Lobbyists spent tens of thousands of dollars wining, dining lawmakers

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Feb. 20—From ski passes to savory dishes at some of Santa Fe's ritziest restaurants, lobbyists spent big bucks wining, dining and entertaining lawmakers during the 30-day session.

Of course, what lobbyists were really buying was influence.

How much did it cost them?

Close to $150,000, according to lobbyist expenditure reports filed with the Secretary of State's Office.

The spending, though, is almost certainly much higher.

Not only does the Secretary of State's Office rely on voluntary compliance, but lobbyists are only required to report single expenditures of $500 or more during a legislative session.

"All other expenditures that occurred between 1/1/24 through 5/6/24 will be reflected on a report that is due on May 8th," Alex Curtas, a spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office, wrote in an email.

The level of reporting during the session varies by lobbyist.

Two of the state's more prominent lobbyists, J.D. Bullington and Marco Gonzales, both reported spending thousands of dollars on a single meal at the Bull Ring.

Bullington listed the names of the lawmakers who were his guests: Sens. Joe Cervantes and Carrie Hamblen of Las Cruces and Siah Correa Hemphill of Silver City, and Rep. Raymundo Lara of Chamberino, all Democrats.

Bullington also reported picking up the tab for Lara's spouse and six unnamed "non legislator guests." He separated the cost of the drinks — $743.49 — and the cost of the meal — $1,354.82 — for a total bill of nearly $2,100.

Gonzales, on the other hand, didn't disclose any names or number of guests. He only reported the beneficiaries as "House and Senate members" and the total cost of $3,388.

The form to report expenditures includes a box for lobbyists to disclose the purpose of the expenditure. Gonzales listed the purpose as "good will" and Bullington listed it as a dinner and beverage purchase.

Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, who has long pushed for more transparency in lobbying activities in New Mexico, said the lack of disclosure "leaves a lot to be desired because of how it translates" into influence and policymaking.

"You never really know who was involved in any given piece of legislation, either passing it or defeating it, and that's just something that I think we ... deserve a lot better as citizens of the state," he said.

Steinborn said he continues to be discouraged New Mexico "chooses to put lobbyists and secrecy" ahead of the public interest.

"I had an easier time banning the storage of high-level nuclear waste in New Mexico than increasing transparency of lobbyists," he said. "Obviously, they're quite the formidable foe in the Roundhouse. There's a system that legislators are reluctant to let go of. It's such a weak link in our government functioning."

Inadequate reporting of lobbyist expenditures has been a big concern of Common Cause New Mexico for years, former state Sen. Dede Feldman, a good-government advocate and Common Cause member, wrote in an email.

"Common Cause has long believed that the more sunshine on lobbyist activities, the more the public will trust that its business is not done behind closed doors that exclude ordinary citizens," she wrote. "Ordinary citizens don't typically wine and dine legislators, hang out at their offices, or contribute ... to their campaigns. But they deserve equal input — and they are not getting it."

Feldman noted multiple deficiencies in existing law and said compliance is spotty.

"Lobbyists are allowed to group expenditures of less than $100 and just say whether they are for meals, entertainment or other. Expenditures over $100 must just describe each expenditure as to whether it is for meals or beverages, entertainment, or other," she wrote. "Special events funded by lobbyists for all members of the Legislature (such as the 100th Bill Party) or committees do not have to mention the specific members who benefitted."

All the reporting reveals is how much is being spent, not to what end, Feldman wrote.

"Nowhere is it required to say who was entertained, fed and watered, and for what purpose," she wrote. "This is something the public deserves to know. Pro or con."

Lawrence Horan, whose clients include Ski New Mexico and the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, reported almost $31,200 in expenditures, more than any other lobbyist.

The lion's share, $28,000, was for ski passes for members of the Legislature, though the report doesn't specifically list the expenditure as ski passes. Rather, Horan listed the expenditure as "other" and the purpose as an "educational opportunity for legislators to understand and experience the NM Ski Industry."

Scott Scanland reported the second-highest single expenditure: a $16,388 dinner sponsored by Comcast at Restaurant Martin. The report doesn't disclose who attended the dinner but notes the entire Legislature was invited.

Scanland represents dozens of clients, from cities, counties and schools to a cannabis company and the New Mexico Propane Gas Association. Scanland, whose wife is Rep. Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, is among a handful of lobbyists married to a lawmaker.

The third-highest single expenditure — $15,232 — was listed as a UNM Alumni Association Legislator Appreciation Reception at La Fonda on the Plaza.

Other high-dollar expenditures include a New Mexico Mining Association legislative reception and dinner at the Inn and Spa at Loretto, nearly $13,000, and almost $23,000 for a series of email alerts on behalf of the National Rifle Association regarding gun control bills and a Second Amendment rally.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.