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NM takes another step cracking down on horse racing cheaters

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-10-31 12:04

TO CATCH CHEATERS: The New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee approved setting up a subcommittee to investigate ways to crack down on cheaters operating at the state’s horse tracks.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — The racehorses in New Mexico are swift, but the cheaters who dope them are slippery.

In another in a series of efforts to clean up the sport, the Legislative Finance Committee unanimously voted Friday to establish a subcommittee made up of lawmakers and horse racing officials across the state. It will look at ways to make sure sanctions against owners and trainers who violate the rules are handled more quickly.

“We need to swing a bigger hammer and send a stronger message,” said state Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, who introduced the motion.

The New Mexico Racing Commission has tried to crack down on suspected cheaters, issuing about $500,000 in fines in the past 18 months, commission executive director Vince Mares told the LFC. But well over half of those fines have gone uncollected because the accused often appeal the fines, go to court and receive temporary restraining orders from judges.

“We receive (word) from the court saying you cannot take any sanctions against this individual until the court hears it,” Mares told New Mexico Watchdog. “So it’s in limbo and, unfortunately, it takes two or three years in some cases. I know one from 2009 that barely got resolved in 2013.”

Mares said about half of all doping cases are appealed.

One possible solution discussed Friday was assigning one judge to hear Racing Commission cases to speed things up.

“I think that would be great,” Mares said.

Among the duties of the subcommittee would be to look into whether such an idea would not violate the due process rights of the accused, as well as how much hiring a judge dedicated to hearing Racing Commission cases would cost taxpayers.

LFC director David Abbey said his staff would put together a preliminary report investigating horse racing in New Mexico in time for the LFC’s November meeting. The newly created subcommittee plans on meeting before the next legislative session begins in Santa Fe in January.

“I think there’s a real sense of urgency,” said Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa.

New Mexico is trying to clean up its reputation as a state where dishonest trainers flourish. Two years ago, a New York Times exposé claimed the state had the worst record in the country when it came to injuries to horses and jockeys.

Mares told LFC members Friday the Racing Commission files an average of five doping cases a week from New Mexico’s six licensed tracks and “well over 200 this year.”

One of the most widely used drugs is dermorphin, which is known as “frog juice” because it comes from an enzyme found on the backs of tropical frogs found in South America. The painkiller, considered to be considered 30 to 40 times more potent than morphine, is used to make horses run through whatever pain they may be experiencing.

WHO ARE THESE GUYS?: The New Mexico Racing Commission is investigating this photograph taken after the All American Futurity to determine if the two men are trainers who were supposed to be barred from the event.

Earlier this month, New Mexico Watchdog reported the Racing Commission is looking into a mysterious photo that appeared after the running of the All American Futurity, the biggest quarter horse race in the world that is held every Labor Day at Ruidoso Downs. The photo was first published by the Paulick Report, an online horseracing magazine.

Holding the race trophy, two men in the photo are suspected to be trainers banned 20 years from race tracks for drugging horses.

Mares said Friday the investigation continues. “I don’t want to get into the details of it but we’re looking into it … It’s more complex than we anticipated,” he said. “But it’s definitely going to be resolved one way or the other.”

Another issue is cracking down on “outlaw” or “bush” tracks, where horses race on unlicensed tracks often staged at an individual’s private ranch. Through text messaging, dozens and sometimes hundreds of people show up to place cash bets on races involving multiple horses or, sometimes, in match races featuring one horse against another. The conditions are rife for abuse.

“If a horse breaks a leg, they shoot it with a gun right there,” Muñoz said.

“Unfortunately, NMRC doesn’t have the authority to investigate these tracks,” Mares told the LFC. “State Police look at them … Some of these horses go to these bush tracks and get so doped up they have terrible accidents.”

To crack down on unscrupulous trainers and owners who avoid penalties by counterfeiting licenses, Mares said the NMRC is updating its database, has hired more investigators and is in the process of hiring an in-house auditor.

“There’s a bad perception that nothing is getting done,” Mares told the LFC. “But that’s not true. The tracks have stepped up … (but) there always seems to be a loophole.”

Here’s New Mexico Watchdog video of our interview with Mares after Friday’s hearing:

 

Confusing wording could sink New Mexico amendment

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-10-29 08:23

PHRASING FLAP: The wording of an amendment to the New Mexico Constitution has supporters worried about its passage.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

An amendment on the ballot in New Mexico could pave the way for taxpayers saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in school elections across the state.

But critics say the wording of Constitutional Amendment 1 on the Nov. 4 ballot may so confuse voters they may end up simply skipping the question or even inadvertently vote the opposite of what they intend.

“I think it’s too bad we don’t value clear writing on the ballot,” said Gwyneth Doland, a part-time instructor of journalism at the University of New Mexico, who thinks too many ballot questions are written in overly lawyered terms that come at the expense of plain English.

Even the sponsor of Amendment 1 concedes as much.

“I think in retrospect it could have been phrased more clearly,” said state Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque.

The confusion about the language in Amendment 1 is complicated by the measure itself and rooted at trying to fix what Ivey-Soto described as “an anachronistic vestige of our state constitution.”

Here’s how Constitutional Amendment 1 is worded:

Proposing to amend article 7, section 1 of the constitution of New Mexico to provide that school elections shall be held at different times from partisan elections.

The phrasing implies that school elections are currently held at the same time as partisan elections. They aren’t.

Instead, school elections in the state have long been held completely separately. They’re not conducted during November statewide elections and they’re not even held when municipal issues, such as bond questions, go before voters.

Why?

Before 1920, women didn’t have the right to vote in federal elections, such as in races to determine who would be elected president and to Congress. To allow women in New Mexico to vote in school elections, the state constitution had school elections on a different date than federal elections.

In fact, to this day, school board elections in New Mexico can’t be held at the same time as ANY other election.

That’s what Amendment 1 tries to change.

Critics say that crucial piece of information isn’t included in the amendment’s wording.

“This left me in total confusion,” voter Craig Barth of Cochiti Lake wrote to the Albuquerque Journal. “What is the intent of Amendment 1?”

The intent, Ivey-Soto said, is to fix the state constitution by giving legislators the right to debate moving school board elections to align with municipal elections — something Ivey-Soto estimates could save taxpayers in the Albuquerque area alone between $300,000-$500,000.

Ivey-Soto emphasized that passing Amendment 1 wouldn’t directly lead to having school elections at the same time as municipal elections. Instead, if passed, it would give the Legislature the green light to consider such a move.

“All this allows us to do is have a conversation that we can’t have otherwise.” Ivey-Soto said.

Since Amendment 1 deals with voting rights, it needs to be supported by 75 percent of New Mexico voters instead of a simple majority.

The confusion over the wording of the amendment could hurt its chances, but Ivey-Soto pointed out that six years ago the amendment was phrased in the exact same language and missed passing by just one-half of one percent.

“In light of the concerns people have raised, I wish we would have phrased it a little differently,” Ivey-Soto said.

Critics say the flap points out a larger issue about ballot questions that are badly worded, lack context or are so turgid voters skip past them or vote simply “yes” out of habit.

For example, Amendment No. 4 asks voters to vote yes or no to:

Amend Article 10, Section 10 of the Constitution of New Mexico to allow certain counties to become urban counties and to clarify the majority vote needed to adopt a county charter.

“What’s on the ballot is a bunch of gibberish,” said Doland, who had her students attempt to rewrite the amendments as a classroom assignment. “As a writing instructor, I think some of this language is actively misleading … I don’t believe there is any effort made to consider the readability of this ballot language.”

Chile-infused wine in New Mexico gets $50,000 taxpayer-funded grant

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-10-28 07:57

DRINK UP: A $50,000 federal grant to help a New Mexico winery market and produce chile-infused wine made a list of 2014 government waste. But Sen. Tom Udall says it’s money well-spent.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

For millions of Americans, a glass of wine is a perfect complement to a meal. If the drink is from a local winery, so much the better.

But should U.S. taxpayers help fund the making and marketing of that locally produced product? Even if it’s a chile-infused wine from southern New Mexico?

That’s one of the 100 targets in the “2014 Wastebook,” the compilation produced each year by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that takes aim at what Coburn says are examples of some $25 billion in “silly, unnecessary, and low priority projects” the federal government spent your money on.

And checking in at No. 42 is “Wineries Get Help Selling Beer, Chile-Infused Wine.”

It seems the USDA spent $4.5 million the past fiscal year on grants to its Rural Development Value-Added Producer initiative, something the Wastebook criticized as “a program that offloads some of the burden for producing and marketing locally grown products, and places it on the backs of taxpayers.”

Among the recipients of program’s $50,000 was the St. Clair Winery, which uses chile to spice up its Hatch Red Chile Wine and Hatch Green Chile Wine from its vineyards 47 miles west of Deming.

Coburn also took a shot at one of his Senate colleagues, Tom Udall, who “boasted that his position on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee was instrumental in sending money back home to the winery, raising questions about the hatch chile wine’s competitive edge.”

We’ve all heard of politicians delivering the pork, but politicians but delivering the port?

SPICY: The $50,000 federal grant went to the St. Clair Winery, located outside Deming, N.M.

Udall says he did the right thing.

“For New Mexicans, investing in chile is never a waste, and I am proud to use my position on the Senate Appropriations Committee to fund agricultural and rural development programs that support New Mexico’s economy and create jobs,” Udall told New Mexico Watchdog in an email late Monday.

Funding for the grant program was authorized through the Farm Bill, which Udall strongly supported. The Farm Bill is expected to cost $956.4 billion over 10 years.

“Sen. Coburn may be unfamiliar with the importance of chile production to New Mexico’s rural economy, and I invite him to visit Hatch and learn more,” Udall said. “Nothing is more New Mexico than Hatch chile, and with the wine industry growing in our state, I’m proud to support these truly New Mexico farm industries.”

“Udall Announces Funding to Help Deming Winery Expand Operations,” a news release from the senator’s office announced in August after Udall took a tour of the winery. The $50,000 grant “will help the winery to boost revenues and grow its customer base,” while also boosting jobs in Luna County, which suffers from the highest unemployment rate in the state.

The Value-Added Producer program handed out grants to 28 businesses in 20 states, which the Wastebook said “footed the bill for all kinds of operating costs that are normally” borne by businesses themselves.

The program also sent money to three brewers making craft beers, nine farms starting or expanding their production of hard cider and even one company in Hawaii that wants to make mead from tropical fruit.

