Lyons jumps into race for land commissioner
Pat Lyons, who has served on the state Public Regulation Commission for more than six years, announced Wednesday that he will seek the Republican nomination for his old job as commissioner of public lands, a position that GOP incumbent Aubrey Dunn will vacate with hopes of winning a seat Congress representing Southern New Mexico.
Lyons, 63, is jumping into the race amid debate over public lands and the future of energy in New Mexico. Democrats are waging a pitched campaign to win back the office — a push that has already led to a defamation lawsuit — but Lyons is a political veteran.
A native New Mexican, he served as the head of the State Land Office from 2003-10.
During that tenure, Lyons upset some sportsmen with property deals that they say curtailed their access to state trust land. The state Supreme Court blocked a land swap Lyons had approved near a popular hunting area known as White Peak, ruling that the deal did not follow the usual rules and was illegal, though Lyons had maintained it would improve land management.
Lyons rejects criticism that his administration limited access to state land under his administration.
“I’m the biggest sportsman in New Mexico,” he said with a laugh in a phone call Wednesday.
Lyons instead touted an increase in revenue from state lands with the same number of staff as when he took over the office.
The State Land Office manages about 13 million mineral acres and 9 million surface acres the U.S. government allotted to New Mexico more than a century ago. The state takes in hundreds of dollars annually by leasing the land for an array of uses, including grazing and oil and gas drilling. The state in turn invests that money through the Land Grand Permanent Fund, which generates a crucial stream of revenue for public schools, universities, state hospitals and other institutions.
The issue of public access is likely to feature prominently in the race, however.
Democrat Garrett VeneKlasen, who heads the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, announced his candidacy in June on a platform of boosting renewable energy development on state trust lands and offering more opportunities for recreation. VeneKlasen came out swinging, airing ads targeting Dunn with accusations of self-dealing that ultimately led the outgoing commissioner to file a defamation lawsuit against the Democrat.
Ray Powell, who served as commissioner from 1993 to 2002 and again from 2011-14, also is angling for a comeback by making a bid for the Democratic nomination.
Asked Wednesday how he would manage the office differently from Dunn, Lyons said he would be “probably be a little more cautious” about raising fees for using state land.
But Lyons was generally complimentary of Dunn, who won election as commissioner of public lands in 2014, unseating Powell in a close race that ended in a recount.
Dunn is leaving the office up for grabs, however, to campaign for U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce’s seat in Congress while Pearce runs for governor.
Lyons’ announcement is just the latest development in a political round of musical chairs as the Republicans’ 2018 ticket takes shape.
He won a seat on the Public Regulation Commission in 2010 representing District 2. The district stretches across the entire eastern half of New Mexico, with its border zigzagging from Alamogordo to Sandia Park, Rowe and Angel Fire. The commission’s primary function is to regulate utilities around the state.
Lyons previously served as a state senator from 1992 to 2002, representing a district spanning six of New Mexico’s northeastern counties.
A 1972 graduate of Clovis High School, Lyons earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from New Mexico State University in 1975. He went on to earn a master’s degree in agriculture from Colorado State University in 1977 and continues to own and operate the Lyons Angus Ranch.
If he wins back his old office, Lyons will not get a pay raise. The commissioner of public lands receives an annual salary of $90,000, the same as a member of the Public Regulation Commission.
Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.