Before learning the ins and outs of lobbying, Rainy Upton didn’t realize how difficult it could be.
Lobbyists are expected to know how legislators will vote on a bill right before the vote actually takes place. Lobbyists must be polite, always calling lawmakers by their titles, and must dress professionally. They need to make sure lawmakers are present before a vote, as it’s common practice for politicians to take phone calls right before controversial votes.
“Half of the time, there’s nobody on the phone; that way, they sneak out without alienating their voters,” Upton, a retired Pennsylvania teacher and Eldorado resident, tells SFR. “I didn’t know how sneaky it gets.”
We Are People Here!, the local MoveOn.org branch and several unions are organizing “citizen lobbyist” drives, in which experienced union lobbyists train regular people in order to counter big money lobbyists’ influence.
“Those lobbyists are going to fill the room, and we want to beat them to the punch,” Upton tells SFR.
This month, she’ll be following a bill by Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, to establish a state-owned central bank that would provide loans to New Mexico’s smaller banks and credit unions. The bank would allow smaller credit unions to take $100 million from the state’s general fund and provide $1 billion worth of loans [SFReporter.com, Nov. 30, 2011: “Rep. Egolf to Reintroduce State Bank Bill”].
But this “citizen lobbying” drive may butt heads with Gov. Susana Martinez’ priorities. In 30-day legislative sessions, the focus is mostly economic, with the governor and Legislature prioritizing writing new budgets for state agencies. The House and Senate finance committees have been trying to put together the state’s general budget since Jan. 9.
Because Egolf’s bank bill is not an appropriations bill, Martinez would have to put it on the legislative agenda in order for it to be legitimately considered. If she doesn’t, Egolf can introduce it as a memorial, which would have only symbolic value if passed. But Egolf is optimistic.
“I’ve had bills put on the call weeks into the legislative session in the last administration,” Egolf tells SFR.
Beyond funding state agencies, Martinez’ top priorities will be reducing taxes for some businesses and rewarding companies that hire veterans. She’ll be leaning on Republican leaders to enact this agenda.
“I don’t necessarily have a specific issue myself,” Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Chaves, the minority floor leader, tells SFR. “We’ll try to do the best we can do with the governor’s packages.”
One area of potential common ground between Martinez and the Democrat-run Legislature—and a focal point for the citizen lobbyists—is campaign finance reform. State Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, is working on legislation to require independent expenditure committees and nonprofits involved in elected statewide candidates to disclose their donations. Martinez, who has voiced support for publicly disclosing campaign donations, has said all election-related bills would be considered.
“That’s so important because, after [the US Supreme Court decision in] Citizens United, corporations have unlimited rights and can give unlimited money to political actions committees,” Wirth tells SFR.
Wirth’s bill would only apply to in-state races; New Mexico candidates for the US Senate, for example, would be exempt. But with the recent court ruling overturning New Mexico’s recently enacted campaign contribution limits—US District Judge William P Johnson barred the state from enforcing donation limits for independent expenditures and to candidates for federal office—Wirth sees his bill as more timely than ever.
“This is the one thing the Supreme Court said we could do,” Wirth says. “I think it’s a pretty important thing that voters understand where the money is coming from.”
Several lawmakers are also gearing up to propose reforms to the scandal-plagued Public Regulation Commission.
“I’m going to be supportive of legislation that does anything to better control that commission,” House Minority Leader Tom Taylor, R-San Juan, tells SFR.
Taylor has authored a bill that moves insurance regulation out of the PRC.
He also supports governor-appointed commissioners subject to stricter qualification requirements.
“It’s difficult to regulate something when you don’t know how it works,” Taylor says.
Egolf has also proposed a constitutional amendment that would shift the PRC’s insurance regulation function to a single, statewide-elected commissioner. Part of the reason Egolf says the insurance division should stand alone has to do with the coming implementation of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
“There’s going to be a lot of decisions that will require serious focus and serious public input,” Egolf says. “I don’t want someone appointed by the PRC deciding whether rape victims are going to have immediate access to contraceptives.”
Another of Egolf’s proposals calls for a constitutional amendment requiring the governor to select a bipartisan nominating commission that would pick commissioners, modeled after how the state selects judges.
“A college degree by itself misses the mark,” Egolf says, referring to one popular proposed standard for commissioners. “The judicial nominating commission works so well, we don’t have to turn the wheel.”
Bruce Throne, an attorney with more than 30 years’ experience practicing before the PRC, agrees with the idea of appointing a nominating commission.
“This is not a job for political aspirants hoping to use it as a springboard to higher office,” Throne tells SFR. “If you do this job right…you make neither side happy in the big, important cases.”
At least two controversial issues from the September special session will also resurface: repealing the law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses and stopping “social promotion,” in which third graders who can’t meet reading standards are allowed to graduate to fourth grade.
The citizen lobbying coalition will be there to oppose both issues, and Upton is learning that, in order to be effective, she must never be angry with legislators.
“But you do let them know the consequences,” she says. “The main thing is building relationships and giving respect.”
Additional reporting by R Harrison Dilday and Alexa Schirtzinger.
State Sens. John Arthur Smith, D-Hidalgo, and Stuart Ingle, R-Chaves, may work together on fixing the state’s retirement fund, which, between educators and state employees, had $8 billion worth of unfunded liabilities as of 2010. While the state’s Educational Retirement Board is proposing raising the retirement age and curbing certain benefits to help solve the problem, that idea has been met with fierce resistance from public employee unions, which will make their presence known at the Roundhouse during the general session.
Carter Bundy, a political director with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in New Mexico, predicts that any change to the retirement age would be eventually rejected in court.
“People who are current employees have always been promised these benefits,” Bundy told SFR in November.
Opposition like this makes Smith skeptical that anything substantial can happen on pension reform this session.
“You’re talking apple pie and motherhood when you’re talking about people’s retirement,” Smith says. “But the longer you push that down the road, the more painful it’s going to be in the future.”