But the booze grant money is a mere pittance compared to some of the other items listed in Coborn’s Wastebook.

Such as the Pentagon’s plans to spend $1 billion to destroy $16 billion in surplus ammunition. That’s enough to pay the salaries of more than 54,000 privates in the Army.

Upon hearing that, a taxpayer may need to chug a whole bottle of wine — without or without chile infusion.

Click here to read the entire 114-page Wastebook. The chile wine entry is on page 38.

10 years on: A progress report on Spaceport America

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-10-27 08:05

PROGRESS REPORT: It’s been a decade since plans for Spaceport America were unveiled. Critics say it hasn’t produced a return on New Mexico taxpayers’ $218.5 million investment but supporters say the money will come.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

It has cost New Mexico taxpayers $218.5 million to construct and its anchor tenant, headed by a flamboyant billionaire, has yet to get off the ground.

Nonetheless, backers of Spaceport America remain confident the investment in the first site built specifically for commercial flights going into suborbital space will pay off.

“When it comes to the whole commercial space industry, I don’t think it’s a matter of if it’s going to happen, but when,” said Christine Anderson, executive director of Spaceport America, located essentially in the middle of nowhere in a desert basin in southern New Mexico — 45 miles north of Las Cruces, 20 miles southeast of Truth or Consequences and just west of the White Sands Missile Range.

It’s been a little more than 10 years since the idea of constructing a spaceport was picked up during the administration of then-Gov. Bill Richardson. To get some clarity about where Spaceport and its various commercial ventures and infrastructure projects stand after a decade, New Mexico Watchdog spoke to Anderson last week by telephone.

Virgin Galactic

The British-based company headed by Richard Branson isn’t the only commercial outfit operating out of Spaceport America. It just seems that way.

After all, Virgin Galactic is Spaceport’s anchor tenant and will pay between $25,000 and $75,000 to the Spaceport Authority (i.e., New Mexico taxpayers) for every flight it launches.

But when will that inaugural launch — promising to eventually take more than 700 well-heeled passengers and celebrities who have paid up to $250,000 to get blasted into suborbital space — ever happen?

Branson originally expected to lift off in 2012, but he’s delayed the launch date numerous times as Virgin Galactic engineers tackle the daunting issues involved in sending a rocket ship 62.1 miles above the earth’s atmosphere and returning it safely to Earth. Last month, Branson told David Letterman he’s expecting the first launch in “February or March of next year.”

Virgin Galactic is finishing up testing in Mojave, Calif., on the rockets that will power SpaceShipTwo.

“We’re thrilled about that because that means they’ll be here soon,” said Anderson.

But when will the maiden flight take place?

“This is hard stuff and you want them to get it right,” Anderson said. “Particularly when they’re flying commercial passengers, you really want them to get it right.”

While Virgin Galactic still hasn’t started flights, it has started to pay its lease at Spaceport, which Anderson said comes to $1 million a year.

SpaceX

Branson isn’t the only billionaire at Spaceport. Elon Musk has dreams of colonizing Mars and his SpaceX venture signed a three-year lease last year with Spaceport to test reusable rockets.

Anderson said SpaceX has already spent $2 million on infrastructure improvements on its Spaceport site. Musk’s team is working on what Anderson called “the holy grail of vertical launch,” its Falcon 9R that’s designed to lift off and instead of having the first stage of the rocket get discarded into the ocean, returns the ground to be used again. SpaceX is testing the rocket in Texas and suffered a malfunction in August, but plans to conduct its launches in New Mexico.

“We can’t wait for them to bring in the rocket,” Anderson said.

When will that happen?

“All I can say is soon,” Anderson said. “It’s kind of like Virgin Galactic. They set their dates and they’re milestone-driven.”

Tenants and customers

Spaceport makes a distinction between tenants — companies that base their operations on site — and customers, who use the facility on an as-needed basis. So far, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are Spaceport’s only tenants.

But one of its customers made headlines last Thursday.

UP Aerospace, a space flight firm based in Denver, used Spaceport America to conduct its 13th successful payload launch:

Overall, it marked the 21st successful vertical launch from Spaceport since the facility’s grand opening in October 2011.

The UP Aerospace rocket used Thursday was supplied by NASA and reached an altitude of 77 miles, beating the old Spaceport record by four miles.

Among the items carried on the rocket were the ashes of 33 people, which has become something of a growing market among Baby Boomers.

Armadillo Aerospace used to be a customer, but after having money problems the company is regrouping under a different name.

Does Spaceport make any money on these customer flights?

“Anytime anybody uses the Spaceport, we get revenue,” Anderson said, although she didn’t have the figures for the UP Aerospace launch. “They pay for support services.”

The visitors center

Spaceport is building what it’s calling a “visitor experience” to lure tourists. A 4,000-square-foot “Gateway Gallery” is expected to be completed in the spring.

In Truth or Consequences, a visitors center hasn’t yet broken ground, but is expected to be finished in “about a year and three or four months,” Anderson said.

Eventually, Anderson said visitors will be able to see actual launches. “When Virgin starts flying, we haven’t started talking about how we’re going to orchestrate that, but I’m sure there will be great opportunities for people to do that,” she said.

There have been questions about the lack of facilities in the area surrounding Spaceport America, but Virgin Galactic signed an agreement in July with an upscale hotel in Las Cruces and a gourmet caterer to serve its SpaceShipTwo passengers.

Road woes

The construction of a road entering Spaceport from the south has been a subject of debate for years. Some $14.2 million has been set aside, but the paving hasn’t yet started to replace the rough road that starts in Doña Ana County and ends in Sierra County. Doña Ana County’s engineer told lawmakers this week construction should start this summer.

“We desperately need that road,” Anderson said.

There’s some question about whether the proposed road can handle traffic that could come from large numbers of tourists supporters hope flock to Spaceport. The Doña Ana County Commission has called on the state to adopt the road.

Competition

New Mexico may have been first with a spaceport, but more states and foreign countries are building their own commercial facilities.

Texas, California and Florida have joined the race and Alaska even has a facility that conducts polar orbits.

“IT IS GOING TO HAPPEN”: Spaceport America Executive Director Christine Anderson commercial space travel is a virtual certainty.

Great Britain and Sweden each recently announced their own plans and Abu Dhabi, flush with petrodollars, has partnered with Branson and Virgin Galactic to construct a spaceport in the United Arab Emirates.

On one hand, such news bolster the case made by supporters that commercial space flight is the wave of the future.

But does that raise the possibility space flight firms will bypass little old New Mexico? Or that current tenants like Virgin Galactic will play one spaceport off another, like pro football owners do, to get better lease agreements?

“We’re all kind of different,” Anderson said. “What works in one place doesn’t necessarily work in another. The business model you’re pursuing and the customers are different. Mojave does a lot of flight testing, not so much the space tourism that we’re going to do here. ”

The long run

In many ways, Virgin Galactic is the face of Spaceport America and Branson has caught a lot of heat from critics this year.

“It’s clear that (Branson) launched Virgin Galactic without remotely understanding the complexity of the technical challenges involved and, probably, still doesn’t,” British journalist Tom Bower wrote in a highly critical biography of the billionaire, doubting whether SpaceShipTwo can generate enough power to ever take passengers into suborbital space.

“The best way of dealing with people like that is to prove them wrong and we will prove them wrong in the next few months,” Branson said.

Most New Mexico legislators haven’t lost faith yet.

“Branson may not even turn out to be the future out there,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, one of the Legislature’s most vocal fiscal hawks. “I still have a lot of hope that we re-enter with aggressiveness on space research.”

“We’ve already spent the money,” state Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, said. “The potential is there. The Branson thing is disappointing, but I think the space program there is alive and well.”

“It is going to happen. We’re on the cusp of this next generation of transportation for humans,” Anderson said. “We appreciate the advancement the people of New Mexico made in us and we’re trying to make it a success.”

Oklahoma State takes New Mexico State to court over an old cowboy logo

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-10-24 07:56

SMILE WHEN I TAKE YOU TO COURT: Oklahoma State University has enlisted a Tulsa law firm to file suit against New Mexico State over the use of its cowboy logo.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Call it “Logo-gate.”

Or heavy-handedness.

Or simply another example of how overly litigious our society has become.

But the fuss over the mascots at Oklahoma State University and New Mexico State University seems to have catalyzed on a pennant selling for $26.98 at the NMSU bookstore.

Earlier this week, a Tulsa law firm representing the Board of Regents for Oklahoma State filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against NMSU, claiming damages stemming from NMSU’s use of an old cowboy logo that NMSU Aggie sports teams used to display.

The lawsuit also calls on NMSU to “deliver up all products, printed materials, signage, and other articles in possession” bearing the logo to be “destroyed.” Plus, NMSU must make an accounting to Oklahoma State of “all profits derived” from the use of the old logo.

“We were surprised that OSU took this step,” NMSU said a statement released Monday, saying school officials are “confident that good sense will prevail.”

Oklahoma State — whose sports teams are nicknamed the Cowboys — has long employed a logo of a craggy and cranky-looking cowpoke armed with a six-shooter nicknamed Pistol Pete.

New Mexico State used to employ a logo that was virtually identical:

DRAW: New Mexico’s old logo, left, faces off with Oklahoma’s logo.

But nine years ago, NMSU changed its logo to a cowboy with a lasso:

ON THE RANGE: New Mexico State picked this logo nine years ago.

 

Aggies fans didn’t like the logo very much so it was altered to have the cowboy armed with a couple of pistols:

TAKE AIM: Two pistols are better than one, right?

 

OK, so what’s the big deal? The updated NMSU logos look nothing like the OK State logo. So why the lawsuit?

Because New Mexico State is apparently using the old logo to sell some merchandise.

OSU spokesman Gary Shutt sent New Mexico Watchdog a photo that was snapped at the NMSU campus Barnes & Noble of some pennants featuring the old logo, accompanied by script reading, “Classic Aggie”:

A CLASSIC: NMSU revived the old logo for a series of pennants.

 

Oklahoma State objects to “however (the old logo is) being used in the Classic Aggie collection,” Shutt said.

“Whether that’s on pennants or shirts and things. Clearly, it’s related to the old school Pistol Pete.”

Shutt said he didn’t know when the photo was taken or who took it.

NMSU spokesman Justin Bannister confirmed to New Mexico Watchdog the “Classic Aggie” pennants have been sold at the bookstore and, as of Wednesday, were still on the shelves.

