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Expansion of auditor’s work urged

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — This is the first in a series of stories on the candidates for top state offices.

The job of the state auditor is to keep an eye on the financial affairs of hundreds of government agencies – from acequia associations to zoning districts, from the Governor’s Office to the scenic railroad that chugs along the state’s northern border.

The two Albuquerque men running for the office this year say that means more than just riding herd on required annual audits. They’re outlining expansive roles for the auditor as they campaign.

The Republican nominee is Robert Aragon, an ex-legislator and a current member of the state Board of Finance, who says he has “a lifetime of experience with New Mexico’s finances.”

The Democratic nominee is state Sen. Tim Keller, who says the auditor’s job is a logical extension of his efforts in the Legislature to make government more effective and accountable.

The winner of the Nov. 4 race will succeed Auditor Hector Balderas, a Democrat who has served his limit of two terms and is running for attorney general.

Like other so-called “down-ballot” races, the position more often than not has gone to a Democrat, since registered Democrats outnumber Republicans. It’s been 44 years since a Republican held the position.

And the candidates’ fundraising was lopsided as of the beginning of September: Keller reported raising $282,000 to Aragon’s $8,675.

But Aragon hopes to capitalize on his Albuquerque roots and his long association with Democrats – he’s been a Republican only since 2012 – to woo voters.

Both Keller and Aragon emphasize the independently elected auditor’s watchdog role. They describe the position as being tantamount to an inspector general, an investigatory office that exists in at least a dozen states but not New Mexico.

“It’s not just about making sure that the dollars and cents are balancing, but also that the performance of the entities you’re auditing are, in fact, carrying out the statutory charge,” Aragon told the Journal .

Under the law, the auditor is responsible for ensuring there are annual financial audits – most of them done by independent auditors – of entities that spend tax dollars. That includes state agencies, cities, counties, school districts, land grants and more – some 550 of them last year.

The auditor also can conduct special investigations of waste, fraud and abuse.

According to Keller, the auditor can play an “ombudsman role,” advocating for policies that help ensure citizens get a fair shake from government, and a “think tank” role in evaluating policy and determining whether it’s a good return on investment.

Balderas, the current auditor, created a special investigations division that Aragon says probably hasn’t been used enough.

New Mexico, according to Aragon, is hobbled by a “culture of corruption.” He said that had he been auditor, he would have looked into the recent $350,000 settlement between Albuquerque Public Schools and departing Superintendent Winston Brooks – which he called “a bad deal” because of the lack of transparency and the cost to taxpayers.

Either candidate’s aspirations could bump up against the constraints of the office’s $3.8 million budget and staff of 34, which the Legislature has refused to significantly expand despite Balderas’ efforts.

“For decades we’ve starved that office,” Keller told a business group recently.

Backgrounds

Keller, 36, who is midway through his second term in the state Senate, says he is “uniquely qualified for the position” because of his financial background and legislation he has worked on.

An Albuquerque native, Keller got an MBA from the Harvard Business School and has worked as an investment banker with Credit Suisse and at management consultant Booz & Company.

Before graduate school, he spent three years working in Cambodia, where he was among the founders and served as president of Digital Divide Data, a social enterprise that hires land mine victims and other disadvantaged people to provide digital content and research services.

He currently works as a consultant with Blue Stone Strategy Group, an Indian-owned economic and governmental development consulting firm.

Elected to the Senate in 2008 after knocking off longtime Democratic Sen. Shannon Robinson in the urban Albuquerque district formerly known as the “War Zone” – now rebranded as the “International District” – Keller was elected majority whip by Senate Democrats in 2012.

He was part of the successful push for the restructuring of the State Investment Council, additional qualifications for Public Regulation Commission members, and an expansion of the in-state business preference.

He also sponsored legislation in 2011 requiring a review of the cost and effectiveness of the myriad tax breaks New Mexico offers. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed it, but later ordered agencies to do an annual review.

Keller was among a group of Albuquerque Democrats who warned about overly generous tax subsidies in pursuing electric carmaker Tesla – although he subsequently criticized Martinez for not calling a special session to come up with incentives to lure the $5 billion battery factory.

Keller considered running for governor this year, and Aragon complains Keller would use the auditor’s job as a stepping stone to higher office.

Aragon contends that could lead to politically driven decision-making, which he says wouldn’t be a problem if he were elected. He is 57 now, and claims he wouldn’t even be concerned about winning a second term.

Aragon, a lawyer, was still a Democrat when he publicly supported GOP gubernatorial candidate Martinez in 2010. She appointed him to the state Board of Finance in 2011, and he says that has focused his interest on public finance and accountability.

Aragon is from a well-known Albuquerque political family. His father, Bennie Aragon, served in the House – the younger Aragon was appointed to replace him when he stepped down in 1979 – and his sister Margaret is the former wife of Martin Chavez, who was mayor of Albuquerque. He is a cousin of former state Sen. Manny Aragon.

The candidate says he was always a conservative Democrat, and became increasingly uncomfortable as the state party became dominated by progressives he calls “socialists.”

In 2009, he was stripped of his position as a Democratic ward chairman in Bernalillo County and kicked off the county’s Central Committee after endorsing his friend Jon Barela, a Republican running against then-Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.

Aragon served in the state House – where he was on the Appropriations and Finance Committee – from 1979-82, and again in 1985-86.

He was the Democratic nominee for Congress in the 1st District in 1992, losing to the incumbent, Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Schiff.

He also served on the Eastern New Mexico University Board of Regents, on the Albuquerque Charter Revision Task Force, and on the Bernalillo County Tax Protest Board.

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