Follow the Money
Campaign contributions put legislation into perspective
By Jim Scarantino
Handicap these odds: An important piece of legislation is before the New Mexico Legislature. Lined up on one side are all of Albuquerque's neighborhood coalitions. On the other sideline huddles a handful of lobbyists. Who wins?
Don't be naïve, please. Of course the lobbyists win their fair share. With all that special interest money being spent on campaign contributions and other elaborate social activities, they're usually bound to get what they want. Call it the price of doing business. We're talking the New Mexico Legislature here.
They call it a "citizen's legislature." Truth is, the New Mexico Legislature is a feeding ground for the denizens who roam its halls for a living—the lobbyists. In the Roundhouse ideals of democracy evaporate like drops of water on a hot frying pan.
In this space last week, I wrote about the odiferous facts behind HB 805, legislation designed to handcuff Albuquerque's ability to implement its Planned Growth Strategy by prohibiting the city from accurately assessing impact fees for new development. Albuquerque Democrats, Reps. Dan Silva and Henry "Kiki" Saavedra, and Republican Rep. Greg Payne, who as a City Councilor had voted for the very same Planned Growth Strategy, introduced the legislation. Though the bill passed the House, luckily for Albuquerque time expired before it could pass the Senate.
Every neighborhood coalition in the city opposed the legislation, while support for the threatened impact fees extended to the grassroots level.
City Council President Brad Winter recounts a story that drove home to him how much his constituents understood and endorsed this critical aspect of the Planned Growth Strategy: NAIOP, a developer group whose unwieldy name is really the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, asked Winter if he would mind them conducting a mass mailing in his district. "Sure, go ahead," he answered. The mailing sought to drum up opposition to the impact fees developers do not want to pay. What occurred, though, was the opposite of NAIOP's hopes. In this predominantly Republican council district in the Northeast Heights, Winter says he was deluged with constituent contacts, 90 percent of which strongly supported the impact fees.
The same grassroots support for the impact fees exists in the districts represented by Silva, Saavedra and Payne. But unlike Winter, they don't seem to care what their constituents think.
As explained last week, the fact that the chief lobbyists for the bill were the sons of Saavedra and Silva is certainly newsworthy. Their campaign finance reports on file with the Secretary of State explain the rest.
Kiki Saavedra: Longtime state Rep. Saavedra enjoys a secure seat in the Legislature. He was unopposed for re-election in 2004, but still accepted more than $29,000 in contributions for a nonexistent campaign. The biggest share of donations came from the developers promoting HB 805, followed by oil, pharmaceutical, and liquor, gambling and tobacco interests. The remarkable thing about the $29,000 is that every single penny came from lobbyists, corporations and political action committees that employ lobbyists. Saavedra did not report receiving any contributions from a regular citizen in his district.
Dan Silva: Rep. Silva is in his 20th year of Roundhouse duty. He had no serious challenge in the last election, but still raked in over $40,000. He claimed receiving only $200 from regular citizens in his district. The rest came from—you guessed it—lobbyists, corporations and PACs, in fact, pretty much the same ones that bankroll Saavedra.
Greg Payne: Rep. Payne enjoyed running in a heavily Republican Northeast Heights district. He raised more than $63,000, approximately five times as much as his Democratic challenger. But most of Payne's funds were provided by lobbyists, corporations and PACs from outside his district. You'd think there were oil and gas wells and gaudy casinos in the Northeast Heights based on his campaign finance reports. And his biggest single financial supporter was real estate development. Nearly a third of his funds came from interests supporting HB 805. Like his other big donors, those interests also are based outside his district.
Then there's Rep. Eric Youngberg, a Republican from Corrales, who works as a realtor. Informed of the overwhelming neighborhood opposition to HB 805 he initially promised to heed their wishes. After being woodshedded by a developer lobbyist, Youngberg instead became the bill's fourth co-sponsor. His campaign reports show the same concentration of donations from the same lobbyists, corporations and PACs that funded Saavedra, Silva and Payne.
If you examine the campaign finance reports of the other legislators who voted for HB 805, you see the same lobbyists' names over and over again. Most New Mexicans would not recognize them. These people don't seek headlines. They work in the shadows. And they do very well for themselves and their clients.
One dispirited City Councilor said after returning from the Roundhouse: "These legislators don't represent the public. They represent themselves, their families and lobbyists." That's not true of every legislator, of course. There are, in fact, many noble hard-working legislators that genuinely care about the public interest. Unfortunately, shady deals like HB 805 make regular citizens the losers in too many head-to-head matchups with the real powers running the Legislature. This time, Albuquerque citizens got lucky and time ran out on the session before the bill passed. But don't be surprised if HB 805 rears its head again next year.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. Scarantino, an Albuquerque attorney, can be reached at email@example.com.
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