Aiming for Accountability

Candidates for state treasurer and state auditor hope to win New Mexicans’ confidence to manage and protect state finances

All the candidates for state treasurer and state auditor agree on one thing: Most New Mexicans don’t have a good idea of how either office functions.

The role of state auditor, as the candidates attest, hasn’t historically lent itself to a high profile. Yet in recent years, that’s changed, with the office working as a springboard.

The current auditor, Brian Colón, has launched a well-funded campaign for attorney general—as of presstime, Colón had accumulated the third-largest war chest of any candidate this election season. The man he hopes to succeed as AG, Hector Balderas, served two terms as state auditor before moving up. And between Colón and Balderas came Tim Keller, who parlayed his time in the auditor’s chair into two terms as mayor of Albuquerque.

Zack Quintero, who ran for city councilor in Albuquerque before taking on the statewide contest, says he’s not interested in using the office as a stepping stone. Rather, he tells SFR that the lack of awareness offers a chance to educate the public about the office’s role in protecting New Mexicans from fraud, abuse and financial exploitation.

For Quintero, 31, the opportunity to protect vulnerable residents from scams is personal. His grandfather fell victim to a predatory guardianship scheme that, he says, took control of his medical benefits as a veteran.

“And they just stripped away everything that he had. And that had financial impacts on my family, and it’s really difficult to see him suffer like that,” Quintero says.

If elected to the office, Quintero hopes to build out the fraud unit to take on more cases like his grandfather’s.

After graduating law school, Quintero worked on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Medical Advisory Team for a brief stint before she appointed him to the role of state ombudsman. In this role Quintero says he gained experience investigating cases of financial exploitation.

Also a top priority for Quintero is analyzing the information fossil fuel companies report to state agencies through what he calls a Climate Accountability Audit. Currently, “it’s not consolidated in one report to the point where it’s easily digestible for everyone to look at the total environmental damage happening.”

His competitor, Joseph Maestas, brings decades of public service to his campaign. Maestas hopes to take over for Colón after wrapping up his two-year term on the Public Regulation Commission, which is transitioning to an appointed body. Maestas tells SFR he doesn’t have his eyes on the AG’s office, either—which seems like a reliable assurance given he doesn’t have a law degree but rather is educated as a civil engineer.

In addition to his service as the former mayor of Española and Santa Fe city councilor, Maestas, 61, plans to lean heavily on his experience serving the public if elected to the statewide position.

“The person, in order to be effective, has to have a track record, a track record of experience, a track record of leadership and a track record of standing up to powerful interests,” Maestas tells SFR.

He points to an investigation he undertook as a councilor into Santa Fe’s misappropriation of 2008 park bond money that, Maestas says, the city was using to subsidize the operational budget and pay salaries.

Maestas adds that his experience includes forensic audits, like the McHard report, a 2017 indictment of the city’s financial procedures.

Jason Vaillancourt, a Libertarian, will face the winner of the Democratic state auditor’s race.

The other office responsible for keeping tabs on taxpayers’ money has created more of a spectacle than one might expect from the state treasurer’s race.

The Democrats are looking to elect the state’s first female treasurer, but the primary race has sown division between the candidates.

Heather Benavidez, 43, works as Tim Eichenberg’s chief of staff and the current state treasurer has thrown his weight behind his hopeful successor, going so far as to accuse the other Democrat in the race, Laura Montoya, of failing to report unemployment benefits she received last year, among other charges in a complaint to the secretary of state.

Montoya, 44, denies those claims and provided documents that indicate she did not receive unemployment benefits while she was campaigning for state treasurer.

Montoya cast doubt on her opponent’s employment history while campaigning and has complained to the attorney general that Eichenberg is using his position unlawfully. Others have also raised questions about Benavidez’s work habits while campaigning. A complaint filed last week alleges Benavidez was campaigning while working at the state treasurer’s office.

In response to the accusation Benavidez says, “I take all complaints seriously and I am in the process of responding. But in the meantime, I’m concerned about making sure I’m doing my job to the best of my ability and I don’t want anything else to distract from that.”

Benavidez would bring a diverse portfolio to the race, with over three years of experience in the treasurer’s office and as an elected magistrate in Rio Communities. A focus of her campaign is expanding the scope of Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) accounts, an existing program that supports New Mexicans with disabilities to save and invest money.

“I would like to incentivize contributions to those accounts by making a certain portion tax deductible,” Benavidez tells SFR. She hopes to extend the program to children within the foster care system to better help them prepare for the future.

Montoya brings treasury experience to her campaign, serving two terms as the Sandoval County treasurer. If elected, she hopes to expand the state’s Local Government Investment Pool, a state-managed fund that local municipalities, counties and tribes can invest in.

Montoya says smaller communities can benefit from the program by investing their money “with big counties like Doña Ana, Bernalillo, Santa Fe and Sandoval, and they can make more bang for their buck in a pool that’s very safe and have a higher rate of return.”

Following the June 7 primary—early voting for which began May 10 at the County Clerk’s Office—either Montoya or Benavidez will ultimately face Harry Montoya, a Republican, in the November general election. Residents hoping to mail in their vote should request an absentee ballot before May 25.

Harry Montoya, 62, has a history in public office having served two terms as a Santa Fe County commissioner and three terms as a Pojoaque School Board member.

Editor’s note: The story has been updated to accurately reflect Laura Montoya’s age.

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.