"Capitol Report New Mexico" Latest Blog Postings

New health exchange boss in NM survived controversy in Idaho

COMING TO NEW MEXICO FROM IDAHO: Amy Dowd, the new executive director of the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange, comes highly recommended but she had to weather some controversy.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — The New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange has hired a new executive director who received positive recommendations for running the exchange in Idaho, despite controversy over a no-bid contract that was granted and then rescinded last fall.

“She’s done a good job,” Idaho state Sen. Jim Rice, a Republican, said of Amy Dowd, to whom the board members at NMIX unanimously voted earlier this month to offer the job running the state’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act, colloquially called “Obamacare.”

Rice is a member of the “Your Health Idaho” board and sharply criticized Dowd after it was revealed a board member, Frank Chan, had been awarded a $375,000 technology contract by Dowd even though no bids from outside vendors were offered. Chan ended up quitting the same day the contract was announced.

“She made a dumb mistake,” Rice told New Mexico Watchdog in a telephone interview. “She hasn’t repeated it. You just don’t hire someone on your board.”

The contract led to a two-week investigation, but the board of the Idaho health exchange made no personnel changes and Dowd remained as executive director.

“The mistakes were not solely hers,” Idaho state Sen. Fred Martin, a Republican, told New Mexico Watchdog.

Despite saying at the time he was “was very upset when I learned of the contract being issued without approval from the board of directors,” Martin said Monday, “I’m pleased with (Dowd’s) performance here” and went so far as to say Dowd “has done an extremely good job running the exchange.”

Even Rice, who called for Dowd’s dismissal when the story broke, said Monday that Dowd “overall is somebody who is quite capable” and pointed to the success of the Idaho exchange under Dowd’s watch. “We have one of the highest enrollment rates, per capita, nationwide,” Rice said.

An email to Dowd asking for an interview was not returned.

NMHIX board member Dr. Deane Waldman said the board was aware of the flap over the no-bid contract.

“It did not cause any concerns,” Waldman said, describing Dowd as “the implementer, not the decision-maker.”

“The issue was really about making political hay,” Waldman said.

NMHIX officials announced Tuesday that Dowd will earn $199,000 a year and be eligible for a 10 percent performance bonus as part of her two-year contract. Dowd is expected to start in August. Dowd’s salary in Idaho was $175,000.

“We need a real visionary and the board got a sense from her that she could think beyond the lines,” Waldman said.

The New Mexico exchange has been run on an interim basis by Mike Nuñez. “He’s a wonderful manager and we couldn’t have gotten where we’re at without him,” Waldman said.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Obamacare court decision ‘potentially crushing’ for NM health exchange

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-07-22 13:09

COURT SETBACK: An appeals court in Washington D.C. ruled that the Affordable Care Act cannot extend tax credits to federal health care exchanges.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — An appeals court decision in Washington, D.C., on Obamacare subsidies could be “potentially crushing” for New Mexicans who signed up for individual health care policies expecting big tax credits to reduce their monthly premiums, a member of the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange said.

The District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision Tuesday morning, struck down subsidies granted in states using federal health exchanges, dealing a blow to the Affordable Care Act across the country.

“That means everybody who signed up on healthcare.gov is not eligible for tax subsidies,” said Dr. Deane Waldman, who has served on the NMHIX board since it was established last spring, “which means they’re going to be exposed to the full and greatly increased cost of insurance premiums.”

At issue before the court in the Halbig v. Burwell case was the wording in the ACA, which said subsidies could only be granted by state exchanges, not the federal exchange.

While NMHIX sold plans for businesses this past year, all individual plans had to go through the federal www.healthcare.gov website that experienced a series of mishaps during its rollout.

According to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, 32,062 people in New Mexico signed up for individual policies and 79 percent are receiving subsidies.

“If this is upheld, they’re not going to see $300 or $400 they paid (all of) last year but $500 or $600 a month because the insurance premiums have gone up tremendously in our country because of the ACA,” Waldman told New Mexico Watchdog.

Tuesday’s ruling hits the 27 states that did not set up state-based exchanges and nine other states — including New Mexico — that used a combination of federal and state exchanges.

The Obama administration says it will call for an “en banc” hearing on the ruling, which would have the entire Court of Appeals listen to the D.C. case.

Reacting to the decision, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said “there’s a clear, commonsense case to be made” that the intent of the ACA “was to be sure that every eligible American who applied for tax credits to make their health insurance more affordable would have access to those tax credits whether or not the marketplace was operated by federal officials or state officials.”

Supporters also pointed to another ruling that came down Tuesday in Virginia in a separate case that decided the wording in the ACA was written so ambiguously that subsidies could be allowed.

But Obamacare critics say they could see a ruling like this coming.

“Neither executive-agency bureaucrats nor judges can change the text of the Affordable Care Act, after-the-fact legal rationalizing notwithstanding,” said Michael Cannon, director of health policy studies at the Cato Institute. “Today’s ruling shows that Obamacare, a cynical political bargain that lacked popular support from day one, simply doesn’t work as conceived. It’s time to repeal this Frankenstein’s monster and instead pass market-based health care reform that lowers costs, expands choice, and increases quality — all while respecting the rule of law.”

Cannon said the Halbig decision will not increase premiums.

“What it would do is prevent the IRS from shifting the burden of those premiums from enrollees to taxpayers,” Cannon wrote in Forbes. “Premiums for federal-exchange enrollees would not rise, but those enrollees would face the full cost of their ‘ObamaCare’ plans.”

Waldman said the NMHIX board will take up the implications of the Halbig decision Friday when it meets in Albuquerque.

“This leaves us in limbo,” Waldman said. “This is a big deal … The American public could see that the Affordable Care Act is tremendously unaffordable.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Risky business: Naming buildings after New Mexico politicians

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-07-22 08:27

WHAT’S IN A NAME?: A gigantic New Mexico state office building is named after a former governor who just got in big trouble with the Security and Exchange Commission.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – Former New Mexico Gov. Toney Anaya is awaiting potential financial penalties after settling last week with the Securities and Exchange Commission over fraud charges involving a water company for which Anaya worked.

But while Anaya is the latest in a string of New Mexico political officials who have run afoul of the law, state employees still go to work every day in the sprawling, 100,000-square foot Toney Anaya Building on Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe.

State Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, shakes his head.

“We shouldn’t be naming these buildings after politicians,” Moores said. “It’s unseemly for taxpayers to be footing the bill for things like this.”

While not admitting or denying the charges, Anaya agreed to a cease-and-desist order from the SEC and a five-year ban on penny stock offerings. Anaya did not comment on the settlement, but the former Democrat governor and New Mexico attorney general served for two years as chairman and CEO of Natural Blue Resources, which billed itself as an environmentally friendly investment company.

According to the SEC, Anaya hid from investors that the company, in reality, was being run by James Cohen and Joseph Corazzi, who had run afoul of the law in the past.

FACING PENALTIES: Former New Mexico Gov. Toney Anaya has settled with the Securities and Exchange Commission over his role in a water resource company that the SEC said hid vital information from investors.

“Investors in Natural Blue had a right to know who was running the company behind the scenes,” Andrew Ceresney, director of the SEC enforcement division, said in a statement. Anaya “cooperated extensively” in the investigation, the SEC said.

Anaya served as New Mexico’s governor from 1983-87. Former Gov. Bill Richardson named a state office building that houses the Regulation and Licensing Department and the Aging and Long Term Services Department after Anaya in 2004.

“These kind of situations happen when we name buildings after politicians,” Moores said.

The most glaring example happened in southeast Albuquerque, where an elementary school library was named after Manny Aragon, a former New Mexico Senate leader who was convicted in 2008 — and served time in a federal prison — for taking kickbacks.

Parents in southeast Albuquerque complained about library’s name for 5 1/2 years and, in March, the city’s school board voted to have the name erased.

Moores introduced a bill in the 2013 legislative session that would eliminate naming public buildings after elected officials who are currently serving in office. The bill never got out of committee, but Moores said he plans to bring back the legislation for the 2015 session in January.

NO MORE ‘MONUMENTS TO ME’: State Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, thinks public buildings should not be named after sitting politicians.

“My constituents are all for it,” Moores said. “They see it as typical behavior by politicians to glorify themselves instead of working for taxpayers.”

Moore’s bill would not erase names of public figures on current structures.

New Mexico Watchdog has cited numerous examples of buildings named after political figures across the state in a series of stories called “Monuments to Me.”

Examples range from massive public edifices — such as the Peter V. Domenici United States Courthouse, named after the Republican and U.S. Senate mainstay before Domenici retired from politics — to a kerfuffle in Taos in 2012; county commissioners voted to name three buildings in Taos County’s new municipal complex after themselves.

The commissioners reversed their decision after residents howled, although the county did order a bronze plaque honoring them for “overseeing” the construction of the complex.

Just three weeks later, the Taos County Clerk had her name inscribed in gold lettering on 55 historical record books as part of project to preserve documents dating back to the 1800s.

