New Mexico State Rep. Mimi Stewart says she no longer attends the fancy dinners hosted in Santa Fe by various interest groups during legislative sessions. To her, it just doesn’t feel right. “The appearance of being too close to the industries, to the lobbyists--it certainly has some truth in it,” she says.
Legislators here aren’t paid for their time. Instead they receive a $159 per diem to cover lodging and food expenses during the session. It’s one of the last true “citizen legislatures,” a term that often evokes notions of free spirited independence. But in New Mexico, some say that not getting a paycheck for their time in Santa Fe makes state lawmakers more vulnerable to being courted by outside interests.
Since 2007, various state lawmakers have taken up the fight to enact a cooling-off period before a former legislator can come back to work in Santa Fe as a lobbyist. This year, the proposal co-sponsored by Stewart made it as far as passing the House floor. But a companion bill in the Senate never made it out of committee. The argument against the measure in the Senate was that the bill had loopholes--for example, a former legislator could come back to work as a “consultant,” but not a lobbyist. But Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, says the perennial killer of the bill has been a feeling of entitlement stemming from the fact that lawmakers are not paid actual salaries. “We keep running into this idea of, how dare we try to prevent them from making a living?” she says.
Still, New Mexico’s proposal--a two-year waiting period--would have been among the toughest in the country. At least 31 states have some kind of revolving-door legislation. But just eight─Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, and New York─have a two-year ban. Maryland has the shortest: Lawmakers there are banned from becoming lobbyists until the conclusion of the next regular session.
As with members of Congress, there’s one main reason why so many state legislators want to become lobbyists: They’re good at it. “Lobbying is a natural profession for a former lawmaker because they know the system and they know the people,” says Peggy Kearns, director of the National Conference of State Legislatures Center for Ethics in Government.
But in New Mexico, the line between legislator and lobbyist is an easy one to cross. In 2011, former State Sen. Kent Cravens resigned from the legislature after 11 years to take a government relations job with the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. In October 2012, Sen. Clinton Harden abruptly resigned with four months left in his term; in 2013 he became a registered lobbyist with 11 clients. In total, 26 of the registered 673 lobbyists in New Mexico are former legislators, including a former senate pro tempore, two senate majority leaders and a speaker of the house.
The issue could be reaching its tipping point: Gov. Susana Martinez supported the revolving-door legislation in her State of the State address this year. And Harrison believes that the attention paid to the bill during a year when the state is in a shortened session bodes well for next year. “It was so exciting to get a message from the governor on this,” she says. “That created a lot of buzz.”