Sunday, January 30, 2011

Powell raising bar at NM Land Office

SANTA FE (AP) - What matters to New Mexico Land Commissioner Ray Powell is sunshine.

He's quick to trade in his undecorated office for a few moments outside under the northern New Mexico sun.

But Powell's obsession with sunshine goes beyond being warmed up by the golden rays on this winter day. He's more interested in the kind of sunshine that will bring openness and transparency to what goes on at the State Land Office. He wants to restore confidence in the agency, protect state trust lands and continue to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars each year for public schools and other beneficiaries.

"Our objective is to put as much sunshine as we possibly can on these projects and let them live or die by their merits," he told The Associated Press during an interview. "The way we inoculate ourselves from future problems is just to have sunshine on everything that we do."

The Land Office during the previous administration was embroiled in legal battles over the exchange of trust land for private land around White Peak in northeastern New Mexico and other questions were raised about appraisals, commercial land leases and the lack of analysis on some projects.

Former Land Commissioner Patrick Lyons has defended his administration, but just this week the New Mexico Supreme Court rejected two of the White Peak land swaps that were orchestrated by Lyons.

Supporters of the swaps had argued that they would improve public access and resolve management issues. But critics turned out in force, marching on the state Capitol with protest signs and calling on lawmakers to do something to keep the state from getting what they considered to be a raw deal.

Since taking office Jan. 1, Powell and his team have been reviewing the office's policies and have placed moratoriums on pending land exchanges and planning and development leases to ensure something like White Peak doesn't happen again.

"The whole point is to look at what we're doing and how we're doing it, and if we start finding some things that just don't make sense, then we need to really deliberate on it," Powell said, likening it to his veterinary practice. "If something is bleeding, you address it or you lose the patient. We don't want to lose the opportunities, but we want to make sure the opportunities are dealt with in the most appropriate way."

Every time he thinks about the trust land that could have been lost, Powell said his blood pressure rises. Once state land is traded or sold, it's gone along with the opportunity to earn more revenue for trust beneficiaries, he said.

"We want to assure the public that their public lands are going to be there for the future and are being used in a manner that keeps them healthy and productive," he said. "I'm looking at the trust as something in perpetuity. So when we optimize our resources, we're looking at it generationally."

The Land Office, considered one of the most powerful offices in state government, wields control over more than 13 million acres of mineral estate and 9 million acres of surface estate with the potential to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Leases, rents and royalties from oil and gas, renewable energy projects, commercial developments, farms and ranches make up a large chunk of the annual revenue funneled into state coffers. During the last fiscal year, the office collected $420 million and a total of more than $3 billion over the past seven years, with most of that coming from oil and gas operations.

Most revenue generated by the office goes to trust beneficiaries — public schools, universities, hospitals, correctional facilities, water projects and public building repair and construction.

Powell, who first served as land commissioner from 1993-2002, expects to bring in more than $500 million this year.

That's money that will not have to come from the taxpayers, he said.

Oil and gas will continue to be a large source of revenue into the foreseeable future, but Powell is looking for innovative ways to bolster economic development and insulate the trust from the hills and valleys that often plague the oil and gas market.

During Powell's first stint in the Land Office, he helped craft lease agreements that resulted in state lands being used for industrial and technological parks and a massive planned commercial and residential development on the southern edge of Albuquerque.

Sunshine will help the office make more of those deals, Powell said, because the communities that will be directly impacted can weigh in on whether a proposal is worth pursuing or offer ideas for making it better.

He also vowed that decisions will be based on the legal and scientific expertise at the Land Office, not by a handful of people in the front office.

"The secondary and tertiary benefits outside the money you generate are enormous," he said. "That's why this thought process is so important and only comes by collaboration, not by hiding the ball and doing deals in the dead of night."

In his 60 years, Powell acknowledged he has become more cynical. But spending the last few years working with children on social service projects through the Jane Goodall Institute has given him a renewed perspective that will come in handy at the Land Office.

He talked about the 10- and 12-year-olds he met who, against odds, raised money for feeding the homeless or helping animals.

"My first instinct was to say 'Too big. Too grand. You can't do that.' But these young people just took on these projects because they felt it was the right thing to do for their communities," he said. "To me, that's nourishing. That's a sense of empowerment."

Rather than being powerful, Powell said he sees the Land Office as having the ability to empower local communities.

"Being in this office, you get more and more excited because you have so many opportunities to influence things in a positive way," he said.

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