered back in 2015 that those decisions were exempt from the Inspection of Public Records Act, after submitting a request for a list detailing how lawmakers individually allocated infrastructure money that year. We wrote about what we’d found, and several lawmakers promptly introduced bills in 2016 to make information available to the public about how individual legislators steward capital outlay dollars. Here’s a recap of the issue:
Each year, the state Legislature passes a capital outlay budget that sends millions of dollars out to New Mexico communities to pay for infrastructure projects. To figure out how to spend that money, lawmakers divide the money three ways. The governor controls a third, state agencies control a third, and lawmakers control a third.
How do lawmakers decide how to spend their portion?
New Mexico’s every-other-year legislative sessions are, by definition, short. Just over four weeks. There’s a lot of legislation to cram in, including the state budget, and this year the governor is pushing for no less than legalization of recreational cannabis and free college tuition.
But somehow, in a session in which only items pertaining to public money are allowed unless the governor indicates otherwise, shedding light on how some lawmakers spend that money has been found “not germane.” And so far, the governor hasn’t included greater government transparency among the shortlist of issues she added for debate this year, or “on the call.” Her predecessor, Gov. Susana Martinez, championed some transparency initiatives. And in both the 2016 and 2018 short sessions, legislation to disclose publicly the capital outlay funding decisions of individual lawmakers was greenlighted for debate.
This year, there are two sets of lawmakers pushing to lift the veil of secrecy about how lawmakers spend money for infrastructure projects.
Gallup police department Facebook page.In 2019, Sen. Sander Rue was one of eight Albuquerque lawmakers who provided funds for Gallup police vehicles. He ought to be able to explain why he has done that over the years to his constituents, he says, when arguing for the capital outlay transparency legislation he sponsors. Can you think of a public official who spends public money and then gets to keep the spending choices secret? That’s what New Mexico lawmakers do.
New Mexico’s lawmakers dished out $300 million dollars for infrastructure projects large and small during the 2019 legislative session. The stockpile they divvied up amounts to about a third of the $1 billion capital outlay budget signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham after the session ended.