“We’re hoping we can resolve this soon,” Bannister said.

OK, maybe NMSU should get rid of all merchandise featuring the old cowboy logo.

But does this dustup merit the trouble, publicity and expense of filing a lawsuit?

The eight-page legal document submitted Monday accuses NMSU of “causing irreparable injury and damage” to Oklahoma State.

Really? Even in the unlikely event that NMSU has sold 100 Classic Aggie pennants this school year, at $26.98 a pennant that comes to $2,698. One would think that attorneys fees to merely write and file the lawsuit would roughly equal that.

And speaking of attorneys, New Mexico Watchdog confirmed Thursday that lawyers enlisted by the OSU Board of Regents are not from the school’s general counsel but from an outside firm in Tulsa. And the firm is not taking the case on a contingency fee basis. Since Oklahoma State is a state university, that means Oklahoma taxpayers are picking up the tab.

That is, unless, New Mexico taxpayers pick up the legal fees incurred, as the OSU lawsuit is calling for.

Even an Oklahoma state representative has his misgivings.

“If the state of Oklahoma were to spend more money (on the lawsuit) than we received based on the fact that we’ve got that unique logo, it would be a total waste of taxpayer dollars,” state Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, told New Mexico Watchdog on Thursday during a brief telephone interview. “So until we find out how much money we made off of that (merchandise), I don’t know why in the world we would want to stop anyone from using it.”

“I don’t have an answer on how much money this will cost” NMSU in legal fees to defend itself in the legal case, Bannister said.

The story has been picked up by media outlets in New Mexico and Oklahoma as well as a host of national sports websites.

Judging from some of the online comments, Oklahoma State officials are catching some heat and being accused of heavy-handedness.

“Just a large university trying rob a smaller one. who cares that they look alike just play ball & let the mascot fiasco rest,” one commenter on the Yahoo! Sports website posted.

“Hopefully, all of this will get settled fairly soon and this won’t be an issue any longer,” Shutt said. “I think that’s what both Oklahoma State and New Mexico State are hoping.”

Click here to read the lawsuit filed in the western district of Oklahoma.

Two New Mexico towns hope to avoid repeat Election Day controversies

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-10-22 13:59

HOPING HISTORY DOES NOT REPEAT ITSELF: Some voters in Rio Rancho, N.M., had to wait as long as five hours to vote in the November 2012 general election.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Two years ago, some voters in the third-largest city in New Mexico, Rio Rancho. had to endure waits of more than five hours on Election Day in a community where a lopsided number of voters are Republicans. The GOP accused Democrats in the county clerk’s office of intentionally trying to suppress the Republican vote.

At the same time, the Otero County clerk called in sheriff’s deputies into the southern New Mexico town of Chaparral after voters overwhelmed poll workers during the evening of the 2012 General Election in a precinct that’s majority Democrat. That incident led to allegations from Democrats of voter intimidation.

Will Election Day 2014 avoid similar incidents?

The newly elected county clerks in each respective area say there will be no rerun.

“As far as having confidence, I do,” said Denise Guerra, a Republican who succeeded fellow Republican Robin Holmes as Otero County clerk in January 2013.

“As far as I can see, it’s not going to happen again,” said Sandoval County Clerk Eileen Garbagni, a Democrat. “Everywhere you turn there will be a voting place.”

The Rio Rancho incident was well documented, with Albuquerque TV stations showing long lines of frustrated voters, some of whom had to wait until nearly midnight to cast ballots.

“We should not have a line,” Garbagni told New Mexico Watchdog. “It’s not going to be like it was in 2012, I can assure you of that.”

Two Republican hopefuls in the Legislature lost close races and GOP officials accused then-Sandoval County Clerk Sally Padilla, a Democrat, of purposely placing too many voting centers in areas of the county dominated by Democrats while not putting enough in Rio Rancho, where 80 percent of the county’s Republicans live.

“We did it right,” Padilla insisted in the election’s aftermath, but a lawsuit filed by the two defeated GOP candidates and an angry Rio Rancho voter ended up in federal court.

Last month, U.S. District Court Judge William “Chip” Johnson sided with the plaintiffs, calling the 2012 election in Rio Rancho “a debacle” and “a complete disaster.”

In blunt language rarely seen from the bench, Johnson excoriated Padilla, then-deputy county clerk Garbagni and county elections bureau director Eddie Gutierrez and declared, “It is clear that the intentional actions of those in charge of the 2012 Election led to the long voter lines which resulted in the disenfranchisement of voters.”

Click here to read the judge’s 22-page ruling.

Johnson issued an injunction ordering the Sandoval County clerk to establish 17 voting convenience centers in Rio Rancho for this year’s election.

DISENFRANCHISEMENT: A federal judge in New Mexico has ordered extra voting sites be placed in Rio Rancho, saying the community’s voters were disenfranchised when long lines developed during the 2012 election.

Garbagni said she had already decided to put 17 convenience centers in Rio Rancho before the judge issued his ruling.

Nonetheless, Garbagni’s office appealed the judge’s order, but lost in the 10th Circuit Court. Undeterred, the clerk’s office filed another appeal, only to be rebuffed again Monday.

If the county has already agreed to install 17 voting convenience centers in Rio Rancho, why appeal?

Garbagni said she couldn’t comment beyond what she said in a news release issued last week.

In it, Garbagni said, “If we didn’t fight this injunction, it could set the stage for the federal government to insert itself into any election in any county in New Mexico,” adding that the New Mexico Association of Counties support the appeal.

Garbagni also worried the judge’s order could lead to county taxpayers picking up the tab for attorney’s fees that “would likely be in the six-figure range.”

Republicans in Rio Rancho aren’t buying it.

“My question to (Garbagni) is, how much is the lawyers that were hired outside of the county costing to appeal this,” said Charlie Christmann, chairman of the Republican Party of Sandoval County. “I don’t know what these outside lawyers are charging them, but it’s got to be a lot of money … I think they’re throwing good money after bad at this point.”

Rio Rancho has been here before.

In Johnson’s ruling, Padilla testified there have been long lines in Rio Rancho “many, many times” in the past and a three-to-four hour wait was “the norm” prior to 2012.

“Our goal is to make sure all voters — Republicans, Democrats, independents and myriad other minor parties in Rio Rancho — should have access without having to stand for hours in line to get to the ballot box,” Christmann said.

“The election should go very, very well for us,” Garbagni said. “If anything, there’s going to be an overkill … I pray to God everything goes well.”

Raw feelings

The 2012 election-night controversy in Chaparral didn’t receive the attention the Rio Rancho incident garnered, but the feelings are almost as raw.

“I’m not confident things have been taken care of,” said state Rep. Nate Cote, D-Organ, who in the past has called for Otero County officials to place an early voting center in Chaparral, a town of about 15,000. “But I am confident things will go a little smoother because there will be fewer people voting” because 2014 is a midterm election while 2012 was a presidential election year.

To address the issues from the 2012 flap, Guerra told New Mexico Watchdog her office will bring in a mobile voting center to Chaparral on Nov. 1, three days before Election Day. The center will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“I’ve always been confident in my election workers,” Guerra said in a telephone interview. Guerra said she’ll have two additional employees in Chaparral to help out and thinks the mobile voting center will alleviate some of the burden on Election Day.

Cote remains skeptical.

“One early voting mobile van down there with that population is just not going to do it,” he said.

What exactly happened on election night in 2012 in Chaparral is in dispute.

Describing the crowd as “unruly,” Holmes called the county sheriff’s office. Democrats accused Holmes of overreacting and said the police presence — complete with crime scene tape — intimidated some voters. “People were not unruly at all,” Cote said, adding people were irritated after they “waited in line three or four hours to vote.”

Guerra, who was chief deputy clerk in 2012, said “there was a lot of chaos” she said was fueled in part by candidates registering people to vote using provisional ballots “knowing that their ballot wouldn’t count.” Guerra denied claims there were no Spanish translators available.

Federal tax money for Spaceport? Two NM congressional candidates support idea

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-10-21 04:52

MONEY MATTERS: Spaceport America was built with $218 million of money from New Mexico taxpayers. But both candidates for southern New Mexico’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives say they favor the idea of federal funding for the project as well.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

State taxpayers have already kicked in $218.5 million to build Spaceport America, the commercial space venture in southern New Mexico that is still waiting for its anchor tenant Virgin Galactic to launch its first flight into suborbital space.

But federal taxpayer money?

That’s never really been on the table.

Both the Democrat and Republican in the race for U.S. House of Representatives in New Mexico’s Second Congressional District say they support the idea of federal funding going to the project.

At a debate on statewide television last week, moderator and former ABC News correspondent Sam Donaldson asked incumbent Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., and challenger Roxanne Lara, “Would you pursue and approve of federal funding … for the Spaceport?”

Pearce said he “would be glad to support it” and Lara said the Spaceport “needs a good plan that’s going forward and the federal funding can be a part and a piece of that.”

Here’s the entire exchange from the debate aired at the KRWG-TV studios in Las Cruces:

Located in a desert just west of the White Sands Missile Range, Spaceport America receives “a little direct” federal funding, Spaceport executive director Christine Anderson told New Mexico Watchdog, but the numbers are small in comparison to the project’s overall budgeting and sunk costs.

The direct funding comes to about $500,000 in grants from the Federal Aviation Administration for things like advanced weather operations systems and infrastructure improvements.

Some indirect funding comes from the NASA Flight Opportunities Program, designed to promote suborbital commercial flight. However, the NASA money didn’t go to Spaceport America but to one of the facility’s customers, UP Aerospace, a private spaceflight firm based in Denver.

Anderson said the Spaceport Authority hasn’t actively pursued federal funding outside of the grants they’ve received. “We don’t have any plans to do that,” she said. “We’re a commercial spaceport and we’re trying to earn revenue through our launch tenants.”

CHEERS: British billionaire Sir Richard Branson drinks champagne after rappelling down the side of the hangar at Spaceport America in 2011.

Spaceport America had its grand opening in 2011, with billionaire Richard Branson showing off his flair for promotion by rappelling down the façade of the facility’s main building.

Branson is the CEO of Virgin Galactic, the anchor tenant for Spaceport that’s signed up well-heeled customers and celebrities to pay up to $250,000 to launch into suborbital space in what supporters say will be the first step in a burgeoning future for space tourism and travel.