“It’s not right (for public officials) to use taxpayers’ money to build monuments to themselves,” Moores said. “Not while they’re in office.”

Other examples across the state include:

* The African American Performing Arts Center in Albuquerque, which opened in 2007 and was rededicated to state Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, by Richardson in 2008. Williams Stapleton has been a state representative since 1995.

* The Ben Luján Gymnasium at Pojoaque High School, named in 1993 to state Rep. Ben Luján, D-Santa Fe County, while he was serving in the Legislature and who later became Speaker of the House. The gymnasium also served as a voting location, which meant that in the 2010 Democratic primary, voters in the area had to go to the Ben Luján Gym to cast their votes either for Luján or his opponent, Carl Trujillo.

* The University of New Mexico Children’s Hospital has a pavilion named after Richardson and his wife, Barbara, while Richardson was still in office. The decision was made in 2004 by the UNM Board of Regents, which was composed of seven members appointed by Richardson.

* The Andy Nuñez Health Department Building in Hatch, named after then-state Rep. Andy Nuñez while he was serving as a Democrat in the Legislature. Nuñez is running this fall to return to the Roundhouse as a Republican.

* State Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, has a baseball stadium named after him in Bayard. Morales used to be a baseball coach at Cobre Consolidated School District.

* Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho is named after Dr. V. Sue Cleveland, who is the superintendent of Rio Rancho Public Schools.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Reid and Heinrich: ‘The border is secure’

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-07-18 09:23

‘AS SECURE AS IT’S EVER BEEN’: Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, took to the floor of the U.S. Senate to say the border crisis is mainly a refugee crisis.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

U.S. Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., made headlines and raised eyebrows Tuesday when he declared “the border is secure.”

Reid cited New Mexico senator and fellow Democrat Martin Heinrich as the source for his statement as the country deals with tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors. Most are coming from Central America, crossing the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

Wednesday, Heinrich reiterated Reid’s statement.

“The border today is more secure than it has ever been,” Heinrich said on the Senate floor as members of both parties gave speeches about the crisis.

“The notion that lax border policies are somehow responsible for this latest crisis is not just a myth, it’s a willful misrepresentation driven by politicians who would rather create a political issue than to solve a very real problem,” Heinrich said.

Heinrich, who visited the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, N.M., last week and met with Homeland Security Department Secretary Jeh Johnson, sent a statement to New Mexico Watchdog through his press office saying the federal government spent $17.9 billion on immigration enforcement in fiscal 2012.

Earlier this week, Johnson announced that about 40 women and children from the center in Artesia were flown back to their home country of Honduras.

“There are more border patrol agents on the ground and more resources and technology deployed on the border than in any time in our nation’s history,” Heinrich said in the statement. “These resources have been effective.”

Heinrich went on to criticize “those who prefer a border crisis to a refugee crisis” and urged Senate Republicans to pass the $3.7 billion supplemental spending package proposed by President Obama and for House Republicans to vote on the immigration bill that passed the Senate earlier this year.

Some conservative commentators ridiculed Reid.

“When you hear Harry Reid saying the border is secure you got to wonder, you know, whether he’s on his medication or not. That is so detached from reality,” columnist Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News. “How many (unaccompanied minors do) we have now? 60,000 — at least — kids who come over. And we’re completely helpless.”

Here’s video of what Reid told reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday:

 

And here’s Heinrich on the Senate floor Wednesday:

 

Update 7/18: Greg Sargent, a blogger for the Washington Post who writes from a liberal perspective, wrote on Thursday that “Heinrich of New Mexico has been tasked by Senate Dem leaders to take the lead” in countering Republicans on the debate over the border crisis. Democrats “are aware they need to sharpen their case,” Sargent wrote.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Capitol Hill buzzes about New Mexican’s ‘unprecedented’ appointment to FERC

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-07-18 09:18

NORMAN BAY, MAN OF MYSTERY: Norman Bay’s nomination as future chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was accompanied by plenty of political intrigue.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Business in Washington D.C. can sometimes be a game of shadows, and this week’s confirmation of New Mexico’s Norman Bay to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has Capitol Hill buzzing about what went on behind the scenes.

“This is really unprecedented,” said William Yeatman, who follows energy issues closely as a specialist at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank. “There’s normally not that much intrigue at FERC.”

On Tuesday, Bay was confirmed in a divisive 52-45 vote in the U.S. Senate to become one of five commissioners at FERC. What’s unusual is that Bay was confirmed with the understanding that he will become the FERC’s chairman — but not right away.

Instead, Bay will serve as commissioner and receive a sort of on-the-job-training for nine months to eventually assume the role of chairman. In the meantime, Cheryl LaFleur will remain as chairwoman until next spring. Then, President Obama is expected to name Bay to the top spot.

“He’s going to have training wheels, I guess,” Yeatman said. “This is not par for the course.”

While most Americans aren’t very familiar with FERC, it regulates the country’s electric grid and energy infrastructure, such as pipelines. The agency is going through what Yeatman calls “seismic shifts” as the Obama administration plans on expanding renewable energy sources and contracting the use coal as part of the country’s energy portfolio.

A former prosecutor and law professor in New Mexico, Bay has been the chief law enforcement officer at FERC since 2009, but he has no professional energy experience, which led some senators to oppose his confirmation.

But he was the choice of the Obama administration and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to become the FERC chairman.

It’s unusual for a senator who is not a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to get involved in FERC confirmation hearings, but Reid was especially vocal in pushing for Bay. Reid had earlier blocked two other candidates for the job and was firmly opposed to retaining LaFleur as chairwoman.

Last month, when asked by the Wall Street Journal why he was so interested in an agency that often flies under the political radar, Reid turned sarcastic, saying, “Wow, that is amazing — that a majority leader who has a responsibility of selecting people would have some opinion as to who he suggests to the White House.”

However, Reid has expressed his desire to grow renewable energy in his home state and there has been speculation Reid and the White House see Bay as being receptive to renewable projects.

New Mexico Watchdog left a voice mail message for Bay, but Mary O’Driscoll, director of media relations at FERC, called and said Bay “is not available for interviews.”

Tuesday’s vote for Bay was contentious, with all but two Democrats voting for Bay and nearly all Republicans voting against his nomination.

“You have to ask the question. ‘what are its terms?’” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said. “Will acting chair LaFleur have the opportunity to serve fully and completely as chair? Will it be clear that Mr. Bay is not a ‘shadow chairman’ or ‘chairman-in-waiting’ during this crucial period?”

The only Republican in the Senate who voted for Bay was Sen. Dean Heller, who, like Reid, is from Nevada.

“Clearly there are politics at play,” Yeatman said. “Why a Republican like Heller would buck his party and back Bay and why Harry Reid would go to all these lengths is a good question.”

In the run-up to the Bay confirmation vote, former longtime Senate Republican Pete Domenici of New Mexico endorsed Bay, telling a Senate committee, “I think this is a great appointment.”

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who worked with Bay as a prosecutor, endorsed his nomination to the commission in a letter and Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., introduced Bay at a Senate committee. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., also supported Bay’s nomination.

While LaFleur is scheduled to resign as chairwoman next spring, she will stay at FERC as a commissioner. On the same day the full Senate voted for Bay by just a seven-vote margin, the Senate gave LaFleur a new five-year term as a commissioner, 90-7.

“Clearly, she was a less divisive figure,” Yeatman said. “She’ll be around for five more years and Bay will be around for five years. One wonders what kind of working environment they’ve engendered. You basically tell someone their chairmanship is over in nine months and the guy in the office next to you is going to take over.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Should Redskins change their name? New Mexico says ‘meh’

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-07-16 07:57

NICKNAME CONTROVERSY: Critics want the Washington Redskins to change the team’s name but a poll in a state with a large number of Native Americans shows support for the nickname.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

New Mexico has one of the largest number of Native Americans of any state, but a recent poll showed most people in the Land of Enchantment aren’t demanding the NFL’s Washington Redskins change their nickname.

In a flash poll of more than 500 registered voters in New Mexico published by the Albuquerque Journal, 71 percent said they wanted the Redskins to keep their nickname, 18 percent wanted the team to change it and 11 percent weren’t sure:

“I was surprised,” said Brian Sanderoff, president of Albuquerque-based Research & Polling, Inc. “I just assumed in New Mexico it wouldn’t mirror the nation because of our large majority-minority population, but that was not the case.”

According to the 2010 census, New Mexico has the second-largest percentage of Native Americans in the United States with 9.4 percent. Only Alaska, with 14.8 percent, had a higher proportion of those with American Indian or Native descent.

Sanderoff said the poll about the Redskins nickname was conducted July 10 and the survey approximated the percentage of Native Americans in the state. In fact, Sanderoff said there were “no statistically significant differences” among Hispanics, whites and Native Americans in the results.

State Rep. Sandra Jeff, D-Crownpoint, a member of the Navajo Nation, told New Mexico Watchdog she wasn’t surprised by the poll.

