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Schools from modest NM communities hold their own in statewide rankings

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Thu, 2014-11-20 09:10

MAKING THE GRADE: A number of New Mexico schools from communities where household income is below the state median scored highly in rankings compiled by the website Niche.com.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

An annual ranking of the top public schools across the country just came out and in New Mexico, schools from poorer districts are holding their own.

While schools in some of the most affluent areas of the state finished high, a sizable number of schools from more modest communities finished in the upper echelon in the rankings compiled by Niche.com.

For example, the town of Texico finished with the third-best rating for public middle schools, sixth-best in public high schools and No. 15 among all the public elementary schools in the state.

“It’s always great to see those numbers,” said Texico Municipal Schools Superintendent Miles Mitchell, who wasn’t aware of the rankings until New Mexico Watchdog informed him. “I’m happy to see some of the programs we use coming out in the data.”

Niche.com, a website that looked at more than 100,000 schools across the country and scored high schools in eight different categories, released its findings earlier this month.

New Mexico Watchdog took the Niche.com ratings a step further, linking the top-performing schools to the median household income numbers in the cities where the schools were located.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in New Mexico between 2008-2012 was $48,886. The median household income in Albuquerque, the state’s largest city, is just under the state median of $47,399.

Even if you toss out Albuquerque, seven of the state’s top 18 schools in Niche.com’s high school rankings had household income numbers below the state’s median.

High schools in Texico, Cimarron, Clayton and Socorro each finished in the top 16 despite having median household income below $35,000 a year:

The middle school rankings were similar, with six schools in communities where the median household income was below $40,000 finishing in the top 20 despite being located in communities (not counting Albuquerque) below the state median for household income:

In the top 20 rankings for New Mexico public elementary schools, each of the top five spots came from the Los Alamos-White Rock area, home to many scientists and employees at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the median household income exceeds a whopping $100,000.

The next seven places are comprised of elementary schools in Rio Rancho, a bedroom community outside Albuquerque where median household income surpasses the state median by more than $11,000.

But Texico, Clayton and Capitan occupy three of the next six spots:

What are schools like Texico doing right?

“We have to adapt to the challenges” that come from teaching in less affluent areas, Mitchell said in a telephone interview.

Specifically, Mitchell pointed to a series of programs Texico Municipal Schools have adopted, including an effort to keep student-to-teacher ratios low. “We have a lot of one-on-one interaction,” he said.

Also, Mitchell estimated about 70 percent of Texico High School students take part in extracurricular activities — not just participating in sports, but also enrolling students in vocational classes — with the idea that an engaged student is more likely to become a successful student.

“We’re not in an area where there’s a lot to do,” said Mitchell, who grew up in small town Melrose, N.M. “We’re not in Albuquerque. There’s no Cliff’s amusement park or a lot of activities for kids in this area outside of school. So we try to keep to that as a focus … It’s a priority the district set a long time ago and we use that as a driving force to keep high expectations for academics.”

Two months ago, Texico High School received a National Blue Ribbon award from the U.S. Department of Education for being an “exemplary, high-performing school.” The only two other New Mexico schools to receive the awards were also from areas below the median household income levels in the state — Berrendo Middle School in Roswell and Dora Elementary School in rural Roosevelt County.

“I think kids have a chance to be successful no matter where they’re at,” Mitchell said. “Smaller schools in smaller communities are sometimes pushed a little harder.”

Launched in May 2013, Niche.com advertises its rankings as results-oriented and looks at academics and student-teacher ratios in measuring elementary schools, and weighs eight factors — such as academic performance, diversity and teachers’ grades — when evaluating high schools.

Niche.com also looks at the number of students going on to college and the quality of those colleges.

Click here for more information on the methodology used by Niche.com.

NM Obamacare officials mum on signup goals

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-11-17 08:32

UP TO THE TASK? The federal government is promising states like New Mexico that the www.healthcare.gov website will run smoothly this time

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — Last year, officials at the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange predicted 83,000 people would sign up for individual policies during the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as Obamacare.

But the launch of the www.healthcare.gov website was nothing short of disastrous and NMHIX officials later slashed their goal to 40,000.

By the time open enrollment ended in April, 34,200 New Mexicans signed up.

This time around, NMHIX officials aren’t yet making any predictions.

“We don’t have a number at this time,” NMHIX chief executive officer Amy Dowd told New Mexico Watchdog the day before the second round of open enrollment started across the country. “It’s very early in the process to project.”

NMHIX officials may be taking a page out of the playbook of new U.S. Health and Human Services Department Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who last week announced targets 30 percent lower than predictions made by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The move led some to speculate the Obama administration wants to set a lower figure to avoid criticism if the CBO number isn’t met.

“There is still a lot of mystery,” Larry Levitt, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, told the Washington Post.

Dowd wouldn’t say why NMHIX hasn’t announced its signup goals, saying, “We’re optimistic that we’ll get new enrollments. We haven’t published specific figures.” Dowd did, however, indicate NMHIX may release targeted numbers later.

Saturday marked the start of a 90-day open enrollment period that’s scheduled to end Feb. 15. Small businesses in the state can enroll through the NMHIX website, www.bewellnm.com, but for the second year in a row, individuals who want to sign up for Obamacare coverage must go to the healthcare.gov site to obtain coverage.

“We are told by the feds that there have been a lot of improvements to the federal website and we are optimistic things are going to run a lot smoother this year,” Dowd said.

