March 2, 2017

Miffed by pace of confirmations, Gov. withdraws appointees

Setting up a constitutional showdown with the Legislature, Gov. Susana Martinez has withdrawn most of her appointees awaiting confirmation in the state Senate but will keep the officials in their posts across New Mexico government.

Aides to the governor accused lawmakers on Wednesday of moving too slowly in confirming her nominations, leaving more than 70 unconfirmed as the session enters its final weeks.

But some senators suggested Martinez was attempting an end run around the confirmation process that would undercut the Legislature’s role as a check on the executive branch of government.

“The governor cannot circumvent the Senate’s authority,” Senate President Pro Tempore Mary Kay Papen told the chamber Wednesday afternoon after a clerk read aloud a letter from Martinez announcing the move.

The unusual maneuver has turned a typically mundane administrative process into an unlikely flash point between the governor and Democratic legislators as debate over bigger issues, such as the budget and taxes, come to a head.

In the letter dated Tuesday morning, Martinez said she is pulling 53 of her 76 appointees from the confirmation process, leaving the Senate to act on what she describes as priority nominations — heads of government departments, university regents and members of boards with control over state investments.

Papen responded with a letter arguing that the appointees cannot remain in government without going through the confirmation process.

Most appointees on the governor’s list are members of relatively low-key boards at institutions ranging from the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired to the State Racing Commission.

But the list also includes members of the Game Commission, the Law Enforcement Academy Board and the Environmental Improvement Board — all bodies at the center of controversies in recent years.

While Cabinet secretaries have been subject to the longest confirmation hearings so far this session, with rounds of questioning that can last about an hour, such relatively minor appointments have prompted plenty of questions, too.

Senators have pressed some of the governor’s appointees on police reform and potential conflicts of interest.

However, the Senate regularly approves the governor’s appointees with little opposition. The Legislature has only rejected one nominee since she took office six years ago.

But it is the pace of the process that has prompted criticism from the governor’s office and some Republicans.

The Rules Committee, which gives a hearing to each appointee before a vote by the full Senate, did not decide on the appointment of public education secretary Hanna Skandera until she had been on the job for four years.

And many of the appointees currently awaiting confirmation were referred to the Senate more than a year ago.

Rules Committee Chairwoman Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, has said the process of vetting appointees was delayed in part by wrangling over funding for the Legislature. The governor did not sign off on money to pay the Legislature’s costs until about two weeks into the session and the Rules Committee only has enough funds to conduct background checks on roughly half the appointees awaiting confirmation.

“Background checks take time,” Lopez said Wednesday, adding that the committee would continue to hold hearings for nominees when it meets during the summer.

But beyond logistics, the tussle also touches on the broader issue of separation of powers, as well as the Senate’s roll vetting the governor’s appointees.

The governor’s office, however, argued that the committee’s background checks are plugging up the confirmation process.

“The fact is, we already go through law enforcement to conduct background checks on all appointees and have made those available to the committee,” Martinez spokesman Mike Lonergan said in an email. “However, in order to logjam the process, Lopez made the decision to shell out more taxpayer dollars to do the same exact background checks.”

Lonergan also accused the committee of wasting time, pointing to legislation the committee approved Wednesday designating a state holiday song.

“The governor simply wants them to fulfill their constitutional duty to confirm these critical positions — some of which have been waiting since 2015,” Lonergan said. “And instead they are spending precious taxpayer dollars taking up trivial bills.”

Contact Andrew Oxford at 986-3093 or Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.