Branson originally expected to lift off from New Mexico in 2012, but has repeatedly pushed back the launch date as his company’s officials work out the daunting engineering issues involved in the project. Last month, Branson told David Letterman he’s expecting the first launch in “February or March of next year.”

The prospect of federal funding for Spaceport doesn’t sit well with Paul Gessing, the president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Albuquerque.

“Spaceport America has been open for three years now,” Gessing said in an email. “New Mexico taxpayers have spent more than $200 million on this project to date with none of the promised ‘space tourism’ activity…While this has been a costly and unfortunate boondoggle, it would be even more unfortunate if the federal government started funding spaceports in New Mexico and around the nation as Rep. Pearce and candidate Lara apparently desire.”

Virgin Galactic isn’t the only tenant or customer at Spaceport.

On Thursday, UP Aerospace is scheduled to undertake its 14th successful payload launch from Spaceport America.

And SpaceX, a space transport venture fronted by billionaire Elon Musk, has spent $2 million in infrastructure improvements at Spaceport as SpaceX develops its Falcon 9R rocket, a reuseable design that launches and then lands back on Earth.

Yet Virgin Galactic is in many ways the face of Spaceport. Under the terms of its lease, the company will pay between $25,000-$75,000 to the state for each flight that takes off. That money doesn’t start flowing until launches begin.

“Ironically, while discussions of ‘inequality’ remain hot topics, New Mexico’s spaceport exacerbates it by taxing the citizens of one of the poorest states in the nation for the benefit of a foreign billionaire, Richard Branson, and millionaire celebrities like Ashton Kutcher, Paris Hilton, and Justin Bieber, who are spending $250,000 for a few minutes in space,” Gessing said.

“We’re acting like a commercial entity,” Anderson said. “Rather than having a handout for more state money, we’re thrilled with what we have gotten. That was very generous of the state (to fund Spaceport). We’re trying to make the Spaceport a big success in terms of jobs for the state of New Mexico so we’re tying to be self-supporting and trying to earn it like any other commercial enterprise.”

Rugged ranchers or welfare cowboys? Dispute over grazing fees on public land rages on

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-10-20 08:31

COWBOY CONTROVERSY: Critics say taxpayers lose $120 million in federal grazing fees that are too low. But defenders say the figures are misleading.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — The accusation is a blunt one: That ranchers who hold permits from the federal government to graze their cattle on public land are little more than welfare recipients. The response is just as blunt: Like hell we are.

The argument has kicked around the West for years, and it’s come into sharper focus in recent months as ranchers in parts of northern and southern New Mexico have clashed with environmentalists over the recent listing of a critter most people in the Land of Enchantment have never even seen — the meadow jumping mouse.

In June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the mouse — which can hop up to three feet from its hind legs — on the endangered list. That has prompted the U.S. Forest Service to reinforce a gate along the Agua Chiquita in Otero County and erect barbed-wire fencing near the Rio Cebolla creek in the Santa Fe National Forest to keep cattle from damaging the mouse’s habitat.

“The livestock industry has enjoyed special treatment from the federal government for so long that our streams have been trampled to death,” Bryan Bird, program director at WildEarth Guardians, said earlier this month when his group filed a lawsuit just before the fencing was constructed.

Bird’s comment echoes a long-running complaint environmentalists have about grazing fees on public lands.

They say ranchers have been getting a sweetheart deal from the government for too long, pointing to fees charged by the entities such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service charging $1.35 a month for what’s called “Animal Unit Months,” compared to an estimated $16-$20 a month on private land.

They also cite data from a 2005 report from the General Accounting Office and say U.S. taxpayers suffer a direct loss of more than $120 million because of the fees.

“Ranchers have benefitted from a whole suite of subsidies. I used to call them welfare queens,” John Horning, the executive director of WildEarth Guardians-NewMexico, told New Mexico Watchdog in an interview in July. “I don’t really care if it’s welfare because the bigger issue for me is not that (taxpayers) subsidize it, but that we allow the activity to degrade so many valuable things.”

But cattle growers push back just as forcefully.

“It couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association. “And it’s a tired old argument.”

Cowan says the price difference between grazing fees is misleading because ranchers have to pick up the costs for things such as managing and fencing their allotments, supplying their herds with water and absorbing any losses due to death and attacks by predators that aren’t usually incurred when grazing on private property.

“It’s kind of like you renting a house in Albuquerque that has all the amenities,” Cowan said. “It’s furnished, you’ve got electricity, all the utilities are done.” But grazing on public lands is like “renting a house that’s totally vacant, has no amenities … and anyone can come through your house and use the bathroom anytime they want … The price is low until you look at the amenities that don’t go with it.”

But Horning counters the pricing formula for grazing on public land has essentially been frozen by the executive order since 1986 when Ronald Reagan was president.

“The grazing fee today is the same as it was 30 years ago,” Horning said. “Name one commodity or one resource that you can extract today for the same fee you could 30 years ago.”

But for ranchers like Mike Lucero, grazing cattle along the Rio Cebolla is something his family has done for generations, going back to the time of land grants in New Mexico, predating the existence of the U.S. Forest Service.

“This is my family and ancestors’ heritage,” said Lucero, a member of the San Diego Cattleman’s Association.

Unique to states such as New Mexico, land grants were awarded to settlers by the Spanish government during colonial times. Under the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the U.S. government pledged to honor the grants, but property disputes have persisted in the Southwest ever since.

“I totally agree, there is a discounted rate involved,” Lucero told New Mexico Watchdog this summer. “But when that used to be a land grant, that wasn’t federal land at all. So you’re telling me I don’t have a right to get a discount when it was taken away from my ancestors to begin with? Everyone knows land grants are for the people in those communities to make a living off of.”

THE MOUSE IN QUESTION: Listing the meadow jumping mouse as an endangered species has led to a battle between environmentalists and New Mexico ranchers.

Ranchers at the Rio Cebolla say their cattle only use the meadow for four-five weeks in the fall and one-two weeks in the spring. They insist they keep the area in excellent shape.

But environmental groups say the habitat for the meadow jumping mouse has been systematically degraded in New Mexico, as well as Arizona and Colorado.

“We are asking the Forest Service to keep cows out of 1 percent of public lands that have streams and rivers,” Bird said. “The livestock industry needs stop kicking and screaming and cooperate to ensure clean water and healthy wildlife.”

“Ranchers are responsible for the stewardship of their land,” said Cowan. “Recreationists don’t pay to hunt or hike or fish on those lands. But the timber industry, the oil and gas industry, the livestock industry (do). I think guides and outfitters even have to have some kind of permit. Those folks are paying the government something.

While WildEarth Guardians has filed its lawsuit to protect the mouse’s habitat, the ranchers have filed their own, alleging the Forest Service of heavy-handedness and not following its own environmental analysis.

Regardless of what decision is reached, it’s clear the debate — and the rhetoric — over grazing fees would continue.

“Grazing permits are costly food stamps for cattle,” wrote an attorney from Utah in the Salt Lake City Tribune earlier this year.

“The whole purpose of what (environmental groups) are doing on the land is not to save anything, it’s to protect it from people who actually doing something productive and I’m talking about ranchers ,” said C.J. Hadley, publisher of the pro-rancher publication RANGE magazine.

New Mexico knocked for slow pace of financial data

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-10-20 08:31

GIDDY UP: A state accounting watchdog group rapped New Mexico for its slow response time for financial data but the state says the criticism is unfair.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — New Mexico is a slow poke when it comes to turning in its financial disclosures, but the state agency in charge of the data argues a sarcastic award from a fiscally conservative accounting group is unfair.

“Truth in Accounting is bestowing the annual Tortoise Award on New Mexico — again,” wrote Sheila Weinberg, CEO and founder of Truth in Accounting, last week.

Based in Chicago, Truth in Accounting bills itself as a resource for taxpayers to understand what it calls “the truth about government finances.”

Earlier this year, Truth in Accounting produced a report illustrating New Mexico’s overreliance on federal dollars. Between 1992 and 2012, the group’s findings showed, New Mexico’s share of federal money as part of state revenue increased a whopping 63.3 percent — a growth rate that was No. 1 in the country.

This time, Truth in Accounting knocked the state for going more than 450 days since releasing its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, which states submit each fiscal year.

“New Mexico has missed the standard release deadline of 180 days after fiscal year end four years in a row,” Weinberg wrote.

But the Department of Finance and Administration, contacted by New Mexico Watchdog, said the criticism is unfair, citing the state’s long and frustrating problems with the Statewide Human Resources Accounting and Management Reporting System, called SHARE, that was rolled out in 2006.

The system has had a long history or troubles properly matching fund balances shown by state agencies with cash in the state’s bank accounts.

“We identified the issue in October 2011, and our staff has been working diligently since then to correct it,” DFA spokesman and records custodian Tim Korte wrote in an email. “Since mid-2013, we have been able to guarantee the accuracy of the books going forward. Meanwhile, we continue to work to reconcile hundreds of thousands of transactions going back to 2006.”

Korte said DFA has provided regular updates to the Legislative Finance Committee and is working on developing an audited Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for the first time.

Linda Chavez and her small-government argument for immigration reform

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Thu, 2014-10-16 07:53

GOING AGAINST THE CONSERVATIVE TIDE: Former Reagan administration executive Linda Chavez argues in favor of immigration reform from a small-government perspective. But she’s getting pushback from opponents on the right.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – She’s sure to get flak from the political right who insist the border is porous, but long-time Republican and former Reagan administration official Linda Chavez says the Border Patrol shouldn’t be spending its time and money “chasing down gardeners and nannies.”

Instead, she argues, immigration laws should be revamped along what she says are small-government principles.

“We shouldn’t have laws that are ridiculous,” Chavez told New Mexico Watchdog during a recent visit to Santa Fe.

“We have a law now that says if you want to have somebody mow your lawn every week, you better check their papers and you better keep a record … and keep the documentation for five years. And if you fire that person and hire somebody two weeks later, you better keep those papers too. That’s big government and Big Brother writ large … Since when it is a conservative idea that I have to call the federal government to ask to hire somebody? How is that conservative?”

But Bob Dane, communications director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit based in Washington D.C. that favors stricter border enforcement, said Chavez is off-base.

“You want to talk about big government,” said Dane in a telephone interview. “The net effect would be destabilization, higher unemployment, less disposable income and higher individual and corporate taxes, all adversely affecting the business climate. That’s not a small-government approach. That’s crony capitalism. It’s big government attempting to gain the big appetites for big business to flood the market with unlimited and unregulated flows of immigration that displaces U.S. workers and corrodes wages.”