“I think our foremost concerns should be about economic development, our economic welfare,” Jeff said Monday. “We have high unemployment, high poverty. Let’s fix those problems first.”

“That’s probably true,” said state Sen. Benny Shendo Jr., D-Jemez Pueblo who said the nickname is racist. “The Redskins name is pretty far down on the list of things we need to change. It’s not really on people’s radar.”

This spring the Navajo Nation Council, on a 9-2 vote, passed a measure formally opposing the NFL franchise using the name.

“I think the actions of our council clearly show that (members) recognize the negative impacts such derogatory names cause for our people and also for Indian country,” councilman Joshua Lavar Butler told the Indian Country Today Media Network after the vote.

“Some people are concerned about (the nickname) and they say, ‘Hey, that belongs to Native Americans,’” said Jeff. “And then you have those who are Redskins fans, who say, ‘Hey, it’s good that we have the Redskins and their logo.’”

“There are a lot of Native folks who are Redskins fans, which is surprising,” Shendo said.

In fact, Red Mesa High School of the Navajo Nation uses the nickname “Redskins.”

Activists have been calling on Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to change the team’s name. Last month, the U.S.Patent and Trademark Office stripped the trademark status of “Redskins,” ruling the name wasn’t entitled to legal protection.

The office did the same thing in 1999, but the team fought and won in court. The team vows it will fight the current ruling, as well. The decision doesn’t prevent the team from using the nickname, but it would prevent it from challenging anyone else who used it.

Snyder has called the team name “a badger of honor” and has vowed he will never change it.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

New Mexico’s mouse war escalates

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-07-15 14:23

THE MOUSE THAT ROARED: The battle over protecting the meadow jumping mouse, recently listed as endangered, has pitted environmentalists and ranchers against the U.S. Forest Service.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico’s war over the meadow jumping mouse is escalating and moving ahead on multiple fronts.

Ranchers whose permits allow their cattle to graze in the Santa Fe National Forest object to a proposal to erect fencing covering 120 acres in a meadow where the mouse lives. They’re heading to Capitol Hill to plead their case to a House subcommittee.

At the same time, an environmental group instrumental in getting the mouse listed under the federal government’s Endangered Species Act filed paperwork last week to start the process of suing the U.S. Forest Service to protect the mouse’s habitat.

And the Forest Service is catching flak from both sides.

“The time for kind of compromise has long, long since past,” said John Horning, the executive director of WildEarth Guardians-NewMexico. “When a species is endangered, when a habitat is endangered, if anything, I would argue the Forest Service is moving too slowly, too cautiously … I don’t think the agency has any more excuses to keep waiting.”

“It’s the federal government that’s failed us,” said Mike Lucero, of New Mexico’s San Diego Cattleman’s Association and a member of a family of ranchers that has grazed the forest for more than 100 years. “They (the Forest Service) are trying to take the easy way out.”

Forest Service officials say they’re trying to strike a balance.

“What we’re doing is our affirmative responsibility to take care of the mouse, follow the law and, at the same time, assure that we can have a viable grazing program on national forest systems land,” said Robert Trujillo, the acting director of Wildlife, Fish and Rare Plants for the Southwest Region of the U.S. Forest Service.

But so far, neither the environmentalists nor the ranchers are happy.

Last Thursday, the ranchers got ticked off to learn the Forest Service sent a letter proposing to put up fencing in a meadow where the Rio Cebolla creek runs.

Citing concerns that grazing badly damages the habitat where the mice live, the Forest Service in its July 10 letter said it anticipates the fencing proposal falls under a “categorical exclusion” that allows it to skip normal assessment procedure.

THE CREEK IN QUESTION: The Rio Cebolla runs through a meadow in the Santa Fe National Forest, in the Jemez Mountains. The Forest Service is proposing to erect 5-foot-high fencing to keep cattle from grazing there in order to protect the meadow jumping mouse.

Gone was talk of putting up fencing that was 8-feet high that would have kept out most all wildlife from entering the mouse’s habitat. Instead, the Forest Service is calling for fencing that would be 5-feet high, with cables to keep out livestock only. (Click here to read the Forest Service letter.)

The ranchers say they’ve being singled out.

“It’s in black and white now, they’re targeting certain individuals,” Lucero said. “There’s other animals that use the same (area) … They’re targeting just cattle grazers.”

“They’re not being singled out,” Trujillo said. However, Trujillo has also said that “the elk and deer get in there, get water and get out. They don’t tend to lounge around and graze heavily. Cows will sit in there and graze.”

Lucero disagrees, saying that elk graze and lie down along the meadow at night.

At the opposite end of the battle, Horning insists the mouse’s habitat has been abused for years.

“It is badly overgrazed,” he said. “When the cows come off, the landscape comes back to life and surprises people who knew it only as it was grazed. I think the final arbiter of whether it was overgrazed will be, let’s look at how the land looks in a year or two when the fences go up and the cows are removed.”

In 2008 WildEarth Guardians submitted a petition seeking listing for the species and last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the mouse as endangered.

While no final decision on the fencing has been made by the Forest Service, the July 10 letter reiterates that since the meadow jumping mouse was listed earlier this year as an endangered species, federal agencies “must ensure that any action they fund, authorize, or carry out is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species.”

“It’s not a final decision,” Trujillo told New Mexico Watchdog, “but it’s a pretty good indication that we need to get some fencing done in there.”

Lucero said he and the ranchers are not opposed to fencing but think the Forest Service is going overboard.

Lucero is heading to Washington, D.C. to appear before the House Public Lands and Environmental Regulations Subcommittee, which is chaired by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, on July 24. He’ll be joined by New Mexico Cattle Growers Association and a commissioner from Otero County, which is involved in a similar dispute with the Forest Service over a gate that’s blocking cattle from drinking in a creek near the mouse’s habitat.

“We’re looking for a cooperative solution,” said Blair Dunn, one of the attorneys advising Lucero and the San Diego Cattleman’s Association.

Forest Service officials said Monday they were unaware of the congressional hearing until New Mexico Watchdog informed them.

“Why can’t we come to some kind of compromise and give (the mice) a couple of acres,” said Lucero. “But when you’re talking about taking the entire meadow to protect the mouse … we’re getting a one-sided outcome.”

WildEarth Guardians filed a notice of intent last Friday to initiate the lawsuit, aimed at protecting the mouse, which hibernates eight to nine months out of the year and is found in wet, forested areas in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado.

“If we want to laugh at, marginalize, overlook a mouse, we can do so,” Horning said, “but the message is about all the species that depend on these habitats. And it’s really a travesty that it requires endangered species protection to get the (Forest Service) to say that, oh this 1 percent of the land that’s important for clean water, that’s critical for recreational values, and that’s vital for all sorts of fish and wildlife species ought to be protected.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Gary Johnson: ‘Abolish the IRS’

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-07-14 08:01

BUH-BYE, IRS: Former Libertarian presidential candidate and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson calls for replacing income and corporate taxes with a single consumption tax.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — For 2012 Libertarian Party presidential candidate and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the ongoing controversy at the Internal Revenue Service is further proof the agency should be eliminated.

“Imagine life without having to deal with the IRS,” Johnson told New Mexico Watchdog in an interview just two days after a new development in the IRS story, in which former IRS official Lois Lerner warned colleagues to be careful about what they write in emails amid congressional inquiries.

“None of it surprises me,” Johnson said. “To a higher degree or a lesser degree this is what happens when you have bureaucrats in charge that can manipulate the system any way they so choose.”

A federal judge last Thursday ordered IRS officials to explain under oath how Lerner’s emails disappeared and how they might be recovered.

“Come on, loss of emails? Give me a break,” Johnson said. “If that doesn’t outrage anybody who looks at this, then you’re out to lunch.”

Johnson’s call to abolish the agency dates back to 2009, after he met with a number of economists, including Jeffrey Miron, director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Economics at Harvard, who became an adviser in Johnson’s 2012 campaign.

“Let’s abolish the IRS, let’s eliminate income tax, let’s eliminate corporate tax, let’s balance the federal budget and if we need a tax, it can be one federal consumption tax,” Johnson said.

But how would that work?

Instead of collecting taxes from various sources, a consumption tax works from a single point of purchase. It taxes people when they spend money on any given item or service. By eliminating income tax, sales tax and others, the idea is that overall price would not go up and may, according to its advocates, actually decrease the overall tax burden on citizens.

“I think a great starting point for a debate and discussion over a national consumption tax is, let’s start with the Fair Tax, legislation that has been written up and I think signed up on by 80 congressmen and women,” said Johnson.

Critics say that a consumption tax benefits people with higher amounts of savings and, therefore, could hit low-income households harder.

UNDER FIRE: Some officials at the Internal Service have been accused of targeting conservative political groups.

“Under a consumption tax system all savings would be tax-free, it would all be taxed like a 401(k),” said Len Burman, a senior fellow at the left-of-center Urban Institute, in a 2005 interview with PBS. “But the question is, if people don’t get the special tax break will they still be putting money into retirement savings and if they don’t, if they just put it in their regular bank account, are they as likely to keep it until retirement, and a lot of people are concerned that in fact without the special tax breaks you could actually end up with less retirement savings and possibly even less savings overall.”

