February 13, 2017

Gov. Martinez’s appointees in line to be confirmed may overwhelm process


New Mexico State Senate.

After a year of high-profile changes in Gov. Susana Martinez’s Cabinet, top officials from several of the most important departments in state government now await Senate confirmation hearings.

But the secretaries of environment, finance and health are just of a few of the governor’s nearly 100 appointees on the agenda. With the long list, it is unclear how many appointees will even get a vote before the Senate adjourns March 18.

New Mexico’s financial crisis will make confirmation hearings more difficult than usual. Staff members say the Senate Rules Committee only has enough money to conduct background checks on about half the appointees.

The Governor’s Office has complained for years that the confirmation process moves too slowly, but it is the Senate’s chance to check and balance the executive branch of state government.

Some of the confirmation hearings seem to have all the makings for political drama. Martinez has clashed with Senate Democrats, and her appointees will head before the Senate at the same time their agencies are at the center of this legislative session’s most pressing issues.

Senators, though, have rejected only one of the governor’s appointees in six years, and it remains to be seen whether her latest slate will face tough questions.

“We’ll be asking a lot of questions about the budget,” said Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, who chairs the Rules Committee, which is tasked with giving each appointee a hearing and taking the first vote on their confirmation.

With money tight across state government, Lopez said the committee wants to know how each Cabinet secretary will make do.

The Martinez administration’s top budget official, Duffy Rodriguez, will likely face questions about the state’s fiscal crisis, which has prompted legislators to withdraw money from the cash reserves of school districts and cut many parts of state government. Aides to Democratic lawmakers in both chambers of the Legislature have roundly criticized Rodriguez as slow to respond as falling oil and gas prices sent state revenues plummeting.

Questions about the budget may also dominate the conversation when Corrections Department Secretary-designate David Jablonski appears before the committee. The state’s prison system is chronically understaffed. Jablonski is a former director of the department’s Probation and Parole Division. Martinez last month chose Jablonski to run the prison system.

With his predecessor, Gregg Marcantel, having left the Corrections Department after a couple high-profile slip-ups and a vote of no confidence by the union representing prison officers, Jablonski may be called to account for the record of an agency that is still very much a liability for the administration.

Environment Secretary Butch Tongate is also up for confirmation after Martinez tapped him in August to replace Ryan Flynn, who left the role as the state’s top environmental regulator to lead the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. A veteran of the department, Tongate has taken on a range of leadership roles in the department over the last two decades.

Another senior oil and gas industry regulator is on the agenda, too. Martinez appointed Ken McQueen in December to head the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Division, which is responsible for overseeing fossil fuel extraction and mining around the state.

Both men may have to answer for the governor’s stance on environmental regulation, which Democrats have criticized as too soft. And McQueen’s appointment raised the eyebrows of some environmentalists who were quick to point out he last worked as vice president of WPX Energy, one of the biggest oil companies operating in the Four Corners.

Most of the appointees awaiting confirmation in the Senate are not Cabinet secretaries but members of myriad commissions, boards and committees.

These include the Parole Board and the Environmental Improvement Board, which creates rules for air quality, food safety and hazardous waste. Appointees also include trustees of the New Mexico School for the Deaf and the School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The appointees include professionals versed in complex areas of state government, such as members of the State Investment Council, as well as board members from cultural institutions such as the National Hispanic Cultural Center.

Even low-profile appointments can be controversial. The bylaws of Miners Hospital in Raton, a state entity, require two board members be “miners or their representatives.” So when the governor in 2012 appointed an engineer to one of those seats, a union representing mine workers argued the pick was illegitimate.

Among the more notable boards, a couple of members of the State Game Commission, which regulates wildlife, may face questions about Mexican wolves and trapping, two of the most contentious issues before the panel.

Up for confirmation, too, are seven of the eight members of the state Law Enforcement Academy Board, which is responsible for setting training standards for police around New Mexico and deciding whether officers guilty of misconduct will keep their law enforcement certifications.

The board has received criticism in recent years because police in New Mexico have fatally shot more people per capita than their peers in any other state since 2015, according to data from The Washington Post analyzed by The New Mexican. This has raised questions about New Mexico’s training standards and methods.

Even with many complaints and criticisms of Martinez’s appointees, senators have rejected only one of them. That was Matt Chandler, who was a politically active Republican lawyer, for a seat on The University of New Mexico Board of Regents.

The Senate rejected Chandler in 2015 after he served as treasurer for a Republican political action committee that has attacked Democrats. Chandler argued the snub was political retaliation, and another regent — a Democrat — resigned in protest.

Appointees can serve while their confirmation is pending, but they lose their post immediately if voted down by the Senate. Martinez appointed Chandler to a District Court judgeship after senators removed him as a regent.

The governor recently chose two longtime Republican lawmakers, former House Speaker Don Tripp and former Sen. John Ryan, for seats on the UNM regents. They are likely to receive far more cordial receptions than Chandler, having just left the Legislature.

While some Democrats have grumbled that Martinez is stacking university boards with political allies, others say that is a charge that could be leveled against any administration.

“I don’t see that in practice,” said Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, a member of the Rules Committee. “I’ve generally been pleased with the governor’s nominees to fill some of these vacancies.”

The committee has shown it can be aggressive with certain appointees. Some members grilled Flynn and Education Secretary Hanna Skandera. Senators did not vote to confirm Skandera until she had been on the job for four years, a delay that Republicans said was unfair to her and blatantly political.

Chris Sanchez, a spokesman for the governor, recently described the pace of confirmations as absurd and cast blame on Lopez, arguing the committee should have given hearings to appointees in between sessions.

“We hope this isn’t another case of Sen. Lopez and her colleagues playing political games with nominees, as they’ve been doing for years,” Sanchez said.

But Lopez says wrangling over funding set the committee back two weeks in performing background checks on appointees, a standard procedure at least for anyone with control over state funds or regulations. The governor initially vetoed funding for the legislative session.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.