With the legislative session half over, I finally got the view of New Mexico politics I’ve been waiting for. It happened yesterday in a little Roundhouse hearing room. What I literally saw were sharply dressed pols questioning commission candidates. What it felt like, though, was looking down on the Grand Canyon from a hot air balloon. It was pure, glorious, money-motivated politics.
I’ll try to make this simple. Four people were supposed to be confirmed as members of the State Fair Commission by the Senate Rules Committee. They’d all been sitting on the commission already, and had been charged late last year with voting for a 25-year lease of the State Fairgrounds to the Downs at Albuquerque. The lease, which was approved, is going to be worth more than $1 billion to the Downs over those 25 years. That was mentioned repeatedly.
The Downs may have “at Albuquerque” in its title, but its two owners (Windham and Turner) are Louisianans who gave Gov. Susana Martinez thousands of dollars for her campaign. Then, after she got elected and right before it was time to decide who got the fairgrounds deal, they gave her PAC thousands more dollars.
So four fair commissioners were up for approval yesterday by Senators. Two of those commissioners had voted against the Downs lease last year, and two had voted for it. The two who voted for it got grilled. One might hope that our elected legislators would have had an opportunity to review this huge deal before it was signed, but they didn’t. So senators took the opportunity yesterday to ruminate on the Downs deal.
None of them like it. One of the commissioners is a Republican, appointed by the Governor, but when she tried reviewing the details of the contract last year before voting on it, she was told she needed to file an Inspection of Public Records Act request and the governor’s office sent her a letter saying she’d have to pay for copies of documents.
Commission members tasked with voting on a massive contract with the state usually don’t have to submit official requests or pay for paper when they’re trying to investigate the deal.
There’s a lot more to this. At a meeting with Albuquerque neighborhoods around the state fairgrounds, commission members who were in favor of the deal voted even though the other commissioners said they weren’t ready and the public thought that vote would be taken at a different meeting. Also, a company who lost out on the lease is suing to make sure they got a fair look.
Tim Jennings, a Democrat from Roswell with a bushy mustache, said the Downs lease “stinks” and wondered whether they could get the Attorney General involved. He thinks the state should go back to the table to renegotiate the deal. “Crooked stuff to line people’s pockets,” was one term he used.
Jennings also noted, interestingly, that a camera recording the confirmation hearings for the state’s record disappeared after a couple rounds of tough questions about the deal.
And then something stranger happened. Once the hearings were over – and the commissioners who voted in favor of the lease weren’t confirmed by the rules committee – a letter came down from the governor’s office. It said Martinez was withdrawing all the nominees. They weren’t her picks for commissioners any more.
I would have asked the governor’s office why she did that, but they ignore me. Here’s what her spokesman told the New Mexican: “The level of misinformation and political grandstanding during the committee hearing today was staggering. The governor wants all of the facts and information to be available to the Senate, which will dispel their baseless and transparent political attacks.”
Charlotte Rode is the commissioner who has been digging into the deal despite being told she had to pay for copies and submit official requests. Her issue this entire time has been the lack of transparency in the process, and the fact that the governor has controlled every step of the awarding of this lease to the Downs.
Her objection to the contract, she said, “was a matter of process. I felt the process was kept in the dark, which was inappropriate because of the size of the contract.”
And now, oddly, the governor has pulled all the commissioners from their posts on the day the Downs deal was finally getting scrutinized by legislators. It’s fascinating timing, and it’s equally fascinating that she’s making a claim to want all facts available when what she’s actually done is prevent the larger Senate body from questioning the commissioners who voted in favor of the deal.
Gingrich and Romney can spit on each other all day and night, but this Downs deal is real politics. This is a high-stakes game here, of money and political power plays.
To get the gritty details on the Downs contract, check out the Independent Source PAC website. We’ve been leading the way on this story, to the chagrin of those in this building who’d prefer bright lights shining on something else.