While potential customers have 90 days to sign up, enrollees must complete the process by Dec. 15 to have their policies take effect by the start of the new year.

That’s not much time and that one month stretch should provide some answers to whether the revamped healthcare.gov website is up to the challenge.

“This is hard,” Burwell said last week. “We will have things that won’t go right. We will have outages. We will have downtime. But the most important thing we can do about that is make sure we are prepared.”

New Mexico may see a surge of applicants because less than two months ago, 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 the ACA.

NMHIX officials are counting on putting up better numbers by adopting a better marketing plan this time around.

Late last week, the exchange announced that the Albuquerque-based advertising group K2MD, along with three other vendors, won the bid to promote the exchange because of the firm’s “deep knowledge of the New Mexico population, the Hispanic community and Native American outreach.”

The total budget for the four vendors is $6.1 million and about $3 million in total advertising buys will be managed between now and March 31 of next year.

How big will the advertising blitz be?

“We haven’t finalized that yet,” Dowd said. “We’ll make that decision as we go, based on how successful we’re being and how many people we’re reaching.”

Two months ago, the NMIX board yanked its advertising and marketing contract from a firm based in Milwaukee after a statewide poll showed that, despite spending $7 million marketing in New Mexico, only 40 percent of respondents knew what the state’s health care exchange did.

“We’ve tailored our outreach efforts to engage consumers,” Dowd said. “We’re taking a grassroots approach.”

Oil prices may go back up — and that’s good news for New Mexico

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-11-17 08:26

A BOUNCE BACK?: Oil prices are dropping fast but an energy forecaster predicts the price is heading back to a level that will ensure New Mexico producers will keep pumping.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Plummeting gasoline prices may be good news for drivers, but in places like New Mexico there are worries that low prices will mean a big hit to the state budget.

The state, you see, relies on oil and gas revenue for a critical share of the state’s general fund.

But Christopher Hansen, senior director at for IHS Energy, based in Denver, predicts the dip at the pump won’t last long.

“Oil prices will go up,” Hansen told attendees at an energy outlook conference in Albuquerque last week, saying prices could top $150 a barrel after a couple years.

It’s been estimated that money generated from oil and gas production and taxes in New Mexico account for 31.5 percent of the state’s general fund. Before the recent drop at the pumps, financial analysts were expecting an extra $285 million in the upcoming budget year.

That may be in jeopardy if prices stay low.

“A $1 drop in the price of a barrel of oil means a $6 million drop in the general fund,” New Mexico Oil and Gas Association president Steve Henke told the conference.

Oil prices were at $115 a barrel in June. Last week, prices dropped below $75 a barrel. That’s led to the national average retail price of gasoline falling from $3.19 a gallon one year ago to $2.92 a gallon last week, the lowest since December 2010. There are some stations in New Mexico where drivers can find gas for $2.44 a gallon.

That’s great for motorists, but it worries state legislators and economists because it’s generally accepted that $70 a barrel is the tipping point that would prompt the industry to curb production. At that price, the costs of drilling would outweigh the profit.

But Hansen, whose company analyzes the economics and geopolitical landscape of the energy industry, predicts oil prices will rebound.

“Our longer term outlook is that they’ll recover slowly throughout 2015 and into ’16,” Hansen told New Mexico Watchdog, saying IHS forecasters based their conclusion on a number of demand factors, including geopolitical uncertainty. “I think some of the big question marks are how is production going to stabilize in the OPEC areas … and we see a steady demand from Asia.”

Some media reports have expressed alarm that the price of oil could drop even further, but IHS forecasters don’t think that will happen, absent a dramatic and unforeseen international development.

“The price trajectory we see is basically from now ’til the end of next year,” Hansen said. “We’ll see a slow recovery back to about the hundred-dollar level on a nominal level. We think things will stabilize around a hundred bucks (a barrell) through 2016 and then a likelihood to creep back up from there.”

Hansen painted an encouraging energy picture for New Mexico, putting the state among those expecting to average 3-4 percent real GDP growth:

 

When it comes to crude oil, domestic production is going up because of technological advancements such as horizontal drilling, even as consumption has stayed flat in recent years:

As for natural gas, Hansen said supplies in the U.S. should keep expanding while consumers can expect to keep paying relatively low rates for the foreseeable future:

Hansen said there is a 25-year supply at less than $4 per thousand cubic feet.

New Mexico’s San Juan Basin is home to one of the world’s most plentiful natural gas deposits. While flat prices have kept production in the area quiet, Hansen said predictability could help the New Mexico economy in the long run.

“The good news is, the relatively stable price environment makes it easier to plan,” Hansen said. “One of the nice things about the shale plays is that it’ll take out some of the volatility in natural gas. You’ll see less of these huge spikes and drops. So it’s very unlikely we’ll get down to two bucks. It’s also equally unlikely we’ll get above 10. So from a state budgeting standpoint, you’ll have more stability .”

A ‘gold mine’ or a civil liberties outrage? Civil forfeiture remarks go viral

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-11-14 11:51

“WE COULD BE CZARS”: The videotaped remarks of Las Cruces City Attorney Pete Donnelly have ignited a debate over the fairness of civil asset forfeiture laws.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — The city attorney of Las Cruces says increasingly broad interpretations of civil forfeiture laws could be “a gold mine” for authorities across the country to seize things such as expensive cars and even people’s homes.

