State Cabinet secretaries, legislators and public regulation commissioners would be prohibited from acting as paid lobbyists for two years after leaving office under a bill introduced for consideration during the session of the New Mexico Legislature that begins next week.
Under House Bill 73, sponsored by Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, a former official would be subject to a misdemeanor charge for serving as a registered lobbyist during the “cooling off” period, and companies would be barred from paying them for such services.
“We need to be doing good-government actions to obtain the trust of the public that we represent,” Dines said of his bill.
A slew of similar proposals over the past decade have failed to become law in New Mexico. Opponents have argued that such a law would create unwarranted restrictions on former elected officials and could simply push untoward lobbying acts further into the shadows.
Douglas Carver, executive director of the newly formed nonprofit New Mexico Ethics Watch, called the bill a “pretty straightforward, commonsense piece of legislation. This two-year ban seems to be the gold standard. Frankly, I don’t see any reason for the Legislature not to have it.”
Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who is sponsoring a bill to create a state ethics commission, said he understands the concerns raised by the proposed lobbying restrictions.
“Let’s face it, New Mexico is all about relationships,” he said. “…I’d prefer to know what people are doing than to force it underground.”
A number of public officials in recent years have moved directly from high-level government posts to private industry.
Last last summer, New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn resigned his post and two months later became president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, an industry advocacy group.
A press release announcing Flynn’s new position said he would direct responses to legislative, legal and regulatory challenges. The statement included comments from five state legislators who applauded the transition, saying how much they enjoyed cultivating a relationship with Flynn during his time as a state Cabinet secretary.
Wally Drangmeister, a spokesman for the association, said in September that Flynn would not work with the Environment Department for two years or register as a lobbyist during the 2017 legislative session. But he said Flynn’s work for the state did not preclude him from lobbying the Legislature.
Later that month, Flynn filed two public records requests with the Attorney General’s Office asking for communication related to the so-called Copper Rule, an environmental regulation that he had worked on as a state agency head. He later retracted the requests, but an attorney for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center filed a complaint that his action violated the Governmental Conduct Act.
During the last three legislative sessions, the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association’s former director, Steve Henke, who resigned from the more than $250,000-a-year job in April, and the organization’s top lobbyist, Michael D’Antonio, reported spending more than $46,000 on lobbying lawmakers.
Drangmeister said Friday he had not looked at Dines’ bill and had no comment.
The Governor’s Office has stood by the legality of Flynn’s move. However, on her first day in office, Gov. Susana Martinez signed an executive order preventing government agencies from hiring lobbyists and asked for legislation that would prohibit “anyone appointed to my administration, as well as elected officials, from working as lobbyists for two years after leaving government service.”
“There should be no question that public officials are acting in the interest of the people,” she stated.
Rep. Andy Nuñez, R-Hatch, a state legislator for more than a decade, became a lobbyist for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District and the Carlsbad Irrigation District after losing his House seat in 2012. He was re-elected to the House in 2015.
Clinton Harden, a Republican senator from Clovis who had served in the Legislature for a decade, resigned in 2012 and registered as a lobbyist the following session.
Albuquerque Republican Kent Cravens resigned from his Senate seat in 2011 and became a lobbyist for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. He no longer lobbies for the organization.
A national report on ethical practices published by the Center for Public Integrity in 2015 gave New Mexico a grade of D-minus. The state received an F for legislative accountability, executive accountability and lobbying disclosures.
In the last five years, more than 60 bills have been introduced related to lobbying ethics or that sought to prohibit state and elected officials from immediately moving into lobbying jobs.
Dines during the 2015 session introduced a bill nearly identical to his latest proposal, and while it passed the House it failed in the Senate.
Dines says that earlier bill would not have precluded Flynn from taking his position as president of the Oil and Gas Association, because, despite overseeing a state lobbying organization, he is not registered as a lobbyist.
Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, said this gray area is something the state should address.
“The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association is very much a known player in legislative politics,” he said. “For the new leader of that association to have come from state government, if you asked the average voter, it does seem like it lacks transparency.”
Viki Harrison, executive director of the bipartisan group Common Cause, said the issue with a revolving door between government and lobbying is not just about money.
“Access is the big piece, the relationship — [the ability] to get their ear,” she said. “It boils down to access.”
Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or email@example.com.