Law could cut transparency on lobbyist spending
Lobbyists may end up reporting far less of their spending on lawmakers under a bill lauded for improving the state’s campaign finance system.
House Bill 105, signed into law by Gov. Susana Martinez on Monday, aims to make it easier for the public to access information about campaign contributions and lobbyists’ reporting.
But the bill also ends a requirement that lobbyists report cumulative spending on lawmakers, and increases the limit for reporting from $75 to $100 per event.
The original legislation struck the cumulative total requirement.
The House Government, Elections & Indian Affairs Committee increased the reporting limit, a change that made it through two more committees as well as the full House of Representatives and Senate.
That essentially means lobbyists could buy a lawmaker a $99 dinner multiple times, but never report it.
If the law had been in effect during 2015, nearly one-fourth of the $818,000 spent by lobbyists would have gone unreported, New Mexico In Depth estimates.
That wasn’t the intent, one of the sponsors said.
“Oh my,” said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, when asked about the changes. “It was not our intent to get rid of cumulative reporting. That’s a vital indicator of what people are doing and what people are spending.”
For instance, lobbyist Art Hull, who represents a variety of clients, often tops the list of spenders. He spent nearly $26,000 entertaining lawmakers in 2015. But Hull typically reports an aggregate amount of spending each month, saying that each expenditure is below the current $75 threshold.
Other top-spending lobbyists who would be required to report far less under the new law include William Fulginiti of the New Mexico Municipal League, Scott Scanland, Antonio Trujillo and T.J. Trujillo.
“I don’t know what this does, because the cumulative total has been stricken,” said Fulginiti. “They didn’t get very transparent did they?”
In the past, Fulginiti said, he might have a dinner party of 10 people, four of them lawmakers. He’d report the entire expense in his aggregated expenses, because no meal was more than $75. Now, it appears, he wouldn’t have to report that expense at all.
“It will make a lot less reporting for me, but it probably wouldn’t give an accurate picture of what I actually spend.”
Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said the expense reporting provision disappointed him. He sponsored a bill that would have required more specific disclosure for all expenses by lobbyists on elected officials. It passed the House, but the Senate Rules Committee tabled the measure.
“There was a discussion in the committee about what dollar amount should trigger that disclosure,” Steinborn said. “I argued that any dollar amount is important, and if there was a threshold, it should certainly be a lot less than $100 or even $75.”
Common Cause New Mexico Executive Director Viki Harrison agreed.
“We didn’t write this bill, but we supported a lot of the stuff in it,” she said. “I personally would have preferred that we went with what Jeff Steinborn wanted.”
The section on lobbyist reporting takes effect July 1, and would apply to lobbyists reports filed in October and January 2017.
Kari Fresquez, interim elections director for the Secretary of State, said in the past many lobbyists filed reports with cumulative totals, but some may not have reported any expenses under $75.
“What we saw is that the way the law was previously written was that it was misunderstood and misinterpreted,” she said. “It certainly wasn’t the intent to get less reporting.”
But lobbyists will be looking for clarity from the Secretary of State, Fulginiti said.
“I think I’m going to go talk to some people at the Secretary of State’s office and say ‘How are you interpreting this?’ ” he said. “I’ll conform to whatever they wish to do.
Fresquez and Ivey-Soto said the Legislature will need to fix the requirement for cumulative reporting next year.
Said Ivey-Soto: “I’m as embarrassed, if not more embarrassed, than anybody, because I’m the guy who usually catches this stuff.”