Restoring the trust for our future
The land commissioner is probably one of the most important and powerful positions in state government today.
The land commissioner can sell, lease or trade the land without anyone else’s approval. The land commissioner looks after 13 million acres of your state trust land and billions of dollars of raw natural resources, and the land commissioner helps oversee a $14 billion permanent fund.
Our working public lands generate $500 million a year. This money supports our public schools, universities and hospitals. This is money that you and I don’t have to pay in additional taxes.
From 1993 to 2002, I had the honor to serve as your New Mexico state land commissioner. I built a team of honest, knowledgeable and hard working individuals and we were recognized as one of the best land management agencies in the country.
I am proud of my record of working with diverse interests to provide economic opportunity while protecting and enhancing the health of the land.
In 2002, I was term-limited out of office and returned to my work as a veterinarian. During the last four years I have had the honor to work for one of the world’s top scientists, Dr. Jane Goodall, whose institute has programs in over 120 countries around the globe.
As land commissioner, I served for 10 years on the State Investment Council. I was a strong proponent of open, transparent and accountable investment policies. I strongly supported investment in activities that created jobs and economic development in New Mexico – when these were sound and good investments.
I have been appalled at how the State Investment Office has been run lately. One news report indicated that $280 million is alleged to have been lost due to poor oversight and unethical practices.
I regret to say that owing to the last eight years of bad policy and worse management, we have a lot of work to do to restore trust in the State Land Office and the State Investment Office. That is why I am running to be your next state land commissioner.
The need for reform
Some recent comments about the current land office administration. Lt. Gov. Diane Denish noted recently:
“It is important to note that the Land Office has been dogged by controversy during the term of the current, independently elected land commissioner who has chosen to disregard the due diligence practices of former commissioners and the guidance of the attorney general.
“Historically, land commissioners have put the children of New Mexico first and managed our state lands to the benefit of all New Mexicans. The current situation illustrates the urgent need for broad ethics reform. This is exactly why we need an independent ethics commission to oversee, investigate and recommend prosecution when elected or appointed officials cross the line…”
And her challenger in the governor’s race, Susana Martinez, has said:
“In all areas of state government, we must have ethical, open and transparent leadership starting from the top down. This not only includes the Office of the Governor, but also the constitutional offices, such as the land commissioner.
“First, we must have transparency in all dealings involving public resources. If we do not have transparency, we end up facing situations where the integrity of the office may come into question. The doors should be wide open, so the taxpayers can see what is happening with state lands, as well as with their children’s educational funds. Second, we must have a transparent, efficient and effective system for reporting campaign contributions. We must move toward real-time reporting, so the public can see who is contributing to all political campaigns.”
Heath Haussamen, the host of this news blog, has written:
“The Land Office has been dogged by controversy in recent years, with much of it surrounding development leases, especially one in Las Cruces involving a developer whose campaign contributions aided the land commissioner.
“The attorney general has found fault with a development lease the land office entered into with that developer. The state auditor is currently conducting a special audit of the land office. Three Las Cruces lawmakers have proposed reforms they say are aimed at increasing transparency and accountability in the land office and reforming the development lease process. One of those bills has been approved.
“Additional reform bills could come to the desk of the next governor…”
These comments reflect the importance of returning transparency, accountability and proven leadership to the New Mexico State Land Office.
My reform proposals
I propose the following actions to reform the State Land Office:
Within 90 days of assuming office, I will establish a task force to review Land Office policies, procedures, statutes, and the constitutional mandate of the New Mexico State Land Office. To enhance transparency and accountability of the Land Office, the task force will be charged with providing recommendations to the land commissioner, Legislature and other interested parties.
Immediately upon taking office, I will initiate the public rule-making process to institute the following initiatives:
- Ensure that any proposal for a land exchange, long-term lease or sale be discussed in a widely announced public meeting(s) held in all counties where land would be exchanged.
- Ensure that any long-term leases of state land must go through a local land approval process directed by the appropriate city or county agency.
- Initiate joint planning agreements with every municipality and county where there is state land to determine the most appropriate uses of that land.
- Establish a website that is free, user-friendly, searchable and accessible to the public that provides financial information relating to state trust lands for the purpose of governmental transparency and accountability.
- Work with the legislature and other interested parties to establish public financing for elections of the Commissioner of Public Lands.
- Re-institute a formal and accountable conflict of interest process for all employees at the State Land Office.
Knowledge, experience, honesty and passion
In summary, the New Mexico State Land Office is our legacy for future generations and it must be managed not just for today’s dollar, but also to provide for sustainable, recurring economic benefits for those who will follow in our footsteps.
The Land Office is also an essential and critical part of the natural landscape. As such, the land commissioner is responsible for managing state lands to protect the animals, plants, soil and water found on it today, and to ensure that the health, integrity and access to the land is not lost or compromised for the future.
Balancing the State Land Office’s legal obligation to generate money for our public schools with protecting access to our sportsmen and recreationists and protecting the natural and cultural resources of the land is the biggest opportunity and challenge for a land commissioner.
My top priorities for the future will be to:
- Provide ethical, honest government.
- Create good jobs through collaborative and cooperative partnerships with local communities and the private sector – emphasis will be on renewable energy ventures on state lands.
- Protect and manage our state lands using the best science available.
- Generate more money to support and improve our children’s schools.
I have the knowledge, experience, honesty and passion to return the land office to one of the top land management agencies in the country.
Powell is a former commissioner of public lands and a Democratic candidate for the position this year.
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