With pandemic restrictions at the Roundhouse this year, lobbyists have found themselves on the outside of a process in which they’re often the ultimate insiders. Bryan Metzger is a reporting fellow with New Mexico In Depth who recently looked at the outsized role lobbyists have in our unpaid citizen legislature. He spoke with New Mexico PBS senior producer Matt Grubs. See the full interview here.
METZGER: Obviously, we know that the legislature is in sort of a mostly online format, right? I mean, the Senate is in sort of a hybrid format, the house is going to be basically entirely online. What that means for both legislators and lobbyists is, overall, a disruption to the way that business is usually done. You know, at least one of the lobbyists that I spoke to, wasn't that concerned about the virtual nature of the session, because he already knew all the legislators, he had relationships with them, he had most of their phone numbers. And so switching from in-person interaction, to having to text and call people wasn't going to be that big of a deal for him.
The flip side of the fact that lobbyists have a lot of access at the Roundhouse is that the public also has a lot of access to the Roundhouse. We have committee meetings going on now. And we have videos of the four sessions happening, where at least the public is able to observe what's going on. But I think it's an open question as to whether there is an increased participation, right, that remains to be seen.
GRUBS: Absolutely. But you make a great point that if I'm a pro, I have that access built in, if I'm representing my local outdoors group or my school board, I don't have that know-how necessarily or even the phone numbers really. Let's dig in a little bit more to how lawmakers rely on lobbyists. As a lot of people know, we have a citizen legislature, they don't get paid, but perhaps more important than that, they don't have professional staff around the year. What did you find about how lobbyists step in there?
METZGER: We have the distinction of being the one state in the union that does not compensate legislators. Legislators themselves, without the staff and sort of an in-house way of formulating policy, often have to turn to lobbyists to help them sort of learn the facts on a different issue and and ultimately to decide how to vote. That's not to say that legislators are completely controlled by lobbyists or anything like that. But if you zoom out a little bit, you still have this issue where lobbyists are often kind of setting the agenda by being the key source of information.
GRUBS: I wanted to talk a little bit about an issue that's been kicking around for a while, which is disclosure from lobbyists of what they're spending. Some advocates would like to see also what they're being paid, what issues they're lobbying, that sort of thing.
METZGER: Yes, Senator Steinborn is going to be proposing two bills this year. One is sort of offering greater specificity on lobbyists reporting, looking at which specific bills are being lobbied on. And, you know, that's helpful in particular for individuals like myself, journalists, but also activists, people who are highly engaged and just members of the public. You might see expenditure reports where a lobbyist might list that they were discussing issues with a legislator, but that's what lobbying is that doesn't tell us anything about the specifics. And so that would be a huge step forward, I think, in terms of allowing the public to sort of peel back the curtain if you will, and see what different special interests are seeking to influence in terms of public policy.
The other measure, of course, is to fully disclose all that lobbyists’ employers are spending on lobbying, including, most controversially among lobbyists, especially, the salaries of lobbyists. That really tells us the degree of investment that special interest might have in a particular issue or in a particular piece of legislation.