Chavez just launched her own nonprofit and policy organization, called the Becoming American Institute and based in Boulder, Colo., as a way to “reach out to conservatives and basically tell the good news about how well Hispanics are assimilating, including Hispanic immigrants.”

Chavez agreed “our borders need to be secured,” but also said, “the border is more secure today than it has been at any point in my lifetime, certainly.”

Last month, a coalition of sheriffs from border states in the Southwest met in Santa Fe and said just the opposite. Boards from five sheriffs’ organizations issued a three-page statement describing he immigration crisis as “spiraling out of control” and calling on the federal government to resist “outright amnesty” for people in the country illegally.

“The focus is getting the really bad guys,” Chavez said, “and letting (in) the good guys, the people who just want to work. Mexican-born men have the highest force participation rate of any group — 30 percent higher than whites do. These people want to work. They don’t want to get welfare.”

“Coming here to work does not permission an individual to break the law,” Dane countered. “Probably about half the world would love to come to the United States to work, but we have a finite amount of jobs and it does not permission that active entering without inspection.”

Chavez argues for overhauling the immigration law spearheaded in 1965 by former Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., that instituted a preference system and emphasized, in part, the family connections of potential immigrants. Instead, Chavez said immigration rules should be tied to market considerations.

“We ought to take a look at what our economic needs are,” Chavez said. “It ought to be market-based. We ought to bring in more people in boom times and fewer people when times are bad … and we need to make the process streamlined.”

MAKING A STATEMENT: A coalition of sheriffs in the Southwest issued a statement in September calling on tougher and better coordinated programs to address on the border.

Danes said there are plenty of Americans in technology-related fields who are undercut by foreign workers who get paid less.

“We don’t need big government to properly enforce the laws already on the books,” Dane said. “We already have enough (laws), we already have enough resources. The only thing that needs to be added is the will by this administration to follow the law.”

Chavez contends the current law is badly flawed and its enforcement mechanism is “nutty.”

“Yes, we should have respect for law and therefore we should pass laws that are enforceable and make sense,” she said. “We don’t make employers be border patrol agents … We could save a lot of money. Again, when has it become a conservative idea to throw money at a problem? But when you hear about the border it’s, ‘Let’s throw more money, let’s hire more people, let’s get more government employees.’ ”

Dane said Chavez’s recommendations are “wedded to” calls from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an organization whose policies, FAIR says, keep wages depressed for workers already in the country.

“That may be the market and economic solution for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and for Linda Chavez, but that’s the worst possible scenario for the put-upon American worker,” Dane said. “We need to establish a better equilibrium between the supply of foreign labor and the available amount of jobs. Nobody can make the case for more immigration from the standpoint of a surplus of jobs. It’s simply not true and hasn’t been true for a long time, if it ever was.

“Do you want to pay $5 for a tomato at the grocery store? I don’t think so,” Chavez said. “Do you want (a lot) of these jobs shipped overseas?”

Dane’s response? “We’ve got plenty of American workers, skilled and unskilled, and, mostly importantly, unemployed Americans, ready willing and able to work.”

Active in politics for decades and a syndicated conservative columnist, Chavez said she’s aware her stance will draw fire from some on the right.

“I’ve been standing up for what I thought was right,” she said. “I stood up against liberals and I’m happy to stand up against those people on my side of the fence that I think are doing to the wrong thing and the wrong thing for America.”

Here’s an excerpt from New Mexico Watchdog’s interview with Chavez:

Feds install fences to protect endangered mouse, but the fight continues

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-10-15 07:46

FENCED OUT: The U.S. Forest Service put up barbed wire fencing in a picturesque area in the Santa Fe National Forest to protect the meadow jumping mouse, which has recently been listed as an endangered species.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

JEMEZ RANGER DISTRICT — The fencing is up. The next question is whether the fighting is over.

In reaction to the listing of the meadow jumping mouse as an endangered species, the U.S. Forest Service just completed erecting fences along a creek in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains. It has become ground zero in a battle between ranchers who have grazed cattle in the meadow for generations and environmentalists who insist the mouse’s habitat must be zealously protected.

“I’m encouraged,” said Bryan Bird, program director at WildEarth Guardians. “I think it’s the right thing to do. I think it’s the reasonable thing to do.”

“We’re not crazy about it but, for now, we can live with it,” said Mike Lucero, a rancher with the San Diego Cattleman’s Association, pointing out his family’s cattle will have access to water above and below the area that’s fenced off. “We can manage around it because we can still get to water.”

FENCED OUT: The U.S. Forest Service put up barbed wire fencing in a picturesque area in the Santa Fe National Forest to protect the meadow jumping mouse, which has recently been listed as an endangered species.

But that doesn’t mean the mouse war — that started when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in June listed the tiny rodent as endangered — is over.

First, the fencing is listed as temporary.

Second, each side has filed lawsuits against the Forest Service.

WildEarth Guardians wants to make sure the feds permanently protect the 0.7-ounce mouse, which has a long tail and hind legs that allow it to hop up to three feet.

The ranchers have filed their own suit, asserting they have taken good care of the creek, called the Rio Cebolla, and that the federal government has overreached and is not following its own environmental policies.

New Mexico Watchdog drove to the area Monday to look at the 4-foot-high barbed wire fencing, completed by the Forest Service just before the cows come down for their annual fall grazing.

The fencing extends about 10 feet to 30 feet from the edges of the creek with signs posted by the Forest Service.

Some 222 acres are closed — including 118 acres of fencing along the Rio Cebolla — near Fenton Lake in northern New Mexico on land often used for hiking, fishing and camping.

Ranching families like Lucero’s own federal grazing permits and have run their cattle along the creek though the old New Mexico land grant system that predates the U.S. Forest Service.

Lucero said the cattle graze and drink in the area one to two weeks in the spring and four to five weeks in the fall after the herd is cut.

A little more than a week ago, a judge turned down the ranchers’ attempts for a temporary restraining order to stop the fencing, but the lawsuit is still going forward in U.S. District Court.

“We’re not going to let it drop as long as the threat continues,” Lucero said.

THE MOUSE THAT ROARED: The battle over protecting the meadow jumping mouse has pitted environmentalistsand ranchers against the U.S. Forest Service.

Environmentalists filed their own lawsuit against the Forest Service, insisting the habitat for the mouse has badly degraded in the three states — New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado — it inhabits.

“It’s important to all of us,” Bird said. “These resources are ours and we need to make sure we’re protecting for them for everybody’s enjoyment, not just the livestock industry … It may seem like a little mouse to people but it’s a big indicator.”

In many ways, the Forest Service is caught in the middle — criticized by environmental groups for what they see as foot-dragging and by ranchers who claim the agency too often sides with environmentalists for fear of litigation.

“That’s always kind of my litmus test,” said Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, an organization based in Albuquerque that advocates for hunting, fishing and the outdoors. “If the people on the far sides are pissed off, it means the Forest Service did its job.”

Documents released by the agency say the fencing order is a “short-term special closure” that will stay in effect for one year, “until (an) environmental analysis is conducted ” and “consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can be concluded.” Click here to read the Forest Service documents.

“We need more studies on the area and will work in consultation with the Fish and Wildlife, as well as the permittees, to find a solution that protects the mouse,” Forest Service spokeswoman Donna Nemeth told the Albuquerque Journal. “In the meantime, we have to take protective measures to protect the habitat.”

In addition, the Forest Service has closed off a portion of the San Antonio Campground, a popular recreation spot a few miles from the Rio Cebolla, to protect the mouse’s habitat.

New Mexico’s labor force is shrinking

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-10-14 08:45

LAGGING: New Mexico finished 48th in the nation in a ranking of the labor participation rate.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Judging by unemployment numbers, New Mexico isn’t doing well. The seasonally adjusted rate in August was 6.7 percent — 36th in the nation.

But many experts say the unemployment rate should be looked at in tandem with what’s called the “labor force participation rate,” because the LFPR measures the number of people who have jobs, as well as those who are actively looking for work.

Unfortunately, New Mexico fares even worse in labor force participation numbers — 48th in the nation, according to a recent ranking.

“The policy direction of America matters,” said Matt Mayer, chief operating officer at the Liberty Foundation, a free-market organization based in Oklahoma, which took 2013 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and compiled rankings for all 50 states plus the District of Columbia.

In the Liberty Foundation rankings, only Arkansas, Mississippi and West Virginia fared worse than New Mexico.

Since the U.S. has a population that is retiring in bigger numbers, the labor force participation rate is expected to decline as more baby boomers turn 65.

But New Mexico’s population is 17th youngest in the country, so you would think the state’s rankings in the LFPR would be better than where it stands nationally on unemployment.

But New Mexico finished third from the bottom in the Liberty Foundation rankings, with just 57.5 percent of people in the Land of Enchantment actually in the workforce. The percentage for men is 64.2 percent and barely more than half — 51.3 percent — of women with jobs.

And New Mexico’s numbers have been on the slide in recent years:

There’s often a sharp difference along ethnic lines in national LFPR numbers, but in New Mexico the differences between whites and Hispanics is virtually indistinguishable — 57.4 percent for whites and 57.5 for Hispanics:

The rate for African-Americans in New Mexico is 60.0 percent, higher than for whites and Hispanics. The Liberty Foundation did not have numbers for Native Americans.

Nationally, the LFPR numbers are eroding, too.

Last month the U.S. Department of Labor announced the labor participation rate hit its lowest level since 1978, with 100,000 potential workers giving up their job searches and leaving the workforce. So while the national unemployment rate is at 5.9 percent — its lowest level since the summer of 2008 — the rate is considered artificially low because it doesn’t count those who have given up looking for a job.

What’s particularly troublesome is the Labor Department says the number of young unemployed people is up and their participation rates in the workforce is declining faster than the general population.

So what can be done?

New Mexico Voices for Children, a policy organization with a liberal bent, released a report calling for a host of remedies aimed at young people, including scaling up the state’s Youth Conservation Corps, making the state’s college lottery scholarship needs-based and increasing the minimum wage.

“Raising the minimum wage improves the economy because it puts money into the hands of those who are most likely to spend it — low income workers” the report said.

But Mayer disagrees.

“When you want to jack up the minimum wage,” Mayer said last week in a radio interview in Colorado, it “moves those jobs from 16- to 19-year-olds to an older group of people because you can make more money now. When you create Obamacare, (it) makes it harder for businesses to employ people because they hit a magic number and now they suddenly have to do all these mandates and regulatory requirements. These policies are having (an) enormous tremendous impact on that next generation.”

