June 06, 2005

The Strange Role of ACI*

The Association of Commerce and Industry (ACI) bills itself as the "statewide legislative advocate of business interests" in New Mexico. Each year, in its FOCUS Report, ACI publishes its ratings of New Mexico legislators, assigning each member of the house and senate a score on a 100-point scale. Someone who receives a 100 is said to have "supported business" 100% of the time. If one were to receive a 0, that person is presumed to have voted "against business" on every rated vote. By publishing the FOCUS Report, ACI maintains it is able to provide "a yearly evaluation of the legislative session" and help "keep lawmakers accountable by publishing their voting records on key legislation affecting business."

ACI is a private organization, so it can set its own rules, publish its own ratings and decide exactly what bills, resolutions or memorials will be used for its own scorecard. As we say, it's a free country. The question is not ACI's freedom to publish, rather it is whether what it publishes is of any value at all: a) to its membership, b) to the business community at large or c) to those in the general public who have an interest in legislators' support for business.

Let's look at just a few of this year's House ratings:

Richard Cheney, R-Farmington  71  Sheryl Stapleton, D-Albuquerque  80
Gail Beam, D-Albuquerque  73  Don Tripp, R-Socorro  79
Don Bratton, R-Hobbs  73  Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe  80
Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque  75  Dan Foley, R-Roswell  80

These pairings are offered mainly because they contrast four conservative Republicans, all of whom own their own businesses, with four liberal Democrats, none of whom is in business.

As David Letterman might ask: Is this anything? In other words, is there actually any value in ratings that posit the notion that Gail Beam is more pro-business than Richard Cheney? Does anyone who has ever visited the Round House believe that Miguel Garcia is more inclined to support the free enterprise system than Don Bratton? Or in the last case, that Speaker Ben Lujan and Representative Dan Foley are "exactly the same" with regard to their dependability as a supporting vote for business?

These questions answer themselves, and in so doing they present the potential of making the ACI report a laughingstock. This isn't healthy, either for New Mexico, ACI, or the legislature itself. It is disturbing that several businessmen and women who have seen this report -- as well as a number of legislators -- have said that ACI just no longer has any credibility at all.

That is unfortunate. ACI has a role to play, an important one. And it does not have to put itself in this position. We can all hope they will realize the extent to which they are not taken seriously. To fail to grasp this is to set themselves up to fail in their stated mission, or -- just as bad -- to become completely irrelevant to the process.

Think about it. If some ACI donor and activist were to say to a Republican legislator that ACI might support an opponent in an upcoming campaign because, say, the Republican got a 70, or a 65. Any use of information like that would be countered by any legislator simply by stating, "Oh, yeah ACI, that's the organization that says Miguel Garcia is more pro-business than Richard Cheney and Don Bratton." Laughs all around the horn.

(Representative Garcia is the same person who introduced the Breakfast Cereal Memorial that was sent to Kellogg's, Post and Nabisco, as well as Safeway, Smith's and Lucky Savon, asking them all to reduce the price of cereals so that they could be affordable to all families. This was without regard to market forces or any other considerations. Adding to the absurdity of the present situation by the way, the memorial passed the House 33-30, with all of ACI's "highly rated" liberals voting in favor of it.)

Not only are the ACI FOCUS ratings of absolutely no value whatsoever, even worse they communicate a completely false picture of the attitude of the legislature toward business. Any fair reading of this year's FOCUS would lead an innocent reader to conclude that New Mexico must be overwhelmingly business friendly, something that is demonstrably untrue and that no one actually in business believes. This kind of thing invites ridicule, not respect.

*(I want to make it clear that far from being a critic of ACI, I in fact have good relations with the organization and am among those legislators who are rated what ACI terms a Business Star, and have been for my entire legislative service, including this year. My point is not to criticize the organization, but to encourage a serious discussion of ACI, with the goal of trying to keep it from becoming completely irrelevant.)

