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

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 moneyand political power plays.

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