National Governor’s Association conference: The corporate connection

Mike Miller trims carpet Wednesday for the stage at National Governors Association conference at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center. The NGA’s summer meeting begins today. Gabriela Campos/The New Mexican

The National Governors Association meeting that begins here Thursday is not just a gathering of political leaders but of corporate leaders, too.

Over the coming days, governors will sit on panels and mingle at lunches, not only with their counterparts from other states but with executives from major corporations whose companies have in some cases paid thousands of dollars to sponsor the three-day event.

For New Mexico, a state with one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country, it is an unrivaled opportunity to showcase the Land of Enchantment for business titans.

But for years, the corporate sponsorships of these gatherings and the lack of other voices — from labor unions to consumer advocates and conservationists — has rankled good-government groups who see such events as opportunities for businesses to get access to decision-makers.

“As it stands, corporate sponsorship programs for these organizations function primarily as lobbying opportunities by another name,” the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen wrote in a report titled “Access for Sale.”

A spokeswoman for the National Governors Association said corporate sponsorships are common practice for all manner of conventions and maintained that “in no way are corporate partners of NGA given improper access to governors.

“Corporations donate to NGA and lend their support to the Summer Meeting because they believe in our mission and understand that when states succeed, we all do,” said spokeswoman Brittany Donald.

These meetings are not all schmoozing.

Last year, for example, the summer gathering coincided with a push in Washington, D.C., to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and the association served as a platform for state officials — Republicans and Democrats — to push back.

This year’s gathering will include sessions on a range of issues, from trade to addiction, racial equity in the workplace, and infrastructure.

Speakers will include not just governors but also academics, federal officials, foreign dignitaries and journalists.

While a current program does not list any speakers from tribes or labor unions, corporate sponsors will be a big part of the event.

Panels will feature representatives from companies that have supported the association, such as Bank of America, Toyota, Walmart, financial firm Macquarie and the health insurance corporation Anthem.

The gathering also will include invitation-only roundtables with governors and representatives from companies that have supported the association, known as platinum partners.

Current platinum partners include consulting firms Accenture and Deloitte, the tobacco company Altria and pharmaceutical companies GlaxoSmithKline and Mylan, according to the association’s website.

Getting facetime with top public officials is marketed as part of the sponsorship program’s appeal.

The association touts its partners program as providing one-on-one connections to governors and their staff through roundtables and dinners. There are meetings, networking and workgroup opportunities, as well as what the organization describes as “resources and content sharing.”

The association also has a Center for Best Practices, which crafts policy papers on a range of issues, from education to electric utilities.

Donald said issues of inequality and labor will be part of the meeting, too, with speakers including economists and staff from philanthropies such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation as well as the Rockefeller Foundation.

To be sure, the National Governors Association is not the only organization of elected officials that draws on corporate sponsors.

Public Citizen surveyed a range of groups for its report, from the National Conference of State Legislatures to the Council of State Governments and the National Association of Secretaries of State.

“What is clear from the lists of sponsors for each association is that corporate sponsors have both a financial stake in the procurement decisions that these officials make and a financial interest in the policy decisions they make,” the report said. “Though all of the association representatives denied that such influence could be a possibility, corporate sponsors from the oil, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, health insurance, telecommunications, financial services and other industries stand to gain when they are given access to officials whose policy decisions profoundly affect their business practices.”

Follow Andrew Oxford on Twitter @andrewboxford.

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