ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Republican Gov. Susana Martinez promised change, and she is delivering.
From wilderness trapping to homebuilding to oil-and-gas drilling to chile harvesting, the new administration has begun putting its stamp on New Mexico.
Martinez has been in office just six months, a tenure bracketed by the brilliant sunshine and bone-chilling cold at her swearing-in and the hot, smoky grayness of this summer’s wildfires.
“We make our destiny,” she told the crowd in her Jan. 1 inaugural speech. Hours earlier, she had begun methodically unraveling the legacy of her predecessor, Democrat Bill Richardson.
Her term is already historic. She’s the first woman to be elected New Mexico governor and the nation’s first female Hispanic governor.
Yet she dismayed women’s groups by dismantling a decades-old women’s commission. And she rankled some Hispanics with measures they considered anti-immigrant.
Martinez won election last November with 53 percent of the vote, pledging to trim spending, clean up government and roll back regulations she said hampered economic growth as New Mexico struggled to recover.
It was a message welcomed by voters weary of the government bloat and the pay-to-play allegations of the Richardson era.
Some Martinez-watchers say her agenda is a page from the GOP playbook.
The former district attorney from Doña Ana County hadn’t even taken office when the buzz started about her as a vice presidential prospect in 2012. She is a star among new Republican governors — one of only three who would be elected again today, according to a recent survey by Public Policy Polling that showed her with a 52 percent approval rating.
“My guess is she is responding in many ways to a national Republican Party that has its agenda and would very much like her to replicate it in New Mexico,” said University of New Mexico political science professor Christine Sierra.
Critics say Martinez has never left campaign mode, pointing to what they believe is the ongoing influence of her chief campaign strategist, Jay McCleskey.
The Governor’s Office is on the state Capitol’s top floor, and the governor’s operation is often referred to in conversation as “the fourth floor.”
Some lawmakers use shorthand as well to describe McCleskey’s perceived influence: “The fifth floor,” they call him.
Economy and environment
Martinez pledged to make New Mexico more business-friendly, and the first thing she did — just minutes into her term — was to freeze proposed and pending regulations for 90 days while a task force reviewed them.
While Richardson won over the business community with moves such as his 2003 high-bracket income tax cut, industry balked at his environmental initiatives.
Martinez’s executive order blocked Richardson-era rules curbing greenhouse gases, increasing energy efficiency in new buildings, and regulating water quality at dairies.
Environmental groups promptly sued — the first in a series of challenges to her muscle-flexing on those and other issues that the governor has lost in the state Supreme Court.
The high court overruled Martinez and ordered the regulations published, although the greenhouse gas and water quality rules are being appealed by industry in the state Court of Appeals.
The energy efficiency standards for new homes and commercial buildings, meanwhile, were rolled back administratively by the Martinez administration’s newly constituted Construction Industries Commission.
New governors are expected to put their own people on powerful boards and commissions, and Martinez wasted no time getting rid of Richardson’s Environmental Improvement Board, which had adopted the greenhouse gas curbs and a cap-and-trade plan.
The new, Martinez-appointed EIB is proving more industry-friendly.
It recently sided with PNM Resources in approving a plan to reduce polluting haze from the company’s coal-fired San Juan Generating Station.
Rejecting a more comprehensive and costly cleanup strategy backed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the EIB instead adopted a pared-down plan endorsed by the state Environment Department.
Shaking things up
There is a template for the change Martinez is bringing about.
The “Small Business-Friendly Task Force” report of April 1 provided an inventory of industry gripes, including a chart listing 48 Environment Department regulations that it said should be revised or jettisoned.
Among the complaints: midlevel managers at Environment and other agencies who were alleged to have an “anti-business agenda” in permitting and enforcement.
The Environment Department’s new bosses subsequently shuffled several key division heads around, to jobs outside their areas of expertise.
Critics said the changes would blunt the agency’s effectiveness.
“The corporations own this administration, and they are getting their payback on a daily basis,” said Jonathan Block of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.
Lawyers from the center claimed that dairy industry attorneys helped draft Martinez’s directive blocking the water quality regulations.
The industry says it sent Martinez’s transition team a memo outlining the legal issues; Martinez’s spokesman says their input wasn’t used.
The task force’s to-do list includes revising the Richardson administration’s “pit rule,” regulating the disposal of waste from oil and gas drilling. Its supporters say it’s critical to protect groundwater; the industry says it’s too far-reaching and costly.
Oil and gas producers are now trying to reach agreement on a proposal to rewrite — or perhaps repeal — the rule. It could be presented to the Oil Conservation Commission by the end of the summer, according to Steve Henke , president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. Henke said industry expects “a fair and balanced hearing.”
“We feel very strongly that the previous rule-making was very much politically motivated, and that the economic impacts were not fully analyzed, discussed or considered,” he said.
The findings of the Small-Business Friendly Task Force literally stretched into the wilderness.
The panel recommended the Game Commission revisit a temporary ban on trapping in the Gila and Apache national forests, which was ordered by Richardson in November while a study was conducted on trapping’s impact on Mexican gray wolves.
