Sunday, July 7, 2013

ROUNDHOUSE ROUNDUP: Fizzled Fireworks at the Roundhouse

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
July 7, 2013

Here’s a heartwarming little tale this Fourth of July weekend that might give you just a little more faith in this Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.

One cynical truism that haunts the American political landscape is that our government officials at all levels basically are for sale. Powerful lobbies get their way and stop good legislation simply by flashing campaign contributions in front of Congress members, state legislators or whoever.

That might be true in some cases. But here in New Mexico, I’ve found one case where that doesn’t seem to apply.

And what more appropriate issue to provide that example than fireworks restrictions.

Remember back in the summer of 2011, when Gov. Susana Martinez called for a bill that would give the governor the legal authority to impose a ban on all fireworks in the state? Her plea was sparked (sorry!) by major forest fires in the state that summer, especially the Las Conchas Fire near Los Alamos. (Fireworks wasn’t the cause of that fire or any of this year’s forest fires.)

I reported at the time that the last major fireworks legislation in New Mexico had been passed in the late 1990s. The law was changed then to allow cities to ban “aerial” fireworks such as bottle rockets and Roman candles, as well as “audibles” (loud firecrackers).

Dede Feldman, who at that time was still a state senator, told me then how she had introduced a bill in 2004 that would have given the governor the power to ban fireworks in emergency drought conditions. Although the state fire marshal testified in favor of the bill and Feldman said “every firefighter in the state was for it,” the bill didn’t even make it out of Feldman’s own Public Affairs Committee.

Yes, owners of fireworks stands around the state as well as fireworks manufacturers testified against the bill and lobbied hard against it.
But one factor that that didn’t come into play was contributions from the fireworks industry.

In fact, according to records available at the website operated by the Institute on Money in State Politics, as of 2011, New Mexico’s largest fireworks company, American Promotional Events — which does business in the state as TNT Fireworks — dropped just over $42,000 in campaign contributions on our politicians in the previous 10 years. That might seem like a big chunk of money for most of us, but keep in mind, it amounted to just a little more than $4,000 a year spread out among dozens of state officials.

In the 2012 Legislature, there was indeed a fireworks bill that the governor backed. It had bipartisan support, with Feldman, D-Albuquerque, as the main sponsor and Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, prepared to carry it in the House. But it didn’t make it to the House. It was killed by the Senate Corporations Committee.

Campaign contributions for the 2012 cycle from TNT and affiliated companies were up compared to previous years — $7,500 from the company. (And checking last week, there’s no records of any contributions since.)

Records show that two of the six senators on the committee who voted to table the bill — Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, and Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington — received $500 contributions from American Promotional Events. Another who voted to table, Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, received a $250 contribution.

But another senator who received a $500 contribution from the company, David Ulibarri, D-Grants, (later defeated for re-election) voted against tabling the fireworks bill.

Griego last year laughed at the idea that the contribution affected his vote. “Five hundred dollars? Give me a break. Five hundred dollars isn’t going to change my vote on anything.”

I believe him. However you feel about fireworks legislation and whether Griego’s committee made the correct choice in stopping that bill, the campaign contributions made by the fireworks lobby is bird feed compared with the big cash bucks routinely dropped by other sectors like oil and gas, real estate, pharmaceuticals and public sector unions in recent years.

God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.