March 3, 2019

Bill would prevent lobbyists’ spending during session

It is hard to find even a bottle of water in the state Capitol that hasn’t been paid for by some special interest group.

But that could change. At the very least, New Mexicans could get a much better idea of what all those groups are lobbying for at the state Capitol.

The state House of Representatives voted 62-0 Sunday night to pass a bill that would ban lobbyists from making any expenditures on legislators while they are in session.

House Bill 131, which now goes to the state Senate, was originally written to require lobbyists to report which pieces of legislation they worked on during a session, potentially expanding the public’s insight into dealmaking and conflicts of interest at the Capitol.

But as the House took up the bill, Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, proposed an amendment that would prohibit lobbyists from making any expenditures or political contributions to legislators during what is known as the prohibited period, which stretches from the Jan. 1 through the end of the session each year.

“My intention is to limit a lobbyist from making any expenditure, whether they’re providing a committee dinner or putting drinks in your office, …” said Townsend. “It’s removing them from the process.”

The sponsor of the original bill, Rep. Day Hochman-Vigil, did not oppose Townsend’s amendment, and the House voted 48-8 to adopt it.

In an instant, what had been a straightforward transparency measure became a far more expansive proposal to upend a culture of lobbying at the Capitol, where professional wheelers and dealers are part of the furniture and often throw parties or pick up the tab for dinner.

But the change may make the bill dead on arrival.

The original bill would have been a big change in itself.

Some states already require lobbyists to disclose the issues on which they are working. The Iowa Legislature, for example, publishes online the lobbyists who advocated for or against each bill.

While lobbyists in New Mexico currently have to report certain spending and identify their employers, it can be hard to tell exactly what they are discussing with policymakers and what legislation they are pushing.

In turn, it can be hard to spot conflicts of interest.

“It gives us a complete picture not just of what we’ve seen but of what we haven’t seen,” Hochman-Vigil, a Democrat from Albuquerque, said of the bill.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, who chairs the influential House Appropriations and Finance Committee, called it “one of the most necessary pieces of legislation.”

“There’s not a day that goes by you don’t see major conflicts of interest,” she said.

But lawmakers have been quick to shoot down such measures in the past.

After all, lobbyists have already reported more than $90,000 in qualifying expenses so far during the session. And that only includes expenses over $500.