Backdoor lobbying needs to be disclosed
New Mexicans deserve to know who is paying to influence media about legislation
The Roundhouse in Santa Fe. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)
We were happy when the state Legislature passed a measure setting a 36% interest rate cap on small loans in this state, and when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham subsequently signed the bill.
Our organization, New Mexico Ethics Watch, published a report shortly before the legislative session began, showing how storefront lenders — allowed to charge interest rates up to 175% — helped keep many low-income families in a seemingly endless cycle of poverty.
We documented how long-time, influential lobbyists for the overwhelmingly out-of-state industry were successful until this year in thwarting reforms in the small-loan industry.
But in addition to registered lobbyists, in 2022 there were other forces working behind the scenes trying to stop this legislation, including one nationally known Republican campaign operative who is secretive about who was paying her.
Liz Mair has worked as a writer for several national publications, a spokesperson for 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain, and a strategist for many prominent GOP candidates.
During this year’s legislative session, some New Mexico reporters received emails from Mair opposing the interest cap. One reporter told Ethics Watch that he received 14 storefront lending-related emails from Mair, plus four from a Mair assistant, as lawmakers met in Santa Fe.
Some of those emails from Mair questioned the integrity of Think New Mexico, the Santa Fe think tank that for years has been a leading advocate for reasonable interest rates.
The implication was you shouldn’t trust Think New Mexico, but rather trust an unidentified source seeking to discredit them.
Indeed, we don’t know who was paying Mair. Just as she told at least one New Mexico journalist during the session, she recently told Ethics Watch, “… I am contractually barred from disclosing my client.”
Mair is not a registered lobbyist in this state. But could her efforts to whip up media interest in her arguments against the legislation be considered “lobbying” under state law?
“What you describe, emailing reporters about a bill, standing on its own, is not necessarily lobbying,” Kari Fresquez told Ethics Watch. She’s the director of legislative and executive affairs for the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office. “More information would be needed to determine if the person was retained and authorized by an organization to lobby the Legislature.”
The state’s Lobbyist Regulation Act defines “lobbying” as attempting to influence “a decision related to any matter to be considered or being considered by the legislative branch of state government or any legislative committee or any legislative matter requiring action by the governor or awaiting action by the governor; or an official action.”
Even if Mair wasn’t communicating directly with legislators, someone obviously was paying for her work, and we assume an operative of her stature was paid well. Her efforts were aimed at attempting to influence the public — and ultimately public officials — to oppose this legislation.
New Mexico Ethics Watch believes that New Mexicans deserve to know who is paying for outreach campaigns aimed at journalists about legislation.
We aren’t saying that anyone who contacts reporters and urges they write about some bill should have to register as lobbyists.
But when someone is paying for an organized campaign to drum up media interest in particular legislation, the Secretary of State should treat such backdoor attempts at influence as lobbying, and require registration and disclosure of the employer or client.
Under the system today, lobbyists are required to disclose expenditures of more than $2,500 for advertising campaigns meant to influence public opinion on legislation. We believe this also should apply to campaigns aimed at journalists.
This column was updated on Monday, March 18, 2022 to more accurately reflect the nature of Liz Mair’s client.
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Kathleen Sabo, NM Ethics Watch
Steve Terrell, NM Ethics Watch