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New Mexico governor continues anti-green push

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Stephanie Paige Ogburn | May 12, 2011 06:00 AM

For the past few months, New Mexico's new governor Susana Martinez has been sending a message about her priorities and how she's going to run the state. And it's not one enviros like.

Last week, the governor pushed her influence one level deeper into the state's Environment Department, reassigning some of the Departments' bureau Susana Martinezchiefs (who are career bureaucrats, not political appointees) to areas far outside their realm of expertise.

Marcy Leavitt, former bureau chief of the state's surface water quality division, is now the head of the state's petroleum storage tank bureau.  Sandra Ely, the environmental policy bureau chief, who worked on climate change issues, has been moved out of the state's division of environmental protection and into the office of general counsel -- although she's not a lawyer. The air quality bureau chief, Mary Uhl is now in charge of occupational safety and health, and former hazardous waste bureau chief James Bearzi has Leavitt's surface water job.

These are all lateral moves -- the governor can't legally push nonpolitical appointees, known as classified employees, out, or demote them to a lower position.  But she's certainly shaking things up, and moves like this can often cause agency folk to get demoralized or even leave the department. The man carrying out most of these changes is the environment department's newly-appointed deputy secretary, Raj Solomon.  A former manager of the state's public pool program, he doesn't appear to have environmental expertise to speak of. He's seen as the brawn behind the department, and the one who's zealously pushing Martinez's agenda there.

Jill Turner, the acting public information officer at the department, confirmed these moves but declined to give a reason. I e-mailed and called the governor's public affairs office to get a rationale for these changes, but received no response.

Turner admits it's quite a shake-up, although somewhat expected, given the new administration.

"I think with anything like this it's always kind of a shock. There's all kinds of speculation as to why things happened. But I can't comment on why," she said.

That's not the only action the executive officer is taking against environmental regs. Her "Small Business Task Force," which Martinez created in the first few minutes of taking office, also recently issued a set of anti-green recommendations geared more towards big business than small, possibly because many of the task force's members are from the big biz community. They include such heavy hitters as Frank Yates, of the Yates petroleum empire, T.J. Trujillo, a powerful lobbyist for the dairy industry and Freeport-McMoRan, the world's largest producer of copper. And so on. (See hardnosed Albuquerque reporter Tracy Dingmann's article for more on the task force's makeup.)

The task force's report pushed the state's environment department to develop a fast-track environmental permitting process for businesses and said the state should halt its carbon cap program. It recommended that the state step out of the Western Climate Initiative and become merely an observer. It also said the state should repeal new rules aimed at protecting groundwater -- a major source of drinking water in the state -- from pollution by large dairies' manure lagoons. Although the task force has no real authority, it's almost certain the governor will try to push through many of its recommendations using her executive power or the legislature.

Continuing a trend initiated by the two governors before her, Martinez is testing the limits of New Mexico's executive branch. She got slapped down by the state's Supreme Court when she tried to prohibit publication of two environmental rules via executive order. She also just pulled a line-item veto of a state budget item, slashing a "1" out of a $150,000 appropriation for housing authorities to make it $50,000. This may be illegal, and has caused a bit of a split between her and the Republicans in the state's legislature, who are miffed she's changing the bills they send her, writes New Mexico political blogger extraordinaire Joe Monahan.

There's no doubt Martinez is making a statement with her actions -- some say the statement is geared at the national Republican party.  She's been fingered as a potential vice presidential candidate for 2012. It remains to be seen what shakes out in that sphere, but in the meantime, enviros in New Mexico have a clear figure to rally against -- and worry about.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is HCN's online editor.

Image courtesy Flickr user Steve Terrell.

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