SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – You probably have an idea of what lobbyists do – they influence, schmooze, and spend to shape politics. But how exactly does that work? And are they necessarily a bad thing?

KRQE News 13 recently highlighted the sheer number of lobbyists and what they do, and some of their expenditures in the 2023 legislative session. Now, one professional lobbyist is offering some insight on their role, and the role of others representing a vast array of political interests at the Roundhouse.

The ‘super lobbyist’

There are now more than 600 registered lobbyists in New Mexico. And “they come in all shapes and sizes,” J.D. Bullington says. But “lobbyists are not created equal.”

Bullington is one of the relatively few lobbyists with a long and varied list of clients. He doesn’t just represent one, or two, or ten clients. He has 28 clients, ranging from the Union Pacific Railroad, to the Pueblo of Laguna, to the Santa Fe Children’s Museum.

In other words, he’s what former New Mexico Legislator Dede Feldman calls a “super lobbyist.” And there’s a handful more like him shaping the state’s politics.

So what do they do? At the most basic level, lobbyists influence elections and whether or not certain bills get turned into law. They can do this by spending money on things like gifts or dinners. Or they can influence without spending money.

Drawing the line on transparency

A key question when it comes to lobbying is: How much transparency should there be? Lobbyists are currently required to report some of their expenses. But those expense reports can be lacking detail. And lobbyists are required to report whom they represent, but there’s flexibility in that too.

“If you are influencing the passage or defeat of legislation, or you’re trying to influence the outcome of an official rulemaking proceeding – if you’re doing that work – you must register with the Secretary of State as a lobbyist,” Bullington says. “I have a handful of clients that I do not ‘lobby’ for. They don’t meet the definition of lobbying because they’re not interested in legislation.”

So, some of the work lobbyists do doesn’t fit the type of work that requires official transparency. A common example of that, Bullington says, is helping clients secure government contracts. A common example, Bullington says, is IT companies relying on lobbyists to help secure government contracts.

Other work for clients does fit the official definition of “lobbying.” But the reports that Bullington and others are required to file with the state don’t have to include very many details.

For example, if you look up Bullington’s expenses on the Secretary of State’s website, you’ll see that he spent $1,200 on a “Flamenco show for committee members, guests and lobbyists.” The only other insight the report gives is that the show went to members of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee.

There’s no way to tell from the required expense reports what the goal of the lobbying was. Did Bullington hope to push the committee to shut down a key bill? One that could impact local New Mexicans? Or did Bullington try to get a massive spending package through for one of his clients?

According to Bullington, it was neither. The dinner, and many dinners paid for by lobbyists, don’t have any legislative goal behind them, he says. The point was just to feed hungry lawmakers and maybe score some brownie points.

“I can’t even keep count of how many times I threw a credit card in for one of these committee dinners,” Bullington says. “Most of the time, the lobbyists just throw a credit card into a pile and we don’t even go to the dinner. I would say out of 10 dinners, I attend four, maybe.”

Bullington did attend the flamenco dinner. But he says those kinds of dinners aren’t any good for putting a bill under a lawmaker’s nose. The setting is too hectic. Really, the point is to help lawmakers eat while in Santa Fe without going broke.

“The lawmakers aren’t paid. They don’t have any budgets for these committee dinners,” Bullington says. “They can’t spend public money on the committee dinners because there’s no budget for it.”

“We’re helping pay for a committee to have dinner just so they can have dinner,” Bullington says. “It literally is that simple. Now we all know that, you know, we get a nice little wink from the chair of the committee and the committee members are grateful and they’re very appreciative. But we don’t talk issues there.”

Attempts to boost transparency

There’s another type of dinner that Bullington says lobbyists use to get down to business and discuss bills and key issues. These are the private dinners. And during the 2023 session, legislators introduced a bipartisan bill to require more transparency on those sorts of influences.

Senate Bill 218 would have required lobbyists to report not only how much they spent on things like dinners, but also report which bills they lobbied for and the stance the lobbyist took, either for or against, the bills.

Bullington says he’s for increased transparency around lobbying. But he says there’s only so much he feels can be disclosed.

“Everybody wants more transparency. And there’s places where we, we can do it,” Bullington says. “More can be done. But, you know, I’m not sure how far you go, though, with what would have to be disclosed.”

“If I have a private dinner with [clients] regarding issues affecting the Pueblo of Laguna, sure, I guess it’s not a big deal [to disclose that] ‘I took so-and-so out to dinner and we talked about these matters,'” Bullington says. But “I would be very opposed to having to disclose sensitive details about it. “

The bill for increased transparency stalled out during the legislative session. And at the end of the day, Bullington says lobbyists simply don’t like to be totally open.

“Lobbyists . . . we like to stay in the shadows,” Bullington says. “You know, most lobbyists don’t like to talk to the press.”

“We’re in such an unusual job where we’re influencing, literally, how people vote on legislation. You know, our profession, we just prefer to keep these conversations private.”

For more information exactly which interests lobbyists represent, check out this KRQE News 13 story. And for more on their spending, read this story.