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Governor vetoes air authority legislation; Task force member: Another attempt next year is possible

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“We’ll go back and do it next year, and it will just take us another year,” said Tim Jennings, a member of the Roswell International Air Center Task Force, which played a key role in getting the air authority legislation drafted and introduced to the New Mexico Legislature. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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In a move that has “baffled” some, Gov. Susana Martinez announced Wednesday her decision to veto the legislation that would have created an independent regional air authority to manage and govern the Roswell airfield.

While expressing her support for the economic potential of Roswell and its airfield, she said she had concerns and disagreement with a few of the legislation’s provisions.

“Transferring broad powers, including eminent domain, to a newly created quasi-governmental entity is a poor way of supporting economic development,” she wrote in her executive message. “Under this bill, the authority’s membership would not be adequately held accountable to the public, as the public would not be afforded the right to elect or remove a member of the authority.”

She also expressed her objection to the tax exemptions offered the authority as “overly broad” and possibly entailing “unintended consequences.” She further noted that other “geographically specific” tools are available to achieve the desired objectives.

The governor’s press office did not respond by press time for information about the tools she was referring to or the concerns about the tax exemptions, which would have applied to revenue bonds issued by the air authority and rents, leases or mortgages on property and income derived from bonds.

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An independent air authority — which would own and manage the airport, airfield and some of the land and buildings outside the airfield fence — had been recommended by two economic feasibility studies in 1998 and 2017 that examined how to increase business and job growth at what once was the Walker Air Base but became city property in 1967 after the base closed.

Similar air authorities exist in other areas, including in Mobile, Alabama, and Alexandria, Louisiana, with those agencies touting the billions of dollars brought in and the thousands of jobs created. And another model exists in the state for a regional quasi-governmental authority, the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority, consisting of representatives from Curry County and several cities and towns, including Clovis and Portales.

Members of the Roswell International Air Center Task Force, a group formed by the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp., spearheaded the effort to work with state legislators in the area to draft the legislation and introduce it to both the House and Senate during this year’s session.

The House version was the one that passed both chambers Feb. 14. Only six dissenting votes from both chambers were recorded, while support was voiced by several prominent state leaders, including House Speaker Brian Egolf (D-Santa Fe) and Economic Development Department Secretary Matt Geisel.

The Roswell City Council and the Chaves County Board of Commissioners also passed resolutions in support of the air authority concept.

Lead House bill sponsor Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell (R-Roswell), commenting after the bill’s passage, said that she had been encouraged by Gov. Martinez’s interest and support of the bill in her earlier conversations with her.

On Wednesday after the veto, a member of the RIAC Task Force and a former state senator said he had talked with a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, Sen. Stuart Ingle (R-Portales), and characterized both of their reactions as one of wonderment.

“Everybody is baffled by what she is doing,” said Tim Jennings. “It made good business sense. All we are looking for are jobs.”

He said that key players will now regroup and determine whether to reintroduce legislation during next year’s legislative session when Martinez’s term is expired.

Jennings said that he did not agree that the authority would represent a power-grab or would lack accountability. He noted that members would be appointed by governmental bodies or elected officials and that any attempt to acquire additional property through eminent domain would have to be done by working through city and county processes.

He said the authority would have meant that revenue bonds, repaid by rents and lease payments, would have paid for needed repairs of facilities and that a regional body representing the interests of several governmental bodies would have had a better chance of securing federal grants.

“We’ll go back and do it next year, and it will just take us another year, which is delaying jobs,” Jennings said. “It is a really sad day. I am just sorry that she didn’t have the vision to see what this would have meant for the area.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.