But his remarks during a seminar filled with local government and law enforcement officials — made with an amiable bemusement that bordered on glee — were caught on tape and have turned into a gold mine for critics who say the laws turn the justice system on its head and encourage authorities to see the personal property of private citizens as a one big money grab.

“Law enforcement officials and public officials are supposed to be about the fair and impartial administration of justice,” said Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “But when you give people bad incentives such as what you see in civil forfeiture laws, you get what you see in these videos where people are looking for opportunities to make money rather than to pursue justice.”

“We could be czars. We could own the city. We could be in the real estate business,” Las Cruces City Attorney Pete Connelly said at one point to the seminar’s attendees who took part in the 8-hour presentation.

Connelly was one of the featured speakers, walking attendees through the process of setting up civil forfeiture ordinances in their own communities.

Civil asset forfeiture allows the government to seize personal property that has ties to alleged criminal activity even before any guilt is decided — or even if no charges have been filed or an any arrests made.

“In civil forfeiture, there is no need to convict or even charge a property owner with a crime for that owner to lose his car, his cash, his home or other types of property,” Bullock said in telephone interview with New Mexico Watchdog. “And that’s what makes civil forfeiture so outrageous and dangerous.”

It can also mean big money. One Justice Department program collected $4.3 billion in fiscal year 2012.

Unlike criminal cases, where defendants have been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, in civil asset forfeiture the state must meet a preponderance of the evidence standard to seize someone’s property. And since they are civil matters, Bullock said, defendants are not guaranteed the right to an attorney.

“Most of the time, people don’t have the financial wherewithal to fight back and go through the civil forfeiture process so they either give up or decide to settle,” Bullock said.

But it’s all legal.

Connelly told attendees that appeals courts and the New Mexico Supreme Court have upheld the law, adding that Las Cruces instituted a civil asset forfeiture statute in 2006 and has thus far collected $1 million from Las Cruces residents.

Albuquerque Chief Hearing Officer Stanley Harada, who was also at the seminar, would not tell attendees how much the state’s largest city has amassed since reforming its own law in 2002. Instead, Harada said, “I think they would rather not talk about those numbers because then it starts becoming more of a bullet-point for people that are trying to fight the program.”

But Connelly marveled at what city officials in Philadelphia have done, collecting roughly $65 million in civil asset forfeitures.

“I was amazed,” Connelly said. “Eight-thousand cases in one year, $500 a pop, is just a mind-blower. That’s 4 million bucks.”

Here’s the clip, where Connelly adds, “We could own the city”:


 

During the course of the day, Connelly lamented how the Las Cruces police barely missed seizing a man’s 2008 Mercedes, how a well-crafted forfeiture claim “is, what I call, a masterpiece of deception” and cites a Wall Street Journal article mentioning Philadelphia.

“It’s just as exciting as you can have it,” Connelly said. “A young guy of 22 years old is selling dope out of his daddy’s house. And he sells the dope and he gets caught. So he’s arrested and he’s put in a diversion program and everything’s happy and one bright day, his daddy gets a notice of seizure of his house. Now think about this, this is a gold mine, a gold mine, You can seize a house, not a vehicle. They seize the house and it goes on to say there’s no judiciary involved.”

Here’s the entire clip:


 

Connelly goes on to say that he would retitle the Wall Street Journal article from “What’s Yours Is Theirs” to “What’s Theirs is Yours” and ruminates on authorities seizing homes after potential marijuana busts.

Here’s that clip:

 

As for those who call civil forfeiture “evil” and “unconstitutional,” Connelly cites previous court cases upholding New Mexico’s law and tells those attending the seminar, “So you have the Court of Appeals affirmed by the (New Mexico) Supreme Court basically saying, ‘If you make money on motor vehicle seizures, it’s OK. Don’t feel bad.’ Just thought I’d mention that to you.”

Here’s that clip:

 

New Mexico Watchdog has left multiple messages with Connelly to explain his remarks, but he has not returned our calls.

His comments were highlighted in an article published this week in the New York Times and splashed across the Internet when Buzzfeed picked up the story.

Bullock said the videos have spiked hits on the Institute for Justice website, a libertarian nonprofit that has been on a crusade against what it calls “Policing For Profit.” News of the Santa Fe seminar sparked “outrage that people are expressing about city officials so cavalierly talking about both taking property and the desire that law enforcement has for certain types of property.”

Albuquerque City Attorney Dan Tourek distanced himself from Connelly’s remarks, telling KOB-TV, “I think a lot of the comments were very reckless.”

Tourek said Albuquerque’s civil forfeiture laws are not aimed at generating cash for the city. ”

We’ve never done that; our forfeiture program is a good program,” he said.

But the city recently unveiled a policy seizing vehicles of anyone arrested for soliciting prostitutes. The cars of first-time offenders will be booted and they’ll have to pay hundreds of dollars to get their vehicles back.

““We’re not going to tolerate it,” an Albuquerque Police Department officer told KRQE-TV in September.

“It shows how tenuous the connection can be between the supposed criminal act and the forfeiture of property,” Bullock said. “It shows there is a real incentive on the part of government to broaden the forfeiture net.”

Is New Mexico’s drunk driving problem getting better or worse?

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-11-12 08:27

FUZZY MATH: Drunk driving arrests and convictions have been going down in New Mexico. Is that an indication there are fewer impaired drivers on the road, or are fewer getting caught?

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — New Mexico taxpayers spend more than $17 million a year in liquor excise taxes to fight the state’s chronic and deadly problem with drunk drivers.

