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Land Office Race Pits Vet Vs. Newcomer

By Deborah Baker
Journal Staff Writer
          The race for state land commissioner — the quietly powerful office that controls millions of acres in New Mexico — pits a veteran of the job against a newcomer, both counting on voters' thirst for change.
        Democrat Ray Powell held the post for 10 years, until 2003, and is itching to get back in there and "clean the place up."
        Republican Matt Rush is a political novice who says it's time "for those of us in my generation to stand up and say, 'OK, you guys have had your turn.' ''
        Looming over the race is the troubled, eight-year tenure of the current land commissioner, Republican Patrick Lyons, who can't run for re-election because of term limits.
        Rush is a an ebullient, self-described conservative "farm boy" and rancher from Portales who also does leadership training and motivational speaking.
        "People who see my billboard think I should have airbrushed some wrinkles in," said the 36-year-old candidate.
        Businessmen from eastern New Mexico drafted him, according to Rush, and his campaign is being fueled in part by hefty contributions from oil and gas producers.
        Powell, 60, is a measured, soft-spoken Albuquerque veterinarian with strong ties to the environmental community.
        He was appointed to the Land Office job by Gov. Bruce King in 1993, when then-Commissioner Jim Baca went to the Clinton administration.
        Powell, who had been advising King on environmental and natural resource issues, went on to win election twice to the office.
        Since 2006, he has worked for the youth program of the Jane Goodall Institute, founded by the famed chimpanzee researcher.
        The Land Office manages New Mexico's trust lands, 13 million mineral acres and 9 million surface acres.
        Revenues from leasing — for drilling, farming, ranching, mining, and business and community development — go primarily to public schools and higher education.
        The Lyons era
        Powell calls Lyons' administration a "disaster" — while Lyons adamantly defends his record of generating money for New Mexico schools from state trust lands and running his administration with little or no budget growth.
        The land commissioner, meanwhile, has had run-ins with the attorney general over the legality of land swaps and of business arrangements with developers.
        At Attorney General Gary King's request, the state Supreme Court has put a halt to Lyons' planned series of land exchanges with ranchers in the area around White Peak in northeastern New Mexico.
        King also criticized a key provision of the Land Office's business planning leases, which allows developers to be compensated for intangible improvements on trust land.
        State Auditor Hector Balderas has been reviewing about 100 sales, trades and business leases of trust land, saying he's trying to determine whether there was misappropriation or mismanagement.
        Lyons, the only Republican statewide elected official, complains that the actions of the attorney general and the auditor — both Democrats — are politically motivated.
        While there's no incumbent in the land commissioner's race, both candidates are delivering an anti-incumbent message.
        "Ray Powell's running against me instead of Matt Rush — he's criticizing me all the time," grumbled Lyons, who is running for a seat on the state Public Regulation Commission.
        Powell claims that, policy-wise, a Rush win would effectively mean another Lyons term.
        Rush, in turn, contends that Powell might as well be an incumbent, since he held the job for so long.
        Rush praises the current commissioner for his fiscal management, saying Lyons has kept his office's budget flat and now has fewer employees than he started with.
        The GOP candidate says continuing that budget restraint, and operating with honesty and integrity, are his major campaign themes.
        Rush notes that prior audits of Lyons' operation have shown no mishandling of money. That sort of fiscal responsibility "needs to be brought to every branch of state government," he said.
        But he said he would do a better job than Lyons has of communicating.
        The White Peak swap "was handled poorly. It could have been handled in a much more open, upfront manner," the Republican nominee said.
        Next administration
        Both Rush and Powell promise greater transparency in the office's dealings and say they'd make decisions only after involving the public.
        "I think we've lost our way," Powell told a group of oil and gas industry officials during a campaign appearance.
        The Democrat claims that eight years of "bad policy and worse management" has eroded trust in the Land Office's operations, and that honesty and accountability must be restored.
        If he were elected, he would immediately set up a task force to review the office's policies and the laws that govern it, and make recommendations to the commissioner and the Legislature.
        Some lawmakers have been demanding more accountability from the land office; Doña Ana County legislators got a bill through last year that requires competitive bids for some business planning leases.
