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COVID Obscures New Mexico Legislature — But Oil and Gas Still Get In

Santa Fe’s easy familiarity with energy industry representatives illustrates how one of the most powerful lobbies is treated within state government.




New Mexico's State Capitol. (Photo: N. Salazar)

When state Sen. George Muñoz, the new head of the New Mexico Senate Finance Committee, wants to hold a meeting, he gets to pick who’s invited. That’s how state senate meeting rules are structured. So if he chooses to invite oil and gas industry representatives to dominate a discussion of the financial ramifications of President Joe Biden’s moratorium on federal oil and gas leases, that’s Muñoz’s prerogative. And that’s exactly what he did on Feb. 2.

“We want information that’s good and we can rely on,” he said at the start of the virtual meeting.

With his years in the public spotlight, Ryan Flynn is arguably the state capitol’s most recognizable oil and gas booster.
But he is not a registered lobbyist.

The unofficial keynoter was Ryan Flynn, president and CEO of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA), the state’s best-known oil and gas industry advocacy group. Notably absent were any voices from outside government or industry: no one from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s green energy development task force; no one to comment on industry’s contribution to the climate crisis; and none of the many New Mexican economists who study the oil and gas industry and its fraught future.

Consequently, Flynn — whose group’s stated goal is promoting oil and gas development in New Mexico — and a representative from a Texas trade group were given the chance to tell their story of impending economic catastrophe to a gallery of government representatives on a Zoom call.

And while this might have looked like lobbying, don’t call Flynn a lobbyist because — to the surprise of many — he’s not. Not registered, anyway. He hasn’t been since 2019.

The New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office handles lobbyist registration and reporting. During a call to verify Flynn’s status, communications director Alex Curtas said, “That seems strange” when he didn’t see Flynn’s name listed. After checking with others at the agency, he said that someone from the office would contact Flynn about registering as a lobbyist. Department policy is to inform people of lobbying laws and give them a chance to register before contacting the State Ethics Commission.

Messages left at Muñoz’s work and Senate office phone numbers were not returned. In response to repeated emails, NMOGA’s public relations representative responded that “NMOGA is fully compliant with all federal and state reporting requirements.”

Lobbying filings for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association appear skimpy because state law doesn’t ask for much.

Muñoz began the session by introducing Flynn — with a slip of the tongue. “I keep wanting to say ‘Secretary Flynn,’” he chuckled, recalling Flynn’s previous position as New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) secretary under former Gov. Susana Martinez, whose administration vigorously promoted oil and gas development. “Ryan, you wanna go ahead and start out?”

The verbal slip, easy familiarity and starring role illustrate how one of the state’s most powerful lobbies is treated within state government. And it’s an example of the soft power that the oil and gas industry holds in New Mexico and of a revolving door between industry and government.

Flynn is the most recognizable and influential voice. But he’s not the only one: There’s also Robert McEntyre, former spokesperson for the New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) and now director of communications for NMOGA. Aimee Barabe, who worked at the New Mexico Tourism Department, Department of Health and PED, is now NMOGA’s director of government relations; she’s also the group’s only registered lobbyist. And then there’s Jim Winchester, the executive director of the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico, who served as communications director for NMED under Flynn.

Muñoz represents a district in the San Juan Basin, the smaller of the state’s two oil and gas producing regions. In the past, he has committed to supporting whatever jobs and industries exist in his district. For this meeting, he invited Flynn, along with Stephen Robertson, the executive vice president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association (PBPA) in Texas.

The New Mexico Democrat also invited a Texas-based oil and gas economist, Sarp Ozkan. And the trio gave testimony alongside the committee’s own economist, the head of the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division and the assistant commissioner of mineral resources at the State Land Office — people whose jobs are to give impartial information so lawmakers can make informed decisions.

This wasn’t the first time Flynn has testified in front of a senate committee. From 2013 until 2016, a large part of his mission was testifying, as secretary of NMED. During his stewardship, the department’s budget was cut more than 40 percent and it still has not returned to previous funding levels. Part of what the department does is monitor air emissions from oil and gas wells. That section of the department is cash-strapped and relies on twice-yearly EPA reports and self-reporting on the part of producers to find leaks and track emissions, a system that isn’t catching all of the leaking that occurs.

COVID-19 precautions at the capitol this year have increased the opacity shielding government-lobbyist relationships.

Before the Environment Department, Flynn was a lawyer at Modrall Sperling, a law firm with a large oil and gas practice.

With his years in the public spotlight, Flynn is arguably the state capitol’s most recognizable oil and gas booster. His image and words touting the industry pop up in town hall meetings, news stories and opinion pages across the state.

Under New Mexico law, anyone who advocates for legislation or donates money on behalf of a group must be registered as a lobbyist if they want to testify on legislation at the legislature. And that last bit makes Sen. Muñoz’s Feb. 2 informational meeting special: It allowed Flynn and Robertson from the PBPA — also not a registered lobbyist — to get face time with legislators while railing against Biden’s temporary bans and not state legislation, thus skirting the state’s lobbyist laws.

Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, which tracks lobbying and ethics in the Roundhouse, says that Flynn could testify without registering as a lobbyist while in state government, but, “as the head of NMOGA? You certainly cannot.”

“I would encourage him to go in and register,” Democratic state Sen. Jeff Steinborn says of Flynn. He is also on the Senate Finance Committee and attended the Feb. 2 meeting.