The good news is that the number of alcohol-related vehicle deaths in New Mexico in 2013 is down 40 percent since 2002.

But statistics showing a pattern of fewer DWI arrests and convictions in recent years are more problematic.

Does that mean New Mexico drivers are getting the message and not getting behind the wheel when they are impaired? Or do the figures indicate police are pulling over fewer drunk drivers — and that judges aren’t cracking down as frequently?

“Maybe it’s judges, maybe it’s technicalities, I don’t know what’s driving those numbers,” said state Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, after a Legislative Finance Committee meeting questioned how effectively the state is allocating funding for the $17 million DWI program in local communities.

The numbers released by LFC showed consistent reductions in DWI arrests and convictions across the state between 2003-2013:

DWI prevention advocates pointed out to New Mexico Watchdog the most recent figures may be somewhat off because the state’s Motor Vehicle Department is going through a transition of its database. Plus, the dramatic drop in the percentage of convictions for 2013 may be due in part to cases not yet getting adjudicated.

Even if you ignore the most recent two years, there has been an unmistakable trend in fewer DWI arrests and convictions.

Tom Starke, president of Impact DWI, a Santa Fe-based nonprofit, said he thinks the numbers show the state is doing a better job keeping impaired drivers off the road.

“Those numbers have been falling very precipitously,” Starke said. “Yes, we would expect the number of arrests to go down if the number of (alcohol-involved) crashes is going down because it implies that our laws are working. And we’re getting fewer crashes so consequently, there are fewer opportunities for law enforcement to find people (driving drunk).”

Linda Atkinson, executive director of the DWI Resource Center in Albuquerque, comes to the opposite conclusion.

“I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think things are getting better,” she said in a telephone interview. “Non-DWI deaths also went down … And what we’ve seen consistently in the past eight years is that 40 percent of all fatalities are alcohol-involved … That tells us that policies aren’t working.”

The numbers compiled by the DWI Resource Center closely track with the LFC’s numbers, showing the percentage of arrests leading to convictions cracking the 70 percent mark in 2006 and 2007. Compared to the LFC’s 2013 conviction percentage of 36 percent, the DWI Resource Center had a 53 percent conviction rate for 2013.

“At 53 (percent), you think, this is pretty fricking bad, but to me, 70 percent is pretty fricking bad too,” Atkinson said. “To me, that is unacceptable. I think that’s way too low. If these are cases where the evidence is there, and it generally is, it’s just getting it to a hearing. Some attorneys are very clever and they find ways to circumvent the system.”

Starke, who deals with cases in Santa Fe County, credits the state’s adoption in 2005 requiring ignition interlock devices for all DWI offenders for making the roads safer.

“We believe that had a significant impact,” Starke said.

In the LFC report, committee evaluators said the $17 million local DWI program that is administered by counties needs to emphasize more evidence-based programs.

“Many counties track epidemiological data such as DWI crashes, but not all counties track the same data points,” the report said. “Therefore, it is difficult to assess LDWI program success county to county or statewide.”

“I think the money is being used very effectively here in Santa Fe County,” Starke said, adding, “New Mexico has made tremendous advances.”

But Atkinson said the state needs to focus more intently on enforcement and make reducing DWI a higher priority.

“I’d like to be rosy about it, but I think it does a disservice to victims that are still dying and being injured in these crashes,” Atkinson said. “That’s what I find frustrating. When we see the ads for ‘End DWI,’ the only thing in that (campaign) that’s going to stop a drunk driver is if a billboard falls on them. There has to be the enforcement.”

New Mexico Republicans name Tripp new Speaker of the House

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Sat, 2014-11-08 23:42

A FAST TRIPP: Less than four days after taking the New Mexico House of Representatives, Republicans chose Don Tripp to become Speaker of the House.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Republicans in the New Mexico House of Representatives completed a head-spinning week on Saturday by selecting a new Speaker of the House once the Legislature convenes in January.

“It’s pretty fast, kind of a whirlwind,” said Rep. Don Tripp, R-Socorro in a telephone interview from his home. “I’m riding a wave here. I’m honored to do it. It’s a once in a lifetime experience. It’s been 62 years since we had a Republican speaker so it feels pretty incredible to me.”

On Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning it became clear that the House GOP would completely flip the makeup of the chamber — having it go from a 37-33 advantage for Democrats to a 37-33 advantage for Republicans. The turnaround marks the first time since the election of 1952 that House Republicans will have a majority.

Tripp extended a hand to Democrats on Saturday, saying he wants to work with them when the session convenes Jan. 20.

“Absolutely,” Tripp said. “I’ve enjoyed working with many people on the other side of the aisle. There’s a lot of fine people up there and I think we’re all interested in doing some good … I like to treat people the way I liked to be treated.”

The spirit of bi-partisanship will be tested when the 60-session gets into the nitty-gritty of politics but Tripp said he was happy to receive a congratulatory phone call from departing Speaker of the House, W. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, upon hearing that Tripp will replace him.

“He’s a real gentleman,” Tripp said. “We’ve always been friends and came up (to the Roundhouse) the same year (1999). Our districts are right next to each other.”

The Republicans caucused together Saturday in Albuquerque and the meeting didn’t take long — Tripp said no more than a hour and a half — with the incoming and remaining GOP members selecting Tripp by acclamation.

Tripp said he talked to every member prior to Saturday’s meeting and it was generally agreed how the House leadership positions would be distributed.

Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albquerque, will be the majority floor leader; Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, will go from being the caucus chair to the majority whip; and Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Belen, will serve as caucus chair.

The official vote will be held by Republicans on the first day of the 60-day session.

Tripp said his No. 1 goal is to help New Mexico’s economy, which has been struggling to keep up with neighboring states.

A member of the legislature’s Job Council, Tripp said he plans on working with Democrats on the council — such as Martinez and Senate Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen – to implement some of the council’s recommendations.

“To raise New Mexico from all the bad measurements, you have to raise the economy,” Tripp said.

Tripp also said he will support legislation making New Mexico a “right to work” state – giving employees the right to decide for themselves whether to join or financially support a labor union.

“I think we definitely need to look at that,” Tripp said. “I don’t think it’s a tremendous roadblock but it is a roadblock and it’s an issue we need to remove that negative when we’re trying to get jobs to New Mexico.”

House Democrats have their own leadership decisions to make in the wake of Tuesday’s defeat and will now have to look to the Senate — where Democrats hold a 25-17 advantage — to thwart the GOP.

“We’re going to have to rely on the Senate to block those bills.” said Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, on Election Night.

New Mexico finishes 38th — again — in business tax climate

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-11-07 08:17

A HEAVY LIFT: In the annual rankings of business tax climates, New Mexico finished 38th for the fourth year in a row.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

There hasn’t been much climate change in New Mexico — at least when it comes to the business tax climate.

For the fourth straight year, New Mexico finished 38th in national rankings compiled by the Tax Foundation, a pro-growth organization that compiles an annual list of states with the most business-friendly tax climates.

“New Mexico still has some problems,” said Scott Drenkard, economist and manager of state projects at the Tax Foundation, who co-authored the study. “The state taxes a lot of business inputs.”

That, Drenkard said, leads to “tax pyramiding” where taxes levied among businesses stack up on their way to consumers. “It’s going to increase costs in a non-transparent, very opaque way.”

But Drenkard thinks New Mexico’s rankings should improve after the Legislature pased and Gov. Susana Martinez signed a bill in 2013 that will eventually lower the state’s corporate income tax rate — which used to be highest among neighboring states — to 5.9 percent by 2018.

“That’s the good news,” Drenkard said in a telephone interview from his office in Washington, D.C. “We saw that tax reform as a pretty good one because it broadened the base and lowered rates.”

New Mexico actually finished first in the Tax Foundation’s rankings for property taxes and came in 10th in unemployment insurance tax, but the state was bogged down by poor rankings for sales tax (45th), corporate tax (35th) and individual income tax (35th).

“The goal of the index is to show people that tax structure really matters,” Drenkard said, “because you can really distort the economy and not collect a lot of money. Conversely, you can collect ample money and not distort the economy very much and it’s all about your tax base and your tax rates and whether you’re playing favorites with your tax code, credits and exclusions, etc.”

There are critics of the rankings by the Tax Foundation, which has often been identified as fiscally conservative.

Matt Gardner, executive director of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a D.C.-based think tank described by some as liberal, says the rankings are “arbitrary at best.”

“The unambiguous message sent by these rankings is simply ‘you should cut business taxes,’” Gardner wrote two days after the 2015 rankings came out, adding, “the report is attempting to evaluate taxes taken on their own, without evaluating the impact taxes have on vital public investments … At best, the report tells readers which states do the best job of pretending public investments don’t cost anything.”

Drenkard pushed back.

“There are high-tax states that score pretty well on our index and there are low-tax states that score pretty poorly,” Drenkard said. “This really is a look at tax structure more so than revenue collected.”

For example, blue-state Oregon finished 12th in the 2015 rankings.

“They have relatively high income taxes and a relatively high tax burden generally,” Drenkard said. “But the taxes they have a pretty well structured and they go without a sales tax.”

Red-state Louisiana finished 35th.

“If you look at Louisiana’s total tax burden, it’s one of the lowest in the country. It’s 7.6 percent of the state income,” Drenkard said. “But the sales tax system in Louisiana is a total mess. The localities have the authority to set their own sales tax bases and collect their own sales taxes that is entirely divorced from the statewide sales tax.”

Here’s the states that finished in the top 10:

And the bottom 10:

Click here to read the entire 76-page report from the Tax Foundation.

Confused over confusing wording, NM voters turn down amendment

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-11-05 13:58

PHRASING FLAP: The wording of an amendment to the New Mexico Constitution may have been a major reason it did failed on Election Day.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

We’re all familiar with the phrase, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”

In the case of a proposed amendment to the New Mexico Constitution that failed in Tuesday’s election, it seems you can alter that to say, “It’s not what you write, but how it’s written.”

Amendment No. 1, dealing with school elections, received 57.6 percent approval from voters across the state. But since the amendment concerned voting rights, it needed to be favored by at least 75 percent of the electorate.

Critics called wording of the amendment confusing, which generated a spate of stories — including one by New Mexico Watchdog — in the days leading up to the election.

“I think the panoply of stories of this (amendment) being confusing contributed to the confusion,” said state Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, the sponsor of Amendment No. 1, who was quick to add that he was not blaming the media for the amendment falling 17.4 points shy of passage.

“Clearly, the wording could have been better,” Ivey-Soto said.

Here’s how Constitutional Amendment 1 was phrased to voters:

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 wording seems to imply that school elections are now held at the same time as partisan elections. But they aren’t. In fact, they are held completely separate from all elections across the state.

