How A Reform Bill Loses Its Teeth In 60 Days
For 60 days, New Mexico’s lawmakers debated in legislative committees and in hallways of the Roundhouse whether or not to reveal to the public how lobbyists go about influencing legislators.
The answer came back “not” last week.
In its original form, House bill 155, a proposal Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, filed in late January, represented an improvement on what New Mexicans could find out about how lobbyists seek to influence lawmakers.
The bill would have required lobbyists to report a detailed list of expenses and which issues they are employed to work on. Meanwhile, organizations that employ lobbyists would have had to report a separate expense report while the Secretary of State would have had to build an online searchable database of registered lobbyists.
“One of the most important improvements we can make is to require full disclosure of all lobbying spending in the state and put this information online for all to see,” Steinborn wrote in a February editorial to the Albuquerque Journal before his bill had received its first committee hearing.The original form of the proposal would have put New Mexico in the ranks of Colorado and Wisconsin, two states that require extensive lobbyist disclosure.
So how did the bill go from its original form, with so many requirements, to the watered-down proposal that now awaits Gov. Susana Martinez’s action?
Here’s a step-by-step narrative:
The changes began in the House Regulatory and Public Affairs Committee. The initial committee hearing for the bill, held on February 9, led to the tabling of the bill. A few days later, the committee altered the legislation with an amendment that removed the requirement that each recipient of lobbyist spending be reported separately. The provision would have allowed the public to see how much lobbyists spend on each legislator and public official. The committee also removed a requirement that lobbyist employers submit their own lobbyist expense reports.
The new version of Steinborn’s proposal, approved by the committee on February 13, still required lobbyists to report issues they were working on and for the Secretary of State to create a searchable online database.
In this form, the bill would have placed New Mexican lobbyist regulation on par with Texas regulations, as opposed to the more expansive rules required by Colorado.
House Bill 155 then went to the House Judiciary Committee, which made no changes to the bill March 2 when it approved it.
The legislation next went to the floor of the House of Representatives. In the debate leading up to the House floor vote on March 7, Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, attempted to add back some of the original requirements, but she was unsuccessful.
The watered-down proposal passed the House easily on a 63-0 vote.
It then headed to the Senate, where its first stop was the Senate Rules Committee, which made some changes of its own.
That committee removed the provision that would have required lobbyists to report which issues they are employed to work on. The new version of the bill passed Senate Rules on a 7-0 vote March 18.
This change meant the only major requirement left in House Bill 155 from the original version was for the Secretary of State create a new, searchable database of registered lobbyists.
In essence, the committees had turned Steinborn’s proposal into a bill requiring no changes for lobbyists in how they report doing their jobs to influence legislation.
The Senate voted 32-4 to pass the newest version of House Bill 155 on March 19. Because the Senate had changed the proposal, the bill returned to the House where lawmakers in that chamber were asked to accept the changes the Senate had made. Legislation must be approved by both chambers for it to head to the governor's desk for action.
The House accepted those changes March 20, the second-to-last day of the 60-day legislative session.
Steinborn’s original bill had attempted to bring sweeping reform to a set of lobbyist regulations that place New Mexico in poor standing nationally by transparency standards.
What now sits on Martinez’s desk keeps New Mexico's low ranking intact.
Steinborn sounded upbeat last week despite the gutting of his bill. When asked about the altered, passed version of the bill the same day the House sent his proposal to the governor’s desk, he said, “It’s a small but important step."
This story is part of a reporting partnership between New Mexico In Depth, KUNM and NMPBS, People, Power and Democracy, that attempts to pull back the curtain on how the New Mexico Legislature works and, in some cases, doesn’t. It's funded by the Thornburg Foundation and the Loeks Family Fund.