The race to manage the State Lands Office and billions in revenue has sparked a contentious down-ballot race in the 2018 Midterm that has drawn national attention, prompting an influx of money into the race between Patrick Lyons, a Republican who previously held the office between 2003 and 2010, and State Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, a Democrat.

The New Mexico Land Commissioner administers oil and gas drilling on state lands, as well as renewable energy projects, to “optimize revenues while protecting the health of the land for future generations,” according to the state lands website.

Though the Conservation Voters New Mexico’s Verde Voters spent nearly $400,000 on Garcia Richard’s opponent in the primary, the group is backing the Democrat in the general election with spending and get-out-the-vote efforts.

Domonic Silva, a lobbyist and self-described pundit, agreed that the authority wielded by the land commissioner was substantial, and told Western Wire the office represented a de facto fourth branch of government in the state.

“For New Mexico, if we had a fourth level of government, outside the executive, judicial, and legislative, the fourth level of government would be the Land Commissioner’s office,” Silva said.

“The land commissioner can sell the land, lease the land or trade the land without anybody else’s approval, which is unlike any other constitutional office I’ve heard of,” Ray Powell, a former commissioner, told NPR.

Silva pointed to the office’s independence from the other branches and the vast amount of land managed under the State Land Office, approximately 9 million surface acres and 13 million subsurface estate.

“It’s a very important seat,” he added, with nearly two dozen direct beneficiaries within the state, including hospitals, schools, and higher education. “At times, it’s more important that the governor’s role,” Silva said. According to the State Land Office, roughly 94 percent of earnings goes to education.

“We’re at a crossroads with this particular office and our reliance on extractive industry nationwide, but particularly in New Mexico,” Garcia Richard told NPR, calling the race “a referendum on the future of their industry.”

According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, Garcia Richard has advocated a ban on hydraulic fracturing.

“While the signs are pointing toward a banner financial year for us, there is a caveat,” Dunn said in a statement. “So much will depend on who the next land commissioner is and what their policy on generating funds for this agency’s beneficiaries is.”

Lyons has said his goal as commissioner is to “raise revenue for education and the beneficiaries” and “manage the land in a sustainable” manner.

The best custodian, according to Silva, is one who is “able to manage those lands in a way that creates sustainability and reliability for the future, and make sure they’re well-funded.”

At a time of skyrocketing oil production across the state, including the abundant Permian Basin, that has lifted New Mexico to 3rd in the nation in oil production, the importance of state lands in unlocking resources—and reaping the benefit from associated revenues—is “critical” in this type of economy, Silva said.

“As a state, we have to take advantage of these economic times,” he said. The commissioner should maximize revenues for the beneficiaries in down times, and not overpromise during boom periods, he added.

Silva called the statewide office more competitive than other upper ballot races that are leaning towards Democratic candidates, adding that Lyons’ experience has resonated, and the competitive nature of the race has justifiably drawn national attention.

Estimated revenue from state lands could approach $1 billion in the current fiscal year. State Land Office lease sales alone have drawn more than $70 million in competitive bids through October, according to EnergyNet, which handles the online lease sales and auctions.

New Mexico draws from state lands and federal lands under the supervision of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which roughly splits oil and gas lease revenues equally between BLM and the state.

Disbursements from energy revenues on Department of Interior lands sent $634.9 million to New Mexico, the largest recipient. Revenues from the Permian Basin located within the state drew $972 million in the 3rd quarter oil and gas lease sale.

Paul Gessing, President of the Rio Grande Foundation, told Western Wire that the race draws a clear line between a land commissioner as a custodian with a fiduciary duty to beneficiaries, and one who would push a more activist agenda.

“In this particular race we see a new trend. While Lyons is within the scope of traditional land commissioners in the sense that they balance stewardship and maximizing revenues generated on state lands, Garcia Richard is the first candidate that has explicitly rejected one of the primary means (fracking) of generating revenues on those state lands,” Gessing wrote.

Whether or not the rhetoric is merely cynical electoral politics, Gessing said that the state’s reliance on the revenues generated and the responsibilities of the office will keep the new commissioner busy.

“We suspect that she is merely angling for the environmental vote and that when push comes to shove, she’ll keep fracking going in order to generate revenues for the beneficiaries (mostly the schools), but the oil and gas industry is understandably nervous about this shift and the threat it poses,” he added.