Monday, March 23, 2009

Inside The Midnight Roundhouse Drama: SunCal Stunner Laid Bare, Plus: Some Big Portions Of Legislative Leftovers, Also: Sex And Death In La Politica 

Rep. Rodella
A stubborn committee chairwoman, personality and issue conflicts between the House and Senate, re-election concerns and perhaps a faulty public strategy were all given as reasons for the legislative stunner of 2009--the defeat of SunCal's tax plan for its 55,000 ABQ West Side land development. The smackdown kept the Santa Fe bartenders busy as the chattering over the unanticipated turn of events went on long past the sessions Saturday noon adjournment.

The plan known as a TIDD would have given SunCal the ability to sell bonds worth up to $408 million to finance the building of roads and other infrastructure on the acreage which is the old Atrisco Land Grant purchased by SunCal for $250 million. It easily passed the Senate--where it was killed in 2008--but unexpectedly met its Waterloo in the House on a 33 to 33 vote in the wee hours of Saturday morning as the Legislature prepared to adjourn at noon.

Insiders say the trouble began when House Business and Industry Committee Chairwoman Debbie Rodella kept the Senate approved SunCal bill bottled up in committee. They say Rodella frowned on having the historic land grant developed the SunCal way. Also, squabbling between the Senate and House over hearing each other's bills contributed to keeping the bill stuck in committee. In addition, some land grant owners who retained certain rights even after selling the land to SunCal put pressure on, according to one of our Senior Alligators:

There were members of the land grant who were lobbying against the SunCal TIDD. It seems that they are no-growthers since the members stand to benefit from SunCal profiting through Atrisco Oil and Gas.

Others wondered if SunCal, which purchased TV, newspaper and Internet ads to try to persuade legislators to approve the TIDD, had overplayed its hand. They pointed out that a much quieter campaign was conducted for the TIDD for Winrock Center in ABQ and it passed.


The environmental group, Conservation Voters of New Mexico, played a major role in the SunCal defeat, say wall-leaners. They were active in the '08 primary campaigns against several Dem state senators who were defeated and the threat of primary elections against some Dem House members is said to have hung in the air. Some of the freshman House members elected in 2008 voted against the SunCal measure. They would be vulnerable to a 2010 primary challenge, but they are also in the main progressive leaning and could be expected to tip against the large land development.

Another factor in play was the general antipathy toward big companies in the wake of the national bank bailouts and scandals over corporate bonuses financed by taxpayers. That made it easier for a wavering lawmaker to break against the SunCal proposal.


And now, directly from the NM House of Representatives and our experienced correspondent on the scene for the Midnight Friday spectacle that was the SunCal vote--two tie votes ending 33 to 33 in the 70 member body. Folks, we can't get you any closer than what you are about to read:

The SunCal loss was crushing particularly because it took place before a large audience in gallery made up the elite lobbyists in the state. All were shocked particularly since an earlier TIDD related vote suggested SunCal would pass narrowly. Equally shocking was watching (NM Dem House Speaker Ben Lujan) whipping Republican Keith Gardner, the minority whip no less, to make the motion to reconsider, which Gardner then did as the Speaker told him. It was quite a thing to see...

When the motion to reconsider was made the white faces in the gallery had become smiles since all assumed Ben had twisted the votes he needed. And he did get Joni Gutierrez, Bobby Gonzales and Rick Miera to switch and Nate Cote to walk. Ben must have assumed he had it on the second vote with these three additional votes, but R's rebelled as did at least two freshman leading to the loss on the second vote. Fascinating theater worth the price of admission.

Fascinating theater, indeed.


Is it any wonder the Speaker exploded in frustration at State Senator John "Dr. No" Arthur Smith at session's end? It was a doozy which you can read and hear about by going to our special Saturday blog below. This was a lousy session for the Speaker, a skilled player who doesn't take defeat easily. (Think College of Santa Fe closing up and the defeat of other pet projects). If he apologized for the outburst, no one would not accept it. Welcome to the era of limitations, Mr. Speaker. The cupboard is bare even for you.


And can we add a note about nine term state Rep. Debbie Rodella? This is the second time she has played a featured role in one of the most dramatic episodes in state House history. It was the Rio Arriba County representative who over a decade ago switched her vote in favor of legalizing Indian casino gambling after the first House vote ended in a tie. If Debbie Rodella had not switched, there would be no Indian casinos. And if Rep. Rodella had moved the SunCal bill quickly out of her committee, the state would probably have approved one of the the largest and far-reaching tax incentive program in its history.

Big Bill says the budget and the death penalty repeal will be what is recalled of the '09 session. For most, he's right. But for the key power players and politicians of our day the SunCal drama will be a moment immortalized and often recalled from the never-ending book of La Politica.


