Columns appear here a week after they're sent to newspaper subscribers.

Sherry Robinson photo

© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      4/5/21
Bad behavior sullies predatory lending debate and kills bill
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            Predatory lending was back on the agenda during the regular legislative session. Despite the usual horror stories presented in testimony, efforts to scale annual interest rates back from 175 percent fell short.
            Officially the story is that the Senate and House couldn’t agree, but there’s more to it.
            Through the years various legislators have gone to the mat against storefront lenders. This year, Sens. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, and Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, and Reps. Susan Herrera, D-Española, and Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, carried SB 66. It would have cut the interest rate from 175 percent to 36 percent, a level the federal government set years ago for loans to military members.
            Think New Mexico, a nonpartisan think tank, published a study last fall saying, among other things, that New Mexicans paid more than $220 million just in interest and fees to storefront lenders in 2019.
            SB 66 bill had the governor’s backing and support from the Navajo Nation, the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, and AARP.
            A new player this year was credit unions. They not only testified for the bill – some are making these small, unsecured loans that banks.
            During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, we heard familiar stories. An elderly veteran living in his vehicle borrowed money for a medical emergency. Within a month the loan went from $382 to $4,000. A man borrowed money to buy his kid a computer and wound up losing his truck.
            Karen Meyers, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Initiative for the city of Albuquerque, said the lenders make loans to people who can’t afford them. Borrowers take out second and third loans to pay off the first, a process called stacking, and wind up crushed by debt. The lenders’ business model relies on repeated refinancing.
            “It’s the new debt trap with a similar name,” she said.
            Meyers, serving as an expert for bill sponsors, weathered repeated interruptions, rude comments, and aggressive lawyering from Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque. It foreshadowed the headlines of bullying he would earn a few weeks later for doing the same thing to Senate President Mimi Stewart.
            Lobbyists and some lenders said bad actors should be reined in, but 36 percent isn’t workable. Lenders would close, and borrowers would turn to online and unregulated lenders. A few said credit unions wouldn’t take up the slack.
            Several credit union officers said they’re already making small-dollar, unsecured loans.
            Paul Stull, of the Credit Union Association of New Mexico, said, “We see problems with payday lending each and every day. We are concerned about the debt trap our members can fall into. Credit unions and other agencies are ready to make these loans,” he said.
            This is major, and it’s the first time credit unions have stepped forward.
            The bill passed the Senate, but late in the session, the House Judiciary Committee increased the rate to 99 percent on loans under $1,100 after Herrera and four other female House Democrats offered a compromise. They were concerned that the rapid decrease would make small loans harder to get. One of the four was Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, who had carried earlier payday lending bills.
            “For an industry like that it was too big a change and too quick,” Lundstrom told me. “We don’t have a handle on internet lending. My attitude was it was moving too fast.”
            Lundstrom added that she didn’t care for the way Soules had treated Herrera. “I’ve made the comment before that the House is not the Senate’s little sister. Some of the men didn’t treat the women very well, and I don’t like it.”
            Soules recommended that the Senate not concur; Herrera did the same in the House.
            That’s how it died.

© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES        4/5/21
In defense of lobbyists
By Harold Morgan

New Mexico Progress
Our legislators volunteer for the huge amount of work that comes with the glory of being a member of the Legislature.
Doing a lot of work, meaning campaigning, is required to gain the exalted status of being a legislator, all for compensation claimed to cover expenses of being in Santa Fe, plus mileage. While cell phones increase productivity by making it possible to do business while driving, which mostly means talking, Silver City and Jal remain far from Santa Fe.
Finally, the task itself is to consider the myriad items in the activity of the seven-plus billion-dollar organization that is state government. Nearly all those items draw passionate supporters and opponents, some of whom aren’t inclined to be very nice.
The beauty of our citizen legislature is that people step up to do the job, sometimes, it should be noted, with a shove or a twisted arm from the respective political party. It’s expensive, too. One House leader, who must like nice hotels, told me a few years ago that serving costs him about $25,000 annually.
Lobbyists come with an aura, a concept pushed by idealists including media. The aura melts elected officials or government employees when a lobbyist enters a room, such is the meme. “Powerful lobbyists” come with extra layer of meme. The aura has something to do with money.
Lobbying, paraphrasing the Secretary of State’s confusing website, means attempting to influence the outcome of a decision by the Legislature, the executive branch, or a state entity such as a board or commission and being paid for this influence peddling.
Broadly, and something ignored by the lobbyists-are-evil groups, lobbying means building a constituency for the client and the client’s positions. This is year-round work, not done just during the legislative session, the time that gets attention.
My consultant lobbyist friend prefers “influential” over “powerful.” Besides, to have power, one must have recourse, the ability to do something about being thwarted. Seldom does a lobbyist work to defeat a legislator, though that generalization drew an exception in the 2020 election when pro-choice, pro-dope and environmental groups, backed with masses of money, beat several senators who had the gall to disagree with the pro-choicers.
The lobbyist, influential or otherwise, goes to legislators and makes the case that proposed legislation would make it easier for the client to do good things and/or benefit the legislator’s district. Lobbyists become influential over time through building relationships, being honest with legislators and clients, attending events and contributing to campaigns.
Having credibility helps, the lobbyist said. It helps for legislators to know, respect and like the lobbyist. With lobbyist credibility in place, a legislator can comfortably express support or opposition to a bill and perhaps suggest changes that might create support.
The much maligned “wining and dining” is about relationships. A two-hour dinner might have all of 20 minutes discussion of a bill. More than one legislator has told me that the concept of swaying a vote with an enchilada or even a steak was ridiculous. A lobbyist attends interim committee meetings to build relationships and generate support for client positions.
Legislators gravitate to supporting things they know. Farmers and ranchers support agriculture. Energy people, those who are hydrocarbon friendly, support oil and gas. Educators support the education establishment.
Lobbyists are a necessary part of the legislative structure. They facilitate information getting to legislators and back to clients who, even if large and well financed, lack the specialized resources to deal efficiently with 112 legislators.
Even media groups lobby. One small lobbying organization is the New Mexico Press Association, which spent $2,213.55 in 2017, according to the Openness Project of New Mexico in Depth, an online publication.