Budget crimps visionary purchases

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By Sherry Robinson

In 1920, two ranchers completed a dam on the Cimarron River and created Eagle Nest Lake, jewel of the Moreno Valley. By 1990, the Lake’s private owners, the Davis family, wanted to sell. They had generously allowed public use of the lake, but they were ready to shed the responsibility.
Of course, they had no shortage of offers – every resort and condo developer in the region beat a path to their door – but they preferred to sell it to the state to ensure the public’s continued access.
It seemed like a good deal for everyone, but it was caught in wrangling between former Gov. Gary Johnson and the Legislature. Johnson, who otherwise condemned pork spending, supported the lake’s purchase – probably the result of his time as a ski patrolman in nearby Angel Fire. Future State Land Commissioner Patrick Lyons, then a Republican state senator, warned that the state could lose the opportunity to buy the lake.
But Senate Majority Leader Manny Aragon, thumbing his nose at Johnson and Lyons, said it was “the most ludicrous investment of limited resources that one could think of in 2002.” He subsequently rerouted the money to other water projects.
In 2003 newly elected Gov. Bill Richardson visited Eagle Nest and promised local people a state park and delivered. A year later, he said, “Well, $25 million later, we’re here, but it’s worth it for the people of New Mexico.” Hunting and fishing license fees rose in 2005 to help restore cash reserves at the state Game and Fish Department, which helped finance the purchase.
Public land acquisitions have never come easily, even during better times.
When the governor recently proposed buying a 12,000-acre ranch and creating a wild horse sanctuary, it wasn’t unprecedented. His comments were similar to those he made in adding Eagle Nest Lake to his to-do list: He talked about opportunity, legacy, tourism and jobs.
The Eagle Nest Lake deal was a short six years ago, but it’s separated from the proposed horse sanctuary by an economic chasm.
Spending $2.9 million in federal stimulus money for the park might be a worthy goal. Just not now.
“The state is simply not in the financial position to invest in recreational opportunities,” wrote Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Smith cited shortfalls in programs from Medicaid to the disabled. Balancing the budget, a constitutional mandate, will mean a variety of cuts, deep and painful.
“In these times, we must focus on protecting our children and the most vulnerable New Mexicans,” Smith concluded.
As for jobs, the Chairman of Reality Checks pointed out that the state can barely afford to operate its existing parks, much less hire additional staff to operate a new horse park.
How nice that somebody in the Legislature sees the error in continuing to build things the state can’t afford to staff or maintain.
A skeptic might also ask why tourists would come see 25 to 30 horses – the ranch’s carrying capacity, according to a resource expert at the Bureau of Land Management.
One unintended consequence:
The governor provided political hay to the Democratic candidate for governor. Lt. Gov. Diane Denish called the proposal a “terrible use” of stimulus funds and made it clear that she would use her position on the state Board of Finance to block approval of the ranch, even going so far as canvassing the other board members, who are apparently also opposed.
I’m sure Denish does think it’s a terrible use of public money, but it didn’t hurt that she finally got a good shot at separating herself from the governor.
The controversy is a sign of the times.
We want our leaders to have vision, to seize opportunities, but in triage budget making, vision can be too expensive.

Sherry Robinson
NM News Services