Steinborn is sponsoring two bills this session to require increased reporting and transparency by lobbyists and groups in an effort to more closely track their money and influence in legislation.

He says that currently not all expenses are tracked, groups don’t have to report how much they pay lobbyists and that pay is one of the largest expenses for any lobbying group. Steinborn says resistance to the bills from all sides is “one of the toughest things I have encountered in my 13 [or] 14 years on the legislature.”

Put basically, he says lobbying in New Mexico is an attempt to influence policy, and “that can happen not just in a committee room, but on a phone call, [or] in a bar down the street.” If passed, his bills would require a fuller accounting on what lobbyists and interest groups spend — on phone calls, in bars down the street, and everything between and beyond, while the legislature is in session or recess.

“So much of the legislative process, it’s not what you see, but what you don’t see,” he says.

In NMOGA’s case, you don’t see a lot.

During online Legislature meetings, viewers can’t see which lobbyists might be watching, who is talking to legislators before and after meetings, or who is visiting whose office.

The group’s 2018 federal 990 tax return (the latest on file with the IRS) shows $3.1 million in revenue, yet the only clearly noted expense is compensation and benefits of more than $320,000 to Flynn himself. The rest is lumped together under general categories like employee compensation ($779,577), legal fees ($166,980), an annual meeting ($279,087) and the largest category, “Public Relations” ($1.2 million). There are no further details.

Compare that with NMOGA’s 2018 state lobbyist filings. In that year, the group reported spending $11,640, including a $10,000 dinner tab “For all New Mexico legislators and staff” at the National Conference of State Legislators in Los Angeles. That same year, NMOGA’s sole registered lobbyist, Barabe, reported no expenses while lobbying in New Mexico. The state information appears skimpy because state law currently doesn’t ask for much.

However, campaign contribution records show that in 2020 it gave a little more than $49,000 to both Republican and Democratic candidates in New Mexico, including $2,500 to Sen. Muñoz.

Steinborn wants to change that lack of transparency. Average citizens understand the importance of greater transparency, he says. “It’s just the system itself that enjoys the benefits that come from some of the opaqueness.”

However, COVID-19 precautions at the Roundhouse this year exacerbate that opacity.

“The public wants to know who it is that is seeking to influence the opinion of his elected official,” says Ferguson of Common Cause. And while the online nature of this year’s session has made it easier for the public to watch proceedings, it has made tracking lobbyists far more difficult.

During online meetings, she can’t see which lobbyists might be watching, who is talking to legislators before and after meetings, or who is visiting whose office. “It is incredibly challenging in a remote session, where you can’t see who else is on the Zoom until somebody actually testifies,” she says.

The legislative session is almost entirely on Zoom so legislators and their staffs can stay safe and reduce the spread of COVID-19. But not everyone is staying away from Santa Fe.

“The more-well-paid contract lobbyists or industry lobbyists are actually up in Santa Fe,” Ferguson says, “and they are having dinners and drinks with the legislators.”

But with coronavirus restrictions reducing the number of watchdogs in Santa Fe this year, it’s harder to keep an eye on lobbying. She herself is at home in Albuquerque and is hearing the stories from lobbyists who live in Santa Fe, but are afraid to call out politicians they also have to lobby.

“I’m really disappointed to hear that we have so many lobbyists out there in person, meeting with legislators, when both chambers are touting that this is such a transparent and accessible session,” Ferguson says.

*   *   *

During that Feb. 2 meeting, Flynn testified on behalf of NMOGA, which claims it represents “more than 1,000 members” but doesn’t share that membership list. He said a survey of its members found that 86% would consider moving investments away from New Mexico and 66% said they would move personnel from New Mexico if the federal pause were to continue.

But later in the meeting, he appeared to contradict himself while answering a question from Sen. William Sharer, who also represents the San Juan Basin. Sharer said, “We have a lot of these companies that have five people. Or two people. And they can’t go anywhere — they live here. Everything they own is here.” Flynn didn’t disagree, and said that those smaller companies “will see most of the damage from a drop in new production.”

Flynn also repeatedly called the federal pause a “one-year ban.” That is not true. It is written as a temporary pause while the Biden administration reviews leasing practices.

“Nowhere in the reading of that order am I able to find a one-year period,” Dawn Iglesias, chief economist for the Finance Committee, said. “That would be helpful to us if he could point that out.”

He didn’t answer.

The Senate Finance Committee followed that meeting with a presentation from current Environment Department Secretary James Kenney, who pleaded for a $3.7 million bump in his budget to prop up the state’s workplace COVID-19 response.

That agency oversees state regulations related to clean air and water, hazardous waste and other environmental issues. But due to its role in food safety and worker safety, nearly 25 percent of its workforce is currently focused on COVID.

Without naming Flynn, Kenney noted the department was still funded at a lower level than it had been before Flynn ran it. That funding deficit happened even as oil and gas operations in the state skyrocketed. The requested funding bump, Kenney said, “will definitely save lives, protect public health and the environment.”

It was a pointed appeal to fund a program that clearly helps New Mexicans. But by that point, Flynn could no longer be seen on the Zoom meeting, as legislators and the Environment Department staff discussed the future of the department he used to run, without him.

Copyright 2021 Capital & Main

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