January 23, 2018

Does everyone need a lobbyist?

Laura Paskus

Only 328 people live in Red River, but even they have a lobbyist.

The mountain town known as a vacation destination pays $2,000 each month plus tax for the services of Gabriel Cisneros, who represents a short list of local governments at the state Capitol.

He is just one in a small army of lobbyists at work in Santa Fe during this year’s 30-day legislative session representing towns, counties, villages, school districts, colleges and even charter schools — mostly if not entirely on the taxpayers’ dime.

They may seem like a waste of money given that these communities are already represented by legislators and an alphabet soup of advocacy groups from the New Mexico Association of Counties to the New Mexico Municipal League and the Council of University Presidents.

Government officials counter that lobbyists are worth the price to keep up with a legislative process that can affect local budgets and institutions, from the county jail to the water treatment plant.

But for other observers, the idea that governments must lobby governments underscores the role money has come to play in state politics. To get a shot at certain state funding, it is apparently not enough to send your own lawmakers to Santa Fe. Even small counties, it seems, see it necessary to hire a professional.

The New Mexican counted at least 65 cities, counties, towns, villages, colleges, school districts, hospital districts and charter schools with hired lobbyists this year.

This includes counties ranging from Bernalillo, the state’s largest, to Quay and Union, which have a combined population of 13,000. Lobbyists represent cities from Albuquerque and Santa Fe to the village of Questa, and some school districts, including Albuquerque and Las Cruces.

Even communities represented by some of the most powerful legislators in the state hire lobbyists.

Gallup, with a population of about 22,000, has an influential advocate in Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, chairwoman of the Legislative Finance Committee. But the city hired Mark Fleisher at a rate of $4,000 a month plus tax to lobby lawmakers last year. His contract included an extra $500 a month when the Legislature is in session.

Santa Fe can count among its residents Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth and House Speaker Brian Egolf — two of the top-ranking lawmakers in New Mexico. But the city last year paid Mark Duran $62,000 plus tax to represent it at the Capitol.

“We don’t have the capacity or the expertise to follow every development, committee meeting, or amendment,” Santa Fe City Manager Brian Snyder said in an email. “At the same time, we rely on the Legislature for a range of things, from funding for infrastructure and economic development to bills that govern the separation of powers between us and them and more.”

To keep up, some small communities have hired lobbyists, too.

“Small, rural counties kind of need somebody in the game,” says lobbyist Clinton Harden, a former state senator. “The only other way to do that is to have someone there. County commissioners volunteer anyway. They’ve all got jobs. They can’t be up there all the time.”

Harden used to represent a stretch of northeastern New Mexico as a senator. Nowadays, he lobbies for Union County, population 4,292. His contracts are not particularly big. Union County pays him $1,000 a month plus tax and expenses — a paltry sum compared to the lobbyists for bigger governments.

He describes his job more as consulting than lobbying, helping local officials navigate the Legislature and keep up with goings on at the Roundhouse that are of particular interest to rural communities.

As he says, that is not something local officials can afford to do when mayor or town councilor is a part-time job in many places.

Still, other cities and counties hire lobbyists with long lists of clients, from the tobacco company Altria to bail bond companies or private prison contractors.

In Red River, Mayor Linda Calhoun says the biggest reason for hiring a lobbyist is to help secure state funding for brick-and-mortar projects, such as improvements to water systems.

“We’re like every other community in the state dealing with aging infrastructure,” she says.

The town tries to get some of what is known as capital outlay — a chunk of money divided between legislators that they can then budget for projects in their communities as they see fit. Red River, for example, is trying to get some of this funding for its water system.

But the process to obtain money for public works projects can be byzantine.

Good government groups argue this points to the inefficiency in the system and, more broadly, in the state Legislature.

Fred Nathan, executive director of the policy organization Think New Mexico, says it is unnecessary for local governments to hire lobbyists for the sake of getting infrastructure funding — something their legislators can already provide.

“Each local community already has at least one state representative and senator representing them,” Nathan says.

But the process for doling out funding for projects around the state is not well understood by the public or local officials, Nathan says.

That, he adds, is a big part of the argument for reforming the process altogether. Nathan argues more transparency and more simplicity at the Legislature could in turn eliminate the need for local governments to hire lobbyists and compete with myriad other special interest groups to chase after the same pile of taxpayer funds.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.