A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
January 26, 2006
Trips to see the World Series. Tickets to Denver Broncos games. Fact-finding jaunts to Europe.
Every year, Barry Massey of The Associated Press dutifully documents some of the goodies that lobbyists bestow upon legislators and other state officials.
Every year, Massey’s stories explain how there’s no limit on the amount of gifts, meals, travel and campaign contributions lobbyists can give. (HERE's a story from last May)
And every year, nobody does anything about it.
This week, Massey wrote about Louisiana Energy Services — a company that wants to build a uranium-enrichment plant in southeastern New Mexico — paying nearly $20,000 to send a couple of groups of legislators to the Netherlands to tour a similar uranium facility.
In light of the state treasurer scandal in New Mexico and the Jack Abramoff scandal in Washington, D.C., it might seem that unrestricted freebies from lobbyists would prompt more attention.
I asked Gov. Bill Richardson about it Wednesday morning at the annual Legislative Breakfast of the New Mexico Press Association.
“I want to work with the Legislature in the next session to see if we can have comprehensive reforms that deal with a number of these issues,” Richardson replied.
But the reforms the governor has in mind apparently don’t include legal limits on the amount of airline tickets and hotel rooms lobbyists can give.
“As long as it’s disclosed, promptly divulged,” he said, “I think it’s fine.”
Referring to the LES trips, Richardson said: “Sometimes legislators, many times congressmen, need fact finding. ... I felt this trip was legit. They took a critic from my administration, and she came back even more negatively disposed.”
He was referring to Gay Dillingham, who chairs New Mexico’s Environmental Improvement Board. She went to Holland on an LES-sponsored trip with a group of lawmakers and other state officials in 2004. Dillingham indeed remained critical of LES’ New Mexico plan.
But she’s an exception. Every legislative “fact finder” quoted in the AP story found facts that were favorable to the company’s proposal.
State Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, disagrees with Richardson about the quality of such “fact finding” missions.
“If something is important enough to study, it should be studied in a neutral way,” he said. “When you go on a junket paid for by a lobbyist, you’re only getting one side.”
McSorley said he would support legislation to prohibit lobbyists from paying for trips and to set a limit on the value of gifts allowed. “I don’t think you should be allowed to accept anything more than a meal,” he said.
Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, said she thinks gifts from lobbyists should be banned.
Trips, such as the LES Netherlands jaunts “don’t look good,” Feldman said.
However, she said, sometimes “think tanks” pay for lawmakers to go to out-of-state conferences concerning various issues such as health care. Feldman has accepted such trips, she said, which proved to be worthwhile.
Salaries for legislators: One might think that European junkets and World Series tickets would be pretty good incentives for recruiting new legislators.
But Senate Republican Whip Lee Rawson says the increasing workload and time it takes to serve in the Legislature is making it harder to attract anyone other than retirees, government employees and people who are financially secure or able to work nontraditional hours.
“It’s getting difficult to recruit people who could do an exceptional job, but can’t afford to run,” Rawson said in an interview this week.
“We no longer have a Legislature that is representative of our population at large,” he said.
Therefore, he said, the state should consider another path — providing an actual salary for lawmakers.
Rawson’s Senate Joint Resolution 2 would amend the state Constitution to give lawmakers a salary on top of the per diem and mileage they already receive.
The measure calls for legislators’ salaries to be set to 15 percent of a U.S. Congress member’s salary. That figure currently is $162,100, which would work out to an extra $24,315 for our state legislators.
“This isn’t about more money for me or the current legislators,” said Rawson, adding that everyone currently serving knew going in that nobody would be paid for all the time they spend.
The legislation would go to state voters in November if it passes both chambers.
Rawson said he’s aware that the next step after a salary could be a move for a full-time Legislature.
“If they do that, I’m out of here,” said Rawson, who has served in the Senate and, previously, the House for a total of almost 20 years. Such a move would completely take away the concept of “citizen Legislature,” he said.
The resolution is awaiting a hearing by the Senate rules committee.
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