By Rob Nikolewski | New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE — Lt. Gov. John Sanchez is defending a flight that cost taxpayers $1,388.
The trip was for a hearing Tuesday hosted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Roswell, as well as a rally to keep the federal government from listing the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species.
“It was official state business,” Sanchez told New Mexico Watchdog on Friday, adding that “it was important for representatives of the state to take part in the hearing.”
Oil and gas executives and workers in the state’s “Oil Patch” fear a federal listing for the chicken could severely hamper the industry.
Sanchez said he was not on the flight due to the death of his wife’s mother and was represented by his chief of staff Mark Van Dyke. State Sen. Carroll Leavell, R-Jal, and state Rep. Bob Wooley, R-Roswell, were on the flight and spoke at the airport rally, which was organized by the chambers of commerce in Roswell and Artesia and featured a speech by U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-2nd District.
“What’s the difference between going to Roswell to testify at an official hearing as to us appearing in Washington, D.C., for us to testify at a Senate or Congressional hearing?” Sanchez asked.
The state’s Department of Public Safety owns the plane.
“That rally was going on before we decided to go to the official hearing by Fish and Wildlife,” said Van Dyke, who did not speak at the rally; Wooley and Leavell addressed the crowd.
“The purpose for us going down there was to be there for the hearing,” Sanchez said. “I think the rally was, in my mind, secondary to the fact that we were there to attend the hearing and testifying on behalf of the state of New Mexico.”
Were any Democrats in the Legislature invited?
Sanchez referred the question to the office of Gov. Susana Martinez, who made the flying habits of former Gov. Bill Richardson an issue in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. New Mexico Watchdog e-mailed the governor’s spokesman. As soon as we receive a response, we’ll post it. Update: Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said in an e-mail, ”Our office reached out to Minority Leader (Donald) Bratton (a Republican from Lea County) to ask for his recommendations on which legislators should testify at the federal hearing. He recommended one member from each Chamber.”
With Tim Jennings’ loss in November, no Democrats from Roswell serve in the state House or the Senate.
But Democrat George Dodge Jr. represents a portion of Curry County, which makes up part of the lesser prairie chicken’s range. Dodge said he was not contacted about taking part in the flight.
Like Wooley and Leavell, Dodge also opposes listing the bird as a threatened species.
“It involves the co-ops, it involves oil and gas,” Dodge said. “I’m part of the Farmers’ Electric Co-op out of Clovis and it would impact us if (Fish and Wildlife) listed it.”
Democrats say the rally made the flight more of a political event than a visit to represent the state.
“Is it going to break the bank? No,” Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said. “Is it a large amount of money? Of course not. But the point being, yeah, it was just politics. It’s also unfortunate, given how much the lieutenant governor made hay over the use of the state airplane in the campaign to then turn around and use a different airplane for his political purposes.”
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