Richardson: It’s My Way At Highway

Accountable Bill takes over the Transportation Commission

Gov. Bill Richardson’s consolidation of power in the governor’s office has erased some boundaries around the highway-building Transportation Department, which lawmakers since statehood have attempted to insulate from politics. Until now.

The 2003 Legislature passed and the governor signed a bill that says the policy-making state Transportation Commission, formerly the Highway Commission, will serve at the pleasure of the governor. When the law takes effect in late June, Richardson will be able to remove the majority of the six-member commission, four holdovers from the Gary Johnson administration.
Commission Chairman Holm Bursum III, a Socorro banker with Republican roots going back to a namesake who was a U.S. Senator, said the commission escaped Richardson’s wholesale call for resignations from state boards and commissions. “He never asked any of us to resign,” Bursum said.

Instead, Richardson got the legislature to repeal the protective statute, probably the strongest affecting any board and commission, that says, “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.”
Because commissioners now will be subject to removal at the whim of the governor, the new law also renders meaningless the system of six-year staggered terms intended to assure continuity between administrations. The only statutory limits that will be effective require that no more than four commissioners shall be from the same party and that one commissioner shall be appointed from each of the six legislated highway districts.

“I guess I ought to feel honored that they have to change state law to get rid of me,” Bursum told me in an interview. “But if they’d only waited 18 months they’d have control of the commission anyway.”

Richardson made two appointments to commission terms that expired on Dec. 31. They are Greg Ortiz of Acoma and David Schutz of Santa Fe, replacing Edward Begay of Gallup and Sherry Galloway of Farmington. The holdovers are Bursum and Sidney Strebeck of Clovis, whose terms expire on Dec. 31, 2006; Barbara Seward of Albuquerque, Dec. 31, 2004; and Ray Litherland of Las Vegas, Feb. 28, 2004.

Richardson immediately appointed Rhonda Faught as transportation secretary, replacing Pete Rahn. Approval by the commission and confirmation by the Senate, as required by law, were just formalities in Faught’s case, but the hoops she had to go through are reminders of the power of the position.

The Richardson bill, sponsored by Sen. Roman Maes, D-Santa Fe, passed both houses with little debate, but the votes were short of the two-thirds majorities required to enact the “emergency” clause that would have put it into effect immediately.

Bursum said the worst thing about the bill is, “If the commission changes — Boom! — all at once, you lose the rapport that has developed between the commission and the department.”

The rapport, continuity, professionalism and pride that has developed, Bursum said, resulted in the four-laning of a record 653 miles of highway in eight years. With the exception of Silver City, every town of 8,000 population or more is now within two miles or ten minutes of a four-lane highway. And the Big-I was rebuilt in 23 months. The Johnson program spent future highway money, but Bursum pointed out the bonding was all authorized by the legislature.
A new list of projects was making its way through the 2003 session — along with a 5.4-cent a gallon gas tax increase to pay for it — when the word came down from the governor: no tax increase. Bursum said the projects had the implicit approval of the department and the commission and, he thinks, drivers would gladly pay the extra nickel if they trusted it would all go for roads.

Richardson has not revealed his highway plans, but with the new law in place, he will be accountable for a department that before Johnson was plagued by scandal, infighting and legislative pork-barreling.

During the last Bruce King administration, in the early 1990’s, the legislative leaders took it upon themselves to direct the spending of highway surpluses by simple memorials that bypassed the governor and the appropriations process. The final exercise, in 1994, spent $23 million on 153 projects around the state, allocated at $190,000 per House district and $250,000 per Senate district. The department followed the memorials as if they were law.

Johnson shut the pork barrel, but in one of the few examples of collaboration with the legislature, negotiated an ambitious highway program led by his own priorities.

When the 2000 Legislature appropriated $6.45 million in state road funds for “Big I landscaping and intelligent transportation system,” Johnson drew a line through it, explaining in his veto message that it was and attempt “to override the State Highway Commission’s responsibilities for prioritizing the use of the road fund.”

The Johnson administration was remarkably free of the infighting that plagued the highway program in past. The worst was under former Gov. David F. Cargo, who alleged that commissioners, operating as lords of their districts, had the department do private jobs such as build an air strip or pave a commissioner’s driveway. Facing criminal indictment, the majority of the commission resigned.

In the 1970’s the Legislative Finance Committee probed the state’s purchase of expensive water-filled “crash cushions” for bridges from a former commissioner. It was the LFC that exposed purchases of used road machines at new prices.

Former Gov. Gary Carruthers had to appoint an intermediary so that his highway chief, Dewey Lonsberry, could communicate with a hostile commission. A federal investigation in 1990 raised questions about department procurement patterns and about right-of-way purchases.

If there are problems with the department in the future, they will fall directly in the lap of Richardson. He wants accountability. He’s about to get it with regard to highways.