SANTA FE – After 11 years in the state Senate, Kent Cravens resigned from the Legislature in 2011 to take a government relations job with the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.
At the time, the Albuquerque Republican was no oil and gas expert, but he did have an important asset on his résumé.
“The reason I was an attractive candidate for this job was because of my experience with the legislative process and the connections that I might bring to the table,” Cravens told the Journal in a recent interview.
The switch from legislator to lobbyist was driven by a need for financial stability, he added. If the energy industry job would not have worked out, he was prepared to leave the state to find work. And despite his legislative connections, Cravens insists his current job was not influenced by his former one.
The scenario is a familiar one in New Mexico, where lawmakers are free to resign from the Legislature one day and start lobbying their former Roundhouse colleagues the next day.
In addition to Cravens, a number of other legislators have done just that. And the sight of former lawmakers in Capitol audience galleries is a common one.
A report released last month by Common Cause New Mexico identified 26 former legislators who work as lobbyists.
The list includes former GOP Sen. Clinton Harden of Clovis, who resigned in October 2012 and is now a registered lobbyist with 11 clients. It also includes former Democratic Rep. Al Park of Albuquerque – who has eight listed clients – and former Senate President Pro Tem Richard Romero, also of Albuquerque, who lobbies for 17 clients.
Critics say the “revolving-door” practice erodes public trust in government, by allowing former lawmakers to cash in on their expertise and connections with former colleagues.
“It’s not good for transparency, and it’s not good for open government,” said Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico. “It makes people want to go back and look at the voting record (of legislators) on the industry they now represent.”
Repeated attempts in recent years to enact revolving-door – or cooling-off – legislation for lawmakers have failed, despite being supported by both current Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, and her predecessor, Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson.
Martinez, who has banned administration officials from lobbying executive state agencies or the Legislature for two years after leaving their jobs, even mentioned the issue during her 2012 State of the State address.
“Both parties are guilty of this,” Martinez said at the time. “It’s wrong for Democrats, and it’s wrong for Republicans.”
However, a bill to close the revolving door – by imposing a one-year waiting period – died that year without even receiving a floor vote in the House of Representatives.
Another attempt at passing such legislation is expected to be made during the coming 30-day legislative session. Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, told the Journal he hopes to introduce such a measure, and a Martinez spokesman said the governor still believes the issue is “very important.”
States’ laws vary
New Mexico is one of 15 states that do not prohibit legislators from becoming lobbyists immediately after vacating their elected positions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Although state law bars former “public officials” from certain types of lobbying for one year, lawmakers are specifically excluded from that definition.
The revolving-door laws in other states vary, with states including Florida, Colorado and Kentucky requiring lawmakers to wait for two years after leaving office before they can represent clients as paid lobbyists.
Other states require only a one-year cooling-off period.
However, New Mexico also differs from other states in that its 112 legislators do not receive salaries. Instead, they receive per diem payments – currently set at $159 a day – that are intended to cover the cost of food and lodging while they are in Santa Fe for legislative sessions or interim committee hearings.
Some lawmakers say the time commitment required to serve in the Legislature, along with the lack of a salary, makes it difficult for anyone but retirees and the wealthy to serve.
“Why would you limit people from making a living?” asked Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen.
Sanchez, who said he will not lobby when he eventually leaves the Legislature, does not believe a one-year cooling-off period would have an effect.
“I can see the intent behind it, but there’s always a way around a rule,” he said.
For example, he said, lawmakers could still leave the Legislature to work for a lobbying firm if a one-year waiting period were to be enacted. They would just have to refrain from lobbying their former colleagues during that time.
Cravens, who pushed for tougher anti-DWI laws and fiscal restraint during his 11 years in the Legislature, said he doubts lawmakers will ever impose a cooling-off period on themselves.
Although he acknowledges his time as a legislator may have given him a head start as a lobbyist, he said having good connections gets you only so far.
“None of my former colleagues, to my knowledge, have ever made a decision based on the fact Kent Cravens presented one side or the other,” Cravens said. “They made decisions based on their feelings of what was good, or not good, for their district.”
Despite the rationalizations, critics counter the revolving door suggests too much coziness between lawmakers and special interest groups.
Former state Sen. Dede Feldman of Albuquerque, who tried to pass cooling-off legislation during her 16 years in the Legislature, said the lack of such a law allows legislators to quickly “monetize” their years of service.
That’s because lawmakers-turned-lobbyists have sought-after relationships, both with former colleagues and the legislative system itself, she said.
“It’s an ability that ordinary citizen lobbyists and public advocacy lobbyists don’t have,” Feldman said. “They’re still trying to find a parking place, while the (former legislator) lobbyists know where the pressure points are.”
She also said debate on the need for revolving-door legislation is not a partisan one, but one that tends to divide longtime legislators, who often oppose the idea, and relative Roundhouse newcomers.
Meanwhile, the revolving door in Santa Fe is not one-way.
Former state Rep. Andy Nuñez of Hatch, former chairman of the House Agriculture and Water Resources Committee, lobbied for a pair of southern New Mexico irrigation districts this year after being defeated in his 2012 re-election campaign.
He said in August that he might not continue his lobbying work during the 2014 legislative session, because he is attempting to recapture his old House District 36 seat – running as a Republican after 10 years in the Legislature as a Democrat.
“I don’t know if I will (lobby) or not if I’m running,” he told reporters. “Some people might think that’s a conflict of interest. But I’m still going to support them.”