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Home Is Where the Ballots Are

By Thomas J. Cole
Journal Staff Writer
          There is a lot of Hobbs in Marty and Johnny Cope.
        The wealthy couple own several businesses and a large home there. They are active in civic and political affairs.
        A terminal building at the airport is named after Johnny Cope. Marty Cope is the founder of an annual Christmastime fundraiser for foster children.
        Reared in Hobbs, Johnny Cope first registered to vote in Lea County in 1972; Marty Cope, a native, started voting there in 1998.
        Yet, on June 23, the Copes transferred their voter registrations to Lincoln County, allowing them to vote in a special election on a tax break for the Ruidoso Downs horse-racing track and casino.
        That is noteworthy for a couple of reasons.
        Marty Cope is chairwoman of the New Mexico Racing Commission and a member of the state Gaming Control Board.
        Johnny Cope has a business interest with Ruidoso Downs majority owner R.D. Hubbard. He also is chairman of the state Transportation Commission. Both Copes are appointees of their good friend Gov. Bill Richardson.
        Marty Cope has said her husband's partnership with Hubbard in the ownership of several race horses doesn't pose a conflict of interest for her in regulating Hubbard's track and casino.
        Cope, in her role as head of the Racing Commission, publicly warned Lincoln County residents that Hubbard could abandon the track and casino if voters didn't approve the tax break.
        For the transfers of their voter registrations, the Copes listed a physical address in the upscale Alto subdivision outside Ruidoso. They still listed a mailing address in Hobbs.
        The Copes later cast mail-in ballots in the September election on imposition of a three-sixteenths of a cent increase in the gross receipts tax. The tax hike was approved 3,719 to 3,299, or 53 percent to 47 percent, according to unofficial results.
        A maximum of $750,000 from the tax increase will be used annually to reduce the state gaming tax bill of Ruidoso Downs. Hubbard had threatened to close the struggling track and casino if the tax break wasn't approved by voters.
        Marty Cope didn't respond to telephone messages concerning the transfer of her voter registration.
        Johnny Cope answered his cell phone but was in no mood to chat, saying the Journal had insulted him and his wife in its coverage of his business dealings with Hubbard and the conflict-of-interest issue for his wife.
        "I have had all I'm going to put up with from the Journal," Johnny Cope said. "Don't call me again or my wife."
        The Copes have owned property for several years in the Ruidoso area, a mountain community with a large number of second homes.
        New Mexico's law for determining a person's residence for voting is best described as loose.
        "The residence of a person is that place in which his habitation is fixed, and to which, whenever he is absent, he has the intention to return," the law says.
        So, you can work and sleep most nights in one county, but register to vote in another county if you intend to return there. Essentially, that makes a person's residency for voting a state of mind.
        "You can never know a person's intent, because it is in their mind," said Denise Lamb, a former chief of the state Elections Bureau and now head of elections for Santa Fe County.
        It is also possible that a voter could change intentions very quickly. One day, a voter could intend to return to a home in Hobbs. The next day, it could be a home in Ruidoso.
        Public letter
        Marty Cope's support of the tax break for Ruidoso Downs was pretty well known.
        In a letter to the editor published in the Ruidoso News in August, she addressed what could happen if voters didn't approve the deal and Ruidoso Downs followed through on its threat to leave town.
        She wrote that Ruidoso Downs could apply to the Racing Commission to move its operation and that the commission has previously approved such requests from track operators.
        "If the commission does approve a different location for the present owner, Ruidoso Downs will be an abandoned facility," Cope wrote, identifying herself as chairwoman of the Racing Commission. "It is my sincere hope that the above information addresses at least some of the questions that have been raised regarding this matter."
        Ruidoso Downs had sought tax relief for several years in the Legislature. The bill permitting the tax break approved by county voters was signed by Richardson this year.
        Before passage of that bill, Marty Cope and other members of the Racing Commission had formally expressed support for Ruidoso Downs in its bid for tax relief.
        Other new voters
        Lincoln County Clerk Rhonda Burrows said 269 new voters were registered in the county in the three months leading up to the special election.
        Of those 269, 191 had previously been registered as voters in other New Mexico counties or other states, Burrows said. A total of 63 had been registered to vote in Texas.
        Concerns were raised during the election about an anonymous flier saying people from out of state could transfer their registrations to Lincoln County for the election, then reverse the transfers after they voted.
        Supporters and opponents of the tax break for Ruidoso Downs denied affiliation with the flier.
        Burrows called the flier unethical and said she sent state prosecutors information about how some people seeking to register voters before the special election had provided misleading advice.
        UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Thom Cole can be reached in Santa Fe at (505) 992-6280 or at tcole@abqjournal.com.
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