        Powell said if he's commissioner again, land swaps, long-term leases and sales would be discussed at publicized meetings in affected counties.
        And he said long-term leases would be subject to a local land approval process; a user-friendly website would allow the public to get financial information about trust lands; and he would have joint planning agreements with municipalities and counties about appropriate use of nearby state land.
        New Mexicans shouldn't be "waking up one morning to a uranium mine or an oil and gas rig," he said.
        Both candidates say they want more alternative energy projects.
        Rush, who was on a committee to develop a biofuels plan for New Mexico, is particularly enthusiastic about the prospects for algae farming.
        The GOP candidate also cites the "huge potential" for potash mining. Lyons recently leased nearly 26,000 acres in Lea County for potash mining, and Rush says that could be expanded.
        Special interests
        Currently, however, oil and gas drilling is the bottom line at the Land Office, providing $390 million of the $420 million the office earned in the fiscal year that ended June 30.
        About 40 percent of the industry's production in New Mexico comes from state lands, and the industry wants a commissioner who would make more acreage available for leasing and development, said Steve Henke, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, which doesn't endorse candidates.
        "The land commissioner boils down to one word. That's 'access,' " said Marita Noon of the Citizens' Alliance for Responsible Energy, an industry advocacy group.
        Noon says she expects Rush would follow in Lyons' footsteps, actively pursuing expanded oil and gas leasing, for example, and supporting potential uranium mining.
        Rush has repeatedly told industry groups that agriculture — including dairies — and oil and gas producers and mining operations "are absolutely being regulated out of business."
        Powell says regulations must be fair, transparent and based on sound science. He stresses the importance of collaboration and cooperation "so we don't all end up in political food fights or legal actions."
        The land commissioner's challenge, he says, is this: Generating money for schools while protecting access to trust lands for sportsmen and recreationists, while also protecting the land's natural and cultural resources.
        Environmental groups expect that Powell would stress keeping state lands healthy and promoting sustainable economic development such as solar development.
        Powell has a record of "managing state lands in a way that respects the environmental values of watersheds and grasslands and woodlands," said John Buchser of the Sierra Club's Rio Grande chapter.
        Candidates at a glance
        Ray Bennett Powell
        PARTY: Democratic
        RESIDENCE: Los Ranchos de Albuquerque
        AGE: 60
        EDUCATION: Doctor of veterinary medicine, emphasis on wildlife rehabilitation, Tufts University, 1985; master's degree, plant ecology and systematic botany, University of New Mexico, 1980; bachelor's degree, double major in anthropology and biology, University of New Mexico, 1977.
        OCCUPATION: Regional director, Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research Education and Conservation/Roots & Shoots Service Learning Program, 2006—present; executive director, Valles Caldera National Preserve, 2004-05; veterinarian 1985-present.
        FAMILY: Wife, Jean Civikly-Powell.
        POLITICAL/GOVERNMENT EXPERIENCE: New Mexico state land commissioner, 1993-2002; president and vice president of 22-member Western States Land Commissioner Association, 2000-02; special assistant to Gov. Bruce King on natural resources, health, environment and recreation, 1991-93.
        Matthew D. Rush
        PARTY: Republican
        RESIDENCE: Portales
        AGE: 36
        EDUCATION: Associate's degree in agri-business, Lubbock Christian University.
        OCCUPATION: Rush Cattle Co. LLC, farming and all-natural beef production, 2005-present; NewMexicoMatt.com, Owner-Leadership Training, 2005-present; Rush Brothers Inc., custom farming and harvesting, 1989-2004; Farm & Ranch Healthcare, regional sales manager, 1999-2004; Lubbock Christian University, director of annual fund, 1996-99.
        FAMILY: Single, no children.
        POLITICAL/GOVERNMENT EXPERIENCE: American Farm Bureau Foundation board of directors, 2008-present; Toward a New Mexico State Plan for Biofuels Leadership, committee member, 2009-present; chairman, Roosevelt County Republican Party, 2004-09; unsuccessful candidate for New Mexico House of Representatives, District 63, 2008; Dora Village Council, 2004-08.

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