A pair of proposed bills by Democratic Sen. Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces would demand greater disclosure from lobbyists of their money — and by extension their influence over bills that become law and those that languish in New Mexico.
But, he says, “I think their chances of passing this session are close to zero.”
Meanwhile, a recent ad campaign by the state’s largest oil and gas lobby group is an unintended example of what is not known of money and speech in the state.
In early February, the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association (NMOGA) ran an ad against House Bill 6, the Clean Future Act, on TV channels in Albuquerque. Records show that Aimee Barabe, one of the group’s two lobbyists, paid $256,500 for TV ads that claim the bill would trigger widespread inflation and threaten funding for public programs like education. Oil and gas revenues represent almost 40% of the overall state budget and a similar share of the budgets of most state agencies.
If passed, this bill would impose a phased increase in greenhouse gas emission caps on just about everything people do in the state that emits greenhouse gases – like oil and gas operations promoted by NMOGA.
“Every session, there are bills that you wonder what the point of the bill is? And who is pushing it?
~New Mexico State Senator Jeff Steinborn
NMOGA is organized as a 501c6 nonprofit organization, and its federal tax filings through 2019 are publicly available. He has since removed the TV commercial from his Youtube channel after the news drew attention to her.
Questions emailed to Barabe and the group’s communications director went unanswered.
The trade group ad buy stands out for two reasons. First, it happened during the legislative session and therefore triggered special state reporting rules requiring the organization to file a lobbyist report immediately, so lawmakers could see spending in real time.
And second, while the NMOGA has consistently attracted and spent millions on dues and donations over the years, it’s unclear where the money is going. It’s not just a problem for this group – they happen to be one of the most well-known and powerful groups working in the Capitol building.
Steinborn’s Bills – Senate Bills 61 and 74 — would force lobbyists and their employers to produce much more complete expense reports and to list the bills they are lobbying for or against. The bills would also require groups to disclose how much they pay their lobbyists. With this, the public would have a “three-dimensional picture” of how much is spent lobbying a bill, he says.
“Every session, there are bills that you wonder what the point of the bill is? And who is pushing it? said Steinborn. “What you understood is that the people pushing this bill may not be in this committee room.”
In trying to figure out who is funding which bill, he says the state’s current lax lobbying laws force lawmakers to become sleuths if they want to learn more about who is behind the bills on which they vote. “But detectives with blinders on.”
“It’s extremely important to know, to understand the context of a bill,” Steinborn says. And disclosing how much money was spent on or against a bill is “powerful information that the state of New Mexico should demand.”
However, Steinborn’s bill is not expected to pass this year.
This year’s legislative session lasts only 30 days and is supposed to be devoted to budgetary matters.
Non-budget issues can be debated, however, if Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham writes a “message” to the Legislative Assembly asking her to be heard. But Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, said, “She’s not going to text this bill.”
The overriding problem, according to Steinborn, Ferguson and others, is the short duration of New Mexico’s legislative sessions, caused by the fact that state legislators are unpaid – the only such legislators in the country. .
Steinborn says it takes a long time to develop legislation and present it to other lawmakers. “And when you have a full-time job outside of the legislature, you’re kind of dependent on those organizations to lead the charge,” he says. This gives lobbyists additional influence in shaping legislation and influencing opinion “because they are the ones who have the luxury of full-time, year-round work.”
“I am registering as a lobbyist. There is nothing inherently wrong with lobbying activities.
~ Shannon Kunkel, Executive Director, Open Government Foundation
Common Cause works for open and diverse governments, and Ferguson sees how short legislative sessions and citizen legislature inhibit the diversity of people who can serve. “It doesn’t allow people who may represent a middle class, average citizen of New Mexico to be able to run for office, because they’re not retired and they’re not wealthy,” she said.
“I am registering as a lobbyist,” says Shannon Kunkel, executive director of the Foundation for Open Government. “There is nothing inherently wrong with lobbying activities.”
The problems start when it is not clear how much lobbying is done by whom and for what.
“Everyone has the right to defend bills that are important to them,” Kunkel said. “That’s why I think this disclosure is really important, because it just levels the playing field.”
But that leveling is unlikely to happen this legislative session.
“It’s unfortunately bipartisan, the lack of interest,” Steinborn says.
He says he will bring the bill back in next year’s 60-day session, with its broader legislative scope. If you don’t know where the money is spent in Santa Fe, he says, “You don’t know if your chosen one was really working for you or someone else.”
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