But Johnson said the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

“Why would any company, anywhere in the world, locate anywhere but the United States, given zero corporate tax?” Johnson said. “The entire world will change their tax structure to emulate no income tax, no corporate tax, no more filing.”

Would it ever happen? After all, the current tax system is laden with incentives and tax breaks, such as deductions for charities.

“I believe it will take place because at some point all these smart people will actually get with it,” said Johnson, who has a page devoted to tax reform at the website for the Our America Initiative, a political advocacy committee he founded.

Johnson made headlines last week for becoming the president and chief executive officer of Cannabis Sativa Inc., a small company based out of Nevada that sells products that come from extracted oil derived from marijuana plants. But they’re not smoked; instead, they’re packaged as lozenges.

“We sell a product that’s sublingual, so it’s a sucked-on product, very pleasant, and I believe, much safer than alcohol,” Johnson said, adding the lozenges can be used for medical treatment as well as recreational use.

In 1999, Johnson became the first governor in any state to call for the legalization of marijuana.

“I remain the only governor that has ever espoused legalizing marijuana, to this day,” Johnson said.

Since being named CEO, Johnson said the company’s stock jumped two points.

“Tens of millions of Americans use marijuana … those people make up half of everyone we know,” Johnson said. “These are our friends, these are our families, these are our co-workers, and you can label their choice to use marijuana as a bad choice, but I’m going to say it’s not criminal. Our kids are not criminal, our parents are not criminal, our co-workers are not criminal, our friends are not criminal.”

Here’s New Mexico Watchdog video of Johnson talking about taxes:

And here he is talking about his support of marijuana legalization:

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Editorial: The $3.7 billion Band-Aid for the border

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Sun, 2014-07-13 13:38

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

When you study economics, one of the first things you learn is that people respond to incentives.

And that maxim goes a long way toward explaining the current crisis on the border that has led to the impromptu establishment of facilities across the country to house the flood of migrants from Central America coming into the United States – including the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Artesia.

The situation has been called a humanitarian crisis but it’s also an economic crisis. After all, it’s not rich El Salvadorans or Hondurans but impoverished Central Americans who are making the dangerous trip through Mexico and into the U.S.

Some are escaping the drug and gang violence in their countries, some are looking for a better standard of living and many are looking for both.

So the incentive to leave their countries is strong and, given the fact that over the years millions who entered the U.S. illegally have been able to stay, the incentive to make the United States their final destination is powerful.

And, ironically, if the political leaders in Washington ever pass an immigration bill that includes tighter border security measures, that only heightens the incentive to make the journey now before getting into the U.S. gets more difficult.

President Obama has called for $3.7 billion to help handle the crisis in the short term. According to reports, more than half of that is going to handling resettling chores.

Conservatives who want to buckle up the border complain about that – and they’ve got a point about the cost to taxpayers – but it’s a law passed in 2008 under George W. Bush that prevents the government from immediately returning young migrants to their respective countries.

Only children entering illegally from countries contiguous to the U.S – Canada and Mexico – can be sent back immediately.

When it was passed, the law was intended to address human trafficking instead of the current crisis, but that’s the law on the books now.

Furthermore, the 2008 law requires the government to make the best effort possible to reunite unaccompanied minors with a parent or guardian and give them a hearing date.

But the courts are backlogged and – speaking about incentives again – why show up for a court date when you risk getting sent back?

A similar situation may play out at the FLETC facility in Artesia, as New Mexico Department of Public Safety Secretary Greg Fouratt recently pointed out.

“I worry about people who have taken this remarkable step in their life that has to be borne out of desperation, to come to the United States, and then they learn that they’re going back to the place that they left, they might not have the motivation to stick around,” Fouratt told me.

Some say that the U.S. should take in this wave of immigrants but it begs the question, how many more can the country absorb? And, despite the desperate circumstances that inspired many of them, don’t laws need to be respected?

Even House Democratic Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said this week, “The United States cannot be expected to give sanctuary to every child in the world that is exposed to danger in their country because of the failure of the country’s government, or the local municipality’s government, to assist in keeping their own children safe.”

But in order to do that, it takes border enforcement first and foremost. Without it, expect more $3.7 billion payments to come.

“When a parent or relative in those countries just paid … up to $7,000 to smugglers to take that child into the country,” said Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, who supported the Senate immigration bill that stalled in the House, “when they see those planeloads of kids coming back, then it will stop.”

It’s a hard truth, but he’s right.

This editorial originally ran in the July 13, 2014 edition of the Santa Fe New Mexican. You can contact Rob Nikolewski at the website he edits, www.newmexiocwatchdog.org   

An opening for Republicans in NM? Or are independents flexing their muscle?

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-07-09 14:40

PICK A PARTY: Voter registration numbers in New Mexico give some Republicans hope but may simply indicate the growth in independents.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M.— Democrats have outnumbered Republicans in New Mexico for generations, but do recent voter registration numbers give the GOP some hope in winning over young voters?

Or is it just a blip?

Or do the numbers simply show that voters in the state are becoming more independent?

A recent study by Research & Polling, a political polling company based in Albuquerque, looked at the party breakdown across the state. The numbers are open to varying degrees of interpretation.

For example, Democrats continue their stranglehold on registration numbers.

They hold a double-digit advantage over Republicans in every age category, topping out with an 18-point edge — 53 percent to 35 percent — among voters 65 and older.

But the narrowest margin is found among the youngest voters, with Democrats’ lead on the GOP among those between 18-24 dipping to 11 percent. Here are the pie charts published in the Albuquerque Journal:

On Tuesday, the New York Times published a column headlined, “Why Teenagers Today May Grow Up Conservative.” While young people tend to vote for Democrats, columnist David Leonhardt points out that 18-year-olds eligible to vote in the 2016 presidential election will have been born in 1998.

“They are too young to remember much about the (George W.) Bush years or the excitement surrounding the first Obama presidential campaign,” Leonhardt said. “They instead are coming of age with a Democratic president who often seems unable to fix the world’s problems.”

“We’re in a period in which the federal government is simply not performing,” added Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center, who just published a book on generational politics, “and that can’t be good for the Democrats.”

Does that add up to an opportunity for the New Mexico GOP? Maybe, maybe not.

Brian Sanderoff, president of Research and Polling, said, “One can look at these numbers in different ways.”

After all, if you’re a Democrat, the numbers confirm the party’s advantage over Republicans, and with the Hispanic population — which tends to vote for Democrats — growing, Republicans may be in for a tough demographic challenge.

But Sanderoff points out another way to interpret the numbers: Namely, the rapid growth of voters in New Mexico who don’t identify with either of the major parties.

Sanderoff shared with New Mexico Watchdog a chart showing how the number of voters registering as “decline to state” — or with parties besides Democrats and Republicans — has tripled since 1982:

Even here there’s news Democrat or Republican loyalists can latch onto.

“As the numbers of independents grow, they take more from the Ds than the Rs,” Sanderoff said, pointing out that 63 percent of New Mexico voters were registered Democrats in 1982; that number dropped to 46.9 percent this year.

Yet at the same time Research & Polling has also produced data showing that among voters age 37 and younger, there are actually more DTS (decline to state)/other voters registered in New Mexico than total Republicans:

So maybe the news isn’t very good for either party.

“Ultimately, the hope for either party is to have leadership that will resonate and turn on young folks,” Sanderoff said. “You saw that for a couple of years where Obama turned them on in 2008 and 2009. You can actually see a blip in the data where Democrats actually stopped declining, but you see where in the midterm election it just dropped off again … I think it’s going to take a sea change before either the Democrats or the Republicans cut into the declines that have actually been occurring.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Ride-sharing compromise may be near in New Mexico

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-07-09 14:38

THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT: Ride-sharing companies use apps from smartphones to attract customers looking to catch a ride.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. — Ride-sharing companies and New Mexico regulators have been locked in a standoff for months, but a potential compromise could come in the space of a couple of weeks.

On Wednesday, the Public Regulation Commission directed its staff to work out a proposal to make rules that would allow companies such as Lyft and Uber to operate in the state as “specialized passenger services.”

“I do believe the commission would have to be careful to craft a rule, but can do it and have authority,” PRC transportation division director Ryan Jerman told the five commissioners, who then directed the staff to come up with language by July 23.

The ride-sharing companies, operating out of Albuquerque and Rio Rancho, have been at odds with the PRC over whether or not they should be licensed and considered like taxi cab services and, therefore, be regulated under the state’s Motor Carrier Act.

Ride-sharing works by allowing customers to download a free smartphone app, which they use to request a ride. The app connects them to the nearest available driver and tracks the length of the trip in distance and time, calculates the cost and automatically transfers the fee from the user’s credit card (already entered into the app at the beginning of the process) to the driver’s account. No cash changes hands.

