New Mexico is among a handful of states that allow vague reporting on spending by lobbyists – people whose business it is to push an issue at the Roundhouse or otherwise try to influence the government. A new report last month shows how money is being spent and highlights the lack of transparency when it comes to money in politics. Executive Director of New Mexico Ethics Watch, Kathleen Sabo, sat down with KUNM to talk about the group's findings.
Kathleen Sabo: Lobbyists run the gamut, as you might imagine. There are citizen lobbyists, there are lobbyists who are advocates for nonprofits, and there are corporate lobbyists. There's probably more lobbyists. But that's a good sort of start right there. We don't know how much these lobbyists make. I mean, we have some people saying, "Oh, they get a contract for $300,000 for a session, for a year." We don't know.
KUNM: In the report I read that [lobbyists are] kind of hanging around the Capitol, they're waiting for legislators to get hungry and you know, they run for food for them. What else are they doing?
Sabo: There's more to it than that. So the first thing to remember is we have what's called a citizen legislature and that means that the legislators aren't paid. They are there just a short time, each part of the year, so they have other jobs. So, because they're not there much and because there's not much of a staff, they rely a lot on lobbyists for their expertise in subject matter. And so you say, "Hey, Joe, come on in and talk to me about this banking bill. I don't know much about mortgages." There they are. They're ready to help you.
KUNM: The report focused on guns, cannabis and the film industry.
Sabo: And then also tobacco, vaping and cigars.
KUNM: Is it fair to say that right now as far as spending goes, gun control and gun rights –
guns – are the big issue?
Sabo: We're working on another report right now in oil and gas, and that far outstrips a lot of these other group's spending. That'll be out soon. But out of these four groups, absolutely guns, and just one side of guns: pro-gun control measures. And it's chiefly Everytown For Gun Safety, which has deep pockets and made a strong effort here in the state to elect representatives who supported their position.
KUNM: That was a little bit surprising. When we think of people out there spending money for guns, we think of the [National Rifle Association].
Sabo: It's true, and it surprised us when we looked at the data, and we pored over the data. We said, "could this be true?" But then we found that nationally, the NRA was cutting back on spending money and was doing more sort of local activating.
KUNM: The political action committees (PACs) are also in your report. How are they involved in issue politics and legislation?
Sabo: Well, PACs are popping up all over. Many legislators have their own PACs. Leadership have their own PACs. And so what you see is a lot of lobbyists are donating to PACs, who are then distributing money to candidates as well.
KUNM: How's the money being spent?
Sabo: Well, a lot is in contributions directly to candidates and people who are sitting in office who will need funds down the road for their candidacy. Other expenses are the typical sort of wining and dining. Some of the expenses are yearly, you'll see there's a lobbyist who spends $27,000 a year for ski passes for every legislator. So you know, they're those kinds of things as well.
KUNM: How does this affect citizens?
Sabo: There have been studies done that show that people don't come to do business in New Mexico, that our economy suffers, because we're thought to be backward, unethical. And, there's a ripple effect to everyone here in the state who can't find a job, who can't find a good paying job. And so the economic costs potentially are very high.
KUNM: If I went down to the Capitol, would I be able to spot the lobbyists?
Sabo: Yes. You'd just see friendly faces waiting to talk to legislators, talking to legislators, talking amongst themselves.
KUNM: Are all lobbyists doing something against the public interest?
Sabo: Absolutely not. It's just so hard to tell where what they offer creates this outsized influence with legislators. That's the problem.
This story is part of the project: Your N.M. Government, in partnership with New Mexico PBS and the Santa Fe Reporter. Funding for our legislative coverage is provided, in part, by the Thornburg Foundation, the New Mexico Local News Fund and KUNM listeners like you.