Thursday, February 21, 2008

ROUNDHOUSE ROUND-UP: SOME "FAMILY" DINNERS

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
February 21, 2008


During the recently concluded legislative session, I reported how legislators’ social calendars remain filled with big parties and expensive meals on the lobbyists’ dime, despite a law aimed at restricting gifts to lawmakers.

Required reports filed by lobbyists showed some spent more than $20,000 of their clients’ money on huge receptions. (In fairness, the $20,000 affairs tend to be thrown by business organizations such as auto dealers or mining company executives. So much of the expense is for food and drink consumed by members of the associations, not just the invited politicians.)

There is, of course, nothing illegal about throwing parties or hosting dinners for elected officials. And nobody claims any votes were bought or sold in exchange for a fancy meal at a downtown restaurant or cocktails at some reception. Sometimes the lobbyist paying the tab won’t even have any bills pending before the committee whose dinner he buys.

Both lobbyists and lawmakers will tell you these gatherings are just to “build relationships,” opportunities for the lobbyists, and sometimes their clients, to get to know legislators in a relaxed environment.

Some say it even creates a feeling of “family” at the Capitol. Longtime lobbyists hold a special place of honor in the Roundhouse family. They are considered the wise elders who have seen it all before and know what can and can’t be done. Indeed, as one lawmaker pointed out, lobbyists tend to stick around longer than legislators. And many are former legislators, making the big step from eating free meals to buying the meals.

“There are some lobbyists I go to for advice on how to get things done, not because of who they represent or what bills they’re backing, but just because they were around in 1978 and have seen other young-Turk legislators try to make changes,” one senator told me during the past session. “They know which walls you can’t tear down.”

Of course, sometimes it might be in a lobbyist’s interest not to tear down certain walls.

Final lobbyist reports: Under state law, lobbyists are required to report expenses of more than $500 within 48 hours after the event. Last year’s Gift Act restricts gifts — including food and drink — to no more than $250 per legislator.

It’s the lobbyists — not the lawmakers — who have to file reports.

Here’s what was in what should be the last batch of the “48-hour” reports for the regular session:

* The 100th Bill Party, held Feb. 8 at La Fonda, featured the music of Darren Cordova. The event has become one of the biggest annual soirees for legislators. The party is sponsored by whoever introduced the 100th bill of the session in the House and the Senate. This year, the “winners” were House Majority Leader Ken Martinez, D-Grants, and Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque. But the lawmakers don’t pay for the party — at least not all of it. According to lobbyist reports, Natasha Ning, a lobbyist for the city of Albuquerque and several other clients, spent $5,000 on the party while Vanessa Alarid, a lobbyist for Sun Cal Management, pitched in $1,500 and Reese Edwards, a lobbyist for Butch Maki & Associates and clients including Forest City Covington and Westland Devco, kicked in $1,000.

* Bob Gallagher, president of the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association, spent $3,013 on a dinner for the House Education Committee at Eldorado Hotel’s Old House restaurant Feb. 11.

* Roman Maes, on behalf of his clients Microsoft and Partners in Learning, spent $2,044 for a legislative reception on Feb. 5 at the Rio Chama Steakhouse.

* Mark Duran is a lobbyist who represented 15 clients, including the city of Santa Fe; Deloitte Consulting of Austin, Texas; Inx Inc. of Albuquerque; New Mexico Manufactured Housing Association; Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co., Trex Enterprises Corp. of San Diego and Uranium Resources Inc. He spent $1,448 for dinner for unnamed senators and staff on Feb. 13, the last night of the Legislature.

* Qwest paid $1,070 to take the Senate Judiciary Committee out to dinner at the Bull Ring on Feb. 6. Attending were Sens. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, and a guest; Richard Martinez, D-EspaƱola, and a guest; Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque; Rod Adair, R-Roswell, and a guest; Kent Cravens, R-Albuquerque; Clint Harden, R-Clovis; Lidio Rainaldi, D-Gallup; and Feldman.

* Paul Gutierrez of the New Mexico Association of Counties spent $866 treating the Health and Government Affairs Committee to a meal at the Cowgirl BBQ and Western Grill on Feb. 8. Guiterrez said Wednesday that mainly staff members attended.

* Ning also spent $225 for dinner for unnamed House members and staff at Tomasita’s on Feb. 13.

Bang for bucks: It’s not just parties and meals that end up in lobbyist reports. Advertising and other expense reports have to be reported as well.

Steve Allen, executive director of Common Cause, reported spending $7,091 for patching calls directly to legislators from constituents supporting House Bill 564 — which would have expanded the state’s public financing of campaigns.

That bill never even made it to a House floor vote. Maybe next year supporters should consider spending $7,000 on a nice dinner somewhere.

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