The Senate Ignores Governor Martinez. Holds State Fair Commissioner Confirmation Vote
The governor couldn’t shut down the confirmation of her own State-Fair-Commission nominees after all.
After a lengthy – and at times very dry – debate over process and senate prerogative, Kenneth “Twister” Smith was approved by the full New Mexico Senate as a member of the State Fair Commission.
Charlotte Rode was also approved, unanimously, with relatively little discussion. Rode’s testimony at the rules committee raised eyebrows for senators when she said she had not been allowed to review documents on the Downs contract before voting on it, and had her own personal emails requested through a legislator’s IPRA as an act of retribution for questioning the deal.
Kenneth “Buster” Goff was also confirmed as a member of the commission.
Two days ago, Gov. Susana Martinez had tried to stop their confirmation by issuing a message indicated their names had been withdrawn. That order came immediately following a meeting of the Senate Rules Committee, which must approve the governor’s nominees before they can be confirmed by the full senate.
The governor appeared to be trying to prevent senators from discussing the state’s new lease with the Downs of Albuquerque, to operate a new racino on the state fairgrounds for the next 25 years.
That contract was much discussed by the rules committee, where members called it “dirty” and “smelly.”
Senators discussed the contract again on Wednesday, but not before they debated whether to heed the governor’s withdrawals or not.
Sen. Ron Adair tried repeatedly to argue it was inappropriate to confirm the commissioners, in light of the governor’s wishes.
But Majority Floor Leader Michael Sanchez said he had spoken with the governor’s office before their names were brought to the floor, and read a letter from the legislative counsel which included the line “It would appear inappropriate that the governor would circumvent the senate’s authority to approve nominees.”
Sen. Tim Jennings argued that because the State Fair commissioners had already acted on the huge contract, it was the senate’s job to make sure they follow through on the process mandated in the New Mexico Constitution.
The contract itself was addressed at length by Sen. Cisco McSorley, whose district is part of the fairgrounds.
McSorley backed Smith’s nomination because he’d watched Smith, at meetings on the Downs contract, say he didn’t feel right voting for the deal, despite pressure from the governor’s office.
After one State Fair Commission meeting, McSorley said, “Twister laughed, chuckled, and said ‘You know, you guys play these games all the time, I guess. You’re promised things and you’ll vote for certain things because of what you were promised. But I’m not like that…. There’s nothing the governor can promise me that will make me vote for a contract I don’t think is right.”
When Goff was brought up for confirmation, McSorley went on at length about why he couldn’t be supportive, despite knowing Goff and respecting him.
Among McSorley’s points was that Goff was the deciding vote on the Downs deal. When Goff said he couldn’t support the contract at a meeting last year where the vote was supposed to be taken, that meeting was adjourned and Goff was allowed to modify the lease in exchange for a “yes” vote. Other commissioners who expressed issues with the lease were not afforded the same editing opportunity.
When Goff voted for the lease at the next meeting, despite concerns of other commissioners and despite the fact that the vote was not even supposed to take place (it was meant to be a workshop, with a meeting for the vote to be held at a later date), McSorley said he “thought then and there this was an inside job done behind closed doors at the behest of the governor’s office, not in a transparent and open way.”
McSorley also said the contract should not have been approved because commissioners did not know how much the fairgrounds land is worth, according to their testimony before the rules committee, nor did they know who’d written the contract.
McSorley said a location like the fairgrounds typically goes for between $18 and $25 per square foot. The Downs is paying $4 per square foot.
McSorley also noted that the Downs have been historically lousy tenants in the same spot, not paying bills or paying bills late. The state is also likely to incur heavy costs of making the stables fit for animals, as the Downs has demonstrated it won’t maintain clean, safe stables.