February 1, 2017

Lobbyists spent more than $85,000 in first weeks of session

Members of New Mexico’s citizen Legislature only receive $164 per day for expenses, plus mileage, during the session. But there are other perks to the job.

For instance, the industry group called Ski New Mexico last week handed out VIP membership cards to 110 of the 112 state lawmakers, entitling them to two free days of skiing at any of eight ski areas in the state. The total value of the cards was $27,500, according to a lobbyist expense report filed this week by George Brooks, executive director of Ski New Mexico.

That expense represented a large portion of the $85,000-plus that lobbyists and the organizations that hire them have reported spending on meals, parties, receptions and gifts for legislators and others so far in the session, which began just over two weeks ago.

New Mexico’s Legislature is the only one in America whose members do not receive a base salary. In turn, New Mexico is one of the few states without an ethics commission, and it has been rocked by scandals in recent years, including two that led to the ouster of former Republican secretary of state Dianna Duran and former state Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose. All those factors have heightened public attention on gifts to state lawmakers.

Ski New Mexico has been giving the free passes to legislators for decades. Brooks said in an interview Wednesday that it does so to help familiarize lawmakers with the ski areas around the state. “And it’s just a way to say thank you for all the hard work they do,” he said.

As in past years, there likely won’t be any legislation directly affecting the state’s ski lodges this session, Brooks said. “We don’t have a dog in the fight in Santa Fe,” he said. “We are just strong advocates of the state Tourism Department.”

While the goal of the lift passes is to expose legislators to the slopes, random interviews with several lawmakers in the Capitol turned up only one, Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, who said he actually uses the passes himself.

Freshman Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, said he won’t use the ski pass himself. “I’ll either throw it away or donate it to some less-privileged youth group,” he said. Small also said he intends to donate any food gifts he receives during the session to a food bank.

Similarly, Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, said he normally gives his ski passes to low-income constituents.

Rep. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso, said he doesn’t ski, so he has never used his free pass. “I usually keep it around in case someone else wants it,” he said.

Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, said he sold his skis several years ago when he moved back to New Mexico from Colorado and has not resumed skiing. “I just throw it away,” he said of the card.

The two legislators who didn’t accept the ski passes are Reps. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, and Jim Dines R-Albuquerque. Both have publicly said they will not take gifts from lobbyists.

Besides the ski passes, the only other reported gifts for legislators were from the Baptist Convention of New Mexico, which hosted a legislative breakfast at the Hilton Santa Fe. Kevin Parker, director of media services for the Baptist Convention of New Mexico, reported spending $2,979 for gifts given to lawmakers and other officials at the event. The gifts were copies of a book called The Daniel Code by O. S. Hawkins and inflatable solar lights known as “Luci Lights.”

Parker reported spending $4,405 for the actual breakfast, for a total of $7,384.

The Baptists weren’t the only religious group holding a prayer breakfast for the Legislature. Allen Sánchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, reported spending $1,072 for a prayer breakfast at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe for legislators and invited public members.

Two of the most expensive gatherings reported during the session were events by state universities. The University of New Mexico reported spending $11,145 for a reception for legislators at La Fonda. It was for legislators, other state officials, various university officials and members of various university groups.

Eastern New Mexico University hosted a meet and greet for legislators and staff at the Inn at Loretto. Scott Smart, vice president of business affairs for Eastern, reported spending $7,693 on that event.

Sometimes actual legislative work can conflict with social events planned by lobbyists. That happened Jan. 24 when the New Mexico Automotive Dealers Association had scheduled its annual reception for lawmakers at the Inn at Loretto. “Both the chambers were still on the floor,” the group’s lobbyist, Randy Traynor, said Wednesday. “We didn’t want the food to go to waste, so we just brought it over [to the Capitol]. It was just appetizer stuff.”

Traynor reported spending $7,360 on behalf of the organization.

Typically lobbyists spend their clients’ or employers’ money, not their own, on events, meals, gifts and campaign contributions.

The state Gift Act limits lobbyists from giving gifts valued at more than $250 to individual lawmakers.

During a session of the Legislature, lobbyists are required to report to the Secretary of State’s Office expenditures larger than $500 within 48 hours of the spending.

Other lobbyist reports filed since the beginning of the session were:

  • Presbyterian Health Plan reported $10,873 for a legislative dinner at La Posada for legislators, other state officials and Presbyterian senior leadership and board members.
  • The New Mexico Federation of Labor reported $7,000 for a reception at the Inn at Loretto for all elected state officials.
  • Bernarr Treat, Xcel Energy and Southwestern Public Service Co. reported $3,000 in expenses for a reception at La Fonda for legislators and other officials.
  • Vanessa Alarid, lobbyist for Garrett Development Corp., reported $1,647 for meals and beverages on behalf of Garrett at the Rio Chama Steakhouse on Jan. 23 on a presentation about the Paseo de Volcan highway project in Bernalillo and Sandoval County.
  • National Education Association-New Mexico reported $719 for a reception for legislators and members at the association’s headquarters on Botulph Road.

Contact Steve Terrell at 505-986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com. Read his political blog at www.santafenewmexican.com/news/blogs/politics.