Free lunches give business access to New Mexico lawmakers – The Durango Herald

Free lunches give business access to New Mexico lawmakers - The Durango Herald

SANTA FE – Companies clamoring for contracts on internet services and student testing are buying legislators free lunches at meetings about education policy. It’s a legal and a frequent practice that some people find unappetizing.

Cedar Attanasio

Highlights

  • The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government says that as long as they are disclosed, it’s legal for companies to buy legislators lunches and give gifts.

  • On Tuesday, Democratic and Republican state legislators and their policy staff members enjoyed enchiladas, roast beef sandwiches, steak salads and other entrees with soft drinks and sides “Sponsored by Comcast,” according to an agenda released by the Legislative Education Study Committee.

“If the industry didn’t want anything from the legislators, then why would they be providing them with lunches?” New Mexico Ethics Watch Executive Director Kathleen Sabo said. “It’s just human nature. If somebody gives you something, … you’re going to react more favorably to them.”

“And then the public needs to ask ‘Why are they doing that?’” said Melanie Majors, the foundation’s executive director.

Democratic state Sen. Harold Pope of Albuquerque takes a lunch paid for by a lobbyist on Wednesday in Santa Fe. The internet provider Comcast paid for Tuesday’s lunch for members of the Legislative Education Study Committee, and Amplify Education paid for lunch on Monday. Both companies do business with school districts or the state’s education department, which are funded by the Legislature. (Cedar Attanasio/Associated Press)

Cedar Attanasio

Comcast’s name also appeared before the committee on Monday in a budget comparing cost estimates from internet vendors collected by a school district in southern New Mexico. The Comcast estimate district was around $1.6 million. About two dozen districts are required to prepare plans to provide internet to students because of a state court ruling, and legislators are deciding if they will provide additional support to districts when they meet in February for a 30-day lawmaking session.

Legislators don’t award internet or testing contracts and can’t enrich companies directly. But they have considered legislation that would make it easier and cheaper for Comcast to expand its costly internet delivery system, which involves the laying of a physical cable, sometimes along trenches controlled by the state or public utilities.

Republican Sen. Gay Kernan of Hobbs said sponsored lunches have been common practice in her 19 years serving the Legislature, and that a sandwich can’t buy her vote. “It doesn’t influence me one way or the other,” said Kernan, adding that she doesn’t decide which companies the education department selects for contracts.

Dines lost his seat to a Democrat in 2018, after serving in the state House for three years. More recently, lawmakers have called for tightening disclosure laws. Two proposed this year never got a vote, however.

“The appearance of impropriety is always there when you accept something free, No. 1. No. 2 is only the legislator themselves know whether or not they’re being influenced,” said retired Republican representative Jim Dines, a former attorney who now lives in Lubbock, Texas. A former state legislator who says he refused to accept as much as a bottle of water from lobbyists believes there is a problem.