SANTA FE – A politically charged Senate hearing on the New Mexico State Fair brought legislative criticism about the handling of a new racino deal and a rebuke from Gov. Susana Martinez, whose spokesman described Monday’s event as a “political circus.”
Critics have tried to raise questions about the 25-year racino lease for the Downs at Albuquerque, which was approved in 2011 during the first year of the Republican governor’s administration.
Most of the Senate Rules Committee hearing consisted of three Martinez appointees – one who is still serving and two who are no longer – testifying about their experiences with the State Fair and the Downs lease.
State Fair Commissioner Kenneth “Twister” Smith of Caballo, who was one of three “no” votes on the 2011 Downs deal, said there was never a thorough public review of the contract.
“It didn’t feel right,” he said.
Meanwhile, former state Board of Finance member Tom Tinnin said he felt the bidding process was contrived and planned by members of the Governor’s Office and private-sector allies.
Tinnin, who resigned from the Board of Finance in 2011 before a vote on the Downs deal was going to be taken, urged lawmakers to develop a bipartisan plan to bolster the state fairgrounds.
“This is an enterprise agency,” he said, meaning the State Fair is supposed to pay for itself. “You have to keep politics out of it.”
Former State Fair Commissioner Charlotte Rode of Albuquerque was the third Martinez appointee to speak.
Martinez, her political consultant, Jay McCleskey, and Expo New Mexico General Manager Dan Mourning, a gubernatorial appointee, all were no-shows at the committee hearing, despite having been invited by Chairwoman Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque.
Meanwhile, Adam Feldman, a former Governor’s Office employee, made multiple posts to the social media site Twitter during Monday’s hearing, countering critiques of the Martinez administration’s handling of the Downs lease.
A Martinez spokesman later defended the lease as helping the state and being the result of a competitive bidding process.
“That was nothing more than a taxpayer-funded political circus orchestrated by a desperate candidate for governor where not a single new piece of information was revealed,” Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said in an emailed statement. “What you saw were people with incredible axes to grind, all of whom have had their wild-eyed accusations repeatedly discredited.”
State Auditor Hector Balderas also was invited but did not attend Monday’s hearing. Balderas’ office last month identified a number of possible problems with the way Expo New Mexico granted the racino lease, but it did not find any violations of state law.
Lopez, the committee chairwoman who also is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination – said it was necessary to hold the hearing to inform the public about the Downs deal.
“From the outside looking in, it looks like there has been a coup d’etat at the state fairgrounds,” Lopez said.
After Monday’s hearing, Sen. Tim Keller, D-Albuquerque, called for the office of Attorney General Gary King – another candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor – to investigate the Downs deal.
Three Martinez appointees to the State Fair Commission are still awaiting confirmation in the Senate Rules Committee. Those hearings could happen later this week.