Senate Committee Tackles the Downs
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
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
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 moneyand political power plays.