Which state finished on top of the Liberty Foundation rankings? North Dakota, due in large part due to the shale energy boom that has jolted its economy for nearly a decade. Nearly 73 percent of the North Dakota population holds jobs:

Historically, there’s been a gender gap between men and women participating in the labor force. Some of the reasons include stay-at-home moms and the fact that because women tend to live longer than men, they make up a larger segment of retirees.

Miffed aide who hacked into NM governor’s emails gets 9-month sentence

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-10-08 19:41

NINE MONTHS IN PRISON: Jamie Estrada leaves an Albuquerque federal courthouse after getting a nine-month sentence for hacking into the email account of Gov. Susana Martinez, whom he used to work for.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

ALBUQUERQUE – Email hacking is a crime and a former campaign manager who turned on the Republican governor in New Mexico is going to do time.

Jamie Estrada was sentenced to nine months in federal prison Wednesday for breaking into the email campaign account of Gov. Susana Martinez and disseminating some of the messages to her political opponents

“To whom much is given, much is required,” said Judge William “Chip” Johnson, quoting scripture as he passed the sentence on Estrada, who pled guilty earlier this year to intercepting the governor’s email and lying to the FBI about it.

Johnson said he considered agreeing with federal prosecutors, who argued for one year and one day in prison, but Johnson knocked off three months because Estrada is the primary caretaker for a brother who is suffering from potentially fatal non-alcoholic liver disease.

In one of the most dramatic moments in the three-hour sentencing hearing, Martinez read a statement, saying, “I am here as a victim, not as the governor.”

Martinez said Estrada “manipulated” his way into the Martinez campaign for governor in 2009, only to attack her with the stolen emails after he was turned down for employment in the Martinez administration following her victory in November 2010.

“The only deterrence is with a maximum sentence,” Martinez said, addressing the judge. “That will tell the next person it’s not worth it.”

Near the end of the hearing, Estrada addressed the judge and said he was sorry for “my indulgent behavior and lack of self control” and apologized to Martinez and others who had their email communication stolen.

“My career is in ruins,” said Estrada, who once served in the administration of George W. Bush, holds two bachelor’s degrees, an MBA from Georgetown University and had what seemed to be a promising political career in New Mexico.

Estrada admitted in court that he “took full advantage” of his access to the emails, turning over many of them to Martinez opponents and others connected to the Democratic Party in the state.

“It’s sad that given such a stellar and impressive background, we’re here today,” said Johnson said just before pronouncing the sentence.

Estrada and his attorney, Zachary Ives, did not answer questions from reporters after the sentence was issued. In addition to the nine-month sentence, Estrada was fined $10,000 and must perform 100 hours of community service once he’s done serving his time.

Estrada was not taken into custody afterwards. He’ll be allowed at least 60 days to report to the U.S. Marshall for incarceration.

“We’re pleased with the conviction,” was all that federal prosecutor Fred Federici said to reporters.

“He certainly expressed an apology to the governor,” said Albuquerque attorney and Republican activist Pat Rogers, whose emails were among hundreds that were intercepted. “I’m not sure how much further than that Mr. Estrada feels or believes. I’m very sorry for all the people that were injured by this, including his own family. But when someone steals emails and disseminates stolen emails and lies about it, they should expect to do prison time.”

Prosecutors argued for the one-year and one-day sentence, citing a similar punishment given to a former University of Tennessee student who hacked into former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s email account during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Estrada left the Martinez campaign in December 2009. He says he left on his own volition but Martinez and her campaign advisor, Jay McCleskey, contend he was fired.

In an email to McCleskey, Estrada reportedly wrote, “I can’t understand how [Martinez] wouldn’t think there are political consequences for treating me poorly or unfairly.”

Estrada was not hired by the Martinez administration and was also unable to get a job at the office of Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, a Republican.

After Estrada parted ways with Martinez, he kept his password to the susana2010.com account and later re-activated the account using a fake name and fake address from a Chipotle restaurant in Colorado.

Estrada initially pled not guilty when the charges were first brought but turned in a guilty plea in June.

In addition to the Martinez email scandal, prosecutors said Estrada also tried to harm the campaign of Amy Orlando, a Martinez ally who ran an unsuccessful  campaign for district attorney in Doña Ana County.

John D’Antonio, a Democrat who defeated Orlando in a bitterly-fought race, was one of 69 people who wrote letters supporting Estrada and urging Judge Johnson to sentence Estrada to probation rather than prison time.

Orlando herself is now the focus of an email controversy for allegedly destroying electronic communications before leaving office.

In one of the strange offshoots of the Estrada case, former Democratic Party employee Jason Loera is facing child pornography charges.

Federal agents say they were investigating whether Loera had received some of the stolen emails. When FBI computer specialists looked at the computers and compact discs found at a house they say was occupied by Loera, “the examiners identified four writable CDs which appeared to contain images of child pornography,” according to an affidavit.

Loera has pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court and a trial is scheduled to begin later this month before Judge James O. Browning.

Loera at one time worked for congressman Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, and former Democratic activist and now chairman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico Sam Bregman.

“We are shocked to hear about the indictment,” Luján spokesman Andrew Stoddard said after news of the arrest of Loera was made. “These are very serious charges and they deserve to be fully addressed through the legal system.”

Cold winter across country could mean big bucks for New Mexico

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-10-07 21:58

COLD WEATHER, GOOD NEWS: A cold winter could mean millions for New Mexico’s economy, which is highly sensitive to natural gas prices.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — It looks like Old Man Winter may blow in a very cold December across large portions of the U.S., which could lead to a spike in natural gas prices.

That could mean some good financial news for New Mexico. And if prices stay up for a number of months, it could mean very good news.

That’s because natural gas prices historically have had an outsized impact on the economy on the Land of Enchantment.

In fact, it’s estimated that just a 10-cent increase in the annual price of natural gas translates into a $9 million boost to the New Mexico general fund.

“It’s unbelievable how much this industry pumps into the state,” said Tom Clifford, the secretary of the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration.

For example, earlier this year the price of natural gas jumped 86-cents between January and February when a deep freeze hit the East Coast, the Southeast and the Midwest. Clifford performed a quick estimate and guessed that the one-month spike led to about $9.9 million in state and local revenue.

“It’s an upside,” Clifford told New Mexico Watchdog. “We call it a positive risk. We don’t build into the (state’s economic) forecast to be cautious but it is a positive risk.”

Natural gas prices have generally been flat , hovering around $4 per MMBtu (British thermal units in millions). But Dan Steffens, the president of the Energy Prospectus Group, an investment firm specializing in oil and gas in Houston, said he expects to see a spike soon because some weather forecasters are calling for very cold weather in the eastern half of the U.S.

“Natural gas is the No. 1 source for home heating,” said Steffens, pointing out that last year’s “polar vortex” sent prices up to $6 per MMBtu.

Prices quickly came down but looking ahead, Steffens said there’s less storage capacity now, which could increase the chances for a price bump.

“If there’s an early start to winter this year, if there’s a cold December, then you’ll really see prices go up,” Steffens said.

Last week, weatherman Joe Bastardi predicted a cold snap in December for much of the eastern half of the country:

BRR: Forecasters are predicting record lows in December.

But for New Mexico taxpayers to really see a significant impact, the price of natural gas would need to go up and stay up.

“Sustained higher prices would habitually flow through” the state’s general fund, said Wally Drangmeister, director of communications for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. “You just have to see how high and how long.”

Clifford said the Department of Finance and Administration isn’t counting on a temporary spike in natural gas prices, just to be on the safe side.

“When you do the (state’s economic) forecast, you presume normal weather,” he said. “Our forecast for natural gas is basically status quo. It assumes a little bit of growth.”

New Mexico produces 1.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per year, with the vast majority of natural gas coming from the San Juan Basin, in the northwestern corner of the state.

It remains to be seen if the forecast for a cold December proves accurate and whether cold temperatures persist all winter. Steffens, for one, predicts that a spike would be short-lived. In addition, dealing with fluctuations in the commodities market always is fraught with uncertainty.

But New Mexico does seem to be in a good position to take advantage of a rise in natural gas prices, even if it’s just a temporary spike.

“In the short term,” Drangmeister said, “anything helps.”

Commentary: Our boys are in crisis

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-10-06 08:18

THE CRISIS FOR BOYS: The reasons may be unclear but boys fare poorly in a range of education measurements.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — We’ve heard plenty about the so-called “War on Women” and how society doesn’t do enough to nurture its girls, but I’ve got news for you: Boys aren’t doing so well, either.

In fact, a quick glance and Google search turns up some startling numbers that indicate millions of boys aren’t just heading into a danger zone but already are living in it.

Some national statistics:

*Preschool boys are expelled nearly five times more often than girls

*Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with learning disorders

*Boys are 30 percent more likely to flunk out or drop out of school

Here in New Mexico, the figures are just as bad, if not worse.

Two weeks ago, the Legislative Finance Committee released the state’s dropout rates, and the statistics were sobering: 58 percent of the dropouts were boys — 16 percent higher than for girls.

The people at LFC did some more digging for me and came back with even more depressing numbers.

Boys make up 62.5 percent of the students in the past school year suspended or expelled and 60.7 percent of those who had to repeat the ninth grade. The numbers for Hispanic and Native American boys were disproportionately high.

The pattern continues into higher education.

The number of women attending colleges and universities across the country first exceeded men back in 1979, and the numbers have widened since. Today, young men account for less than 43 percent of those enrolled in college.

And the same goes for those enrolled for post-graduate studies, where women have outpaced men every year since 1988.

The numbers in New Mexico mirror that.

For example, at the University of New Mexico this fall, 56 percent of the enrollment is female, and just 44 percent are male. And UNM enrollment officials told me we have to go back more than 30 years to find a time when men outnumbered women on the UNM campus.

Yet there’s been a relative silence about all this. It would be safe to guess the average American isn’t aware of these figures and you can bet, if the numbers were reversed, there would a national hue and cry.

But the huge question is why the numbers for boys have eroded so relentlessly.

What in American society in recent years has caused so many boys to fall through the cracks?

Is it an absence of fathers?

A work force that is increasingly more service-oriented and less blue-collar?

