Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers don’t get much lunch money.
But lobbyists and their clients often fill the gap – catering entire committee meetings some days and treating legislators to meals outside the Roundhouse.
In fact, lobbyists spent over $31,000 on meals and drinks in the final 90 days of 2018, when influential interim committees are meeting, taking testimony and working on legislation ahead of the session’s Opening Day in January, according to reports filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.
The free food has continued this session, with a steady lineup of social events in Santa Fe and free goodies left on lawmakers’ desks in the Capitol. Much of the spending won’t be disclosed until well after the session ends, and the disclosures aren’t terribly specific.
But at least three proposals this year aim to change that – requiring more thorough reporting of how lobbyists are spending to influence lawmakers and the new administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
“We have huge areas of disclosure not required at all under New Mexico law,” said Sen. Jeff Steinborn, a Las Cruces Democrat and co-sponsor of some of the legislation.
One proposal, House Bill 133, would require lobbyists to disclose the specific bills they lobbied for or against.
Another measure, House Bill 140, would require employers of lobbyists to file reports at the beginning of the session estimating how much they expect to spend on lobbying, including the compensation to the lobbyists themselves.
And yet another bill would fix a loophole in the law that allows lobbyists to spend $100 or less on, say, buying lunch for a lawmaker without ever having to report such costs. That proposal, Senate Bill 191 is already on its way to the governor’s desk, fast-tracked by leadership in the House and Senate.
Free food is embedded in the culture of the Roundhouse.
It isn’t unusual to see lawmakers munching on burritos or burgers – occasionally something fancier – as they consider legislation in a late-night committee meeting, or even on the House or Senate floor.
Sometimes a lobbyist, or a group of lobbyists, buys dinner for a committee working late, usually at the request of the committee chair or a committee staff member.
Carter Bundy, political and legislative director in New Mexico for AFSCME, a union for public employees, said he doesn’t blame the lawmakers. The state, he said, ought to pay for meals when legislators are working late and can’t leave.
“They either go hungry or they get fed by the people who have bills in front of them,” Bundy said.
Nonetheless, he said, the free food “creates an incredible appearance of impropriety.”
Bundy, a registered lobbyist for AFSCME, said he is rarely asked to chip in for a committee dinner, and the union’s approval process for spending would make it difficult to do anyway.
But some lobbyists and their clients say they’re happy to chip in for a committee meal – because they’re stuck in the building, too, and it allows them to eat without missing anything.
And a slice of pizza, they say, isn’t going to sway anybody’s vote, especially when it’s available to everyone.
Sometimes, a lawmaker will thank a lobbyist for bringing in food.
“Of course, it’s being done to curry favor,” Steinborn said, “and I just don’t think it’s appropriate when we treat it as if it’s some personal nicety that was done.”
Compounding the issue, critics say, is that New Mexico lawmakers don’t draw a salary. Instead, they get a $161 daily stipend intended to cover food and lodging expenses while the Legislature is in session or they’re attending meetings. A night’s lodging in a hotel near the Capitol would, on its own, consume most of the per diem.
Former Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, said she wasn’t entirely comfortable with lobbyists buying dinner for a committee. But as chairwoman of the Senate Public Affairs Committee – a panel known for its late nights – she sometimes resorted to that strategy to keep her members happy, she said.
“They’re much more likely to stay in their seats if they’re either expecting or have had a good dinner,” Feldman said.
Without state money to pay for meals, she said, it’s all the more important for New Mexico to craft stronger disclosure laws for lobbyists.
The reports filed now are often limited. For instance, the single largest meal-and-drink expenditure reported for the period covering Oct. 2 to Dec. 31 says it was for “relationship building” with the influential Legislative Finance Committee.
Lobbyist Carol Leach reported spending nearly $4,200 on behalf of Concho Resources Inc. at La Casa Sena in Santa Fe, a restaurant not far from the plaza. She listed the beneficiaries as members of the LFC, staff, guests and company personnel.
Concho Resources is an oil and gas company that operates in the Permian Basin, which lies in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico.
And there’s more spending by lobbyists during the session, of course, when amounts over $500 have to be reported. It’s routine for receptions or similar events to which lawmakers are invited to cost about $10,000.
Appetite for disclosure?
It’s unclear how much appetite lawmakers will have for the extra disclosure bills.
The proposal for disclosure of spending under $100 raced through both chambers in the session’s first three weeks and is on its way to the governor. The others are awaiting their first committee hearings.
Feldman, who served in the Senate from 1997-2012, said she hopes lawmakers will embrace extra disclosure.
“The public deserves to know if our legislators are being comforted by meals and entertainment” from lobbyists, she said. “That’s not what they were elected to do. They were elected to be responsive to their constituents as a whole, not to special interests.”
Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a group that promotes ethics and transparency legislation, said polling shows strong support among the public for extra disclosure.
A telephone survey by Research & Polling Inc. found that 93 percent of registered voters surveyed want lobbyists to disclose the bills and issues for which they are lobbying, she said.
“They feel like what’s hidden cannot be trusted,” Ferguson said.