Martinez’s change isn’t yet bold enough
Until government is redesigned to truly separate it from profiteering special interests, people will view the Downs at Albuquerque deal and any other involving campaign contributors and party insiders with suspicion, as they should.
Gov. Susana Martinez is defending the process that led to the awarding of a 25-year lease of land at the state fair grounds to the Downs at Albuquerque, pointing out that her administration voluntarily sought bids and kept the bidding period open longer than required.
“The process… took place in a very fair and open way, one that we didn’t have to do,” Martinez told Capitol Report New Mexico earlier this week. “…The lease is still being worked on. It’s still being strengthened. It has all the way through the Board of Finance to be strengthened.”
The problem for Martinez is that, regardless of whether the process her administration voluntarily put in place is good, she lost the battle over public perception long ago.
People tied to the Downs gave at least $70,000 to the Republican Martinez’s campaign last year (they also gave at least $50,000 to Martinez’s opponent, Democrat Diane Denish). The Downs also hired attorney Pat Rogers to represent it in negotiations on the deal, and he just happens to be the Republican national committeeman for New Mexico.
It’s possible that none of that influenced the process. In fact, the Downs’ bid appears to be solid and unique: There aren’t many others who could operate a racino on the property because there are only a handful of racino licenses in New Mexico.
But it almost doesn’t matter whether, in practicality, campaign contributions and political connections affected the decision to award the contract to the Downs. The controversy Martinez faces reveals a key truth about America in the 21st Century: People believe their government is corrupt.
And that’s because it often is corrupt.
Companies expect a return on investments
The fact that the Downs gave large campaign contributions to Martinez and Denish points to reality: More often than not, in governments across the nation, regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans are in control, campaign contributions influence decisions and improve chances of winning lucrative contracts.
Why else would so many companies, which are in the business of making money, give piles of cash to politicians? Those are investments. The companies expect a return.
New Mexicans understand that. They don’t like it. And many are offended at the fact that Martinez has appropriately railed against such situations involving the Richardson administration but is now in the news for her administration’s awarding of a lucrative contract to a big donor.
From a public perception standpoint, the integrity of the process the Martinez administration put in place matters little. The possibility that the campaign contributions didn’t influence the process in this specific instance matters little.
Time after time, campaign contributions have mattered at every level of government. The public has every reason to suspect, in every instance in which a donor gets a contract, that the contribution affected that decision.
The public wants reform
I believe most people want to see a ban on contributions from lobbyists, large government contractors, and bidders on large contracts. They want to see a law prohibiting people from becoming lobbyists immediately after they give up their jobs as legislators. They are uncomfortable with the close ties between politicians and wealthy corporate interests whose primary goal is making money.
They want to believe their government is putting their interests first, but they don’t see reason to believe. In New Mexico, that’s partly thanks to Bill Richardson, whose administration was in the news time after time after time because a campaign donor won a lucrative contract.
It’s also because, in spite of the public’s hunger for reform, the Legislature has thus far refused to OK a proposal to ban contributions from large government contractors, bidders and lobbyists. And we still have lawmakers quitting their elected positions to become lobbyists.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case also makes it difficult for states and the federal governments to implement new limitations on election spending or enforce existing limitations.
Fine. The court has spoken. But the likelihood that massive campaign contributions will continue to be the norm only increases the need for other structural reforms.
Martinez wins some points, but needs to do more
The public wants structural reforms to separate government from special interests whose primary concern is their own bottom line.
Martinez wins points for taking action to increase transparency during her first year in office. She issued an executive order limiting her administration’s use of executive privilege. She ordered webcasting of State Investment Council and Board of Finance meetings.
And she took a step toward the “bold change” she promised by voluntarily implementing the bidding process for the land at the state fair grounds.
But it isn’t enough. People want an entire redesign of the system intended to ensure that their government is putting the interests of citizens first.
Bold change would include pushing such reform, but it would also include doing more than pledging support. For example, Martinez says she supports a ban on legislators becoming lobbyists for at least two years after leaving office, but when Kent Cravens announced he was resigning from the Senate to become a lobbyist for the N.M. Oil and Gas Association, Martinez said Cravens had “served the people of New Mexico with incredible class and distinction.”
Though that may be true, conspicuously absent from Martinez’s statement was the “but” – “but I don’t support legislators resigning to become lobbyists, so the Oil and Gas Association will have to send someone else to deal with me and my administration.”
Why? Is it because Cravens, like Martinez, is a Republican? Is it because oil and gas gave so much money to Martinez’s campaign? Martinez would probably say such contributions and political connections were factors during the Richardson years.
Until the Legislature approves a ban on its members becoming lobbyists immediately after leaving office, Martinez could – and should – refuse to deal with such lawmakers-turned-lobbyists.
Until government is redesigned…
Until Martinez and other officials reject situations like that involving Cravens, until the proposal to prohibit legislators from immediately becoming lobbyists becomes law, until other reforms are enacted – in other words, until government is redesigned to truly separate it from profiteering special interests – people will view any deal involving campaign contributors and party insiders with suspicion.
As they should.
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