Home News Local News Air authority bill passes NM House by wide margin

Air authority bill passes NM House by wide margin

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State Rep. Candy Spence Ezzel discusses the air authority bill on the floor of the House of Representatives Wednesday evening. The bill will now move to the Senate for consideration. Tim Jennings, a member of the Roswell International Air Center Task Force and a former state legislator, sits beside Ezzell. (Submitted Photo)

A revised version of a state bill to create an independent governing authority for the Roswell International Air Center or other former military bases in the state passed the New Mexico House of Representatives Wednesday evening.

The new version includes provisions for how the authority could be dissolved if needed and additional details concerning bonds and property tax exemptions.

One day after “Aviation Day at the Legislature,” House Bill 229 passed 64 to 4.

The bill had been amended while being considered by the House Judiciary Committee, where it passed 11-2 on Tuesday.

Introduced this session by District 58 Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, two other Roswell-based Republican legislators — District 66 Rep. Phelps Anderson and District 59 Rep. Greg Nibert, joined as co-sponsors.

They all spoke Wednesday about the legislation and were joined by about seven other legislators who supported the measure, including House Speaker Brian Egolf (D-Santa Fe). The supporters talked about the success of similar authorities in other states and the importance of aiding economic development and job growth at the Roswell International Air Center and in southeast New Mexico.

“I think it is important to come together to support part of our state,” said Egolf, who talked about his efforts over the past few years to help communities with their economic development needs.

He said that the bill is part of his promise that “we would do everything we could to help this incredible asset in Roswell be put into a position to be competitive, not only in state, but to be competitive regionally and nationally for very lucrative business in the aerospace industry.”

Those voicing concerns or opposition were District 50 Rep. Matthew McQueen, a Democrat from Santa Fe, and District 6 Rep. Eliseo Lee Alcon, a Democrat from Milan.

McQueen, repeating the same qualm he had with the 2018 bill, said he thought that it was inappropriate to create a special political subdivision that applied only to former military bases, especially because other airfields in the state faced similar needs. He also said that he worried the bill “invited conflict of interest” because its provisions banned only “direct” and “substantial” conflict of interest by authority members, not indirect or less significant conflict. He said it was an improved bill compared to the 2018 legislation, but that it was “rushed” and he would have wanted it to be considered by additional House committees.

Alcon said he thought the bill was “opening a can of worms” by encouraging groups to seek special political districts if they want to boost economic development for parts of their communities. He said he thought the aims of the bill could be handled by local governmental action and also worried about granting an independent authority the rights of eminent domain, or the right to force nearby private landowners to sell property to the authority if it should decide to expand.

Others countered that such an action would still require the consent of city and county governments and would still have to follow state laws and governmental regulations.

As part of the House’s “rocket docket,” or a list of House bills that had bipartisan support in earlier legislative sessions but were vetoed by the prior governor, HB 229 will now have an expedited process in the Senate. It will be heard by one committee before being voted on by the full body. The aim of “rocket docket” bills is to have them considered by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham by early February.

The “Regional Air Center Special Economic District” legislation has been championed  by members of the Roswell International Air Center Task Force, made up of business and government leaders in the area, as a way to boost the economic and commercial potential of the airfield, which became city property in 1967 after the closure of the Walker Air Force Base. The city has been unable, using its own revenues, to fund the type of infrastructure and construction needs required to modernize hangars and upgrade other facilities.

According to two economic feasibility studies, an independent authority made up of non-elected members from the city and surrounding areas would provide more focused marketing and business management while also giving the air center the ability at some point to issue bonds for large projects to be repaid, either by fees applied to airfield activities, rental revenues or similar means.

An objection by Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh was that the original legislation had no mechanism for disbanding the authority if it was not functioning well. The amended version would allow the city and county that form the authority, as well as any governmental entities that join, to dissolve the entity by unanimous consent if they decide the authority is not meeting community needs or not fostering economic or job growth.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.