January 25, 2021

Lawmakers will push once again for lobbyist reform

Lobbyists will be a topic of discussion during this year’s legislative session but won’t be physically present to make their case when lawmakers once again consider measures requiring greater disclosure about their advocacy efforts.

They include requiring lobbyists or their employers to list the bills they lobbied on and the position they took, as well as the reporting of all money spent to influence state policy, including all compensation paid to a lobbyist.

A report issued by New Mexico Ethics Watch last year states lobbyists exert considerable influence at the Capitol.

“Perennially powerful lobbyists still know how to expertly play the inside game, catering to legislators, using their access to legislators, and leveraging the timing of meetings and last-minute amendments to their advantage,” the report states.

According to the report, a few legislators try to strengthen lobbying laws every year — “only to have their legislation stalled in committees, amended to be toothless, or amended to make disclosure and other requirements so onerous that legislators can’t possibly vote for the proposals.”

State Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said he hopes a pair of bills he plans to reintroduce this year to make lobbying more transparent will get a friendlier reception from a new set of freshman lawmakers. Though the bills have failed in the past, open government advocates believe they stand a better chance in a largely virtual session without lobbyists in the building.

“It helps inform the whole picture and that information then becomes a mechanism of engagement and response by a citizen who doesn’t have any of that,” Steinborn said. “All these areas where there’s no disclosure create opportunities to, frankly, game the system.”

Steinborn said lobbyists are a powerful presence at the Roundhouse.

“I’ve seen issues where, literally, they had up to 10 lobbyists on payroll,” he said. “They had lobbyists literally posted at every elevator.”

State Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, said Steinborn’s bills don’t go far enough. While disclosure is always “well and good,” Candelaria said systemic reforms are required.

“While I support [Steinborn’s proposed legislation], I think ultimately they’re sort of putting Band-Aids on a much larger problem, which is the system we have,” he said. “We have a system with a part-time Legislature, individual legislators who do not have professional policy staff or any staff that work for them throughout the year, so you develop this system where legislators rely far too heavily on paid industry lobbyists for information and for support in doing their jobs. I think that’s a rather dysfunctional system.”

Candelaria said a proposal by Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, that would empower the state Ethics Commission to set the salary of all public officials, including legislators, would be an important step for reform. He also said lawmakers need additional policy analysts, not professional lobbyists, to help inform their decision-making.

“The Legislature itself needs to start building up its own capacity,” he said. “The Legislature accounts, I think, for like zero-point-one percent of the entire state budget. We are a rounding error.”