Free Breakfasts Gain Commercial Access to New Mexico Lawmakers | New Mexico News


By CEDAR ATTANASIO, Associated Press / Report for America

SANTA FE, NM (AP) – Companies that demand contracts on internet services and student testing buy free lunches from lawmakers at education policy meetings. It is a legal and common practice that some people find unappetizing.

On Tuesday, Democratic and Republican state lawmakers and their political staff ate enchiladas, roast beef sandwiches, steak salads and other entrees with soft drinks and “Comcast-sponsored” sides, according to an order from the day published by the Study Committee on Legislative Education.

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government says that as long as they are disclosed, it is legal for companies to buy lawmakers’ lunches and give freebies.

“And then the audience has to ask ‘Why are they doing this?’ ”Said Melanie Majors, CEO of the foundation.

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“If the industry didn’t want anything from lawmakers, then why would they provide them with lunches?” New Mexico Ethics Watch Executive Director Kathleen Sabo said. “It’s just human nature. If someone gives you something, (…) you will react more favorably to them.

The Comcast name also appeared before the committee Monday in a budget comparing offers from internet providers collected by a school district in southern New Mexico. Comcast’s offer in that district was about $ 1.6 million.

About two dozen districts are due to prepare plans to provide internet to students due to a state court ruling, and lawmakers are deciding whether to provide additional support to districts when they meet in February for a session. legislative period of 30 days.

Lawmakers do not award internet or test contracts and cannot directly enrich businesses.

But they envisioned legislation that would make it easier and cheaper for Comcast to expand its expensive Internet delivery system, which involves laying a physical cable, sometimes along state-controlled or utility-controlled trenches.

Republican Senator Gay Kernan, of Hobbs, said sponsored lunches were standard practice during his 19 years in the legislature and a sandwich could not buy his vote.

“It doesn’t influence me one way or the other,” Kernan said, adding that she doesn’t decide which companies the education department selects for contracts.

A former state lawmaker who says he refused to accept as much as a bottle of water from lobbyists thinks there is a problem.

“The appearance of impropriety is always there when you accept something free, number one. Second, only lawmakers know whether they are influenced or not, ”said retired Republican Representative Jim Dines, a former lawyer who now lives in Lubbock, Texas.

Dines lost her seat to a Democrat in 2018, after serving in State House for three years.

More recently, lawmakers have called for tighter disclosure laws. However, two proposals put forward this year never got a vote.

As committee chair, Democratic Senator Bill Soules de Las Cruces, has final authority over which companies have to pay for lunch, which can save them a few minutes to pitch their products to lawmakers. Soules said he delegates the decision to staff. He echoed his colleagues who said the lunches did not affect their votes.

Many lawmakers, including Kernan, say they are happy to accept free lunches in part because they are among the few lawmakers in the country who do not receive a salary. They are entitled to a pension after 10 years of service and receive a daily allowance to compensate for travel costs. Kernan says the allowance is not enough to pay for lunches.

Sabo, of New Mexico Ethics Watch, is a former legislative assistant who says staff and lawmakers depend on food during legislative sessions and interim committee hearings.

She estimates it could cost around $ 50,000 to provide meals for lawmakers and drafted a law that would pay for their food. She’s been circulating it to lawmakers over the past couple of years and is still looking for one to sponsor it.

Monday’s lunch was sponsored by Amplify Education Inc, a competitor to the current New Mexico provider of standardized testing among elementary school students called Istation.

Amplify currently has contracts for some science teaching tests, but wants to do more business with the state, according to Kernan’s account of their presentation.

She said she loved Istation and wouldn’t advocate Amplify replacing her annual tests. But she praised the “opportunity to learn from Amplify” about the midterm testing service.

Amplify began lobbying in New Mexico this year and is required to disclose Monday’s lunch in a triennial disclosure due Thursday. In South Carolina, Amplify Education lost a testing offer to Istation and complained to state officials in what has become a lengthy administrative dispute.

A lobbyist registered on behalf of Comcast and Amplify declined to comment.

Comcast spokeswoman Julianne Phares said the company did not showcase any products at Tuesday’s lunch. She declined to comment on what the company hopes to earn by sponsoring the lunch, or how much it costs.

Since the lunch was reported on October 4, the first day of a three-time-per-year reporting window, Comcast’s disclosure won’t be public until January 15, after filing for legislative legislation begins. of 2022. session.

Dines, the retired lawmaker, said disclosure laws do not fully inform voters about the influence of money on elected officials. State law restricts lobbyists from giving $ 1,000 to any lawmaker or state employee, but does not require them to report gifts, including who accepts lunch.

“What the public doesn’t see is how much that is over a one-year period from a dollar or value perspective,” Dines said.

Attanasio is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative corps. Report for America is a national, nonprofit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to cover undercover issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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