Money links N.M.’s top 2009 stories

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By Sue M. Holmes

ALBUQUERQUE — Much of what made news in New Mexico in 2009 came down to money.

There was a pay-for-play investigation that cost Gov. Bill Richardson a federal cabinet post. A former secretary of state faces charges over federal funds for voter education. A longtime state Senate leader was sentenced in a kickback scheme. Former housing authority officials were accused of misusing bond proceeds.

And the once-glowing revenue picture in New Mexico deteriorated into a scramble to find enough money to keep the state in the black.

President Barack Obama nominated Richardson as commerce secretary, but the governor pulled out under pressure of a federal grand jury investigation into a state contract awarded to his political donors.

Richardson insisted all along that he would be cleared, and he was buoyed in August when it became apparent no charges would be brought against the governor or his former top aides.

The controversy led to changes in how the state handles proposed investments, and State Investment Officer Gary Bland resigned in October amid a continuing investigation.

The sputtering economy dominated the Legislature.

Lawmakers reduced state government payments going into public pension funds, requiring state workers to make up the difference by contributing more from their salaries, then acted at a special session in October to cut spending to partially plug a $650 million revenue shortfall.

For his part, Richardson ordered five unpaid furlough days for more than 19,000 executive branch workers, eliminated some jobs and froze capital improvement projects.

The struggling economy was blamed for postponed construction at Mesa del Sol, a long-planned Albuquerque commercial and residential development emphasizing sustainable living. It had hoped to have 100 occupied homes by early 2010.

Eclipse Aviation reopened in September after a troubled six months in bankruptcy proceedings. Eclipse Aerospace bought the Albuquerque-based jet airplane manufacturer in a $40 million deal.

Ground was broken in June for runway construction at New Mexico’s spaceport, a $200 million state-financed project advanced by the governor. Flights carrying space tourists could begin in 2011.

The proposed Desert Rock Energy Project suffered setbacks after federal agencies decided to review actions taken on the coal-fired power plant in northwestern New Mexico.

The Environmental Appeals Board in part granted a request by regional EPA officials who wanted to review parts of an air permit issued last year, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs withdrew its biological assessment for the plant.

Other top stories:

• The state’s longest-serving governor, Bruce King, died at age 85. Among the mourners was former president Bill Clinton, a longtime friend who eulogized King.

• A state police helicopter crashed while rescuing a lost hiker from the Sandia Mountains in deteriorating weather in June, killing pilot Andrew Tingwall and the hiker.

• The state abolished the death penalty, replacing it with life in prison without parole.

• An all-Democratic congressional delegation from New Mexico was sworn in for the first time since 1968. All three of the state’s House members are freshmen, and former Rep. Tom Udall was elected to the Senate to succeed longtime New Mexico political stalwart Pete Domenici, who retired.

• The state Department of Health licensed a nonprofit business to produce medical marijuana, the first approved under the program that allows people to be certified to use marijuana for pain or other symptoms of specified debilitating illnesses.

• Hotel owner Larry Whitten created a firestorm in Taos when he forbade Hispanic workers from speaking Spanish in his presence and ordered some to Anglicize their names. There were regular pickets across the street from the hotel and a protest by civil rights groups.

• Former state Senate leader Manny Aragon was sentenced to 5 years in federal prison for his role in a corruption case involving courthouse construction. Aragon, once one of New Mexico’s most powerful politicians, pleaded guilty to three felony counts of conspiracy and mail fraud.

• A grand jury indicted former Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron and three others, alleging fraud, tax fraud and money laundering in connection with federal funds for a voter education project.

• Former Region III Housing Authority head Vincent “Smiley” Gallegos and three others were indicted in connection with the defunct Albuquerque-based housing program.

• The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scrapped a rule used to kill or permanently remove any wolf that killed three heads of livestock in a year. Environmentalists contended the rule was harming efforts to re-establish Mexican gray wolves in the wild. Ranchers said it targeted wolves that grew accustomed to preying on cattle.