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Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Lawmakers Lap Up Freebies

By Barry Massey
The Associated Press
    SANTA FE The social calendar of the Legislature includes cigars, steak, wine and ski passes.
    It's part of the spending by lobbyists and their clients for dinners, gifts and entertainment for lawmakers, Gov. Bill Richardson and for other state officials. The tab was $251,400 through last week, which was roughly three-quarters of the way through the 60-day legislative session.
    Part of the spending was by telephone companies asking the Legislature for regulatory changes.
    Qwest Communications, which supports a bill to relax regulatory oversight of telecommunications pricing, hosted two events for legislators costing $5,732.
    The company picked up the tab nearly $2,050 for a dinner for members and staff of the House Business and Industry Committee. It was held four days before the panel unanimously endorsed the bill supported by Qwest, which is the dominant provider of local telephone service in New Mexico.
   
A way to relax
    Qwest also paid $3,682 for a dinner for chairmen and vice chairmen of Senate committees. The event was held less than a week before a Senate committee approved a version of the company's regulatory proposal.
    "We don't do lobbying at our dinners," said John Badal, state president of Qwest.
    "Just as many other organizations have up here, we host receptions or occasional dinners for members and their staff in sort of a gesture of appreciation for their hard work up here," said Badal. "It affords all of us an opportunity just to relax and get away from the grind."
    Badal said in an interview that the company planned to drop the regulatory overhaul provisions from legislation it has been advocating. Instead, the company will pursue the issue of pricing flexibility with the Public Regulation Commission.
    Valor Telecom, a local telephone provider that would benefit from another regulatory revision proposal, hosted a reception in mid-February for lawmakers and other state officials, including the PRC, according to a report filed by its lobbyist. The cost: $2,657. The company also paid $570 for a legislative breakfast.
   
'Special events'
    The dinners and receptions were among more than two dozen "special events" hosted by lobbyists through last Friday, according to reports filed by lobbyists with the secretary of state.
    Richardson, members of his Cabinet and staff were treated to a dinner at an upscale steakhouse and piano bar last week in Santa Fe. The cost: $6,947.
    Footing the bill were lobbyists for three companies: a Virginia-based consulting company, Maximus; an Albuquerque public relations company, D.W. Turner & Co.; and a pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly & Co.
    Doug Turner, president of D.W. Turner & Co., was campaign manager for Republican Gary Johnson's gubernatorial re-election in 1998.
    Richardson said no lobbying on legislation or administrative policy issues occurred at the dinner.
    "It was just a dinner for my poor, beleaguered staff," Richardson said in an interview.
   
Dinner and skiing
    Turner said 67 people attended the dinner, which he described as a way "to get to know a lot of folks" in the Richardson administration.
    Filet mignon and chicken were on the menu. Wine was available by the glass or the bottle.
    "We just had a little cocktail party and a dinner, and that was it," said Turner.
    Among other lobbying expenditures:
   
  • $2,500 by two lobbyists for legislators to attend a $100-a-person "power smoke" fund-raiser at a highly rated restaurant in the Eldorado Hotel. A four-course gourmet dinner was served along with a selection of Honduran cigars from Caribe Imported Cigars. Proceeds go to support the New Mexico Children's Foundation, said Randy Randall, general manager of the hotel. Wells Fargo Bank and the Association of Commerce and Industry are among the sponsors.
       
  • $18,555 by electric utilities for a dinner for members of the Senate and $24,315 for a dinner for House members. Four utilities serving New Mexico split the costs. Public Service Company of New Mexico, which serves the largest number of customers in the state, pays 60 percent.
       
  • $20,000 by Presbyterian Health Care Service for a dinner and cocktail party for legislators, the governor, lieutenant governor and some of the governor's staff.
       
  • $35,105 for free ski passes to legislators and some legislative staff. The "VIP ski cards" are good for lift tickets at New Mexico's ski areas. Ski New Mexico, the trade association for the state's ski areas, annually distributes the passes.