The Democratic primary election for state land commissioner is a year away, but political newcomer Garrett VeneKlasen bagged a coveted endorsement Tuesday from U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich.
VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation and a Taos resident, is running for the Democratic nomination against Ray Powell, who was land commissioner for about 15 years during two tours in office. Powell in 2014 lost a bid for re-election to the post to Republican Aubrey Dunn.
Heinrich, a Democrat who is running for re-election next year, took the unusual step of injecting himself into a competitive party primary. The first-term senator pointed to a long-running but so far failed initiative to use a portion of the state's $16 billion land grant endowment to expand funding for early childhood education.
"At this critical time for our state, Garrett knows that investing in early childhood education is not a luxury, but rather a necessity," Heinrich said in a statement. "This is why I am endorsing Garrett VeneKlasen for commissioner of public lands. I trust Garrett to do the right thing for our land, our kids and our future."
VeneKlasen said he supports increasing distributions from the Land Grant Permanent Fund and plans to meet with supporters this week to learn more about the various proposals. They range from taking an additional 1 percent to 3 percent a year from the fund.
"I would like to see it responsibly increase, and that money go to early childhood education," VeneKlasen said.
But he also said any changes have to be well thought out. "Oftentimes just throwing money at a problem is not necessarily the fix. It's a long conversation," he said.
That position is not all that different from Powell's.
During his last term in office, Powell said he questioned proposals for using the endowment to help pay for early childhood education because they lacked accountability.
"They didn't answer questions about who would be accountable and how you measure results," he said at the time.
But in an interview Tuesday, Powell said he supported legislation backed by Democrats that cleared the New Mexico House of Representatives this year but died in the Senate.
"It answered my questions of accountability and protecting the integrity of the core of the fund," Powell said. "The new legislation meets those conditions."
As for Heinrich endorsing VeneKlasen, Powell said he wasn't surprised because the two men are friends.
VeneKlasen said he has supported efforts by Heinrich to preserve public lands, including establishment of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument and the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Heinrich and VeneKlasen also have hunted together for elk and antelope and fished the Rio Grande.
"We share a common love of the outdoors and public lands," said VeneKlasen, who had been speaking with Heinrich for several weeks on an endorsement.
"It is an absolute honor to have earned such a strong, early endorsement from my friend, and our senator, Martin Heinrich," VeneKlasen said in a statement.
Republican Dunn opposes tapping the endowment for another program.
It already helps fund public K-12 schools and other beneficiaries in New Mexico.
A spokesman for Dunn said he will announce next month whether he will seek re-election as land commissioner or run for governor.
The land commissioner manages 9 million acres of surface lands and nearly 13 million acres of mineral rights on land the U.S. government gave to New Mexico more than a century ago. The state takes in hundreds of millions of dollars annually by leasing the land for an array of uses, including grazing as well as oil and gas drilling.
The money is invested through the endowment.
Powell served as commissioner of public lands from 1993 to 2002 and again from 2011-14. A veterinarian, he describes the land office as his passion.
Powell has supported taking over 1 million acres of federal lands that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management had designated for disposal and using that surface acreage in productive ways.
The revenue would have fed a new early childhood education fund. The Legislature approved $250,000 for Powell's office to study and identify the best BLM land for the project, but Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed it.
Contact Bruce Krasnow at email@example.com. The Santa Fe New Mexican is the sister paper of The Taos News.