Lt. Gov. Diane Denish has come to the defense of a bill that would remake the state’s troubled affordable housing system, a proposal that appears to be on the chopping block.
A series of events on Sunday and Monday led most to believe that Speaker of the House Ben Lujan and the House Business and Industry Committee are in the process of killing Senate Bill 519, sponsored by Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces.
Denish, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican, met with members of the committee on Tuesday, and said they were receptive to her pleas for the bill. However, she said, “I didn’t get a commitment from the committee chair to hear the bill soon.”
The chair, Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Ohkay Owingeh, refused to speak to the newspaper, saying she was too busy.
The bill, which Papen is carrying for the governor, would shut down the state’s scandal-plagued regional housing authorities and replace them with a system overseen by the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority, whose board Denish chairs.
The proposal would also provide for audits of each of the seven housing authority regions to determine the extent of the mismanagement that has led to authorities in Las Cruces and Albuquerque shutting down, the defaulting by the Albuquerque authority on $5 million in bonds it owed the state and an ongoing investigation by the attorney general.
Lujan and the committee have made moves in recent days most believe are designed to kill the proposal. On Sunday, House Bill 997, a mirror of Papen’s bill sponsored by Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones, R-Albuquerque, was tabled on a vote of 6-5 by the committee. Six Democrats on the committee voted in favor of tabling after Lujan spoke privately with at least two of them during the bill’s public hearing.
Then on Monday, Lujan moved Papen’s bill off the House Judiciary Committee calendar and assigned it to the same committee that tabled Arnold-Jones’ bill a day earlier.
Lujan claims he was at Sunday’s meeting only to present another bill and didn’t try to influence the vote on Arnold-Jones’ bill. He says he moved Papen’s bill because he likes Senate bills to pass through the same committees as their House counterparts, and said it was a mistake on his part to not originally assign Papen’s bill to the Business and Industry Committee.
Most doubt that’s true, and Rodella’s unwillingness to comment or commit to hearing the bill only furthers those doubts. There are 10 days left in the session.
Denish’s involvement may help.
Citing the “overlying theme of this session” as ethics reform, Denish told the newspaper the housing overhaul “is really part of our administration’s commitment to reforming areas where there have been scandals or poor use of taxpayer’s money.”
Last year, in-depth reviews by the governor’s office and the State Investment Council found widespread misuse of the bond money and a number of other problems. The council referred the case to the attorney general’s office so it could determine whether there was any criminal activity.
The housing authority scandal has been a hot potato in the Legislature because of the relationship between Lujan and former Region III Housing Authority Director Vincent “Smiley” Gallegos. Gallegos is a former legislator and current lobbyist who, in past sessions, has spent a lot of time in the speaker’s office.
Among the scandals that have plagued the housing authority was the disclosure late last year that a top aide to Lujan, who may not qualify for low-income housing, had been living rent-free in a home owned by the Region III authority based in
Lujan has said he didn’t know about the situation until a reporter told him about it.