Inside the Capitol

Monday, September 26, 2005

9-28 Treasurer's Office Scandal

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- How much will the state Treasurer's Office scandal hurt New Mexico?
Not much, as far as the state's bond rating is concerned, according to major Wall Street rating firms. We're also told that trading in state and local bond issues has been normal.
Wall Street looks well into the future and isn't affected much by short-term factors. They look at the ability of a state to repay its debt and not whether there was a scandal, according to bond rating firms. New Mexico enjoys the second highest bond rating on Wall Street -- one of the best of any states.
For the most part, the money that was allegedly extorted came from bond advisers, who reportedly could afford to share up to 75 percent of their payments with state officials and still do quite well. There have been worries, however, that trades are made too often, thereby increasing the number of commissions and fees, and that fees have been too high.
The only other positive anyone has been able to find in this embarrassing mess is that it may lead to some reform of the system. Gov. Bill Richardson says he plans to introduce "a bold anti-corruption package in the next legislative session."
Richardson didn't say whether that would be the Oct. 5 special session or the regular session next January. The announcement came two hours after he called a special session for "gas and home heating relief."
It likely can be assumed that Richardson doesn't plan to clog up the special session with anti-corruption legislation. But he may be forced to deal with the Treasurer's Office scandal in spades.
The public is not pleased with the deal worked out between the governor, attorney general and accused Treasurer Robert Vigil allowing him to "recuse" himself from having anything to do with the Treasurer's Office while still drawing his $85,000 salary.
Republican lawmakers, and probably some Democrats, want him to either resign or be impeached. The trouble with impeachment is that the Legislature has to do it and legislative leaders aren't anxious to go through that ordeal.
But if public anger and pressure continues to build, they may have to act. Vigil seems very unlikely to resign. There is no law forcing an elected official to resign before being proven guilty. Vigil still maintains his innocence. If convicted on the charges, he faces a possible 20 years in prison and a quarter-million-dollar fine.
If Vigil seeks a plea bargain, his biggest chip will be his resignation, so he's not going to use that option now.
It's just a guess, but the solution of Democrat leaders may be to avoid embarrassment by not having a special session.
A gain Richardson hopes to achieve out of this scandal is a constitutional amendment giving the governor authority to appoint the current down-ballot state elected officials.
Detractors have called Richardson the nation's most powerful governor, but he has to share executive power with numerous other elected officials. Most voters are not able to name those elected offices or their current incumbents.
Yet the governor usually ends up with the blame for any misdeeds they might commit. So why not have a single executive responsible for all state government? Our federal government has survived over 200 years with the system.
Until recently, New Mexicans have been unwilling to surrender the right to a long ballot, but then we allowed judges a modified appointive system. And now Gov. Richardson has convinced voters to take control of public schools from the elected state Board of Education.
Republican officials have suggested the state treasurer be appointed by a panel of public members. But then there is no one to answer for misdeeds of the person it appoints.
So New Mexico struggles with its tarnished image. Gov. Richardson may have even more trouble attracting new business to the state. And the public's low opinion of government will sink even lower.
WED, 9-28-05

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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