PRC chairwoman Theresa Becenti-Aguilar indicated during Wednesday’s hearing she would support creating a new rule for ride-sharing.

“I don’t think we can just shut the door on a new kind of business in New Mexico,” she said.

But commissioner Valerie Espinoza, who has said she believes Uber and Lyft are essentially no different from cab companies, said after the meeting she’s skeptical about creating new rules.

“The word ‘specialized’ is not defined,” Espinoza told New Mexico Watchdog. “That’s a legislative fix. You’re going to have everybody come up” and want to be classified as specialized “and it’s going to be a free for all. Our job is to protect the safety of all consumers in the state.”

The PRC filed a cease and desist order on Lyft on May 23, but the company has still been operating while not charging customers. On Wednesday, commissioners refused to withdraw the cease and desist order. Uber is also still operating despite not being licensed by the PRC.

Commissioner Ben Hall brought up the idea of having the state’s Department of Public Safety pull over and issue fines to the drivers of ride-sharing companies. “If you don’t want to be legal, go somewhere else,” Hall said.

A PRC attorney said a meeting with the general counsel at DPS is in the works.

Despite his criticism of Uber and Lyft, Hall told New Mexico Watchdog he’ll keep an open mind when it comes to crafting a possible new rule for ride-sharing.

“If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it may be a duck,” Hall said.

Commissioner Pat Lyons, who has said he wants to spur business in the state, hopes the meeting July 23 can resolve the issue. “I’m always trying to get government to move faster,” he said.

“We need to act quickly on this,” said commissioner Karen Montoya.

Update 2:34 p.m.: Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson released a statement after Wednesday’s PRC meeting that said in part, “today’s decision by the PRC recognizes that with creative thinking, regulations can be revisited to allow new industries to thrive and still maintain the highest level of public safety.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Six bucks a gallon? Where gas prices might be without the U.S. energy boom

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-07-08 11:39

ENERGY EXPLOSION: Boom times in places such as the Bakken Formation in North Dakota has helped the U.S. leapfrog Russia and Saudi Arabia in oil production.

 

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

If you think the price of gas is high, imagine paying up to $6 a gallon.

That’s what energy expert Dan Steffens thinks the price could be if not for the domestic oil boom.

“With what’s going on the Middle East, I think it would five or six bucks (a gallon),” said Steffens, president of the Energy Prospectus Group out of Houston. “If it wasn’t for the shale revolution, you’d be in big trouble.”

Technological breakthroughs in recent years have led to an explosion in the energy industry in the United States.

Extraction from shale rock formations in places such as the Bakken Formation in North Dakota, the Eagle Ford Formation in south Texas and the Permian Basin in west Texas and eastern New Mexico has been so dramatic that, last month, the International Energy Agency announced the U.S. surpassed Russia and even Saudi Arabia in oil production.

A report from the commodities division of Bank of America says daily output in the U.S. exceeded 11 million barrels in the first quarter of this year.

“If we didn’t have the oil industry and oil and drill activity, the economy would be much, much slower,” Joseph Dancy, investment partner at LSGI Advisors, Inc., based in Dallas, told New Mexico Watchdog.

Drivers have been grumbling about the increase in the price at the pump. Here’s a look at the average price per gallon for the Fourth of July in the U.S. since 2008:

But the message from energy experts? It could have been much worse.

Violence in Mideast nations such as Syria, Iraq and Libya, as well as political unrest in the oil-rich nations of Nigeria and Venezuela, might have sent the price of gasoline through the roof. But benchmark U.S. crude was at $104 a barrel Monday and Brent crude, a benchmark for the international market, was down 33 cents last week to $110.91 a barrel in London.

“There’s no question that this his new-found abundance of oil from shale plays is having a significant impact on the global market,” said Bernard Weinstein, associate director at the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University.

“We’d probably be at $150 oil with this thing in Iraq going on,” Steffens said.

“While the situation in Iraq seems to be getting worse, oil prices have actually fallen (in some sectors) because the markets now understand that Iraq could go totally off the market and there’s still plenty of oil going around, not just here in the United States,” Weinstein said. “The world is swimming in oil right now.”

The political irony is that President Obama is a beneficiary of relatively stable gas prices, even though the energy explosion is happening in red states such as North Dakota and Texas, where Obama lost to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 by nearly 20 points and more than 15 points, respectively.

“It’s a wild boom and it’s all generating economic activity for a president who really does not favor the oil and gas sector at all,” Dancy said. “It is really ironic.”

But environmental organizations lament, rather than celebrate, the shale boom because energy producers use hydraulic fracturing — fracking — to get to the oil and natural gas under the earth’s surface.

“We can’t afford to support the extractive industries,” said Eleanor Bravo, senior organizer for Southwest Food and Water Watch. “The earth and the environment cannot afford to be burning any more fuel. Plus, the fracking process, when you count in the amount of methane that escapes during the extraction process, it’s as dirty or dirtier than burning coal.”

But there’s little indication the boom will stop anytime soon.

According to Weinstein’s statistics, there’s been a 60 percent increase in domestic oil production in the past six years, and Dancy cites figures showing global demand increasing 1 percent per year.

“If you look at the amount of refining exports that are going out of the United States, they’re hitting 20- and 30-year highs,” Dancy said.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Transfer federal land to states? NM’s governor open to looking at it

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-07-08 11:35

LAND FIGHT: There’s a movement to transfer public land from the federal government to individual states. Nearly 42 percent of New Mexico is controlled by the federal government.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. — Proponents of transferring multiple-use land in the West from the federal government to individual states say it could generate millions of dollars a year for New Mexico.

Opponents question the numbers and the practicality of such a move.

But Gov. Susana Martinez says it’s at least worth considering and thinks forming a statewide task force is a good idea.

“It’s always better to have more information as to the costs,” Martinez told New Mexico Watchdog last week. “It’s always better to know what it would take. How many jobs would it create?”

Martinez made the remarks just one day after joining Utah Gov. Gary Herbert — a fellow Republican who is a leading advocate for the land transfer proposal — at an economic summit in Albuquerque.

In particular, Martinez said the threat of wildfires in New Mexico brings up questions as to whether the state might do a better job than the feds.

“When you have federal land, especially that’s in the forest and it’s not getting taken care of, and we end up with severe fires because of all of the fuel that’s within the forest, you end up losing homes and you end up losing life and they don’t seem to be interested in maintaining those forests,” Martinez said.

In marked contrast to states in the East, the federal government owns vast amounts of land in the West. In nine states — Alaska, California, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming — the feds own more than 40 percent of the land:

Supporters say they won’t touch national parks, wilderness areas, military installations or tribal land, but they want to see land the federal government has already listed as open for multiple uses.

They point to a study from an economist in Wyoming who estimated transferring multi-purpose land from the feds to New Mexico would lead to the creation of between $600 million and $1 billion in additional tax money simply through additional jobs and production in the oil and natural gas industries.

But critics — led by environmental organizations — dismiss such claims.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said advocates of public land transfers are “prepared to waste millions of taxpayer dollars in their quixotic quest to send the federal government ‘a message.’ ”

John Horning, executive director at WildEarth Guardians New Mexico, has called the idea “laughable.”

“Public lands are a birthright for all Americans,” Horning said when the subject came up last fall. “I think the state is probably in over its head, acquiring federal land and managing it.”

But state Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-Alamogordo, has been trying to create a task force in the New Mexico Legislature to look into the issue.

“Let’s have that dialogue,” Herrell said last September. “Do the risks outweigh the rewards for the state of New Mexico? Clearly, there’s a revenue benefit, but at the end of the day, can we do it? I think, yes. I think it’s worth looking into.”

A bill to set up a task force introduced by Herrell stalled in committee during the most recent legislative session, but Herrell says she plans on introducing it again in the 2015 session.

Here’s New Mexico Watchdog video of Martinez talking about the land transfer issue:

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Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

NM ranching family tells feds: ‘Don’t fence us out’

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Thu, 2014-07-03 08:35

DON’T FENCE US OUT: The Lucero family (from left to right, Orlando, Mike and Manuel) say the U.S. Forest Service is going overboard with a proposed 8-foot-high fence in the Santa Fe National Forest.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE NATIONAL FOREST, N.M. — For more than a century, the Lucero family has grazed livestock in the majestic landscape near Fenton Lake in the Santa Fe National Forest. They started with sheep and, in the 1920s, switched to cattle.

But that may all come to an end because of an endangered mouse.

“You’re taking a lot of heritage away,” said Mike Lucero, as he looks over the creek that cuts through the meadow. He was accompanied by his brother Manuel and cousin Orlando, who have brought their family’s cattle to this spot since they were children.

Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the meadow jumping mouse as an endangered species. Now, the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees the Santa Fe National Forest, is considering erecting a series of 8-foot high fences to protect the mouse’s habitat.

THE MOUSE IN QUESTION: The meadow jumping mouse has recently been listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The Luceros, members of the San Diego Cattleman’s Association and holders of grazing permits with the federal government, say the fences will lock out their cattle — as well as those of other permit holders — from ever returning to the meadow where the livestock graze for 20 days in the spring and up to 40 days in the fall.

