By Deborah Baker
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez promised change, and she is delivering.
From wilderness trapping to homebuilding to oil-and-gas drilling to chile harvesting, the new administration has begun putting its stamp on New Mexico.
Martinez has been in office just six months, a tenure bracketed by the brilliant sunshine and bone-chilling cold at her swearing-in and the hot, smoky grayness of this summer’s wildfires.
“We make our destiny,” she told the crowd in her Jan. 1 inaugural speech. Hours earlier, she had begun methodically unraveling the legacy of her predecessor, Democrat Bill Richardson.
Her term is already historic. She’s the first woman to be elected New Mexico governor and the nation’s first female Hispanic governor.
Yet she dismayed women’s groups by dismantling a decades-old women’s commission. And she rankled some Hispanics with measures they considered anti-immigrant.
Martinez won election last November with 53 percent of the vote, pledging to trim spending, clean up government and roll back regulations she said hampered economic growth as New Mexico struggled to recover.
It was a message welcomed by voters weary of the government bloat and the pay-to-play allegations of the Richardson era.
Some Martinez-watchers say her agenda is a page from the GOP playbook.
The former district attorney from Doña Ana County hadn’t even taken office when the buzz started about her as a vice presidential prospect in 2012. She is a star among new Republican governors — one of only three who would be elected again today, according to a recent survey by Public Policy Polling that showed her with a 52 percent approval rating.
“My guess is she is responding in many ways to a national Republican Party that has its agenda and would very much like her to replicate it in New Mexico,” said University of New Mexico political science professor Christine Sierra.
Critics say Martinez has never left campaign mode, pointing to what they believe is the ongoing influence of her chief campaign strategist, Jay McCleskey.
The Governor’s Office is on the state Capitol’s top floor, and the governor’s operation is often referred to in conversation as “the fourth floor.”
Some lawmakers use shorthand as well to describe McCleskey’s perceived influence: “The fifth floor,” they call him.
Economy and environment
Martinez pledged to make New Mexico more business-friendly, and the first thing she did — just minutes into her term — was to freeze proposed and pending regulations for 90 days while a task force reviewed them.
While Richardson won over the business community with moves such as his 2003 high-bracket income tax cut, industry balked at his environmental initiatives.
Martinez’s executive order blocked Richardson-era rules curbing greenhouse gases, increasing energy efficiency in new buildings, and regulating water quality at dairies.
Environmental groups promptly sued — the first in a series of challenges to her muscle-flexing on those and other issues that the governor has lost in the state Supreme Court.
The high court overruled Martinez and ordered the regulations published, although the greenhouse gas and water quality rules are being appealed by industry in the state Court of Appeals.
The energy efficiency standards for new homes and commercial buildings, meanwhile, were rolled back administratively by the Martinez administration’s newly constituted Construction Industries Commission.
New governors are expected to put their own people on powerful boards and commissions, and Martinez wasted no time getting rid of Richardson’s Environmental Improvement Board, which had adopted the greenhouse gas curbs and a cap-and-trade plan.
The new, Martinez-appointed EIB is proving more industry-friendly.
It recently sided with PNM Resources in approving a plan to reduce polluting haze from the company’s coal-fired San Juan Generating Station.
Rejecting a more comprehensive and costly cleanup strategy backed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the EIB instead adopted a pared-down plan endorsed by the state Environment Department.
Shaking things up
There is a template for the change Martinez is bringing about.
The “Small Business-Friendly Task Force” report of April 1 provided an inventory of industry gripes, including a chart listing 48 Environment Department regulations that it said should be revised or jettisoned.
Among the complaints: midlevel managers at Environment and other agencies who were alleged to have an “anti-business agenda” in permitting and enforcement.
The Environment Department’s new bosses subsequently shuffled several key division heads around, to jobs outside their areas of expertise.
Critics said the changes would blunt the agency’s effectiveness.
“The corporations own this administration, and they are getting their payback on a daily basis,” said Jonathan Block of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.
Lawyers from the center claimed that dairy industry attorneys helped draft Martinez’s directive blocking the water quality regulations.
The industry says it sent Martinez’s transition team a memo outlining the legal issues; Martinez’s spokesman says their input wasn’t used.
The task force’s to-do list includes revising the Richardson administration’s “pit rule,” regulating the disposal of waste from oil and gas drilling. Its supporters say it’s critical to protect groundwater; the industry says it’s too far-reaching and costly.
Oil and gas producers are now trying to reach agreement on a proposal to rewrite — or perhaps repeal — the rule. It could be presented to the Oil Conservation Commission by the end of the summer, according to Steve Henke , president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. Henke said industry expects “a fair and balanced hearing.”
“We feel very strongly that the previous rule-making was very much politically motivated, and that the economic impacts were not fully analyzed, discussed or considered,” he said.
The findings of the Small-Business Friendly Task Force literally stretched into the wilderness.
The panel recommended the Game Commission revisit a temporary ban on trapping in the Gila and Apache national forests, which was ordered by Richardson in November while a study was conducted on trapping’s impact on Mexican gray wolves.
The Martinez-appointed commission also voted last month to suspend the Game and Fish Department’s participation in the wolf recovery project. While it didn’t halt the program, it gave ranchers a boost.