The amendment’s intent was to pave the way for the Legislature to consider running school elections at the same time as municipal elections — to improve turnout and save money. Ivey-Soto has estimated in Bernalillo County alone — the most populous county in the state — the move could save taxpayers between $300,000 and $500,000.

Ivey-Soto thinks the controversy about constitutional amendments in last year’s legislative session hurt Amendment No. 1′s chances. In the 2014 session, Democrats offered up a series of resolutions to amend the state’s constitution that Republicans said were aimed at doing an end-run around Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

“I think there was greater suspicion (about amendments) amongst the body politic” in Tuesday’s election, Ivey-Soto said.

Four other constitutional amendments were approved by a majority of voters Tuesday but only Amendment No. 1 needed 75 percent approval.

Six years ago, Ivey-Soto said, the amendment was worded exactly the same and fell just one-half of 1 percent shy of passing.

Ivey-Soto said there’s a good chance he’ll bring the amendment back — only this time with different wording.

“Instead of having the title saying, providing that (school elections) shall not be held at the same time as partisan elections, we’ll have it say, they’ll be provided to permit school (elections) during other non-partisan races,” Ivey-Soto said. “It’s an incredibly simple fix to whatever confusion people may have had.”

Republicans take the New Mexico House for the first time since the 1950s

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-11-05 03:17

END OF THE DROUGHT: Republicans celebrated in Albuquerque Tuesday night as the GOP took control of the New Mexico House of Representatives and Gov. Susana Martinez handily won re-election.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. – It was November of 1952 — two years before a kid named Elvis Presley would cut his first record and a time when no major league baseball teams could be found west of St. Louis.

Before last night, 1952 marked the last time that Republicans in New Mexico could celebrate on Election Night, knowing they had a majority in the state’s House of Representatives.

But that 62-year losing streak came to an end Tuesday.

By 3:11 a.m., it appears that six seats in the House of Representatives flipped from one party to the other — with five seats switching from Democrat to Republican and one seat going from Republican to Democrat.

If it holds, the plus-4 swing flips the majority in the House from 37-33 Democrats to 37-33 Republican.

No state Senate races were up for grabs Tuesday so Democrats still hold a 25-17 advantage in that chamber.

But with the re-election of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, that means New Mexico Republicans hold two of the three levers of power in the Roundhouse going into the upcoming 60-day legislative session in January.

“Finally we got things going our way,” said Andy Nuñez, one of the five Republican candidates who knocked off an incumbent Democrat. “It’s the people’s money and we have to care of it and go back to fiscal responsibility.”

“This looks terrible but this happened all over the country,” said state Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, who has served in the House for 27 years and is one of the most influential Democrats in the Roundhouse but now finds himself on the political outside looking in when it comes to all-important committee assignments. “The Republicans overwhelmed everyone else.”

REPUBLICAN WAVE: Andy Nuñez was one of a number of GOP candidates who knocked off incumbent Democrats in NM House races Tuesday.

“I thought we were gonna take ‘em,” said a groggy Nuñez in a quick phone interview just after 1:30 a.m. Wednesday morning. For the 78-year-old, his victory completed a political metamorphosis that saw him go from Democrat to an Independent to Republican in the space of three years.

So what are the practical implications of a Republican-controlled House?

First of all, it means Speaker of the House W. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, is no longer the speaker.

Republican House members are scheduled to meet this weekend and will begin discussing leadership and committee assignments.

Among the names floated as potential candidates for Speaker of the House? Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, who has close ties to Gov. Martinez, and Rep. Don Tripp, R-Socorro but a number of other reps may throw their hats into the ring.

Eventually, the House Republican caucus is expected to choose a speaker and then hold a formal vote for speaker on Jan. 20, the first day of the 60-day session.

“The new speaker will have to appoint chairmans of the committees,” Varela said. “They’re going to be in total control. Where are we (Democrats) in this?”

In one sense, the change in the House does not mean Republicans can do as they wish. After all, it would take defections of four to five Democrats in the Senate to send GOP-backed legislation on to the Republican governor to sign into law.

But it does mean that pieces of legislation that Gov. Martinez and Republicans have seen thwarted in the House — such as holding back third-graders who cannot read at a minimal level or repealing the state’s law granting driver’s licenses to the undocumented — will may sail through the House and put Senate members in potentially difficult spots.

“You have to watch what kind of governor we get with a Republican House,” Varela said. “We’re going to have to rely on the Senate to block those bills.”

Before Tuesday, there was talk of the GOP finally taking the House but even one outgoing Republican told New Mexico Watchdog the chances of winning a majority was “20, 25 percent.”

But shortly before midnight, the votes moved into the “R” column, leaving those in the “D” column wondering what will happen next.

“This is horrible,” Varela said from his home in Santa Fe.

“I think it’s great,” said Nuñez before going to bed in his home in Hatch, knowing that in little more than two months he could once again end chair a committee — only this time as a Republican instead of a Democrat.

“I’m going to end up being a member of the majority in both parties,” he said with a laugh.

Update 11/5: Gentry attributed the big Republican win to a number of factors. “We had a good top of the ticket (in Gov. Martinez),” he said. “And we put this effort (to take the House) together a year and a half ago. And we had candidates campaigning the old fashioned way — campaigning door to door … On the Dem side, I think they should do a lot of soul searching. Their leadership spent $140,000 trying to beat me. I think their members should question if that money was well spent on a race that I won by 10 points. Maybe that money should have been spent on other races.”