“We’re not insensitive to protecting the mouse,” Orlando Lucero said. “But let’s work on something that keeps everyone’s interests in mind.”

Forest Service officials in Albuquerque say no final decision has been made but, at the same time, they are required by law to comply with the Endangered Species Act. Since the meadow jumping mouse is now listed as endangered, the Forest Service is bound to take steps to protect its habitat.

Grazing was listed as one of the “a primary threats” to the mouse, said Robert Trujillo, the acting director of Wildlife, Fish and Rare Plants for the Southwest Region of the U.S. Forest Service.

“It’s been our experience that a fence like that to protect that occupied habitat seems to be the best way we can do our affirmative duty and protect that habitat,” Trujillo said.

But the Luceros say putting up a fence is an example of federal government overkill.

“At first, they were talking about a 300-yard fence on eight feet of either side (of the Rio Cebolla, a creek that feeds the meadow),” Manuel Lucero said. “But you look at the (Forest Service) map now and it goes on for three and a half miles – and that’s just for this allotment.”

FUTURE FENCING SPOT?: The San Antonio Campground is a popular spot for families and outdoor enthusiasts.

In fact, the Forest Service proposal could potentially put up fencing over large swaths of the forest, including the San Antonio Campground, a popular destination for families and outdoors enthusiasts in northern New Mexico.

“The San Antonio area, from what I’ve seen, is in the upper portion of that occupied habitat,” Trujillo said. “It possibly could (be affected) but no decision has been made on that.”

“I don’t think the public realizes the San Antonio Campground is being considered,” Mike Lucero said. “If they did, I think there would be a lot upset people.”

The Luceros complain the Forest Service has not done enough to inform the public about the proposed fencing.

“Let’s protect the mouse but we don’t need to take the whole valley,” Orlando Lucero said.

Trujillo said the Forest Service has just started what it calls its “scoping process” to elicit comments. “No decision will be made without gathering input from affected individuals,” he said.

The meadow jumping mouse has plenty of support among environmentalists.

“Saving the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse and the streamside habitat it needs to survive is long overdue,” said Jay Lininger, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity when the mouse received endangered status. “When we protect this tiny animal, we’re also helping people, because we all rely on clean water for survival.”

Trujillo says the mouse is active three to four months out of the year and spends the rest of its time hibernating.

This is the second time in the space of two months that the meadow jumping mouse has raised hackles among people with grazing permits in the state.

Some 275 miles south, in Otero County, the Forest Service reinforced locked gates to keep out cattle from a creek called the Agua Chiquita to protect the mouse’s habitat. The move angered ranchers who tend over herds thirsty from a prolonged drought.

An attorney for Otero County says the state of New Mexico – not the federal government – has the right to access to the water to the creek and a lawsuit may be in the offing.

While the locked gate in the Otero County controversy keeps out only cattle, the Luceros complain 8-foot fencing in the Forest Service proposal in the Santa Fe Forest would keep out just about all forms of wildlife, including elk.

But the difference, Trujillo said, is that “the elk and deer get in there, get water and get out. They don’t tend to lounge around and graze heavily. Cows will sit in there and graze.”

So when will the feds make a decision? Trujillo said it could range anywhere from 30 days to 8 months, depending on how long the assessments take.

“I want to reiterate, we’re committed to working with our permitees and all other stakeholders to really find where that sweet spot is,” Trujillo said.

But the Lucero family is skeptical.

“I think they’re afraid of getting sued” by environmental organizations, Mike Lucero said.

And if the fence is erected, will the Luceros stop ranching?

“Why would we give it up after four generations?” Orlando Lucero said. “We were here before the (Forest Service), back during land grants. We’re not going to go nowhere.”

Here’s New Mexico Watchdog video of Mike Lucero:

 

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

New Mexico official worries about escapes from immigration facility

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-07-02 12:00

WILL THEY STAY?: The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia will house up to 700 immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally. But the head of the New Mexico Department of Public Safety is worried they’ll try to escape if they lose their immigration hearings.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. – The secretary of New Mexico’s Department of Public Safety has some concerns about a federal Border Patrol training center in southern New Mexico that has been converted into a facility to detain hundreds of immigrants who have entered the United States illegally.

Among the concerns: What’s to keep some detainees from simply climbing over the just-erected 8-foot-high fence should they learn they will not be allowed to stay in the U.S.?

“I worry about people who have taken this remarkable step in their life that has to be borne out of desperation to come to the United States and then they learn that they’re going back to the place that they left,” said DPS Secretary Greg Fouratt. “They might not have the motivation to stick around. How much of that are we going to have to deal with? We have to be prepared.”

Fouratt told New Mexico Watchdog that 193 undocumented immigrants, nearly all from Central America, are expected to he processed by Monday at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, N.M.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Border Patrol plan to house up to 700 women and children under the age of 17 at the facility, which was originally designed to serve as an academy to train border agents.

The FLETC facility is not taking in unaccompanied minors, estimated to number at least 52,000, who in recent weeks and months have flooded across the southern border.

“Some of my concern is allayed because the population going to Artesia right now is, I guess, as docile as it can be,” Fouratt said, adding that DPS is fretting over ancillary costs that state and local governments could be on the hook for as the facility expands in coming weeks.

“We’re worried there might be more crime than what Homeland Security is worried about,” Fouratt said Monday. “And when that happens, we know that Artesia (Police Department) is going to be called first because FLETC is inside the city limits. We also know that Artesia PD is staffed modestly. Eddy County Sherriff’s Office, the same way. The State Police will be batting third, and God only knows how many times we’re going to have to respond … The best we can do is monitor routinely and regularly.”

Calls to public affairs officers at ICE asking for more details about the facility went not returned Monday.

Fouratt, who met with federal officials in Artesia last week and spoke to a security supervisor by telephone Monday, offered more details about the facility:

IMMIGRATION CRISIS: Border officials have been overwhelmed by the number of immigrants crossing into the U.S.

  • DHS is contracting with an outside company to provide security inside the center.
  • Security will work in eight-hour shifts, with each shift consisting of 38 uniformed personnel who will not carry guns. “I was pleased to hear the number was that high,” Fouratt said.
  • The federal official Fouratt spoke to Monday morning said the processing of the immigrants thus far “has gone as smooth as glass.”
  • Children in the facility will receive education services but it won’t start until the school year begins and will be done in conjunction with the Artesia School District. The children will be taught inside the facility itself. No word yet on the cost that will be incurred. “That question, I don’t think they know the answer to and if they do, they didn’t give it to me,” Fouratt said.

While taking local elected officials on a tour of FLETC last week, an ICE official told state Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, that an estimated 90 percent of the immigrants at the facility eventually will be sent back to their home countries.

But Fouratt said he’s worried that those in the facility — officials at FLETC are calling referring to them as “residents” rather than detainees — who come before an immigration judge and are told they will be deported simply will try to escape by climbing the chain-link fence that surround their living quarters.

“Believe me, if there starts to be an epidemic of people who are going AWOL from FLETC, we’re not going to stay quiet about it because that’s going to be a problem for people,” Fouratt said.

Last week, federal officials said they expect the immigration facility will be open for six-12 months. But the mayors of Artesia and nearby Roswell told New Mexico Watchdog they suspect the facility will process immigrants longer than that.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

New Mexico shoots down drones for hunting

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-06-27 10:58

DRONES GET GROUNDED: New Mexico’s Game Commission unanimously approved a proposal banning drones to help hunters track down big game.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE— New Mexico is a no-drone zone.

Thursday, the state Game Commission, in a 5-1 vote, passed “a prohibition against the use drones to harass wildlife and a prohibition against using drones to take or assist in hunting protected wildlife.”

“It was a growing problem,” Bill Montoya, the vice chairman of the commission, told New Mexico Watchdog.

Under the new rule, “drones can’t be used for looking for game, locating it, seeing where they are,” Montoya said. “We’ve got what we call fair chase, and I think we’re getting to the point where using drones and so forth doesn’t give the animals a chance. It’s not sportsmanlike.”

Using drones for hunting may not be widely used, but hunters in New Mexico say they’re seeing it more often.

Oscar Simpson, of the New Mexico chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, points to one example from fall 2013, when which a trophy bull elk was taken down by hunters using drones in the Cruces Basin Wilderness, near the Colorado border.

“A guy used a remote-controlled drone to move a big bull elk down to where they were and shot it,” Simpson said. “Three accounts of that happened in New Mexico … They’re harassing animals and it’s not fair chase.”

Under the prohibition, hunters caught with drones face fines ranging from $50 to $500 dollars but can risk getting their license revoked and getting vehicles and weapons confiscated as well, depending on the severity of the infraction.

For those who may try to skirt the law, field colonel Robert Griego of the New Mexico Game and Fish Deparetment said, “Be careful. We have lots of sportsmen who believe very strongly in fair chase and they’ll report ‘em.”

