Martinez making her mark


updated 2/9/12

"New Mexico Governor Rushes to Undo the Agenda of Her Predecessor"

That headline ran in the New York Times last August, about eight months after Susana Martinez, a republican, took the helm from Bill Richardson, a democrat. Martinez had just sold the gubernatorial jet for a cool $2.5 million, and in one of her first acts as governor, had served pink slips to the personal chefs that kept Richardson fed. She called the cooks' salaries "a prime example of wasteful spending that exists in state government." Also shortly after taking office, she had sneakily tried, but failed, to dispense with rules passed in the twilight of the Richardson administration requiring the state's biggest polluters to gradually cut their greenhouse gas emissions and to stem water pollution caused by factory-sized dairies.

"We have our own agenda,” Martinez told the Times, "some of it has been to undo his."

Now a year into her term, Martinez is still at it, and the results of her doggedness are rolling in. The state budget is now running in the black, thanks to an uptick in sales tax revenue and cuts to education spending and government contributions to public pensions. And this week, the Environmental Improvement Board -- a regulatory body appointed by the governor -- voted unanimously to repeal a Richardson-era rule allowing the state to participate in regional cap-and-trade; a vote is expected soon on the same rule capping GHG emissions from major polluters that Martinez tried to axe unilaterally last year. In similar fashion, another appointed regulatory board, the Oil Conservation Commission, is revisiting the state's "pit rule," which requires pits holding oil and gas drilling waste to be lined to prevent water contamination, and has been contested by the industry ever since it was instituted in 2008.

She's earned the scorn of environmentalists, and stirred controversy with her efforts to repeal another Richardson law allowing undocumented immigrants to get drivers' licenses, and by signing an early executive order requiring cops to check the immigration status of criminal suspects. Yet overall, her popularity is quite high. (Exactly how high has been a point of contention between left- and right-leaning pollsters.)

How does she do it? New Mexico political journalist Heath Haussamen explains: "While many are declaring war on unions and slashing across the board, Martinez has taken a more balanced approach to governing. Sure, she’s done things like roll back regulations that many on the left would say are about protecting big business at the expense of the people," but Haussamen points out that she's gained everyman favor by protecting teachers from education spending cuts, going after the New Mexico Gas Company for wintertime outages that impacted poor communities, and signing a consumer-friendly bill forcing health insurance companies to be transparent about how they set rates.

Whether you love her or hate her, it's hard to deny that Martinez is reshaping New Mexico's landscape in a significant way. Writes Haussamen: "New Mexico’s Republican governor remains popular in a swing state where the Democratic president also remains reasonably popular. Headed into a presidential election year, that makes New Mexico unique. 2012 is going to be fascinating."

Cally Carswell is the assistant editor at High Country News.

Photo: Susana Martinez at the N.M. legislature, 2011, courtesy flickr user Robotclaw666

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