One recent book claims schools are “boy unfriendly” by focusing a curriculum on “writing about ‘feelings’ and its purging of ‘high-action’ reading material, from the rise of video gaming and schools’ unease with technology to the lack of male teachers as role models.”

Another theorizes schools have boys “spend too much time sitting and not enough time learning by doing, making and building things.”

Maybe, but didn’t the old-fashioned school insist on boys sitting still in class and absorbing the material? Plus, that doesn’t explain why the problems have gotten worse.

Or is it something — or some things — else?

I’ve never been much for the ethnic or gender cheerleading that has littered far too many policy discussions in the past 30 years or so. Whether the debate centers on economics or culture, we too often slip into a zero-sum game exercise where, if one side wins, that automatically means another side loses. That’s a false choice.

Turning around the statistics for boys must not come at the expense of our girls.

But it’s often said that admitting you have a problem is the first step toward fixing it.

America and New Mexico, we have a problem. And it’s a big one. Our boys are in crisis and we need to find some answers before another generation finds itself with a one-way ticket to the underclass.

(This commentary originally ran Sunday in the Santa Fe New Mexican.)

 

Obamacare in New Mexico: Take two

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-10-03 09:43

WILL IT BE EASIER THIS TIME?: Officials at the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange are counting on the www.HealthCare.gov website working smoothly this time.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — Officials at the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange are making a number of changes as Year Two of Obamacare rolls out, but one big element remains: individual policies will still go through the same www.HealthCare.gov website that experienced a series of embarrassing mishaps when the Affordable Care Act rolled out last winter.

“I’m hoping the feds do a better job this year,” said Gabriel Parra, staff attorney for Presbyterian Healthcare Services and a member of the NMHIX board. “They can’t go anywhere but up.”

Another NMHIX board member, Jason Sandel, is much more blunt. When asked what grade he would give the ACA’s debut, Sandel said, “An F.”

“We’re dependent upon them and every bit of involvement that I’ve had with the federal government has been a disaster,” Sandel told New Mexico Watchdog after the board wrapped up its recent monthly meeting. “So I’m apprehensive about what the future holds for this open enrollment.”

In little more a month — Nov. 15 to be exact — a 90-day open enrollment period begins for New Mexicans looking to obtain individual ACA health care policies.

While a host of questions surround the second year of the ACA, the largest is whether the HealthCare.gov site can smoothly sign up all the new enrollees the NMHIX board hopes will respond to an upcoming multi-million dollar marketing, advertising and public relations blitz across the state.

“I think it’s prudent for the board to get the most bang for the buck,” said NMHIX board chairman Dr. J.R. Damron. “The bucks we’re talking about (come from) taxes.”

NMHIX officials originally planned to ditch HealthCare.gov after the first year and funnel individuals to New Mexico’s own www.bewellnm.com website, which small businesses in the state use.

But worried that IT issues wouldn’t get resolved in time for the November re-enrollment period, board members voted 11-1 in July to stick with the federal site for one more year.

“We’ve got a year under our belt,” said Dr. Martin Hickey, director of the NMHIX marketing, public relations and outreach committee. “We’ve not only learned from New Mexico, but we’ve learned from other states.”

On the positive side, 165,000 previously uninsured New Mexicans signed up for Medicaid in the past year and 34,200 signed up for individual policies.

But last year’s goal was 83,000 individual policies. After the botched roll-out of healthcare.gov, NMHIX adjusted its goal to 40,000 but still fell short of expectations.

Even though New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the country, the number of enrollees receiving subsidies to reduce their premiums was six points lower than the national average.

To make things worse, a statewide poll commissioned by the board showed that despite a $7 million marketing and advertising campaign to convince New Mexico enrollees to sign up, only 40 percent of respondents even knew what the state’s health care exchange did.

In response, the NMHIX board has put its marketing and advertising contract up for re-bid and hired a new CEO — Amy Dowd, who comes over from Idaho where she won favorable reviews for running the Your Health Idaho exchange.

“I’m looking very strategically how we’re going to spend our money,” Dowd told New Mexico Watchdog.

“We need to work hard to get the uninsured in New Mexico insured,” Damron said. “That is our key element. An emphasis will be on the Hispanic population.”

But staying tied to the HealthCare.gov site means that as the feds go, so goes New Mexico.

“They’re working out the bugs and the cumbersome parts to it so I’m feeling confident that it will work on Nov. 15,” Hickey said.

Sandel, though, admits he’s worried.

“I’m concerned that our success is being based on whether or not they’ll be able to perform,” he said.

Two weeks ago, the General Accounting Office reported “weaknesses remained in the security and privacy protections applied to HealthCare.gov and its supporting systems.”

What’s more, the load in New Mexico figures to be heavier this year. Earlier this week, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of New Mexico sent out notices to 30,000 customers saying their policies were being canceled because they didn’t meet the minimum requirements of Obamacare.

NMHIX officials haven’t disclosed what numbers they hope to reach this time around, but Damron told New Mexico Watchdog the goal is to reduce the percentage of uninsured in New Mexico from 23 percent to less than 10 percent.

“We’re working on it,” Damron said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s a two to five-year process.”

“It’s absolutely a critical year,” Sandel said.

County manager says taxpayers done paying convicted sheriff UPDATE: New sheriff selected

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-10-01 15:03

WHAT TO DO ABOUT TOMMY?: New Mexico county sheriff Tommy Rodella refuses to resign after a conviction in federal court but the county manager says taxpayers in Rio Arriba County are through paying his salary.

Update 10/2: As expected, the Rio Arriba County Commission on Thursday morning selected James Luján to immediately take over for Tommy Rodella as sheriff in a 3-0 vote. But the Albuquerque Journal reported that Luján has had his own trouble with the law: Serving two years probation in connection to tax evasion charges in 2002.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

ESPAÑOLA — Despite a conviction on two felony charges and facing up to 17 years in federal prison, Tommy Rodella has still refused to resign as sheriff of Rio Arriba County.

But Wednesday, the county manager said residents in the northern New Mexico community are no longer paying Rodella’s $56,000 salary and, as long as Rodella’s conviction stands, he will never again run for political office in the county.

“I ended his pay Friday once a conviction was rendered,” said Tomás Campos, Rio Arriba county manager. “Once he’s declared a felon, he can no longer be an elected official … And the commission declared they wouldn’t pay for his legal defense, either, so that’s it. There’s no tax money being spent.”

County commissioners discussed Wednesday how to handle the Rodella situation. After a 43-minute executive session, they announced plans to appoint a new sheriff Thursday.

Commissioners did not elaborate but are expected to promote James Luján, a former officer at the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office once fired by Rodella but who returned to defeat him in June’s Democratic Party primary. There is no Republican opponent in November, and Luján was scheduled to assume office the first of the year.

“It’s important because the deputies are the ones on the front line and they’re the ones that need someone in charge,” Campos said.

Since Friday, when Rodella was convicted of one count of violating a resident’s civil rights, county undersheriff Vince Crespin has been the office’s acting sheriff. Rodella, defiant to the end, has not turned in his resignation.

MAKING A MOVE: The Rio Arriba County Commission announced it will make a new appointment to county sheriff on Thursday.

A review of the county’s website shows Rodella’s profile has been scrubbed.

Campos joined the three county commissioners in the closed-door session Wednesday, joined by First Judicial District Attorney Angela “Spence” Pacheco, whose jurisdiction includes Rio Arriba County.

Pacheco has filed a petition with the state district court, calling on the court to declare the sheriff’s job vacant in light of the conviction.

“The Rio Arriba County Commissioners are hesitant to take action in recognizing or filling the vacancy … without a Court order or formal interpretation of the law,” Pachecho said in the petition.

Rodella, who has a sentencing hearing scheduled Dec. 26, faces up to 10 years for the criminal civil rights violation plus a mandatory seven-year term for brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence.

Rodella insists he’s not guilty and says Damon Martinez, the U.S. District Attorney in Albuquerque, has a vendetta against him— something Martinez flatly denies.

Since Rodella was initially charged in an incident in March — a 26-year-old motorist accused the sheriff of pulling a gun and shoving his badge into the motorist’s face — Rodella turned back calls from the commission to resign and collected his salary.

But Campos said Wednesday that ended the moment Rodella was convicted by a jury of 11 women and one man.

“This wasn’t just done arbitrarily or capricious,” Campos said. “It’s been thought out.”

Before becoming sheriff, Rodella earned state pension benefits for serving 13 years for the state police. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported the general counsel for the New Mexico Public Employees Retirement Association said Rodella’s conviction won’t affect his ability to collect benefits.

But the conviction will keep him from ever running again for public office in Rio Arriba County, Campos said. That is, unless Rodella is successful on appeal.

“I have a sense of calm, but I never have a sense of relief,” Campos said. “I’ve seen so many things happen in the last 20 years.”

In Campos’ four years as county manager, he has clashed with Rodella, but Campos told New Mexico Watchdog the two have known each other all their lives and are distantly related.

“I never thought he’d get convicted,” Campos said. “I’m not happy he’s in jail, but we’ve had a very difficult time dealing with him as a sheriff.”

Mystery photo: NM horse racing officials review cheating allegations

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-10-01 07:28

WHO ARE THESE GUYS?: The New Mexico Racing Commission is investigating this photograph taken after the All American Futurity to determine if the two men are trainers who were supposed to be barred from the event.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Officials at the New Mexico Racing Commission have been trying to clean up the perception that horse racing in the state is rife with cheaters who inject the horses with dangerous amounts of painkillers.

But a mysterious photograph of two men celebrating after the biggest event in quarter horse racing has led to an investigation and raises new questions about the depth of the rot.

“We are looking at it,” Vince Mares, executive director at the NMRC, told New Mexico Watchdog. “We’re trying to find the validity of (the allegations). I really don’t want to get into what we’re going to do but, yeah, we are concerned about it.”

Shortly after the running of the All American Futurity — the Kentucky Derby of quarter horse racing — a photo was circulated of two men holding the winner’s trophy in what appears to be the stables at Ruidoso Downs.

Some believe the two men in the photo are Roberto and Alejandro Sanchez-Muñoz, who each have been suspended for 20 years by the Oklahoma Racing Commission for allegedly drugging racehorses with dermorphin — a powerful painkiller that’s considered 30 to 40 times more potent than morphine.

Under the generally accepted terms of the suspensions, the Sanchez-Muñoz brothers are not supposed to be allowed onto the grounds of a licensed track in the U.S.

