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State Fair-racino deal didn’t pass smell test

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I’d like to thank the Albuquerque Journal for exposing the deplorable actions of Jay McCleskey in the recent feature story titled “Buster screwed us,” which revealed how angry he and Gov. Susana Martinez were about the State Fair Commission’s 4-3 vote to delay approval of a 25-year racino lease agreement.

However, some statements made in the Journal article, including those by McCleskey and Pat Rogers, the attorney for the Downs at Albuquerque, raised my eyebrows and warrant further discussion.

First, the Martinez administration wants New Mexicans to believe that the state fair’s debt of $3 million demanded that the state rush into a lucrative long-term lease with the Downs that is conceivably worth over $1 billion to its shareholders. This claim is a red herring designed to distract citizens away from the real reasons they wanted the deal sealed quickly.

When Gov. Gary Johnson appointed me to chair the State Fair Commission, my commissioners and I inherited debt of approximately $7 million, far larger than the $3 million that the new administration was left to manage.

Back then, we didn’t have any racino revenues until several years later, something that today’s commission enjoys. Our team had to work our way toward solvency the old fashioned way, with a sound business plan, creative ideas and hard work that made the state fair an event that New Mexicans could be proud of.

It’s ludicrous to suggest that political fallout from $3 million in debt was the major reason why a new racino lease had to be settled immediately. While I do not believe the state Legislature would ever allow the state fair to go bankrupt, I do believe that they, led by the Legislative Finance Committee, would have demanded an action plan to restore solvency. But perhaps this was too difficult a task for Martinez’s inexperienced appointees to undertake.

Second, in response to Pat Rogers’ role in negotiating the Downs deal, he alleges that it was unusual for the state to enter into a competitive bidding process for a deal such as the racino lease. In my combined 16 years on the State Board of Finance and 6½ years as State Fair Commission chairman, many deals presented to our boards were both competitively bid and transparent.

Rogers’ claim that “no one had done that before” is just false.

In 2002, my fellow commissioners and I issued a 90-day request for proposals for the management of the racino. We advertised nationally and attracted interest from all over the country. At least eight groups were interested in bidding in a competitive process that would have ensured that the state would get the best deal possible.

Unfortunately, Gov. Bill Richardson killed our RFP by disbanding the State Fair Commission. But we proved it could be done, and the Martinez administration could have done the same.

Yet despite advice to the contrary, Martinez plowed through with the questionable and inadequate 30-day RFP that attracted only two in-state bidders, and the Downs was awarded the lease, thus enriching those who donated heavily to her campaign.

Witnessing how this transpired personally disgusted me as a New Mexican. After being scolded by Martinez that if I were to speak in an open meeting in a way that would “disparage her people,” that she would “take it personally,” I resigned from the State Board of Finance rather than have to vote on such a disgraceful deal. In my many years of volunteer and unpaid service to four governors – two fellow Republicans and two Democrats – only Martinez attempted to bully and intimidate me.

The Journal’s revelation of the texts sent by McCleskey in his role as Martinez’s representative confirmed for me that from its very inception, the racino deal with the Downs did not pass the smell test. Never have I ever seen a governor’s adviser – let alone one that isn’t even a state employee – become so inappropriately involved with the activities of state government.

As New Mexicans, we should demand this behavior stop immediately.

Tom Tinnin is a past chairman of the New Mexico State Fair Commission

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