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Heavy-Duty Campaign for Tax Break From State

By Jeff Jones
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Politics Writer

          Billboards. A TV and radio blitz. Mailers. Internet ads. A dream team of lobbyists. And a shower of campaign cash to dozens of New Mexico legislators on both sides of the aisle.
        A development company pushing a plan that could give it $408 million in future tax revenue has pulled out all the political stops as it tries to seal the sometimes-controversial deal, which could now be headed for legislative approval after suffering a Roundhouse setback just a year ago.
        Westland Development, a subsidiary of the California-based SunCal Cos., isn't the only developer seeking tax money from what are known as TIDDs to spread campaign cash far and wide.
        The El Paso-headquartered Hunt Development, one of two players seeking $164 million in future tax money for another Albuquerque project, also dashed off dozens of checks to Democratic and Republican lawmakers last year — several of whom were unopposed in their races.
        SunCal and Hunt gave a combined $62,000-plus to legislative candidates, state political committees and the state Democratic Party in 2008.
        The cost of the SunCal media blitz?
        SunCal spokeswoman Catherine Wambach on Thursday declined to say how much the company spent, saying the totals will be available in state-mandated reports 15 days after the legislative session ends later this month.
        Providing the numbers in advance of that is "not part of our strategy. It's not part of our messages," Wambach said.
        She said those figures could give opponents — some of whom are waging an anti-TIDD ad campaign — "more fuel for their campaign."
        Opponents of the infrastructure financing plans sought by both developers — known as tax increment development districts, or TIDDs — say this year's push to sell lawmakers on TIDDs could be unmatched in New Mexico political history.
        "They are the 500-pound gorilla in the room," Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, a TIDD opponent, said of Westland/SunCal. "When you have this many lobbyists, which has historically never been seen before, when you have this much media, when you have this much ability to produce materials and information, I don't know how much influence it has. It's unprecedented."
        TIDDs involve the formation of special tax districts in which a large portion of the taxes generated are set aside to pay for infrastructure such as roads and water and sewer systems. The TIDDs issue bonds secured by the tax money.
        Opponents equate TIDDs to an epic tax giveaway that siphons off future tax revenues for statewide needs. They say developers, not the state, should pick up the tab for infrastructure in their developments.
        "It's terrible policy," Sen. Eric Griego, D-Albuquerque, said during a heated Feb. 26 Senate floor debate.
        Backers of TIDDs point out that developers get none of the future tax money until they actually build their projects. They maintain that TIDDs are a boon to the state, because they entice developers to create projects that bring jobs and tax revenue that otherwise wouldn't exist.
        "It's really a massive investment. You're not eating all your corn — you're putting some into seed corn to grow your crops for the future," said Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque.
        Ortiz y Pino, who like McSorley and Griego is in the ranks of "progressive" Democrats, sponsored one of the two TIDD bills that sailed through the Senate.
        He said the full-court-press lobbying campaign was important in educating lawmakers on the complex issue.
        "Every single legislator has had multiple sessions with lobbyists," Ortiz y Pino said.
        SunCal officials maintain their political giving — which totaled more than $46,000 to legislative candidates, at least one state PAC and the state Democratic Party last year — wasn't done to lay the groundwork for this year's TIDD battle.
        "The giving had to do with it being a very big and important election cycle," said SunCal project manager Will Steadman. "Our support is for elected officials whose policies support economic development and job growth."
        Ortiz y Pino had a different take on why companies write checks to politicos.
        "I'm sure there was some attempt there, in the immortal words of Patsy Madrid, of 'gaining access,' " Ortiz y Pino said — referring to the former state attorney general's 2006 congressional-campaign comment about money in politics.
        "They're giving it because they'd like to gain access."
        High-powered lobby
        The state Senate after the Feb. 26 debate approved the TIDD bills sought by the developers, moving them on to the House for consideration.
        The votes weren't close: SunCal's TIDD measure, sponsored by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, passed with a 29-9 vote, while Ortiz y Pino's bill involving Hunt Development passed 35-7.
        SunCal is seeking $408 million in TIDD money to help develop its giant property on Albuquerque's West Side, while Hunt Development and Winrock Partners are seeking $164 million in TIDD money to redevelop the Winrock Mall area for a mix of uses including condos, offices, open space, restaurants and "high-end retail space."
        SunCal's project has drawn more fire because of its location on the outskirts of the city, while Winrock is considered "infill."
        SunCal during the 2008 legislative session pushed a $629 million TIDD bill. It passed the House but died in the Senate, where McSorley filibustered it.
        A Journal analysis of campaign finance reports shows that Westland since the 2008 defeat has contributed a total of at least $32,500 to more than three dozen state legislative candidates and one PAC in increments ranging from $500 to $2,000.
        Westland also gave $14,000 to the state Democratic Party in March 2008. More recently, it was a "platinum sponsor" of the state party's Jan. 29 legislative fundraising dinner, pledging at least $7,500 for the event.
        Westland and SunCal have a total of 11 state-registered lobbyists — including former Reps. Dick Minzner and Joe Thompson. Minzner is also a former state tax secretary.
        "They're not the B team," McSorley said.
        SunCal government-affairs manager Vanessa Alarid said her firm had a short period of time to lobby for the 2008 TIDD bill and assembled the large team to help spread the company's message.
        This year, SunCal wanted to keep the same team in place, Alarid said.
        The Winrock TIDD team, meanwhile, lists five lobbyists — including former House Speaker Raymond Sanchez.
        A Journal review of campaign records shows that Hunt Development during a one-month stretch in late 2008 gave more than $10,000 to 30-plus state legislative candidates and PACs. Hunt also gave $5,000 to the state Democratic Party.
        Hunt Development officials didn't return several Journal calls seeking comment Thursday and Friday.
        'It's not over'
        Sandy Buffett, executive director of Conservation Voters New Mexico, which is opposing the SunCal TIDD bill, said she believes campaign cash is playing a role in this year's TIDD decision-making.
        But she said pro-TIDD forces also have other factors in their favor.
        "The dominant factor is this unprecedented media blitz, which we've never seen before," Buffett said.
        In addition, "TIDDs are a complicated, almost boring, issue. ... There's sort of a glazing over when (we) talk about the downside of TIDDs. (That) absolutely plays to their advantage," she said.
        SunCal executives, meanwhile, chalk up the Senate victory to their hard work in explaining the benefits of TIDDs.
        "When you hear words like 'bailout' and 'bazillion' and 'tax giveaway,' this shows a certain amount of desperation from our detractors," said SunCal chief spokesman David Soyka. "They're probably not used to such a well-run campaign."
        While some observers believe the TIDD bills may have passed their toughest legislative hurdle in the Senate, Buffett said:
        "It's not over till it's over. We've fought David vs. Goliath battles before — but I can't say it's not daunting."
        The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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