SANTA FE – Professional lobbyists and the interests they represent spend big bucks to buy good will and to influence elections and legislation, according to a new report from Common Cause New Mexico.
During an 18-month period that ended in May 2013, lobbyists spent nearly $753,000 on food, entertainment and gifts for candidates for state office and contributed $1.14 million to their campaigns, either on behalf of their clients or themselves, the report said.
And in the Legislature, a review of three cases suggests such spending “plays an influential role” in voting behavior, according to the report.
The correlations between lobbyist spending, campaign contributions and voting behavior “do not imply that legislators are trading votes for campaign donations or fancy dinners,” said Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico. But those correlations can erode trust in government and diminish the public’s interest in politics, she said.
There were 673 registered lobbyists this year during the legislative session – six for every legislator – although that number includes many unpaid citizen lobbyists or government officials lobbying in the course of their work.
Citing the Capitol’s “family atmosphere,” the report noted that the lineup of professional lobbyists includes at least 26 ex-lawmakers; relatives of current legislators; and multiple members of families.
Lobbyists are ”friends, relatives, hosts, special event organizers and important sources of campaign cash for legislators” – likely giving them disproportionate access and influence, said the report, released this week.
Common Cause recommends improving transparency by requiring clearer and more detailed reporting by lobbyists, and by making public all legislative committee votes. It also said the secretary of state should improve its website and spot-check lobbyist reports.
The organization also suggests a cooling-off period before ex-lawmakers can lobby, and curbs on campaign fundraising by lobbyists and caps on their cumulative contributions.
The report examined the demise this year of three bills opposed by powerful industries. Its observations included:
• House members who voted with the oil and gas industry against increased fines and other updates to a 1935 law had received an average of nearly 3½ times more from the industry than those who voted for the bill.
• Senators who cast a procedural vote to kill a bill requiring labeling of genetically modified food had received an average of nearly 4½ times as much in contributions from the agriculture industry as those who voted to keep the bill alive.
• Senate committee members who killed a mortgage foreclosure bill opposed by the banking industry had received an average of five times as much from bankers as those who voted for it.
But the report also said the power of lobbyists “is far from absolute,” citing the case of limited immunity for Spaceport America manufacturers.
While the powerful New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association, which opposed the bill, outspent proponent Virgin Galactic during a couple of years of dispute, the bill eventually passed this year after the Legislature’s leadership forced lobbyists to negotiate a deal, Common Cause said.