“It’s hard to regulate the technology, but this is a very good idea,” Simpson said.

New Mexico now becomes the fourth state in the nation to ban drones for hunting, joining Alaska, Colorado and Montana.

Just last week, officials at the National Park Service sent a policy memorandum to its 401 park superintendents banning the launching, landing or operation of unmanned aircraft. The move was partly inspired after volunteers at Zion National Park in Utah saw a group of people using a drone to buzz desert bighorn sheep, causing younger sheep to get separated from their herd.

“It began a few years ago and it had been growing, so we just don’t want to see it be used as an everyday thing when you’re hunting,” Montoya said.

Click here to read the provisions of the ban New Mexico passed Thursday.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Ride-sharing companies fight New Mexico regulators

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Thu, 2014-06-26 05:55

IN NO MOOD TO SHARE: The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission insists that ride-sharing outfits like Lyft must follow the state’s Motor Carrier Law.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — It’s called ride-sharing, a way to catch a ride using 21st century technology, embraced by millennials and free-market advocates as efficient and entrepreneurial, but regulators in New Mexico aren’t jumping on board.

On Wednesday, the state Public Regulation Commission voted 3-2 to deny a request from a company connected to one of the largest ride-sharing outfits in the nation, Uber, for a certificate to provide “specialized passenger service.”

The move comes a little more than a month after the PRC issued a cease and desist order against Lyft, which is trying to establish a presence in the Albuquerque market.

The fight centers on whether companies like Uber and Lyft essentially offer the same services as taxis or vans. The ride-sharing companies say they’re fundamentally different, but a majority of the commissioners insist they should be regulated under the Motor Carrier Act.

“We’re not exactly a taxi service,” said Paul Melendres, an attorney for a company named Hinter-NM for its UberX program, to PRC commissioners. “We don’t own the vehicles. (Customers) don’t stand in a taxi line, you don’t hail us.”

But commissioners Ben Hall, Valerie Espinoza and Theresa Becenti-Aguilar were unmoved and denied the certificate.

“Quit skirting the law,” Espinoza told Melendres.

Ride-sharing works by allowing customers to download a free smartphone app, which they use to request a ride.

The app connects them to the nearest available driver and tracks the length of the trip in distance and time, calculates the cost and automatically transfers the fee from the user’s credit card (already entered into the app at the beginning of the process) to the driver’s account. No cash changes hands.

Lyft spokeswoman Katie Dally said Lyft drivers work their own schedules and use their own personal vehicles and are properly vetted, licensed and insured.

“Trying to regulate a ride-sharing service like Lyft as if it were a taxi service is trying to put a square peg into a round hole,” said Dally in a telephone interview from San Francisco.

Ride-sharing fans accuse cab companies in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco as trying to wield influence to snuff out competition. Earlier this month, the Department of Motor Vehicles department in Virginia fined Uber and Lyft for not having “proper operating authority” to do business in the state.

“Regulations are meant to protect consumers, not create a mythical ‘level playing field,’ “said Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Albuquerque. “If taxis aren’t competitive with Lyft and Uber, then the obvious thing to do is reform regulations to help them compete, not to force Lyft and Uber to adhere to onerous regulations.”

For now, the majority of New Mexico’s regulation commission disagrees.

“As a commissioner, I welcome anybody who wants to come in and compete against somebody else as long as they’re doing it legal,” Hall told New Mexico Watchdog after Wednesday’s meeting. “If they don’t want to do it legal, then they’re not welcome here as far as I’m concerned.”

Commissioner Pat Lyons, joined by Karen Montoya, voted the other way.

“I wouldn’t mind giving them a temporary service, a temporary solution,” Lyons said. “The people seem to want this. It’s a new, innovative system.”

The issue isn’t over, though. PRC staff is looking into adjusting its rules to accommodate ride-sharing companies, but it’s also considering stricter enforcement measures against Lyft and Uber.

Lyons said ultimately the state Legislature needs to hammer out a statute for ride-sharing companies. “Competition is good,” Lyons said. “Let’s create jobs.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Questions surround NM immigration detention center; “They should incur all costs,” governor says

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-06-24 15:56

YOUNG DETAINEES: As many as 700 children and parents are about to be processed at a detention center in Artesia, N.M.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — Trying to stem a tide of thousands of undocumented immigrants, as many of 50,000 of them children, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is about to convert a training center for the U.S. Border Patrol in the southern New Mexico town of Artesia into a detention center.

But Gov. Susana Martinez said Tuesday morning she’s concerned about a host of questions, ranging from how the children and their families will be cared for to making sure state and local agencies aren’t stuck picking up part of the bill.

“It is a federal facility and it’s their facility so they should incur all costs,” Martinez told New Mexico Watchdog. “But at the same time, we’re not going to leave a child hungry or without medication because of the failed (immigration) policy in Washington. We’re just not going to do that.”

Elected officials across the state are still getting answers about the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, which is being converted to house as many as 700 immigrants, nearly all of them from Central America.

Officials from the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and FLETC met with state and local officials at the training center Monday and Tuesday.

Dennis Kintigh, the mayor of Roswell, located 41 miles from Artesia and just eight miles from the county line, was among those at Tuesday’s meeting and told New Mexico Watchdog what was shared by federal officials:

TRANSITION: The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia is expected to start taking in immigrant families who entered the U.S. illegally as early as Thursday or Friday.

*The facility will not be taking unaccompanied minors

*Families may be entering the facility as early as Thursday or Friday, with officials expecting as many as 50 individuals being housed at first

*Federal officials expect the facility, made up of 20 family units, to be open for 6-12 months. “I think it’s going to go longer than that, though,” Kintigh said.

*Immigrants will be coming in and out on a rotating basis, with new arrivals replacing those who are processed out of the facility. The average processing time will be 30 days.

*The immigrants will be housed in modular dormitories that are already on site

*Kintigh said federal officials told state and local representatives the facility will house “only the lowest-level risk” immigrants. “They’re not going to be gang-bangers, they said,” Kintigh said, “although they will be sending up to 17-year-old males with a mother.”

*Chain-link fences are being constructed around the dormitories, but there will be no wires atop the fences

*Training around the facility will continue for those enrolled in the Border Patrol academy

“My concerns were more from a law enforcement perspective than about (immigration) policy,” Kintigh said. “Before this meeting, there was no coordination with law enforcement in our area or with Chaves County.”

“My main concern is, we have children who are a very young age being held in immigration camps where children don’t belong,” Martinez said, adding, “That facility is meant to keep people out, not to keep them in.”

New Mexico Watchdog emailed a list of questions to the public affairs office at DHS Tuesday afternoon. We received a fact sheet (click here to view), but the response didn’t answer questions about financial concerns or specific safety questions about the converted facility.

Rep. Bill Gray, R-Artesia, said he was impressed by the federal officials at Tuesday’s meeting. “I felt they were very honest with us,” Gray said. “I don’t know if I’m feeling better about it because there’s not much we can do about it.”

But Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, said, “I have plenty of concerns.”

Ezzell said an ICE official at Tuesday’s meeting estimated that 90 percent of those sent to the facility will eventually be sent back to their country of origin.

“But that means 10 percent will be given asylum,” Ezzell said. “Unless we see a change in our immigration policy, I can see this going on forever … We can’t take care of our veterans, we can’t take care of our elders, we can’t take care of people who can’t help themselves and I am very bothered by this.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

A Great Green Boondoggle? Retired Navy pilot says biofuels waste millions

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-06-24 10:50

GAMBLING ON BIOFUELS: The U.S. Navy is spending millions to use biofuels to power its fleet. But a former Navy pilot with a degree in physics says it’s a waste of money and endangers national security. Photo by the U.S. Navy.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

The U.S. Navy boasts that it’s well on its way to creating a “Great Green Fleet” powered by biofuels.

But a recently retired Navy captain is making waves of his own, saying the project is a complete waste of taxpayer money and that politics is trumping national security.

“I don’t want to see us throwing away billions of dollars, and we’re doing it in a vain pursuit of something that is indefensible,” said T.A. “Ike” Kiefer, an Annapolis graduate who majored in physics. He’s a 25-year Navy pilot with a master’s degree in strategy from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.

“We really have to think this through and not rely on feel-good assumptions,” Kiefer said in a telephone interview with Watchdog.org from his home in Mississippi.

In an 86-page academic paper he takes dead aim at cultivated crop-based liquid biofuels such as algae, biodiesel and corn ethanol. The provacative title: “Twenty-First Century Snake Oil: Why the United States Should Reject Biofuels as Part of a Rational National Security Energy Strategy.”

The Navy has made biofuels the centerpiece of its commitment to get 50 percent of its energy from alternative sources by 2020.

In an interview four years ago, Deputy Assistant Secretary to the Navy (Energy) Tom Hicks said the newly dubbed “Great Green Fleet” would include a strike group run completely on alternative fuels by 2016.

But Kiefer insists biofuels can’t get the Navy where it wants to go.