The Martinez-appointed commission also voted last month to suspend the Game and Fish Department’s participation in the wolf recovery project. While it didn’t halt the program, it gave ranchers a boost.
Clearing the way
The Economic Development Department has set up an Office of Business Advocacy for what Secretary Jon Barela describes as “chopping down those regulatory weeds.”
Companies that encounter bureaucratic roadblocks or delays — with permitting, licensing, inspections or taxation, for example — can ask for help. More than 50 have.
Randy Clark, CEO of Border Foods in Deming — which was just bought by Chicago condiment giant Mizkan Americas — recently needed quick turnaround on an Environment Department permit for a new boiler.
The permit process could have taken at least 90 days, he said, but the company had just 60 days before the green chile and jalapeño crops — 1.5 million pounds a day — would be ready for processing.
“They jumped right on this and basically bird-dogged it on a daily basis, to make sure this permit got issued as soon as possible,” Clark told the Journal.
“I’m very appreciative that they’re taking a pro-business approach,” he said.
The Martinez administration also expedited approval of a new air quality permit for Intel in Rio Rancho, where the company employs more than 3,000 people.
“We have worked swiftly and efficiently to grant this permit to Intel, our state’s largest manufacturer, to allow the company to further invest in their facility and in New Mexico,” Martinez said after the state Environment Department approval.
Just getting started
In her first session, the new Republican governor failed to get the Democratic-dominated Legislature to go along with one of her top priorities: repealing the law allowing illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses.
She did manage to get lawmakers to cap rebates to the film industry, and she pushed through a top proposal in the education overhaul agenda that was a major element of her campaign — an A-to-F grading system for public schools.
But legislators failed to pass another of her education priorities, ending the practice of social promotion.
And they rejected a bill creating a task force to revamp teacher evaluations, so Martinez created it by executive order. Its mission: Develop a performance-based teacher compensation system that would rely heavily on student achievement.
The governor has tangled repeatedly with the education Establishment — particularly with giant Albuquerque Public Schools — insisting that budget cuts come from administration, not classrooms.
After the legislative session, Martinez was back in court again, this time because of her vetoes.
She had altered an appropriation from $150,00 to $50,000 by vetoing out the number “1,” which the Supreme Court ruled she couldn’t do.
Lawmakers also objected to her veto of a $128 million tax increase on businesses to shore up the state’s unemployment compensation fund. A ruling is pending in that challenge.
Martinez’s other Supreme Court loss points up her antagonistic relationship with organized labor: The court ordered her to reinstate two Public Employee Labor Relations Board members she had ousted.
She has prevailed, however, in a couple of cases before the high court.
The justices denied the appeal of a Richardson appointee she removed as director of the Workers’ Compensation Administration.
And the administration won a challenge by a group of trade unions that contended state government was afoul of the law by not paying the prevailing wage on public works projects.
Martinez has cut the pay of political appointees and Cabinet secretaries, strengthened an employee code of conduct, and barred companies with unsatisfactory performances or fraud convictions from getting state contracts. And she’s hung a “For Sale” sign on one of the state’s jets.
“As a conservative, I believe in smaller government and good accountability for government spending and the use of government resources. So I just applaud what she’s doing,” said Carlo Lucero, an owner of Sparkle Maintenance, a janitorial business based in Albuquerque.
Some of her supporters say the pace of promised change has been too slow.
“Six months into the administration, things have not moved as quickly as I would have liked them to,” said Karin Foster of the Independent Petroleum Association. “It’s just going to take a little bit of time to put all the pieces in place.”
There has also been grumbling — privately — by a variety of interest groups that Martinez is not as accessible as they’d like her to be.
Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Alex Romero says that’s not his experience. He describes her as “open, available and supportive.”
“The governor needs time to implement her own agenda. … Six months is not a long time to understand a big organization and determine priority,” Romero said.
In Her Own Words
Gov. Susana Martinez on her first 180 days in office:
“As I said from Day One, the first critical step to putting New Mexicans back to work was to get the state’s financial house in order and close the largest structural budget deficit in state history. I am proud that we were able to do this by cutting government spending — not by raising taxes. And, we protected classroom spending and health care for those most in need.
“It is the job of state government to create an environment where small businesses and entrepreneurs can thrive and hire workers. This requires New Mexico to be competitive with other states so that New Mexico businesses do not flee elsewhere, and so that New Mexico can compete with other states for the jobs of tomorrow. We’ve made progress, but there is an awful lot of work left to do.
“We are reforming our education system so we focus on student performance and not simply throw more money at the failed status quo. Our reforms seek to measure the progress of each child and school — so we can focus our help on those who need it most. Grading schools was the first of a series of reforms in an effort to improve New Mexico’s schools for every child.
“In the midst of the economic troubles that New Mexicans are already facing, we have confronted a series of emergencies caused by some of the coldest temperatures and largest wildfires our state has ever seen. I have seen the extraordinary goodness and resilience of the people of our state, as New Mexicans always pull together to overcome whatever challenges we face.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal