Year In Review: Bill Richardson Changed The NM Constitution

Not that there’s anything wrong with that



Gov. Bill Richardson changed the state constitution in his first year in office, transforming the executive branch from weak and scattered to strong and centralized.

He didn’t do it alone. He had the support of the voters in the special election abolishing the school board, of a majority of the Supreme Court in removing former Gov. Gary Johnson’s appointees from the Judicial Standards Commission, and of the legislative leadership in taking over the highway commission.

But most of the energy in the unprecedented consolidation of power in the governor’s office came from Richardson himself. His skill as a negotiator, his prestige as an international figure and his self-confident publicity campaign seemed to discourage all opposition.

Hundreds of board and commission members who received Richardson termination letters, mid term, went peacefully, often followed by their staffs. Eight employees of the Commission on Higher Education resigned after the commission was sacked. The Museum of New Mexico system lost its five top administrators.

Richardson opened the 2003 Legislature with the announcement that “eight years of gridlock” were over. He said, “Give me the tools” to bring in top-dollar jobs. The Legislature gave him a capital gains-upper bracket income tax cut, which he trumpeted with his picture on an ad in the Wall Street Journal (“Hey, we’ve been telling you it’s different in New Mexico.”)

His next message: “Give me the schools!” And he got them.

The public schools had always been kept free of direct intervention by the governor. At one time the state superintendent of schools was even elected directly by the people. The post was under the elected state school board when Richardson took office and asked the Legislature for a constitutional amendment that would abolish the school board and replace the superintendent with a governor’s appointee.

“Reform can’t be accomplished without fundamentally changing the way the state governs its public schools,” he said in a news release opposing a compromise that would have kept the school board as a policy-making body. The voters ratified the Richardson amendment on Sept. 23, and he appointed PhD educator Vernoica C. Garcia of Santa Fe as the state’s first secretary of education.

Lawmakers since statehood had tried, not always successfully, to insulate highway-building from politics. Richardson persuaded legislative leaders to repeal the law, probably the most restrictive affecting any commission, that said, “Highway commissioners shall not be removed except for incompetence, neglect of duty or malfeasance in office. No removal shall be made without prior approval of the Senate.”

When the law went into effect last summer, Richardson removed all remaining holdovers on the six-member body, now called the Transportation Commission. Longtime Chairman Holm Burusum III, a third-generation Republican and Soccorro banker, said, “I guess I ought to feel honored that they have to change state law to get rid of me, but if they’d only waited 18 months (for expiration of terms) they’d have control of the commission anyway.”
But Richardson, with a big highway and commuter railroad ideas, could not wait. It has been that way from the beginning of his political career as a New Mexico congressman. The Alamanac of American Politics, bible of pundits, used to call him “a young man in a hurry.” His whole message to the 2003 Legislature was urgent. He departed from the text of his opening address to quip: “We’re going to move so fast you won’t even see us.”

Bursum said of the highway house cleaning, “Boom! All at once you lose the rapport that has developed between the commission and the department.” Almost all state boards and commissions have staggered terms under the theory that this assures continuity of government, but the courts have held that the governor’s power to appoint implies a power to remove, except where appointees are specifically protected. The last of these now are university regents.

One area of doubt, however, was the Judicial Standards Commission, which hears about 1,000 complaints a year on the conduct of judges and recommends removals to the Supreme Court. The commission is made up of three judges appointed by the high court, two lawyers appointed by the State Bar and six laypersons appointed by the governor to staggered terms.

Richardson sent notice to the six, all Johnson appointees, that their services were no longer needed and their replacements had been named. District Court Judge Frank Wilson of Alamogordo, a judicial member of the commission, appealed on behalf of the laymembers to the Supreme Court, faxing the petition himself after Atty. Gen. Patricia Madrid failed to respond to his request for representation.

Wilson argued that the constitutional separation of powers, assuring an independent judiciary, was at stake. He raised two political specters: that “an unhappy but politically well connected target of an investigation” might call on the governor to influence the commission or, that “a politically powerful citizen could enlist the aid of the governor in influencing the commission to investigate a judge with whom the citizen is dissatisfied.”

The majority opinion said, “We recognize that such a situation, though unlikely, would be unfortunate,” but added, “We will not speculate on this governor’s motive.” The majority — Chief Justice Petra Maes and Justices Edward Chavez and Patricio Serna — said the power of the governor to remove gubernatorial appointees is absolute.

Justices Pam Minzner and Richard Bosson dissented, saying the governor had stepped over the constitutional line. “Motives are irrelevant to our analysis,” the dissent said, adding, “In interpreting the constitution, we write for the future not just the present.”

The same could be said of all Richardson’s constitutional changes. In other words, he is popular and trusted, but what about the next guy to hold the office of governor?