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Lobbyist Money Hidden in New Mexico Politics

Lax reporting laws leave politicians and the public in the dark about legislation backers.




Photo: Kuzmik A.

A pair of bills proposed by Democratic state Sen. Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces would require greater disclosures from lobbyists about their money — and by extension their influence on the bills that become law and those that languish in New Mexico.

But, he says, “I think their chance of getting passed this session is close to zero.”

Meanwhile, a recent ad campaign by the state’s largest oil and gas lobbying group is an inadvertent example of what’s not known about money and speech in the state.

In early February, the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association (NMOGA) aired an ad against House Bill 6, the Clean Future Act, on TV stations in Albuquerque. Records show that Aimee Barabe, one of the group’s two lobbyists, paid $256,500 for television ads that claim the bill would trigger widespread inflation and threaten funding for state programs like education. Oil and gas revenues make up nearly 40% of the overall state budget and a similar portion of the budgets of most state agencies.

If passed, that bill would impose progressively increasing greenhouse gas emissions caps on pretty much everything people do in the state that emits greenhouse gasses — like the oil and gas operations NMOGA promotes.

“Every single session, there’s bills that you wonder, what’s the point of the bill? And who’s the one pushing it?”

~ New Mexico state Sen. Jeff Steinborn

NMOGA is organized as a 501c6 non-profit organization, and its federal tax filings up to 2019 are publicly available. It has since pulled the TV commercial from its YouTube channel after news reports drew attention to it.

Questions emailed to Barabe and the group’s director of communications went unanswered.

The trade group’s advertising purchase stands out for two reasons. One, it happened during the legislative session and therefore triggered special state reporting rules requiring the organization to immediately file a lobbyist report, so legislators can see the spending in real time.

And two, while NMOGA has consistently pulled in and spent millions in membership dues and donations over the years, it’s not clear where the money goes. This isn’t only an issue for this group — they just happen to be one of the best-known and most powerful groups working the capitol building.

Steinborn’s bills — Senate Bills 61 and 74 — would require lobbyists and their employers to file much more complete expense reports and list which bills they are lobbying for or against. The bills also would require groups to disclose how much they pay their lobbyists. With that, the public would have a “three-dimensional picture” of how much is being spent to lobby a piece of legislation, he says.

“Every single session, there’s bills that you wonder, what’s the point of the bill? And who’s the one pushing it?” Steinborn says. “What you come to understand is that the people pushing that bill may not be in that committee room.”

When trying to figure out whose money is backing what bill, he says that the state’s current lax lobbying laws force legislators to become detectives if they want to find out more about who is behind the bills they’re voting on. “But detectives with blinders put on.”

“It is hugely important to know, to understand, the context of a bill,” Steinborn says. And to disclose how much money has been spent lobbying for or against a bill is “powerful information that the state of New Mexico should be requiring.”

Steinborn’s bill isn’t likely to pass this year, however.

This year’s legislative session runs only 30 days and is supposed to be devoted to budget issues.

Nonbudget issues can make it in for debate, though, if Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham writes a “message” to the Legislature asking it to be heard. But Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, says, “She’s not going to message that bill.”

The overriding problem, according to Steinborn, Ferguson and others, is the short length of New Mexico’s legislative sessions, brought about by the fact that state’s legislators are unsalaried — the only such legislators in the nation.

Steinborn says it takes a lot of time to craft legislation and get it in front of other legislators’ eyeballs. “And when you have a full-time job outside the Legislature, you’re kind of dependent on these organizations to lead the charge,” he says. That gives lobbyists extra leverage in crafting legislation and swaying opinion “because they’re the ones who have the luxury of working full time around the year.”

“I register as a lobbyist. There’s nothing inherently bad about lobbying activities.”

~ Shannon Kunkel, executive director, Foundation for Open Government

Common Cause works for open, diverse governments, and Ferguson sees how the short legislative sessions and citizen Legislature inhibit diversity in who can serve. “It doesn’t allow folks who may represent a more middle class, average New Mexico citizen to be able to run for office, because they are not retired, and they are not wealthy,” she says.

“I register as a lobbyist,” says Shannon Kunkel, the executive director of the Foundation for Open Government. “There’s nothing inherently bad about lobbying activities.”

The problems start when it’s not clear how much lobbying is being done by whom and for what.

“Everyone has the right to advocate for the bills that are important to them,” Kunkel says. “That’s why I think this disclosure is really important, because it just levels the playing field.”

But that leveling is unlikely to happen in this legislative session.

“It’s sadly bipartisan, the lack of interest,” Steinborn says.

He says he’ll bring the bill back during next year’s 60 day session, with its broader legislative scope. If you don’t know where the money is being spent in Santa Fe, he says, “You don’t know if your elected official was really working for you or somebody else.”

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