Other Ratings

The "Eighty Club"

Ed Boykin, R-Las Cruces80Hundreds of observers of course, including other legislators, constituents, political activists and advocates, and certainly lobbyists, will all recognize immediately that these representatives are extremely dissimilar in their attitudes, their actions in committee and their votes on the full array of issues involving business -- taxation, regulation and free market principles.
Ray Begaye, D-Shiproc80
Candy Ezzell, R-Roswell80
Larry LarraƱaga, R-Albuquerque80
Ken Martinez, D-Grants80
Nick Salazar, D-San Juan Pueblo80
Tom Swisstack, D-Rio Rancho80
Tom Taylor, R-Farmington80
Sandra Townsend, R-Aztec80
Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe80
Don Whitaker, D-Eunice80
Avon Wilson, R-Roswell80

The median score in the House is 79 and the average score is 78.2. This means that ACI is saying that a majority of all members in the House are more business friendly than the legislators who are known to be leaders for business. One is left to wonder how New Mexico persists in having so many problems in passing pro-business legislation and in creating a business-friendly environment in the state.

Systemic Problems

Ratings are done by a number of organizations, especially at the congressional level. The ACLU, Americans for Democratic Action, League of Conservation Voters, American Conservative Union, National Taxpayers Union, Christian Coalition, AFSCME, and many others all weigh in with their own assessment of how congressmen and senators vote on a wide range of issues.

In New Mexico, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the NEA, the New Mexico Federation of Teachers, and the Progressive Alliance for Community Empowerment (PACE) have from time to time issued scorecards on our legislators.

One of the key differences between the ratings of all these groups and ACI is the internal validity of the scale. That is the degree to which a rating of 100 means anything. Or the extent to which an assigned rating of 50, or 25 or even zero, has either meaning, or is even possible. The last point is crucial. For years now, an ACI rating of 0 -- zero -- has not even been possible.

Among the other organizations it is possible not only to get a 100, but to get 0. The other groups use legislation which requires legislators to make a reasonably difficult choice. Some people vote in favor of the bills, and some vote against them. ACI doesn't do that. They use a very high number of bills that are passed unanimously, requiring no hard decisions of anyone. This year seven of the House bills and six of the Senate bills were passed unanimously. Every representative got 44 free points to start. Each senator got 35.

The typical representative receiving a passing vote, 73 for example, voted for the 7 unanimous, non-controversial bills, missed one vote, and then voted "pro-business" in four of the remaining eight votes. Their real score is more like 50, rather than 73.

This does not even entertain the question of the kinds of bills that ACI requires legislators to support in order to get their "pro-business" stamp of approval.

Non-business Issues

ACI has increasingly taken positions on legislation do not even have an arguably peripheral relationship to business, let alone the market.

This year ACI required legislators to vote in favor of the Pre-Kindergarten Act. This was a bill whose annual cost is estimated at $ 55 Million. The sponsors said they could start this year with a minimum of $9 Million. In the end, they got $ 4 Million --- insufficient funds, by their own admission --- to do the job. Still, the advocates ignored everything they had previously threatened --- e. g. that they would fall on their swords for a minimum of $ 9 Million --- and vigorously fought to pass this under-funded bill. (Democrats kept saying things like "this is all for [Lt. Gov.] Diane Denish, it's her baby" and "she has staked her reputation and her whole political future on this" and "they're desperate, they'll take it even if there's only $1 in the appropriation, they just want to get it on the books.")

ACI also made the case that creating yet another cabinet department, the fifth or sixth of the Richardson Administration, is pro-business. If a legislator did not vote in favor of the creation of the Department of Higher Education it was counted against him or her.

Finally, ACI glossed over the tax increase contained in House Bill 410, a measure that increased income taxes $121 million over the next three years. They focused only on the business incentive measures and the tax relief offered to selected taxpayers, and ignored completely the net tax increases the bill produces at least until Fiscal Year 2009, if not beyond. A vote in favor of the tax increase was a "good" vote according to ACI.

The Overriding Factor

Cutting through the clutter, one legislator said today what many people have said for several years, "ACI is currying favor with the Democrats, and cooking the books in order to do it." It goes like this: Several years ago, under considerable pressure from Democrats, especially former Speaker Raymond Sanchez and former Senate Pro-tem Manny Aragon, ACI began giving away a lot of free votes, i.e. using many unanimous votes for the rating scheme, so that everyone would get lots of points. One year it was so bad that the starting rating in one house was 65, truly useless scale by any measure.

The ruse continues to this day. Some might call the New Mexico Legislature "ACI's Lake Wobegone" where everybody is above average. Absurd yes, but sadly true.

By the way, what was Governor Richardson's rating you may be asking? Answer: 100

Posted by Wayne at June 6, 2005 10:45 PM