Corruption has long been endemic to New Mexico government. And today, even when people ferret out potential problems or ethical lapses, there’s still a significant gap between the laws meant to protect people and the ability or willingness of state agencies to enforce them. In January, for example, conservation groups wrote to the state purchasing agent and director, asking him to look into a political donation from a company with a lucrative state contract. The company had contributed $1,000 to Gov. Susana Martinez’s political action committee during a time when the state’s Procurement Code prohibits political contributions, when proposals are being evaluated for the awarding of contracts. Months passed, and the activists didn’t hear back from the state purchasing agent or from the agency that had issued the contract, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC).
On Monday, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) voted to amend an engineering contract for the proposed Gila River diversion. The change was necessary because the company’s earlier work, done at the direction of the state and the entity planning the diversion, didn’t take into account crucial information. The ISC and the New Mexico Central Arizona (CAP) Entity has been moving diversions plans forward, even though the proposed infrastructure would cross lands owned by The Nature Conservancy and the state of New Mexico. Last week, the CAP Entity’s board of directors confirmed their latest plans weren’t going to work, and voted on a new scope of work for the engineering company, AECOM. According to a presentation by ISC Gila Basin Manager Ali Effati, the cost of the revised tasks and deletion of former tasks will offset each other.
If you haven’t gone out to look at the Rio Grande, no matter where along its banks you live, now’s the time. The snowmelt is pouring down the channel, causing the river to overbank in lots of places throughout the Middle Rio Grande Valley. In southern New Mexico, the normally dry channel is also running as water managers are moving water from reservoirs to southern New Mexico fields and orchards and to Texas. Speaking of snowmelt, March was an exceptionally warm month in New Mexico. According to the National Weather Service, 143 record-high temperatures were broken across 34 weather stations on 15 days.
Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed two bills and signed two more Friday afternoon. One bill Martinez vetoed dealt with the release of public databases through the state Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA). Rep. Matthew McQueen introduced the bill after reading about problems one citizen had when requesting information from the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commision. That issue was reported by NM Political Report and co-published in the Santa Fe Reporter. Currently, IPRA allows agencies to release databases but also authorizes agency officials to make the requester agree “not to use the database for any political or commercial purpose unless the purposes and use is approved in writing by the state agency that created the database.” McQueen’s bill would have struck “political” from the law.
The Society of Professional Journalists gave the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission the dubious honor of its sixth annual Black Hole Award, which goes to “government institutions or agencies for outright contempt of the public’s right to know.”
The nomination came from NM Political Report reporter Laura Paskus, who has reported on the agency for years. “Making these sorts of heavy decisions and citing data to back those decisions but refusing to produce this data is ridiculous. Agencies should be transparent in their effects on publicly owned bodies, land or water” Gideon Grudo, chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee, said. “They certainly shouldn’t be this aggressive to the press, either. Hats off to Laura Paskus for being persistent.”
Related: Effort to make college research secret stalls over fears it goes too far
From the SPJ announcement: “The agency has been sued for Open Meetings Act violations, gives me plenty of hassles about releasing public documents, and for years now, has refused to answer my questions.
A bill to increase spending oversight on a proposed diversion on the Gila River passed the Senate Conservation Committee this morning—and will head next to the Senate floor. Sens. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, and Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, introduced Senate Bill 340, which would require the Interstate Stream Commission’s spending on the Gila River diversion to go through the normal legislative budget process. Before putting more money toward the project, officials would need to show the project is technically feasible, explain how much water is available from the river and who would use it, estimate the project’s price tag and determine how New Mexico will cover the difference between the federal subsidy and the project’s actual cost. The bill passed the committee, though four objected to the pass including Republican Sens.
When it comes to New Mexico’s proposed diversion on the Gila River, even discussions about routine financial reporting elicit passionate disagreements. Sens. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, and Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, introduced a bill that would increase oversight of spending by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission on the diversion. During his presentation to the Senate Conservation Committee Thursday, Rue explained that the bill focuses on the process of how ISC spends federal money. “We are not here to make a judgement about the diversion,” he said.
Last month, NM Political Report wrote about how a one-sentence provision in state law emboldened an agency to keep one citizen from obtaining public information. In December, retired Interstate Stream Commission Director Norman Gaume asked his former agency for an unlocked copy of an Excel spreadsheet showing how much water is diverted from and used along the Gila River and its tributaries each year. The agency’s questionable actions against Gaume drew the attention of one of New Mexico’s U.S. Senator, and a state representative who introduced a bill to make a slight wording change to the state’s open records law. Over the past few years, Gaume has opposed the state’s plans to build a diversion along the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico. With an unlocked copy of the spreadsheet, he could examine the formulas and original data within the spreadsheet.
Attorneys for the states of New Mexico and Texas learned yesterday that a lawsuit over the waters of the Rio Grande will head to the U.S. Supreme Court. For New Mexico, a lot is at stake. Though Texas also named Colorado in the suit, its real target is New Mexico. Texas alleges that by allowing farmers in southern New Mexico to pump groundwater connected to the river, the state is unfairly taking water from the Rio Grande that, under the 1938 Rio Grande Compact, should be flowing to Texas. When Texas filed a similar suit against New Mexico about the Pecos River, the case dragged on for almost two decades, and cost both states millions of dollars.
Friday, we reported officials with the Village of Santa Clara were breathing a sigh of relief after the state deposited grant money into its bank account. That deposit occurred about a week after the New Mexico Environment Department said it would no longer accept invoices or reimbursement requests for a grant the village used to build a park. Santa Clara had received a grant under the state’s Recycling and Illegal Dumping Fund (RAID) program. The total reimbursement from NMED was $231,000, more than a third of the village’s annual budget. While NMED still hadn’t explained the letter to the press or officials, in a Silver City Daily Press story Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, is quoted saying NMED pulled the grant funding because of cuts in SB 113.