Sunday, October 9, 2011

ROUNDHOUSE ROUNDUP: Cutting Down on the Crooks & Clowns

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
October 9, 2011

 Here's a Sunday morning paradox for you. Could having less of a choice lead to a better choice for Public Regulation Commission?

PRC member Jason Marks
Commissioner Jason Marks thinks so. While he agrees with Think New Mexico's basic premise that the scandal-scarred commission is in need of a drastic overhaul including the proposal to require higher standards for commissioners elected to the $90,000 job, Marks said the think tank didn't go far enough in this area.

Think New Mexico's most recent report — published within days of Commissioner Jerome Block Jr.'s pleading guilty to a number of felonies and agreeing to resign from the regulatory commission — recommends that commissioners be required to have a college degree and/or at least five years experience in law, engineering, economics or accounting.

This, according to the argument, would cut down on the number of crooks and clowns (my words, not Think New Mexico's) who seem drawn toward the agency.

But Marks, an Albuquerque Democrat serving his second term on the commission, wants to add another step he says would held cut down on unqualified candidates — making candidates for the commission go through the pre-primary convention process, just as candidates for governor, Congress and other offices have to do.

Clowns in the Crosshairs
Here's how that works for candidates of the two major parties: Those who get support from at least 20 percent of the delegates at their respective pre-primary conventions would automatically get a spot on the June primary ballot. Those who fall short of the 20 percent mark would have to gather additional petition signatures to get on the primary ballot.

Marks said last week that this would cut down on the number of candidates in a primary. Part of the problem, he said is that crowded primaries mean that it takes only a tiny plurality to win. And often, in districts dominated by one party, the winner of the primary is virtually assured to win the seat.

That was the case with Block in 2008 who came out on top in a six-person primary. Block received less than 23 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. No Republican ran for the position, so Block's only opposition in the general election was last-minute Green Party candidate Rick Lass.

Similarly, Carol Sloan — the other commissioner forced out because of a felony conviction in the past couple of years — won a five-person 2006 Democratic primary in PRC District 4. She won the primary with less than 30 percent. Like Block, her only general election opposition was a Green Party candidate.

Of course that's nothing compared to some of the old Santa Fe mayoral races. There were 12 candidates in 1994, only a few of which had ever held any public office before. There even was a lady who claimed to channel the ghost of late artist Tommy Macaione. Since then the city has made it harder to get on the ballot.

Marks admits that some people will complain that requiring commission candidates to go through the pre-primary conventions would give more power to "party insiders."
Come Back NM Defamation Suit

And pre-primary conventions don't always guarantee smaller primary ballots. Take last year's Republican governor field. Only Susana Martinez and Allen Weh had enough convention support to get an automatic place on the primary ballot. But all three challengers who fell short scurried and found enough petition signatures to make it onto the ballot.

Nearly the same thing happened with the Dems' lieutenant governor race. Three candidates qualified at the convention, but the two who lost there made it to the primary ballot.

But if having nearly 90 people applying for Block's vacant seat is any indication of how many candidates might be in next year's commission race, some kind of serious winnowing process is in order.