As to what kind of effect the switch in control of the House will have on policies and legislation, “We’re going to have a much better opportunity to pass pro-business legislation that used to not get out of the House,” Gentry said, citing regulation and tax reform measures as well as more education reform legislation. “We’re something like 20th in the nation in spending on students but near the bottom in results.”

Gentry would not say if he intends to run for Speaker of the House.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t gotten that far.”

‘Vote as often as possible’ email from college president causes a stir

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-11-05 03:15

“UNFORTUNATE” WORDING: The president of New Mexico State University-Alamogordo said there was no intention to encourage students to vote more than once on Election Day.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

A phrase the president of New Mexico State University-Alamogordo used in an email sent to the student body Friday raised some eyebrows, but President Cheri Jimeno said she did not intend to cause a stir leading up to Election Day.

In the email, Jimeno wrote, “I would encourage you to vote as often as possible.”

“Unfortunately, it seems some people misunderstood,” Jimeno told New Mexico Watchdog in a brief telephone interview Tuesday morning. “You can only vote once. That’s what it means. So, realistically, when you sit there and say, vote as often as possible, what does that mean? It means you can vote once. That’s what it means.”

The email was picked up and distributed across the Internet by Gateway Pundit, a conservative political website based in St. Louis. Jimeno confirmed she wrote the email Friday morning:

Jimeno said she sent a second email Monday to students at the school that has an enrollment of just under 4,000 full-time and part-time students to try to clarify things:


“You have a responsibility and a right to vote,” said Jimeno, who has been the NMSU-A president for seven years. “Go vote, go exercise your right. We don’t care how you vote, we just want you to vote.”

There are two general obligation bond questions on the New Mexico ballot, which have an effect on colleges and universities across the state. General Obligation Bond B would provide $11 million for books and equipment at facilities that include institutions of higher learning. General Obligation Bond C would spend $141 million on construction and remodeling projects at state colleges and universities.

Jimeno’s emails did not explicitly call for students to vote “yes” on the measures but in the Friday email, she wrote, “the passage of the bonds will NOT increase taxes!”

“G.O. bonds B and C will basically help all higher education institutions throughout the state,” Jimeno said Tuesday. “That’s a given … Think about that when you go out to vote.”

Can Spaceport America recover, or was taxpayers’ money lost in crash?

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-11-04 08:54

PICKING UP THE PIECES: The fatal crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two may have far-reaching impact on Spaceport America, which New Mexico taxpayers spent $218.5 million to build.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Friday’s crash of Virgin Galactic’s spaceship is a setback for Spaceport America, the $218.5 million facility that New Mexico taxpayers funded in southern New Mexico.

The question is, how big a setback?

A co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, died in the crash of SpaceShipTwo, and the pilot, Peter Siebold, was severely injured.

“I’m very concerned about what kind of effect this will have on New Mexico and the Spaceport,” said state Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, and chairman of the influential Legislative Finance Committee. “The whole issue about the Spaceport is something we’re going to have to keep our eyes on.”

As the National Transportation Safety Board combs over the wreckage in Mojave, Calif., questions about the financial sustainability of Spaceport come into sharper focus.

Virgin Galactic is the futuristic facility’s anchor tenant and its owner, British billionaire Richard Branson, has had to push back the date for the company’s plans for an inaugural launch numerous times, even before Friday’s crash.

NOW WHAT?: Billionaire Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson during a news conference Saturday before he saluted the bravery of test pilots, and vowed to find out what caused the crash of his prototype space tourism rocket that killed one crew member and injured another during a news conference in Mojave, Calif.

“Many people expected this vehicle to already be flying 10 passengers and generating revenue out there,” said Greg Autry, an assistant professor at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California who has followed and studied the nascent commercial space industry. “Clearly this is going to delay the operation of this vehicle at least a year, I believe, maybe longer. And that’s got to be a huge problem for Spaceport America.”

Just last week, Spaceport executives told members of the state’s Legislative Finance Committee the facility could face a $1.5 million budget shortfall in fiscal 2015 if Virgin Galactic didn’t start sending customers into suborbital space by next July.

Under the terms of its contract, Virgin will pay the Spaceport Authority between $25,000 and $75,000 per launch. Early in the project, Branson predicted a couple of launches per week, with the number rising to 700 per year by 2015 from Spaceport America, located in the remote desert of southern New Mexico just west of the White Sands Missile Range.

New Mexico Watchdog left a message with Spaceport America executive director Christine Anderson on Monday morning to get more information on the potential $1.5 million shortfall but has not received a call back.

Monday morning, Anderson posted Spaceport’s monthly newsletter on the facility’s website. She made no mention of financial challenges posed after Friday’s crash, writing, “The coming months will be challenging but this is but a speed bump in this incredible journey. We must maintain our resolve, purpose and resiliency as we chart the course ahead.” Click here to read the entire newsletter.

“If this thing doesn’t get assured to the public that, despite what happened over the weekend, (Spaceport officials) can establish a practical and workable Spaceport program, taxpayers aren’t going to be all that enthusiastic about it,” Varela told New Mexico Watchdog. “I hope we can resolve it.”

LOOKING FOR REASONS: Officials at the National Transportation Safety Board are trying to determine the cause of Friday’s crash of that killed a Virgin Galactic co-pilot and severely injured the pilot.

After $218.5 million in sunk costs, state and local officials — especially in towns and counties near Spaceport — hope the investment will still pay off.

