Lobbyists still picking up the tab

Feb. 27—SANTA FE — The Capitol is closed to the public — surrounded by fencing and State Police.

But lobbyists working to influence the Legislature are still finding ways to feed hungry lawmakers, sometimes in person, according to state documents and interviews with legislators and lobbyists.

Restaurants in Santa Fe County were permitted to reopen for indoor dining at partial capacity two weeks ago, and the Bull Ring — a popular steakhouse — attracted a few lobbyists and legislators the first night.

Just this week, some members of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee met for dinner at the Bull Ring. No lobbyists were present, but they picked up the tab.

The in-person, off-site meetings contrast sharply with the official work of lawmakers, who are conducting much of this year's session online to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Committee hearings have moved entirely to Zoom video conferences, and full meetings of the House and Senate are a mix of in-person and remote participation. The building itself is closed, with only legislators, staff and some media members allowed inside.

Heather Ferguson, a lobbyist and executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, said lunch and dinner meetings with lobbyists give well-connected interests an unfair advantage.

Without the pandemic, ordinary New Mexicans could show up at the Capitol and speak directly to lawmakers, often with no appointment required.

But "it is unlikely that members of the public have traveled to Santa Fe to try to take legislators out to the dinners at the Bull Ring that we have been hearing about," Ferguson said. "The result is less transparency when the public already feels, according to our annual polls, that their elected officials are already more responsive to lobbyists than they are to constituents."

No advantage

Democratic and Republican legislators acknowledge the occasional meal with lobbyists, but they say ordinary constituents are on equal footing.

"I've had some people ask me out to dinner. I mostly say 'no,'" Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said in an interview.

She said she has gone out to dinner twice where at least one lobbyist was among those present.

"I haven't talked to them more than regular people," Stewart said.

Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said this week that he had at least one meal with a lobbyist already and had one more planned.

Lobbyists are trying to do their job under difficult conditions, he said, and they often have important information legislators need to hear.

"My cellphone is on the legislative website," Brandt said, "so if my constituents want it, they can get it. I think most of us are that way. ... I don't think it's putting anyone at a disadvantage."

A free lunch — or dinner — is built into the culture of the Roundhouse. New Mexico legislators don't draw a salary, though they receive daily payments during the session intended to cover lodging, meals and other costs.

The per diem rate, which is set by the federal government, is $165 a day this month with a bump to $194 a day in March.

The 60-day session ends in about three weeks.

Lobbyist spending

Lobbyists often pay for legislators' meals — including catered dinners and lunches for committees or even an entire chamber — during New Mexico legislative sessions. The practice has continued in some form even during the online session, when lawmakers are often participating in hearings from their individual Capitol offices or at home.

One lobbyist told the Journal he just spent almost $490 on a recent lunch for a legislative committee — food delivered to the Roundhouse, without the lobbyist entering the building.

Another lobbyist, Julianna Koob, who has about 10 clients, reported spending $8,550 over the last month on the food-delivery service Door Dash and Door Dash gift cards.

The union representing film technicians, IATSE Local 480, reported about $2,100 in spending to deliver Señor Murphy chocolates to legislators to thank them for supporting the film industry.

Food costs are just a sliver of the $244,000 in spending reported by lobbyists so far — the bulk of it was spent on advertising, education and communication for or against individual pieces of legislation. More-detailed reports on lobbyist spending are due after the session concludes.

Going to dinner

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat and chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said members of the panel met for dinner at the Bull Ring on Wednesday.

Earlier that day, the annual state budget proposal crafted by the committee won bipartisan support in a vote by the full House, sending it on to the Senate.

In an interview, Lundstrom said the dinner complied with public health regulations. Some areas were cordoned off, she said, and there were no more than four people at a table.

She said she invited House Speaker Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat, who attended. No lobbyists, spouses or guests were there.

"I felt like we did it safely," Lundstrom said. "It is something, of course, that I wanted to have the committee do. We have just been going full bore in trying to get our budget done."

Lobbyists paid for the meal, she said, but they don't have any extra influence on the committee's work.

When she gets a call from a constituent, Lundstrom said, she returns it. When a lobbyist calls, by contrast, she tells them to send an email.

She noted that in New Mexico's citizen Legislature, she doesn't have a full-time secretary or staff to manage the volume of calls that come in around the clock.

"When a person from McKinley County reaches out and calls me on my cellphone," Lundstrom said, "they're going to get a return a call. When a lobbyist calls me, that's not likely to happen."

A spokesman for House Republicans said some members of that caucus met for dinner Thursday night, though he didn't say who was picking up the tab. Instead, he noted that lobbyists file reports with the Secretary of State's Office.

The public health regulations in effect for Santa Fe County allow restaurants to operate at 33% capacity indoors and 75% outdoors. No more than six people may be seated at a table, and each table must be at least six feet apart.

Pandemic tweaks

J.D. Bullington, a lobbyist with about 20 clients, said he had not met with legislators in person this session, though he isn't ruling it out as the session reaches "crunch time."

There was some talk among lobbyists before the session, he said, about whether they'd feel pressure to meet in person with lawmakers during the pandemic.

But "honestly, it is not what lobbyists talk about now," Bullington said. "We talk about issues and strategy, and sometimes who wants to help buy a committee a catered lunch."

He said he thinks other lobbyists are participating in meetings over lunch or dinner "on a very limited basis" this session. But Bullington said he "and others have not found that type of interaction necessary to have effective communication thus far."

Ben Shelton, a lobbyist and politics and policy director for Conservation Voters New Mexico, said the pandemic has dramatically changed his work. He's usually one of the regulars inside the Capitol every day, all day, during a session.

But Shelton's work this year is virtual, not in person.

"As a matter of public health — as a matter of basic human decency toward the legislators — it's just wildly irresponsible," he said, "to be gathering in groups or cross contaminating people's bubbles.

"It's insanely reckless to try to carry on business as normal given that we're in the global pandemic."