Senators on the rules committee were baffled Tuesday by Gov. Susana Martinez’s announcement the night previous that she was withdrawing her appointments to the State Fair Commission in the face of harsh questioning about the 25-year lease agreement between the Downs of Albuquerque and the New Mexico state fairgrounds, potentially worth more than $1 billion to the Downs.
“I’m confused about why she withdrew them,” said Majority Floor Leader Michael Sanchez. “I don’t have a clue.”
“I was surprised,” said rules committee chairperson Linda Lopez. “It’s rare something like that happens.”
Sen. Tim Jennings wondered whether Martinez is allowed to pull back her appointments once the process has been handed to the senate.
“In my opinion, it belongs to the senate,” Jennings said of the appointment process. “Just because she (Martinez) sends a message doesn’t mean we accept it.”
Other rules-committee confirmations from Monday were passed to the main senate floor for a vote Tuesday morning. Because of the governor’s withdrawal, that did not happen for the three state fair commissioners moved out of the rules committee in the hours before the withdrawal announcement.
“Had this issue not arisen,” said Sen. Peter Wirth on Tuesday, “three of the four (commission) members would have been here this morning and we would have had a debate and a long discussion.”
If the governor was trying to keep the senate from scrutinizing the contract, Wirth said, then “to the extent it meant we didn’t have a discussion today, that was effective. But I have a strong feeling we’re going to have a discussion in some format before this session ends.”
Martinez’s message ordering the withdrawals cited Laguna Development Corp.’s protest of the deal. Laguna is claiming it made a better offer and that details of its confidential bid may have been leaked.
Martinez wrote that letting the protest to run its course will allow “the senate to have all available information to evaluate the conduct of commissioners.”
That protest is being reviewed by the state’s purchasing agent Lawrence O. Maxwell, in a process expected to take “at least several weeks,” according to Tim Korte, spokesman for the Department of Finance and Administration.
If it does take several weeks, then senators won’t have an answer before the end of the current legislative session.
A Martinez spokesman told the Associated Press the commissioners will remain in their posts and will be resubmitted to the senate for confirmation later.
The governor’s office told multiple news outlets on Monday that the names were pulled because of “political grandstanding” on the part of rules committee members who were questioning appointees about the lease.
Jennings, a Democrat, noted that the nominated commissioner who has been most critical of the Downs lease, Charlotte Rode, is a Republican.
“So when Democrats believe some Republicans, that’s political grandstanding?” Jennings said. “Hogwash.”
Jennings noted revelations from the confirmation hearings, including two commissioners admitting they made changes to the contract before voting for it (Rode said she was not allowed to suggest changes) and Rode’s personal emails being requested through an Inspection of Public Records Act request by Republican Rep. Nate Gentry.
“How can you have someone solicit personal emails?” Jennings said. “She’s just someone who saw something going on that stinks and tried to fight it. I like people like that. I want someone like that on the commission, not someone who’ll lay down and do what they’re told.