Will SunCal be back and will the third time prove to be the charm? Big Bill could put it on the special session agenda expected this fall or the 2010 call in January. Richardson has been supportive of SunCal and they've been supportive of him, giving large campaign donations.

But business observers were already speculating that SunCal could contemplate selling off its vast acreage and getting out of the state. SunCal supporters argue if that happens those opposed to the tax incentives for the planned community could end up with an even bigger problem--hodgepodge development by a group of disbursed land owners. SunCal's financial outlook as well as the political climate will determine whether they come back to the plate for another turn at bat.


This was the second year Conservation Voters NM played a key role in defeating SunCal's TIDD proposal. However, CVNM executive director Sandy Buffett pronounced the session a mixed bag for enviros:

While we strongly defended against attempted environmental rollbacks, it is still disappointing that our victories are mostly stopping bad industry-introduced legislation that seek to roll back public health and environmental protections.

But there is political change happening at the Roundhouse, declared Buffet.

After two election cycles, we already see a difference in an increasingly pro-environment ethic in the NM House chamber and the result is robust environmental policy passing through the House; the NM Senate still has a ways to go.”

Darn that Senate. They just won't behave for anyone.


More biz news and how it intertwines with La Politica.

What was to be a $12 million shot for Hewlett-Packard's Rio Rancho Customer Service Center turned into a $6 million capital outlay when the gavel came down on the legislative session Saturday. HP is probably pleased to get any taxpayer money. They should be. The company has $10 billion in cash on its balance sheet and some rural legislators expressed concern that the $140 million in total capital outlay this year was weighted towards cities like Rio Rancho and Albuquerque Big Bill pushed hard for HP which pledges to bring over a thousand jobs to their new call center in the years ahead. The city of Rio Rancho has put up $2 million in incentives and a $5.2 million bond issue to lure the facility. One assumes Bill will ask for that extra $6 million at the next session of the Legislature, but there could be more resistance if the economy continue to languish.


Those arguing that limiting campaign contributions in New Mexico still leaves a big hole to plug will get no argument around here. We've been hammering for over a year about the campaign abuses of nonprofit groups that claim to be conducting "advocacy" but are obviously campaigning and using a federal tax exemption to avoid reporting who gives them their money--with no limit-- or how it is precisely spent. But as frustrating as this backdoor money scheme is, cool heads prevailed and lawmakers did not tie the nonprofit issue to the campaign cap law. Still, State House Republican whip Keith Gardner made a compelling argument in opposing the legislation:

Instead of offering real campaign finance reform, (this new law) will only make it harder for first time candidates to run against incumbents and allow non-profit groups to control elections since they are no required by law to report their contributions or expenditures, Campaign contribution limits will shift the power to a small group of unaccountable, deep-pocked ideologues.

Common Cause says it wants to work with House Majority Leader Kenny Martinez, who expressed deep concerns about the non-profit problem but held his fire and let the campaign caps go through. Perhaps House Judiciary Committee Chair Al Park and fellow lawyer and committee member Rep. Joe Cervantes of Las Cruces can tackle the matter. The campaign reformers have credibility with both sides.


Bianca Ortiz Wertheim, the current chief of staff of ABQ Mayor Marty Chavez, has been tapped to become Senator Tom Udall's state director. Wertheim is the wife of former NM Dem Party Chairman John Wertheim. She started with Chavez as a liaison to improve his relations with the city council, but that morphed into the staff chief position. Earlier she toiled for Big Bill as his director of cabinet affairs. A state director is especially important in establishing the new Senator's credentials when it comes to constituent service--the bread and butter concerns voters bring to congressional offices.

Mayor Chavez briefly challenged Udall for the 2008 Democratic US Senate nomination, before dropping out because polls showed Udall the prohibitive favorite.

Joe Carraro
Joe Carraro and Darren White are together again--at least in the news. The two former rivals for the 2008 GOP nomination for the ABQ US House seat both made headlines the same day after being in news hibernation since their unsuccessful quests for a seat in Congress. Former State Senator Carraro, always one to spice things up, announced he has authored a new play--The Viagra Dialogues. He says its about men, their relationships and the constant battle between their brain and their penis. Do tell, Joe. 

Well, it is for a worthy cause--the play will raise funds for the ABQ Little Theater and its community programs.

While Joe was carrying on about sex, Darren was talking about that other primal concern--death. The Bernalillo County Sheriff, who defeated Carraro and went on to lose the November election to Dem Martin Heinrich, says he is contemplating launching a petition drive to repeal the death penalty repeal signed into law last week by Big Bill. At least 100,000 signatures would be needed to get the question on the statewide ballot. That quixotic undertaking would no doubt lead the sometimes caustic Senator Joe to question what body part the Sheriff is using when contemplating such an action. Which is why we are glad the primary is long over.

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