Ever notice political columnists seem to relish writing stories about lobbyists? The word “lobbyist” has a connotation, like “quid pro quo.” It’s innocuous, but now notorious and with more than a whiff of noxiousness. How much was that shot of whiskey? Where did they have lunch?
It’s like everyone is in on the take and everyone has a movida they don’t want people to know about. That's true sometimes, but it doesn't apply to every lobbyist. The good ones are there to educate and monitor for unintended consequences of misguided intentions.
One of the best is Jack Milarch, who has represented homebuilders and their issues at the Roundhouse for more than 40 years. I don’t know this for sure, but he must be the longest-serving representative of a state homebuilders association in the country. Probably by decades.
Milarch, in his early 70s, has probably never taken the elevator at the Roundhouse. He also has never wavered in his commitment to leave his home in Albuquerque for every session and live out of a condo near the legislative action in Santa Fe. It’s hard for us old-timers to imagine someone in their early 30s replacing Milarch, but his own experience belies our silly presumptions.
Quiet and unassuming, he can out-lawyer the lawyers and out-wonk the wonks. He’s not a backslapper or a drink-buyer, but he does get to hand out small contributions to candidates, when rules allow for such payments, from two political action committees that some homebuilders support with voluntary contributions.
Having been in such meetings when an envelope is passed, I can assure you the only thing ever bought is easier access to make a pitch, which is not a hard meeting to pull off when you have a citizen legislature. Whether the pitch ever resonates is always based on the shrewd calculations of politics that politicians are forced to play.
Milarch knows how to play the long game with patience, unless it is time to pull out the stops and stop something in a committee. With only one industry to represent, finding common ground would appear to be easy. But New Mexico is a diverse state, and homebuilders are in every nook and cranny of it. They are deep blue to rabid red and every shade of purple in between.
Milarch has been a tireless champion of very dry issues, such as code developments, gross receipts tax pyramiding, domestic wells, solid-waste septic systems, homeowners associations, lien laws, and licensing and impact fees. He made his bones in the Legislature early on with creation and passage of the Group Self-Insurance Act.
That act led to the creation of Builders Trust, one of the first group insurance entities formed to provide workers compensation insurance exclusively to the construction industry. It has saved the industry millions and, because a business must be a member of a local homebuilders association to access the benefit, it has been the best recruitment vehicle for local associations.
This year’s hot-button issue is predatory class-action lawsuits by out-of-state legal sharks who have exhausted the markets in bigger ponds like California, Arizona and Nevada. Their sights are now set on the low-hanging fruit of New Mexico. In a state with no laws requiring builder warranties, it probably looks ripe and juicy.
For Milarch, the fights never end. Fortunately for homebuilders, Milarch is a lobbyist who relishes the game and has many more wins than losses.
Kim Shanahan is a longtime Santa Fe builder and former executive officer of the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association.