Mares said the commission’s investigation started last week into whether the two men in the photo are “program trainers” —horse trainers whose names are on the program for a given race but work under a false identity, often because they’ve been suspended.

“Program trainers are a real problem in New Mexico,” Mares said, “not only in New Mexico but across the country, and we want to find out if these (men) were in fact program trainers who had this horse.”

The All American Futurity, which is run each Labor Day, was won this year by a horse named JM Miracle, owned by Javier and Elsa Marquez of J & M Racing and Farms in Monahans, Texas. According to the program on race day, Umberto Belloc trained the horse.

CLEANING IT UP: The New Mexico Racing Commission has passed a series of measures in the last three years to try to root out cheaters.

New Mexico Watchdog contacted Javier Marquez on Tuesday morning by telephone, and he denied that the Sanchez-Muñoz brothers secretly trained JM Miracle.

“Those are just rumors,” Marquez said. “I have nothing to do with those guys.”

Marquez said he has no idea how the two men in the photograph got their pictures taken with the All American Futurity trophy, although he did say his son told him they are the Sanchez-Muñoz brothers.

“I’m mad on this, too,” Marquez said. “I see the picture, and how the hell did those guys get to the trophy?” Marquez said he welcomes the investigation by the New Mexico Racing Commission.

“If your license in suspended in one state, (race tracks) practice reciprocity and your license is supposed to be suspended in other states,” said Ray Paulick, a journalist who has covered horseracing for more than 30 years and edits the Paulick Report website. But, Paulick said, security at race tracks varies state to state and is oftentimes lax.

“A racing commission can ban somebody, but if the race tracks in charge of security aren’t doing their job, then it’s not a very effective ban,” Paulick said. “They have to work with each other. The race tracks have a lot of money because they all have casinos, so there’s really no excuse.”

The mystery photo is one of a number of questions surrounding this year’s All American Futurity.

After winning the race, JM Miracle pulled up, failed to make it to the winner’s circle and was taken off the track by van. A stablemate who won earlier in the day suffered a similar fate.

Blood was drawn, but both horses were pronounced to be in good health the next morning.

“The horse was so tired,” Marquez said of JM Miracle. “He gave 110 percent to win the race. But the next day when we were taking pictures with him, you couldn’t even hold the thing. He was jumping around and he was OK.”

There have even been rumors the horse that won the race really wasn’t JM Miracle but was a different quarter horse. Mares said the racing commission has found no substantiation to support the claim, but that hasn’t stopped rampant speculation. “I’ve even heard three times that the horse was cloned,” Mares said.

The latest controversy comes as the NMRC has passed a series of rules in the past three years to crack down on trainers suspected of drugging their horses, including instituting more frequent random drug tests and increasing the suspensions and fines against alleged violators.

“There’s always work to be done,” Mares said. “We’re going to stay the course and address these issues. The commission has made huge strides in cleaning up this industry in the last three years.”

Paulick gives the racing commission high marks but said the tracks need to do a better job beefing up security by installing and monitoring surveillance cameras to ensure suspended trainers and owners are kept off the grounds.

“I just feel that the race track casinos are not taking the racing side of their business nearly as seriously as they take the casino side of the business,” said Paulick.

In the meantime, the mystery photo only fuels more skepticism.

“It’s not a sport where you see a lot of Cub Scouts,” Paulick said.

Move over Saudi Arabia, here comes U.S. oil and gas

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-09-30 12:34

By Rob Nikolewski │ Watchdog.org

The U.S. energy sector keeps posting impressive numbers and it’s on the verge of reaching another international milestone.

For the first time in nearly 25 years, American liquid petroleum production, which includes oil and natural gas, is on pace to surpass Saudi Arabia.

HAIL, SHALE: Due in large part to what’s called the “shale revolution,” the U.S. is poised to become the world’s top producer of liquid petroleum.

According to figures released by the International Energy Agency in Paris, the United States is just about even with the Saudis at 11.5 million barrels per day of oil and related liquids.

Saudi officials insist it still has the capacity to increase production, but as the Financial Times of London reported Monday, “even Saudi officials do not deny that the rise of the U.S. to become the world’s largest petroleum producer — with an even greater lead if its biofuel output (of about 1 million barrels a day) is included — has played a vital role in stabilising markets.”

The last time the United States produced more liquid petroleum than Saudi Arabia was in 1991.

The news comes little more than two months after a study was released predicting that as early as 2015, the United States can be the world’s largest producer of oil.

“If you had said that a decade ago, you would’ve been laughed at and called a fool,” wrote Walter Russell Mead, the editor-at-large of The American Interest, a magazine specializing in foreign affairs and geopolitics. “What a difference fracking makes.”

Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques in places such as the Permian Basin in West Texas and eastern New Mexico have spurred what’s called a “shale revolution” to get to oil and natural gas in fields that used to be considered nearly impossible to reach.

“From an overall energy standpoint, we’re in a much, much better shape than we used to be,” energy analyst Dan Steffens, president of the Energy Prospectus Group in Houston, told Watchdog.org Monday. “We used to be worried about what the hell we’re going to do with natural gas because we were running out. That was in the year 2000 … But then they figured out how to get into the shale gas and now we’re just floating in the stuff.”

Steffens predicts the United States will become a net exporter of natural gas by 2017 because of domestic production and the move towards exporting liquefied natural gas to markets, particularly in Asia:

 

The Uber Effect: Why cab companies hate ridesharing

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-09-29 12:11

TICKED OFF TAXIS: Taxi cab and limousine companies are fighting against ridesharing startups, fearing they are cutting into their businesses.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

For cab companies and limo services, ridesharing startups such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar are about as welcome as a blown tire on a crowded freeway.

A chart focusing on the San Francisco Bay Area may go a long way in explaining why.

Dubbed “The Uber Effect,” the chart, presented recently at a municipal transportation agency meeting, shows how many fares cab companies have lost over the past two years, since ridesharing companies, also known as transportation network companies, burst onto the Bay Area business landscape:

 

Kate Toran, interim Taxis and Accessible Services director for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, reported trips logged by the average taxi plummeted from 1,424 to about 504 since January 2012. That’s a 65 percent drop.

In that time, Bay Area passengers have increasingly used ridesharing to help them get to work, airports, train stations and sports events.

Perhaps other reasons account for the drop, but the numbers reflect the threat cabbies and limo companies see from the blossoming ridesharing market.

“This is like a pirate cab company coming into the area and putting up a taxi sign and running around,” said Raymond Sanchez, an attorney for the Yellow Cab Co. of Albuquerque. Sanchez has been trying to persuade the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission to take a hard stand against Uber and Lyft, which opened for business this summer in New Mexico’s largest city.

“Taxi companies are worried about ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft, and they should be,” said Matthew Feeney, policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research institution promoting free-market values. “It’s like evolution. You adapt or you die.”

The debate is playing out in cities across the country:

*William McManus, police chief in San Antonio, told the San Antonio Express-News, “The cabs didn’t want anything to change.”

*Last Friday, a district court judge in Albuquerque refused to impose a temporary restraining order, which taxis and limos wanted to effectively shut down Uber and Lyft. The judge said the decision is up to state regulators, not the courts.

*In the nation’s capital, the Washington, D.C., City Council proposed forcing ridesharing companies charge no less than five times what D.C. cab companies charge customers, but it had to back down after it was flooded by calls from angry consumers.

STILL RIDING … FOR NOW: A New Mexico district court judge rejected a temporary restraining order Friday to stop ridesharing companies Lyft and Uber from operating in the state. Lyft drivers distinguish themselves by putting pink moustaches on their vehicles.

Unlike traditional cab series, ridesharing companies are summoned by an app on a customer’s smartphone. No cash is passed because passengers enter their credit cards into the app, which the companies provide for free. Drivers, who often work part-time and set their own schedules, are considered individual contractors, rather than employees.

Passengers can rate drivers online, and drivers can rate passengers.

“Consumers have spoken,” said Mark Perry, professor of Finance and Business Economics at the University of Michigan-Flint. “People do not want the old (taxi) model … The old model is a cartel.”

But the ride hasn’t been smooth.

Ridesharing companies have received plenty of resistance — even in California, where most of the ridesharing startups are based.

California regulators want Sidecar to end its newly installed carpooling feature, which allows multiple passengers to hop into a car to help save money on fares. All three companies have adopted the app as a way for passengers to carpool to work, but regulators say the feature violates California state code.

“We’re frankly disappointed and a little baffled that there would be all of this pushback,” Sunil Paul, chief executive of Sidecar, told the Wall Street Journal.

District attorneys in Los Angeles and San Francisco have filed injunctions questioning the thoroughness of background checks for drivers.

In June, an Uber driver in San Francisco was charged with two counts of battery in an alleged assault of a passenger and, last week, another Uber driver made headlines after being charged with striking a passenger in the head with a hammer. Ridesharing defenders respond by offering examples of licensed cab drivers who have also been charged with mistreating and assaulting passengers.

In New Mexico, cab companies say they’re being treated unfairly and complain that while they must pay for licenses and adhere to state Public Regulation Commission rules, Uber and Lyft flout those rules.

“They’re taking people from point A to point B and charging them a fare,” said Sanchez, the former New Mexico speaker of the House. “They’re operating illegally. Go by the same rules everybody else is going by.”

“There’s only so much piece of the pie, and when you keep up cutting that piece of the pie, business and service just keep going down,” Steve Abraham, the president of Yellow Cab, told New Mexico Watchdog in August. “It’s doesn’t get better, it goes down.”

But Perry doubts that once consumers get a taste of riding, they’ll accept going back.

“The future is Uber and Lyft. In the end, they’ll win out,” said Perry, citing what he calls Perry’s Law: Competition breeds competence.

“That’s what we want as consumers — the most amount of competition as possible,” said Perry, who is also a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “The French economist (Frederic) Bastiat said it best. He said all issues should be looked at through the viewpoint of the consumer … We should look at this as what’s best for the consumers, not what’s best for the taxi cartels.”

“My preferred route would be to deregulate the taxi industry,” said the Cato Institute’s Feeney. “Instead of adding pages to the regulatory rulebook, we should be thinking about getting rid of pages that already exist … It seems to me that adding regulations to an already overregulated industry is not going to help.”

In the meantime, the debate rages.

In New Mexico, for example, the PRC’s public comment period continues Wednesday. The five commissioners appear divided on what do about Uber and Lyft, with a final solution possibly coming in conjunction with the state Legislature, which convenes a 60-day session in January.

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