Lobbyist spending down this year drops by a third

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By Ralph Damiani

Final reports out of the recent legislative session and beyond show that lobbyist spending has dropped significantly so far this year, reflecting the tough economic times confronting businesses and interest groups that hire lobbyists to influence the Legislature and other state officials.

While we had hoped a new climate of openness was part of that, we tend to doubt it.

We are not against lobbyists per se as that is nothing more than people getting together to seek to influence their elected officials. That is good.

It is the backdoor, behind the scenes stuff that we object to. And when big payouts are made.

Tha Associated Press reports that lobbyists and their clients spent slightly more than $354,000 during the first four months of the year, according to an analysis of disclosure reports filed with the secretary of state’s office.

That total is down one-third from expenditures during the same four-month period in 2007, when the Legislature last held a 60-day session. Typically, lobbyist spending is higher during a 60-day session than even-numbered years when the Legislature only meets for 30 days.

However, this year’s spending is the lowest since 2000, when a 30-day session was held and lobbyist expenditures totaled about $309,000 for the first four months of the year, according to records maintained by the AP. The state does not tally total spending by lobbyists.

This year, the New Mexico Automotive Dealers Association scrapped its dinner for legislators and car dealers. The event had been held each session for several decades. It cost about $20,000 in 2008.

“They canceled it because of the economy,” Randy Traynor, a lobbyist for the trade group, told the AP. “Times are hard and they felt like they couldn’t justify it this year.”

But there were plenty of other luncheons and dinners for lawmakers, staff and other government officials, including Gov. Richardson.

Nearly half of all expenditures went for meals and drinks. Receptions, parties and other special events accounted for a third of the lobbyist spending from January through late April.

Among the expenditures reported by lobbyists and their clients:

• A legislative dinner sponsored by the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association: $18,001.

• A dinner for the House and Senate Education committees hosted by the University of Phoenix: $5,733.

• About $7,130 in radio ads by a nonprofit group, the SouthWest Organizing Project, against a measure authorizing bonds for SunCal’s development on Albuquerque's west mesa. The measure failed in the legislative session.

• Phonebank operations costing about $3,400 during the session by New Mexico Youth Organized. Keegan King, director of the nonprofit group, said people in legislative districts were called and urged to contact their legislators about various issues, including ethics and campaign finance bills. The group also opposed the SunCal tax increment development district legislation.

• Basketball tickets worth $690 and $210 in “show” tickets were given away by a lobbyist for the University of New Mexico. The disclosure report did not list who received the tickets or how many were distributed. A university official said Wednesday that an amended report will be filed to provide additional information.

• Tickets to a Senate leader for a lecture in Santa Fe by feminist leader and author Gloria Steinem. The two tickets cost $140 and were provided to Senate Majority Whip Mary Jane Garcia, D-Dona Ana. Four tickets to a show by comedian Brian Regan went to Sen. Eric Griego, D-Albuquerque. The tickets were valued at $200. A lobbyist with more than a dozen clients, including the tribally owned Laguna Development Corp., provided the tickets. The comedian's show was at Laguna Pueblo's casino west of Albuquerque.

• A beer distributor, Premier Distributing, provided a legislative committee leader with four tickets to a professional bull riding competition. The recipient was Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Española, chairwoman of the House Business and Industry Committee. The tickets were valued at $200. She received similar tickets from the company last year.

Under state law, there’s a $250 limit on the value of individual gifts that can be accepted by a legislator, state official or employee.

There’s a yearly cap of $1,000 on the combined value of gifts that can be given to any one state government official by a lobbyist or their employer. The gift restrictions cover items including food, lodging, transportation and tickets to sporting events or entertainment.

We hope the recently passed ethics bill will close up some of these loop-holes and that our goverment really moves to one of the people not profit.

But we don’t expect it.