Monday, May 17, 2010

Primary race set for land commissioner

The campaign trail for the five men vying to be New Mexico's next land commissioner has been tough.

First come the blank stares, then the question: So what does the land commissioner do?

Many argue the person at the helm of the State Land Office is one of the most powerful people in state government, wielding control over more than 13 million acres of mineral estate with the potential to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars to New Mexico's coffers each year.

"This office has more power, as far as public lands go, than the governor or the Legislature," said Kent Salazar, a state game commissioner and regional director with the National Wildlife Federation.

Salazar and sportsmen's groups are paying attention to the race to ensure they will continue to have access to public lands for hunting, fishing and recreation. They want to make sure those lands are managed so wildlife habitat is protected.

Farmers and ranchers are also paying attention. So are renewable energy developers and the oil and natural gas industry, which contributes about 95 percent of the Land Office's revenues through leases, rents and royalties.

Land Commissioner Patrick Lyons, a Republican, cannot run again because of term limits.

Democrat Ray Powell, who was land commissioner from 1993-2002, wants another chance at the job and is running in the June 1 primary. Other Democrats on the ballot are Public Regulation Commission chairman Sandy Jones and Santa Fe County Commissioner Harry Montoya.

Matthew Rush, a Roosevelt County farmer and cattle rancher, faces former Bernalillo County GOP executive director Bob Cornelius in the Republican primary.

Lyons considers the position the best job he's ever had.

While he admits making mistakes during his tenure, Lyons said he's proud the office was able to bring in record revenues from oil and gas operations and mineral and agricultural leases.

"If we hadn't raised $3.8 billion over the last eight years, we'd be in a heck of a mess," Lyons said.

About 95 percent of the Land Office's revenues come from oil and gas operations. In the last quarter, the office reported earnings of $114 million, including $107 million from oil and gas.

Lease sale earnings are deposited into the Land Maintenance Fund. All but 2 percent is distributed to trust beneficiaries, including public schools, seven universities, New Mexico Military Institute, New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, New Mexico School for the Deaf, three hospitals, correctional facilities, water projects and public building repair and construction.

With New Mexico's continuing budget problems, a slumping economy and dwindling commodity prices, the next land commissioner can look to renewable energy and other development besides leveraging the state's oil and gas resources.

Deborah Seligman of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association said the challenge will be striking a balance among the demands.

"We have a pendulum that keeps swinging and it needs to balance out," she said.

At forums around New Mexico, landowners, sportsmen and industry groups have been pressing candidates about what kind of office they will run and how decisions regarding land swaps will be made.

Lyons has been criticized over his handling of the exchange of thousands of acres of state land around White Peak in northeastern New Mexico. The case, now being heard by the state Supreme Court, pits residents and sportsmen against one another and the state attorney general against the Land Office.

The candidates have all vowed that their dealings will be open and honest, and Salazar said that's the least voters can expect.

"Whoever gets in there has a lot of say about what goes on with our public lands, whether to sell them or whether to use and maintain them for the long term. It's a very important office," he said.