Commentary: Every four years New Mexico voters get reacquainted with two positions that have way more authority than they have oversight or accountability – state land commissioner and Public Regulation Commission member.
The land commissioner is solely responsible for administering 9 million acres of surface land and 13 million acres of subsurface estate. State trust lands, which were granted to New Mexico when we were still a territory in 1898, can be found in all of New Mexico’s 33 counties except one.
The Land Office generates millions of dollars a year, primarily by leasing state trust lands for drilling, agriculture and numerous other activities. And yet, it could be argued that no position in state government has greater autonomy or less oversight.
The land commissioner has complete discretion over the transactions of the office, making decisions that could impact the lands for eternity.
Those living in Las Cruces back in the early 2000s may remember a proposed deal that was intended to result in a massive new housing development of up to 90,000 new homes on the city’s east side by developer Philip Philippou, who had threatened to sue the city if it did not OK the annexation needed for the deal.
Patrick Lyons, state land commissioner at that time, gave Philippou the lease needed for that proposed housing complex before the bidding process had even closed. Philippou, in turn, donated nearly $20,000 to a political action committee for Lyons’ re-election campaign.
The transactions were made and the contracts were signed without any opportunity for Las Cruces residents to weigh in on the proposed development.
The global recession, followed by Philippou’s death in 2011, ended the deal. But if it had gone through, it could have tripled the size of Las Cruces, dramatically changing the nature of our community.
The lesson from that is for voters to do their due diligence before the election, because after it’s over we longer will have a say.
A public regulation commissioner has less autonomy in that they are just one member of a five-person board. But the commission overall has enormous powers. In fact, before a constitutional amendment in 2012 moving the insurance and corporations divisions, it was thought to be the most expansive state regulatory body in the nation.
Even with those moves, the PRC still has authority over electric utilities, phone companies, taxi cabs, towing companies, limousine service, ambulances, trucking, pipeline safety and the state fire marshal.
Few state agencies will have as direct an impact on the pocketbooks of New Mexico residents as the PRC. They set the rates that determine how much we pay each month to keep the lights on or to be able to make a phone call. Yet, almost nobody knows about them.
Unlike the land commissioner, the PRC makes its decisions in public meetings. But typically, the only ones in attendance are those who have business before the commission.
There are five candidates running for land commissioner this year, and five running for the PRC in our district. Those races won’t get as much attention as the campaigns for governor and U.S. Congress, but they are just as deserving of your attention.