Friends Like These

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham kicked off her second term with a private party sponsored by the oil and gas industry

Major oil companies and the pharmaceutical industry were among the sponsors of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s inaugural celebrations on Jan. 1, a day of events that marked the start of her second term and that were largely unregulated by state campaign finance laws.

There is no legal limit to the amount of money the committee organizing Lujan Grisham’s inauguration could accept from lobbyists and corporations. That’s different from the tighter restrictions regulating the just-concluded election campaign that sent the Democratic incumbent back to the governor’s mansion.

A spokesperson for Lujan Grisham’s inaugural committee tells SFR that it voluntarily capped donations at $25,000—an increase from her first inauguration, when organizers only accepted donations up to $11,000. And the committee says it will disclose donors and expenses.

But the $25,000 donation limit far exceeds the legal limit on donations to the governor’s re-election campaign. And the committee’s disclosures in the coming weeks would be entirely voluntary, too. While some states tightly regulate the money that flows into the parties surrounding inauguration ceremonies, New Mexico doesn’t—even though the funds can slosh not just into the pockets of caterers and party planners, but the governor’s political allies as well.

“People see that and they wonder, ‘Why are these corporations giving so much money to an inaugural committee?’ It calls into question the process and it’s one of those places where it’s clear there ought to be a law,” says Aaron McKean, legal counsel for state and local reform at the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group.

The governor’s inaugural committee has already revealed some of its donors, several of which have obvious reasons for wanting to make friends in high places at the state capitol.

Programs distributed at the governor’s public swearing-in ceremony on Sunday listed Chevron Products Company as a sponsor. That’s a subsidiary of a major oil producer in the Permian Basin. The program also mentioned ConocoPhillips, another big fossil-fuel player in the area.

PhRMA, a trade association and lobbying shop for the pharmaceutical industry, made the program as a sponsor, too. Other sponsors included Intrepid Potash, a mining company in a long-running fight over water from the Pecos River. PNMR Services Company, the parent company of Public Service Company of New Mexico, was listed as a sponsor along with Avangrid Renewables, a subsidiary of the company proposing to acquire PNM.

Other sponsors included AFSCME, a labor union representing state employees; Bright Green Corporation, a cannabis company; lobbyist J.D. Bullington; Eric Serna, the state’s former insurance superintendent who now works for an insurance industry consultancy; insurance broker David Poms; BNSF Railway; Intel Corporation; and the Jicarilla Apache Nation.

The donations pay for inaugural ceremonies that included a public swearing-in at The Lensic Performing Arts Center and a reception at the state Capitol, which was also open to the public. Private donors also helped pay for an inaugural ball at the Eldorado Hotel and Spa. That event was not open to the public or press, and tickets sold for $1,000 each.

The day of events is meant to underscore the governor’s priorities, which she outlined in an address that included pledges to build “serious momentum on affordable housing”; “address opioid addiction as the epidemic that it is”; create a new health care authority to expand access to care, and to cover the costs of health insurance premiums for the state’s teachers. (Nowhere did the governor’s prepared remarks include the term “climate change.”)

The events are also an opportunity to celebrate with supporters, and other uses of funds by inaugural committees have drawn scrutiny in the past.

For example, The Santa Fe New Mexican found $130,000 from Gov. Susana Martinez’s inaugural committee in 2011 went to companies connected to one of her political consultants.

Lujan Grisham’s 2019 inaugural committee reported raising about $873,000 and nearly $17,000 from that pool went to her campaign. The 2019 inaugural committee told the Albuquerque Journal that the funds were used to “rent” an email list for the purpose of promoting the event to her supporters.

SFR sent an email to the inaugural committee’s spokeswoman asking if the governor supports making the limits her committee adopted a part of state law but did not get an answer.

While New Mexico legislators have not regulated inaugural committees, McKean, at the Campaign Legal Center, notes some states and cities have adopted clear laws about such events.

California has rules about how governors can organize inaugurations, and Kansas caps contributions at $2,000 per person while also requiring inaugural committees to disclose donors. Some governments also restrict who can donate to inaugural events, with an eye toward preventing vendors from buying favor with new administrations. New York City prohibits companies that do business with the municipal government from donating to the mayor’s inauguration, for example.

“Those folks have a clear interest before the government and if you have an unregulated inaugural committee, that’s an opportunity for folks to write big checks, ingratiate themselves with politicians and impact the system using their money,” McKean says.

He adds: “I don’t think anyone is under the impression that these folks are giving money just for the fun of it.”

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