SANTA FE – Lobbyists treated New Mexico legislators to a flamenco show, steakhouse dinners and ski passes during this year’s 60-day session — the first in three years without any COVID-19 restrictions.
About $285,000 in spending was reported by lobbyists and their employers over a nine-week stretch as they bought dinner for legislative committees, launched advertising campaigns and left gifts on lawmakers’ desks.
The total is just a slice of their full spending. More-detailed filings are due in May, and other quirks in the reporting system make it difficult to track the full scope of the spending.
A bipartisan pair of state senators — Democrat Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces and Republican Mark Moores of Albuquerque — say New Mexico’s reporting requirements miss critical information.
They pushed for legislation this year that would require lobbyists to disclose what bills they’re lobbying on and the position they’re taking. Their legislation, Senate Bill 218, advanced through one committee but died without reaching the full Senate for a vote.
“One of the frustrating things for me over the 11 sessions I’ve been there,” Moores said Wednesday, “is just the matrix of lobbyists. You don’t know who was doing what to whom or for whom.”
Meager as the required spending reports are, Steinborn said, they nevertheless hint at lobbyists’ influence. The reports, for example, show instances of lobbyists picking up the tab to buy dinner for an entire legislative committee – a common practice at the Capitol, where lawmakers meet in hearings that start first thing in the morning and stretch deep into the night.
“It’s not out of the goodness of their heart,” Steinborn said of the meals bought by lobbyists. “It’s done ultimately to win support and build relationships that result in votes.”
Sometimes food is delivered to the Roundhouse, and sometimes lawmakers and lobbyists meet off site.
The Bull Ring — a steakhouse within walking distance of the Capitol — is a popular choice. It’s mentioned in at least five reports filed by lobbyists, including representatives for the New Mexico Municipal League and Public Service Company of New Mexico.
Plenty of other establishments — fancy and casual — show up in lobbyist expenditure reports, including Herve Wine Bar, Dinner for Two, Posas and Market Steer Steakhouse.
Among those doing the buying, according to the reports, were lobbyists for the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association.
But the reports reveal just part of the picture. Lobbyists must report spending that exceeds $500 during the session.
Other reports are due periodically throughout the year.
Lobbyists and their employers sometimes both file reports, a complicating factor in tracking the financial activity.
Efforts to boost lobbyist transparency are a perennial battle at the Roundhouse.
Bills to require lobbyists to report their own compensation and what position they’re taking on bills failed in 2023, as they have in past sessions.
Moores, nevertheless, said he’s optimistic about the long-term outlook for change.
After repeated failures, for example, proposals to publicly disclose the legislative sponsorship of projects in capital outlay and supplemental spending bills have won approval in recent years.
“There’s been a change in attitudes since I’ve been there,” said Moores, who joined the Senate in 2013. “We’re getting closer on stuff like that.”
Steinborn said there’s still a long way to go.
“We don’t have strong laws,” he said. “I don’t know that we really even have a culture of disclosure. I know for a fact there are expenses made that aren’t reported.”
Ski passes, flamenco
For now, the lobbyist expenditure reports are a glimpse into wining and dining in Santa Fe.
Of course, some events don’t necessarily involve food.
Members of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, lobbyists and guests were treated to a $1,200 flamenco show at El Farol, a treat from lobbyist J.D. Bullington, whose clients include city governments, business groups, museums and nonprofit groups.
Ski New Mexico, a nonprofit trade group, reported spending on ski passes for every legislator and the governor, valued at $28,500 altogether. Similarly, a golf association reported a $20,720 “golf promotion” for every legislator.
Other spending is more straight forward. The National Rifle Association, Animal Protection Voters and others reported spending on advertising with clear statements on what legislation they supported or opposed.
Animal Protection Voters, for example, advertised to support a law making bestiality a crime. It passed without a dissenting vote this year.