Asked if Friday’s crash has shaken the confidence of locals, Bruce Swingle, county manager in Sierra County said, “I hope not. This is a big deal for this region … I believe (Spaceport) will pan out. I don’t think interest is eroding.”

“We’ve made a huge investment out there,” said state Senate Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces. “We can’t just say, ‘One crash, so King’s X.’ I just don’t think we can do that.”

USC’s Autry thinks commercial space still has a robust future.

“This market exists,” Autry said. “In the early years, the Wright Brothers crashed and that wasn’t the end of the aviation industry … This won’t be the end of the commercial space industry.”

While Virgin Galactic, led by the flamboyant Branson, is in many ways the face of Spaceport America, it’s not the site’s only high-profile tenant.

Another billionaire, Elon Musk, signed a three-year lease last year with Spaceport to test reusable rockets for his SpaceX venture and, according to Anderson, has already spent $2 million in infrastructure improvements.

UP Aerospace is also a paying customer at Spaceport and, just days before the Virgin Galactic accident, a Tucson-based company called World View Enterprises, entered negotiations with Spaceport officials. World View intends on sending customers 20 miles into the stratosphere in cutting-edge balloons.

“We’re on the cusp of this next generation of transportation for humans,” Anderson told New Mexico Watchdog in an interview last month, confident that state taxpayers will see a return on their investment. “We appreciate the advancement the people of New Mexico made in us and we’re trying to make it a success.”

“It’s too early to tell,” Varela said. “It depends on what extent the public accepts it and utilizes it. We’ve looked at horizontal launches, we’ve looked at vertical launches and any other uses of the Spaceport … In the environment we’re in right now, it’s questionable to what extent it will benefit New Mexico.”

“It may be an asset that could be very hard to pay back,” said Autry. “But now that you have one, I would do what you could to help Virgin at this point and make your investment turn out to have some value. I would not dismiss this as an unsalvageable investment at this point. I think they’re going to get it together.”

Note to New Mexico: Be more like (gasp!) Texas

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-11-03 07:58

Rob Nikolewski. Photo courtesy of the Santa Fe New Mexican//Clyde Mueller

For a long, long time, people in New Mexico — and specifically, Santa Fe — have had a love/hate relationship with Texas.

Well, it can actually sometimes get a little short on the love and long on the hate.

But as much as it hurts to say it, when it comes to reviving New Mexico’s economy, the Land of Enchantment should take some lessons from the Lone Star State.

While New Mexico has been sputtering, Texas is on a roll.

More people have moved to Texas than any other state in the country: A net gain of more than 387,000 in the latest from the 2013 Census.

In fact, five of the 20 fastest-growing large metro areas in the U.S. are in Texas — Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth — and smaller communities such as oil-rich Midland and Odessa grew at 3 percent or better.

“Sure, people move there for jobs but they’re low quality jobs that don’t pay much,” critics say. But that’s not what the statistics show. Median household income in Texas has moved up nine places since 2000.

Democrats in New Mexico have been hammering Republican Gov. Susana Martinez on the state’s poor economic numbers. Fair enough. Like NFL quarterbacks, governors get too much credit when things are good so they have to take the hits when they’re bad.

But for 62 years, Democrats have controlled the state House of Representatives and for 77 of the last 81 years, they’ve controlled the Senate.

If the New Mexico economic landscape is less than ideal — and it has been — the party running the Legislature for decades has to accept some responsibility for that.

Earlier this week, the pro-growth Tax Foundation ranked U.S. states by tax climate. New Mexico finished 38th. Every other state in the Rocky Mountain region finished in the top half of the rankings.

Texas finished 10th and has made a concerted effort to avoid overregulation.

“The classic social contract is – we’re not going to do a ton to help you but we’re not going to get in your way,” author Erica Greider told the BBC last year. “That’s not 100 percent true of the state but there’s that strand in the state.”

The title of the book Grieder wrote? “Big, Hot, Cheap and Right: What America Can Learn from the Strange Genius of Texas.”

Texas is also one of the few states with no state income tax and it’s one of 24 states that has passed right-to-work legislation.

Last year, Albuquerque attorney and longtime Democrat David Buchholtz broached the subject to me and offered a New Mexico compromise: Pass right-to-work legislation but carve out an exception for public sector employees.

“People I trust tell me up to 25 percent of companies looking to relocate will not put a state on their list that is not a right-to-work state,” he told me last September. “We desperately need to create private-sector jobs and if we’re missing 25 percent of the opportunities, that’s not a good thing for us.”

The idea received criticism from the left (predictably) and from the right (too watered down) but give Buchholtz credit for offering an idea to stimulate New Mexico’s economy.

Speaking of which, can you imagine how bad our numbers would be if it weren’t for the oil boom in southeastern New Mexico? The Oil Patch has almost singlehandedly kept us afloat.

And just as in North Dakota, crude production in Texas is exploding.

I’m not saying New Mexico should mimic every last thing that Texas has done (they can keep Jerry Jones) but it would be foolish to not take a hard look at what it’s done and apply some — or even a lot — of those lessons.

With our natural beauty, we’ll always be the Land of Enchantment. But let’s not be in a state of denial.

(This commentary originally ran in the Sunday edition of the Santa Fe New Mexican on Nov. 2, 2014.)

NM takes another step cracking down on horse racing cheaters

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-10-31 11:04

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 07:23

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 06:57

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 07:05

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 06:56

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 12:59

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 03:52

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 07:31

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.

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