New Democratic New Mexico Land Commissioner Could Look To Raise Royalty Rates
The Democratic pickup Tuesday night of the traditionally low-key, down-ballot land commissioner race in New Mexico was a surprise to political observers in the state, who expected the race to be the lone Republican highlight in an otherwise blue wave.
State Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, a Democrat, won by 8 points, 51 to 43 percent, defeating Patrick Lyons, a Republican who previously held the office between 2003 and 2010.
The land commissioner heads the State Land Office, which manages approximately 9 million surface acres and 13 million subsurface estate in New Mexico, with nearly two dozen direct beneficiaries within the state, including hospitals, schools, and higher education.
Gabriel R. Sanchez, a Professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico and Executive Director of the UNM Center for Social Policy, told Western Wire the outcome of the Land Commissioner race was unexpected.
“I thought that that might be the only race the Republicans would hold onto at the state level,” Sanchez said.
A much higher level of awareness surrounded the race in 2018, according to Sanchez, including money pouring in on each side from out-of-state, a level of funding “unheard of” in a race like this.
“I do not recall land commissioner races beyond this cycle, including the primary this year, having TV airtime the way we did this time,” Sanchez added.
Sanchez said that Garcia Richard will likely push for increasing royalties to be in line with Texas and other oil-producing states, up from New Mexico’s current royalty rate of 12.5 percent. Lyons had campaigned on leaving the royalty rate as is.
The land commissioner has the unilateral authority to increase the rate without consultation.
Last week, Domonic Silva, a lobbyist and pundit, told Western Wire the office was essentially another branch of government in the state, given the authority it wielded on oil and gas operations and other powers.
“For New Mexico, if we had a fourth level of government, outside the executive, judicial, and legislative, the fourth level of government would be the Land Commissioner’s office,” Silva said.
Ray Powell, a former land commissioner, told NPR the land commissioner “can sell the land, lease the land or trade the land without anybody else’s approval, which is unlike any other constitutional office I’ve heard of.”
Before the election, Garcia Richard told NPR that, in her opinion, New Mexico’s land commissioner race was a “a referendum on the future of their industry” and that the state was at “a crossroads with this particular office and our reliance on extractive industry nationwide.”
Sanchez said the money that came into the race targeting Garcia Richard was in part a reaction to the candidate’s opposition to hydraulic fracturing.
According to Sanchez, Democratic leadership in Santa Fe would like to prioritize more of a balance between environmental policy and maintaining revenue streams, including environmentally-friendly energy alongside oil and gas production.
He said while there may be calls to move aggressively with large Democratic majorities and control of statewide offices, they be “wary” of moving too quickly given the surplus that oil and gas revenues have given the state recently.
“They want to push, particularly on the royalties issue, but at the same time, a lot of folks are going to say, ‘hey, wait a minute, isn’t this why we have some revenue to spend?’” Sanchez said.
While there may be some messaging “tap dance” in recognizing the state’s reliance on the oil and gas revenue, the outcome may not be in doubt.
Both Garcia Richard and Governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham campaigned on this theme and given their large margins of victory feel they have a mandate, he added.
But Sanchez cautioned that the state budget and revenues would moderate any race to the extremities on environmental issues, as business-friendly Democrats recognize the impact of the industry and bring a more “balanced” approach in policy-making.
“I think we’re very similar to Colorado, where oil and gas, energy, has by and large been a second-tier issue,” Sanchez said, pointing to polling on environmental issues primarily among Latinos, an important demographic in New Mexico.
“They have a lot to say and are progressive on the issue, but when you start with, ‘hey, what are the most important issues?’ you never see environmental stuff emerging in the top five,” Sanchez said.
For 2018 among all voters across New Mexico, Sanchez said, education, jobs/economy, and crime were the top three issues. According to him, it was a long way down the list before pollution, or oil and gas issues, emerge.
New Mexico’s 2018 “blue wave” included a clean sweep of every statewide race, along with projected substantial gains in the State House, where Democrats could hold up to 46 of the 70 seats, up 8 seats from this past session, the largest margin since 1996.
In the three New Mexico counties in the Permian Basin, Eddy, Lea, and Roosevelt, Lyons was the overwhelming choice. Lyons also had support in the northwest corner of the state in San Juan County, epicenter of the San Juan Basin. But the mostly rural counties’ 71,000 votes were outnumbered more than 3-to-1 by voters in Bernalillo County, home of Albuquerque, where Garcia Richard enjoyed a 15-point, 37,000 vote margin.
“New Mexico’s oil and gas industry is providing our state with unprecedented opportunities – to grow our economy, to invest in schools, and to improve the lives of thousands of New Mexicans,” New Mexico Oil and Gas Association’s Robert McEntyre said in a statement to Western Wire. “Santa Fe has an enormous impact on how oil and gas producers do business in this state, and it would reckless to abandon a thriving success story in favor of extreme policies that would not serve our state, kids, or future.”