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NM Senate gives go-ahead to air authority

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The air authority legislation that is headed to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has been touted as a way to promote business and job growth at former military air bases. (Submitted Photo)

The future of air authority legislation, and some would say the Roswell International Air Center, is now in the hands of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Without debate or discussion, House Bill 227 passed the New Mexico Senate about 2 p.m. Thursday afternoon by a vote of 37 to 3.

“We all have heard about the base in Roswell, the potential that is there and the economic driver that it can be,” said Sen. Cliff Pirtle in his introduction of the bill to the Senate floor.

Pirtle, a Republican from Roswell, represents District 32, which includes Chaves, Eddy and Otero counties.

The bill is likely to be considered by the governor next week.

Three Democrats in the Senate, Peter Wirth, Jacob Candelaria and William Soules, voted against the bill but did not voice concerns on the Senate floor.

As part of the “rocket docket,” or a group of previously vetoed bills included in an expedited process of consideration, the Regional Air Center Special Economic District Act had been approved by the state House of Representatives Jan. 23 by a 64-4 vote.

The House and Senate judiciary committees also heard the bill and gave “Do Pass” recommendations.

The bill was first introduced into the House this session by District 58 Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell. Her co-sponsors were District 66 Rep. Phelps Anderson and District 59 Rep. Greg Nibert. All three representatives are Republicans from Roswell.

Ezzell said the legislation has the full support of all area legislators, including those not named on the bill, and that she thinks it will be a valuable tool for all current or future decommissioned military bases in the state, including those in Hobbs and De Baca County.

“This is one of the governor’s priority issues,” said Ezzell. “She understands the need in case there is another base closure in the state in New Mexico, that there is something that can be done with those particular lands. … This does give the authority to bring new jobs in, to have the capacity to push what availability we have out there (in Roswell), especially in terms of aviation.”

The bill would allow the city of Roswell or other governmental entities in possession of former military bases in the state to form independent governing boards made up of up to nine members appointed by nearby governmental entities. The boards would manage, market and develop the now-civilian air centers and would have authority to issue industrial revenue bonds to fund infrastructure or building projects. Those bonds would be repaid by building rentals, airfield fees or similar revenues derived from the airfields.

Similar legislation has been passed in several other states. In Roswell’s case, the legislation is intended for the 4,600-acre airfield portion of the Roswell International Air Center, which became city property in 1968 after the closure of the Walker Air Force Base.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, has repeatedly indicated her willingness to support the legislation, both during her gubernatorial race and after her election.

The bill that she will consider is a revised version of the 2018 bill that passed both chambers of the legislature before being vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez. Martinez objected to several aspects of the bill, including that authority members would be non-elected officials.

That provision did not change in the 2019 version, but the bill was amended during the House Judiciary Committee consideration to include more detailed information about the bond provisions and tax exemptions and, significantly, to address concerns voiced by city of Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh by providing a “unwinding” provision. That section allows for the disbanding of the authority if the city, county and any other governmental bodies participating on the authority unanimously agree that it is not serving the community and not creating jobs and economic growth.

Kintigh also has expressed concerns that the Roswell air center cannot support itself financially if separated from the city. Rep. Nibert told the Senate Judiciary Committee members during their Monday meeting that Kintigh’s concern in that regard could not be addressed by the legislation itself and was a matter for the city and the county to negotiate.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story stated that Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh did not return a call seeking comment. That was incorrect. Kintigh did not receive a request for comment because a phone number was misdialed.
Kintigh’s comment about the legislation is: “I remain concerned about the financial health of the airport as an independent political subdivision of the state. I don’t think they have the resources to fulfill all their obligations.”

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