State Legislature

Lobbyist spending on meals, receptions fuels lawmakers

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Energy companies, state-funded schools, car dealers, health care companies and others have kept New Mexico legislators well fed during the first half of the 2018 Legislature, while the state's ski industry made its annual distribution of free ski passes to any lawmaker who'd take one.

This is according to the legally required reports -- available on the secretary of state's campaign finance website -- filed as of Monday afternoon by lobbyists accounting for money spent on legislators during the session.

So far, lobbyists have reported spending more than $75,000 since the session began two weeks ago. But the head of a government watchdog group said Monday that the money seen in the reports doesn't tell a complete story. Because of loopholes in the law, as well as generally lax reporting requirements, many expenses can go unreported, said Viki Harrison executive director of New Mexico Common Cause.

"Not enough data is required to be reported," Harrison said in an interview. "They report these dinners and what they spend on drinks. But we don't even know how much companies are paying to have lobbyists there."

She said several other states require those who hire lobbyists to report lobbyist salaries. There have been bills in New Mexico to establish such a requirement, but they haven't gone far.

Harrison pointed to a 2015 change to lobbyist reporting requirements that created a huge loophole. Legislation that year ended a requirement that lobbyists report cumulative spending on lawmakers if individual expenditures are under $100. That means lobbyists could buy a lawmaker a $99 dinner multiple times but never report it.

"The good news is that Sen. [Daniel] Ivey-Soto has a bill this year that would fix that," Harrison said, adding that Gov. Susana Martinez has given Senate Bill 67 a "message" -- which means it can be heard in this primarily fiscal session.

Among the biggest spenders so far, reports show, are energy companies.

Louisiana Energy Services, which has a uranium enrichment plant in Eunice, spent $5,061 in January to bring lunch from Cowgirl BBQ to legislators and staff at the state Capitol.

The next day, Claire Chase, lobbyist for Mack Energy and president of the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico, spent $1,725 on a meal at Restaurant Martín for Republican House members. The guests listed were Reps. Candy Spence Ezzell, Greg Nibert and Bob Wooley of Roswell; Rod Montoya and James Strickler of Farmington; Cathrynn Brown of Carlsbad; David Gallegos of Eunice; Larry Scott of Hobbs; and James Townsend of Artesia.

And on Jan. 19, Carol Leach, lobbyist for Concho Resources, spent $759 at Maize restaurant for what she called an "oil and gas discussion." Her guests included Reps. Townsend and Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, and their wives; Rep. Scott and his sister, Rep. Jimmie Hall, R-Albuquerque, and "two others."

Chase and Leach are the only lobbyists so far this year who listed individual lawmakers in their reports.

"I don't know why lobbyists spend so much money on a small handful of legislators," Harrison said. "It also boggles my mind that a lobbyist can spend $1,700 on a dinner for a small group. This is Santa Fe, not Dubai."

Jim Winchester, executive director of the Independent Petroleum Association, responded to the criticism in a written statement, saying his organization "sponsored an appreciation dinner for 14 legislators and their spouses at Restaurant Martín, one of Santa Fe's most prominent and critically-acclaimed establishments. Oil and gas producers proudly supported Santa Fe schools with nearly $48 million in funding last year, and we're also proud to support Santa Fe's restaurants, hotel, and local economy."

As is frequently the case with lobbyist expense reports, another category of spenders include lobbyists representing state-funded schools.

Scott Smart, vice president for business affairs at Eastern New Mexico University, reported spending $10,690 for a "meet and greet" for legislators at the Inn at Loretto on Jan. 17. The Portales college almost always throws some kind of event during a legislative session.

Meanwhile, Natasha Ning, lobbyist for New Mexico Military Institute, reported spending $3,793 on a breakfast for lawmakers Jan. 23 at the Inn at Loretto.

"We do this every year, some kind of a reception," Ning said in an interview Monday. "This year we did a breakfast." All legislators were invited, she said.

Asked what the school gets out of hosting such events, Ning, who has a dozen lobbying clients this year, said it's a good way to make a presentation on the needs of the military school and what projects they're working on to several legislators at the same time. "I'll still be talking to legislators every day, but this is a good way to reach a lot of them," she said.

One thing she talked about at the breakfast this year was the school's effort to create a scholarship fund named for the late Santa Fe legislator Luciano "Lucky" Varela. House Bill 68, which recently received a positive recommendation from the House Education Committee, would allow the school to transfer $500,000 from its budget balances to the new scholarship fund, which would be spent on students from New Mexico.

The largest expense so far by lobbyists is $27,250 in ski passes from George Brooks, director of Ski New Mexico, an association that represents eight ski resorts. The passes are valued at $250 each, which is the legal limit under the state Gift Act that regulates the amount of gifts lobbyists can bestow on lawmakers. Tom Horan, a lobbyist for the organization, said each pass is good for two free days of skiing at any of the ski areas in the state. The passes are good for the current season, Horan said.

While this gift might seem extravagant, because of the lack of snow this year, the passes aren't as valuable as in past years, as ski areas around the state have had to close many ski trails.

At least three legislators declined the gift from Ski New Mexico. In the past, Reps. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, and Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, have refused the passes. Horan wasn't sure who the third one was.

Contact Steve Terrell at 505-986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexica­­n.com. Read his blog at www.santafenewmexica­n.com/roundhouse_roun­dup.

Lobbyist spenders

George Brooks, Ski New Mexico: $27,250

Scott Smart, Eastern New Mexico University: $10,690

Presbyterian Health Plan: $9,716.02

Randy Traynor, New Mexico Automotive Dealers Association: $6,779.35

Lousiana Energy Services: $5,061.61

Natasha Ning, New Mexico Military Institute: $3,793.52

Mary Jessa Bunker, Catholic Health Initiatives St. Joseph's Children: $3,329.84

Ruth Hoffman, Rocky Mountain Synod-Evangelical Lutheran Church: $1,972

Claire Chase, Mack Energy: $1,725.77

Barry Fadem, National Popular Vote: $1,676.19

Johnny Montoya, Century Link: $1,500

National Education Association NM: $858.17

Carol Leach, Concho Resources: $759.06

Source: Reports filed with New Mexico Secretary of State's Office

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