Too often I criticize state legislators for being self-interested and self-absorbed. Many have such generous spirits they throw around tax exemptions like green confetti.
For instance, lawmakers gave a break to retailers who sell lottery tickets. These transactions can be deducted from gross receipts taxes.
Lotteries are a bad bet. But because the state operates a lottery, legislators feel duty-bound to perpetuate the numbers game. Exempting retailers from a tax encourages them to continue marketing those shiny scratch tickets on behalf of the government.
Lawmakers usually don’t worry about people who play the lottery and lose. How would 30% of New Mexico’s lottery revenue go toward college scholarships if the players usually won?
And without all the luckless losers, how would members of the Lottery Authority have awarded their CEO, David Barden, a 26 percent raise in 2019? Lottery ticket sales were as flat as New Mexico’s population, but Barden’s bosses still increased his salary by $46,000, to a total of $220,000 a year.
Barden isn’t the only one who’s received a big payout from the lottery. On occasion, a player wins a jackpot.
Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, is again fretting over the welfare of lottery winners. Showing his commitment to exemptions, Woods has introduced a bill to make every winner anonymous.
An amiable rancher, Woods says he worries most about people who take home a jackpot.
“If you get a million dollars, you got a million new friends,” he told me. “Generally speaking, not a lot of high-income people play the lottery. People who aren’t used to managing money stand a good chance of being taken advantage of.”
Woods believes secrecy is the solution. His proposal, Senate Bill 198, would create another exemption to the state public records law. Barden and the rest of the lottery’s brain trust would be prohibited from identifying prize winners.
Woods, it should be noted, wasn’t always so concerned about helping New Mexicans manage their money.
He voted against a bill in 2021 to lower the 175 percent annual interest rate that was charged by storefront lenders. Woods and most other Republican senators said the marketplace should not be regulated by legislators.
In a fair-minded arena, Woods’ bill for anonymity among lottery winners would be doomed. In the New Mexico Legislature, it has an excellent chance of passing.
Woods sponsored the same measure in 2019. It cleared the Senate 32-2, and roared through the House of Representatives 61-0. Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham then killed the measure with a pocket veto, meaning she ignored it.
Legislators themselves should spike Woods’ revived bill for two reasons.
The first is lawmakers have an abiding interest in making sure the lottery is an honest game of chance. The media and public need to be able to match prizes to real people. Anything less opens the door for corruption in a state already riddled with political scandals.
Cheats fixed the Pennsylvania Lottery by weighting a handful of the numbered pingpong balls that were used in televised drawings. Theft through bookkeeping manipulations of prize money would be far easier to accomplish.
The best way to keep the lottery clean is to identify winners. Anyone who wants that information should get it.
The second reason lawmakers should reject Woods’ bill is to stop yet another attempt to weaken the state public-records law. Legislators each year propose bills to exempt additional records from being viewed by the public.
Woods’ bill is not as odious as a measure by Sen. Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque.
Tallman is sponsoring Senate Bill 63 to keep secret the names of applicants except the three finalists for executive jobs such as city manager, county manager, school superintendent and police chief.
Himself a retired city manager, Tallman says New Mexico does not get a strong pool of applicants because top prospects are afraid their names will be revealed early in a search.
His claim is unsupported by hard evidence. But Tallman isn’t the first to make such an argument.
University regents complained they weren’t getting enough high-tier applicants for school presidencies. Legislators caved in, authorizing an exemption that enables universities to keep secret the names of most applicants. Only the five finalists must be revealed publicly.
Tallman’s bill cleared its first committee on a 7-2 vote. It will be heard next by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Woods’ bill will have its first hearing before the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee.
“I kind of figured you guys would get on me about this one,” he said of his renewed proposal for secrecy in lottery winners.
The trouble didn’t begin with Woods, and it won’t end with the lottery.
There’s a rite of winter in New Mexico. Every legislative session brings attempts to withhold more and more basic information about government.