Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Back Story On Speaker's Explosion Against "Dr. No." Key Players And Motivations Revealed, Plus: More State Cash For Jobs; Checking On "PreCheck" 

Lujan confronts Smith (ABQ Journal)
It all sounds so obscure--this fight over an amendment that led to one of the more shocking public episodes in the recent history of La Politica--the Speaker of the NM House exploding in rage and unleashing a profanity laced tirade on powerful State Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith immediately after the legislative session ended Saturday. We've all heard about it, but let's go to the Alligator lounge and get the back story on what led Ben Lujan to call Smith--aka--"Dr. No"--a "racist SOB" and tell the Deming Democrat he was "full of shit"--a startling incident captured by the camera of ABQ Journal photographer Eddie Moore and the tape recorder of the New Mexican's Kate Nash.

The event was sparked by an amendment Lujan wanted Smith and the Senate to approve that would have allowed local governments to issue bonds to finance “all or a part of the costs” of “eligible enterprises,” including private developers. But what are the politics, motivation and the players behind this sensational episode? To our Alligator who picks up the story:

The Speaker tried to get a bill passed that would bail out developers sitting on a vacant pit at the Santa Fe Railyards complex. Construction of the original building at the site has been halted. The developer in question is the Branch family--buddies of the Speaker and Big Bill. Michael Branch is a realtor and was appointed by the Governor to the Board of Regents of the Northern New Mexico College. His son, Jeff Branch, co-founded the Branch company.

The Branch folks originally had a California theatre operator--Imax--lined up for the site--one of several tenants at the patch of the Railyards under development and controlled by the Branch outfit. The development is known as "Market Station." The California theatre guy is Moctuma Esparza. Esparza bailed out or lost his financing. There's a big hole in the ground where the theater was supposed to be. The solution? "Public-private partnership," tax credits, etc.--you know the drill.

That Speaker-sponsored bill to bail out the Branch outfit and give the theater project a transfusion also met with opposition on the part of (State Rep.) Debbie Rodella. (Chair of the House Business and Industry Committee). And precisely like the SunCal TIDD bill, the Speaker-sponsored bailout of the Branch outfit's Railyards theater project went down on a pair of tie votes on the floor of the House. First time in a long while such a bill bearing the personal imprimatur of the Speaker has gone down to defeat.

Michael Branch
Our Alligator continues:

So, the Speaker turned the Branch bailout bill into an amendment and tried to sneak it into that bill being thrashed out by the House-Senate conference committee in the waning hours of the session, but John Arthur Smith smelled a rat and killed the Branch bailout amendment.

So both the Branch bill and the SunCal TIDD bill met precisely the same fate with both being opposed by Debbie Rodella--only difference was that the Speaker tried to sneak his Branch bailout bill through as an amendment to another bill.

Is there some subtext lurking behind this drama? The Speaker and Debbie's father are old buddies. They were members of the same labor union (Ironworkers); worked side by side for years at Los Alamos Labs. But the Speaker had narrowed the authority/jurisdiction of Debbie's committee a few years back. She was not happy.

And the Speaker did not do one thing to have the governor call off the legal dogs from her husband, Tommy, by the governor-controlled Judicial Standards Commission.

Thanks, Gator. That's what we all wanted to know. The Speaker told the newspapers he had no personal interest in the Railyards project.

Michael Branch donated $750 in 2008 to Lujan's campaign committee. He gave $2,300 to Big Bill's '08 presidential campaign. Jeff Branch donated $1,000 in 2008 to Lujan's campaign committee and $2,300 to the Guv's prez campaign. As of December, the Speaker had about $75,000 in his campaign account.

We got lost on the Secretary of State's Web site and could not find any recent reports for the "Speaker's Fund," the political action committee Lujan has formed to support legislative and other candidates. If you have that info, send it along.


Regardless of whether Lujan felt his integrity was unfairly called into question, publicly calling a fellow legislator "a racist SOB" is beyond the pale. The Speaker told the papers he wants an apology from Smith. Maybe he was still hot under the collar because it is obvious that the Speaker needs to apologize to Smith and to the state. He came close to that in an interview with the Journal: "Maybe my choice of words could have been better," Lujan said. "But there was no reason to make an accusation things were suspicious of any kind."


On Monday, our Alligator reporting on the dramatic Friday night voting on the SunCal TIDD from the NM House said that anti-TIDD Rep. Nate Cote of Las Cruces was persuaded by Speaker Lujan "to take a walk" when the SunCal vote came up for reconsideration. Democrat Cote blogs in to say that isn't the case:

The Speaker did not get me to walk. I thought that my vote of NO against the SunCal bill was my vote, never realizing of course that the Speaker would bring it right back up knowing he had excused me and then might have the votes. He never once came around to see pressure me or even discuss it with me. I was excused so I could make it to El Paso to teach classes on Saturday. Many people knew that fact for several days if not weeks. I have never before missed a day of the session in three years. Had I known the turn of events, I would have stayed to the last minute and fore gone any sleep whatsoever that night…sorry to see you got it so wrong. I also voted against (the TIDD) in the Tax & Revenue Committee...

Nice jab there, Nate. "Sorry to see you got it so wrong." We'd like to believe you are sorry, but we know a lot of politicos in this state jump for joy when an Alligator errs in the least little way. Can't say we blame them as these Gators are of the take-no-prisoners variety.

We accept Rep. Cote's word that he didn't walk on the reconsideration at the behest of Speaker Lujan who worked to overturn a 33 to 33 tie, trying unsuccessfully to carry the day for SunCal. We also will note that Nate leaving without voting on the reconsideration did not get him much more of the sleep he says he needed. According to my Twitter feed from Santa Fe, the first TIDD vote came at 11:26 p.m and the second one came at 11:44 p.m.


The Guv was boasting of a job expansion at Alamogordo as the session drew to a close. It was for PreCheck, a company that does background checks for prospective employees of health care companies. He says the firm's expansion of its corporate headquarters to Alamogordo where it operates a call center will add 75 employees in the next six months and several hundred employees in the next two years. The company currently employs 40 at Alamogordo.

The state is putting up $200,000 to enable the expansion this year and hoping for another $200,00 in capital outlay for next year. When the company first located to NM, the Governor pledged $1.5 million in capital outlay to help. Also, in 2006, the city of Alamogordo gave the company $100,000 in cash and promised a total of $650,000 over five years.

Now comes word that the city of Alamogordo is going broke and looking at laying off employees as the economic recession takes hold in the SE NM county. Not that the cash appropriations to PreCheck are responsible, but it is a glaring case of how public officials set priorities.

The Guv's office said the new PreCheck jobs will be high-paying. That's a matter of definition. We checked with the company and were told most of the new jobs will be for reference checkers who work in the Alamogordo call center and make between $11 and $13 an hour.

By the way, officers and employees of PreCheck gave $11,700 to Big Bill's presidential campaign.


Never mind call center jobs, women here and elsewhere have found a way to make quicker and bigger money. They're going topless.

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