Kiefer says biofuels can’t generate enough of an economic return on investment to justify the expense. Biofuels, Kiefer’s study says, lack power density, and that limitation can only be overcome by using such vast amounts of land that it becomes counterproductive.

BIOFUEL CRITIC: Todd “Ike” Kiefer wrote an 86-page paper claiming that millions of dollars are wasted on biofuel programs.

“The assumptions that somehow biofuels can remove dependence on foreign resources turns out not only to be false but inverted,” Kiefer said. “It actually makes you more dependent and more vulnerable.”

Kiefer’s paper came out 1 1/2 years ago but, he said, the Navy delayed it from publication and never directly contacted him about his findings. “That was a conversation I was hoping for, but it never happened,” Kiefer said.

The Department of Defense and the Department of Energy offered rebuttals.

DOD said Kiefer’s paper “has been tailored with literatures with negative points of views and results for biofuels” and said Kiefer’s critique of high fuel costs dismisses the potential for technological breakthroughs.

“If one uses the status quo to decide what society should or should not do, many technology innovations and civilization advancements would not have occurred.” the DOD response said.

There’s no debate government is spending a lot of money.

Since 2007, the military has spent $67.8 million on 1.35 million gallons of biofuel, averaging more than $50 a gallon or $2,100 a barrel. Kiefer says that cost taxpayers $60 million more than if conventional fuel was purchased.

Citing figures from the Energy Information Agency, Kiefer says the federal government is paying more than $10 a barrel in biofuel subsidies and, according to the Department of Energy’s own numbers, it pumped $603 million into biofuel refinery construction in 2010 alone, as part of a $7.8 billon in annual biofuel spending.

All this is coming, Kiefer writes, “while scores of failed bio-refineries are on the market today in bankruptcy fire sales.”

It’s not just the Navy that’s entranced by the allure of biofuels.

A glance across the country shows nearly every state has biofuel regulations, incentives and grants.

In New Mexico, for example, the state provides a blending tax credit for producers of biodiesel.

“Biodiesel is a superb fuel if it’s made correctly,” Colin Messer, Clean Energy Program Manager at the New Mexico Energy Minerals and Natural Resources Department, told New Mexico Watchdog.

Corn ethanol subsidies flourish for states in the Midwest, and the Obama administration has awarded contracts worth $16 million to three biofuel plants in Illinois, Nebraska and California.

But Kiefer says those programs are also throwing good money after bad.

“There’s this feel-good perception of what biofuels are,” he said. “But if your biofuel, when you actually trace out all its component ingredients, and all the energy that went into making it and it turns out that 50 to 90 percent of the energy in that gallon of biofuel in the end is fossil fuel energy, then you really don’t have a green fuel, a clean fuel or a renewable fuel.”

Kiefer’s paper includes a chart showing the cost of government subsidies for various biofuels and alternative energy sources vastly outweighs the subsidies of conventional energy sources such as coal, oil and natural gas:

Kiefer isn’t against investing in alternative energy. For example, he advises the military to offer monetary incentives for achieving milestones in more promising fields, such as direct fuel photosynthesis and improved PV solar panel performance. “Solar panels can do much better than algae can ever do,” Kiefer said.

It should be noted that Kiefer is not alone with his criticism of the military’s biofuel program.

In 2011, a study initiated by Congress by the Rand Corporation concluded, “There is no direct benefit to the Department of Defense or the services from using alternative fuels rather than petroleum-derived fuels.”

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a big fan of the program, said he “vehemently” disagreed with the report.

A year later, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took his own shot at Mabus, saying in a letter, “You are the Secretary of the Navy, not the Secretary of Energy.”

As for Kiefer, 48, he retired in June of 2013 and now works as a manager at a power company in Meridian, Miss. He may not be on active duty anymore, but he believes the Navy’s alternative energy program is not only wasteful but endangers the fleet.

“It’s a recipe for unrest and disaster,” Kiefer said. “We need a sanity check.”

Read Kiefer’s paper by clicking here.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

More controversy for a New Mexico town that thrives on it UPDATE: Judge sets Aug. 12 hearing date on disputed election

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-06-23 09:26

IT LOOKS QUIET ENOUGH: The town of Sunland Park, N.M., is once again at the center of a political controversy.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

When you think about political mischief in New Mexico, the border town of Sunland Park springs right to mind.

After all, it’s the place where a mayor once said an agreement he signed should be voided because he was too drunk at the time to know what he was doing.

And home to a recent voter fraud conviction as well as charges of extortion and prostitution.

Now, another fracas has broken out with a longtime member of the state Legislature claiming she lost a close re-election race because of what she alleges are questionable absentee ballots that came from Sunland Park.

“Right now, we’re just diligently trying to collect the facts of what occurred during absentee balloting down in Sunland Park,” Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Las Cruces told the Las Cruces Sun-News of the legal papers she filed in district court for a recount in the Democratic Party primary she lost by just 16 votes to Bealquin “Bill” Gomez.

According to Doña Ana County Bureau of Elections figures, Gomez won an overwhelming number of absentee votes in the June 3 primary. Gomez finished with 88 absentee votes, compared to just 15 for Garcia. A third Democrat, Christian Lira, received just one absentee vote and finished in a distant third place overall.

The secretary of state’s office, which oversees statewide elections, confirmed to New Mexico Watchdog it’s investigating a complaint filed about the House District 34 election. “The Office of the Secretary of State is conducting an investigation into the issues raised in that complaint,” spokesman Ken Ortiz said in an email, but didn’t offer any more specifics.

“I think it’s a bunch of bull,” Gomez said of Garcia’s challenge. “I got the most votes and that’s the way it goes … I think she’s a sore loser … I ran a clean campaign. I won and that’s the way life is.”

But Garcia isn’t the only candidate complaining about absentee ballots coming from Sunland Park.

Merrie Lee Soules also lost a close race in the Democratic primary — by 137 votes — to Sandy Jones for the Public Regulation Commission in District 5, which covers the southwest part of the state.

Although Soules said she hasn’t made up her mind whether to file for a recount, she is questioning what she says is an inordinate number of absentee votes from the Sunland Park area that went against her.

“Yes, there are some questions,” Soules told New Mexico Watchdog in a brief phone interview Friday. Soules didn’t give more specifics, saying she preferred to wait until she made a decision on filing for a recount.

JUST 16 VOTES: Incumbent state Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Dona Ana County, alleges that suspicious absentee ballots helped put challenger Bill Gomez over the top in their Democratic primary election June 3.

Garcia’s challenge is before 3rd Judicial District Court Judge Jim Martin, who has not set a date for the recount.

While Garcia lost by just 16 votes, the margin was not small enough to trigger an automatic, state-mandated recount. For that to happen, a race must be decided by 0.5 percent or less. The margin between Gomez and Garcia in the House District 34 race was 1.8 percent.

As a result, Garcia has to pick up the cost of the recount, which is estimated to be about $2,000 to $3,000. Should Garcia eventually win the race, the county will pick up the tab.

Gomez said voters simply preferred him over Garcia, who has served in the Legislature for 17 years, and said he’s confident his edge in absentee ballots will hold up.

“She’s complaining about the signatures,” Gomez said. “How does she know? Does she have a handwriting expert? I hear she and her people are harassing voters in Sunland Park. That just makes voters upset and less likely to vote.”

Update 9:12 p.m.: Judge Martin set an Aug. 12 hearing date to hear arguments over the dispute election results.  On Monday night, Garcia told New Mexico Watchdog that she will not call for a recount but will try to toss out a number of absentee ballots she claims are invalid. “That’s what we’re zeroing in on,” she said in a telephone interview. Garcia said she has hired a forensic handwriting expert to back up her claims. “There has to be integrity in our elections,” she said.

Garcia chastised Sunland Park city council members after a series of chaotic meetings at city hall in 2011 and called for the state to take over the city government — something the state eventually did in 2012.

This latest controversy is the just the latest in a string of scandals for the town of 20,000 that’s located just north of the Mexican border and west of the Texas state line:

*In August 2011, then-mayor Martin Resendiz admitted in a deposition he was drunk when he signed nine contracts with a California firm that sued the city government for not paying for services rendered.

*In February 2012, extortion charges were filed against a mayoral candidate who allegedly tried to blackmail an opponent who was shown receiving a lap dance from a topless woman on videotape. Daniel Salinas — the alleged blackmailer — defeated Gerardo Hernandez — the lap dance recipient — in city elections, but couldn’t assume office because the charges against him stipulated he couldn’t step foot into city hall.

*Later in 2012, Salinas and city manager Jaime Aguilera entered the equivalent of not guilty pleas to extortion charges.

*In May 2012, State Auditor Hector Balderas said his office confirmed that Salinas spent more than $42,000 from the city’s Border Crossing Fund to “pay for prostitutes for Salinas and the City’s former public information officer, Arturo Alba, during a trip to Mexico.”

*In March 2013, former city employee Silvia Gomez admitted to multiple charges of voter fraud for inducing non-residents to vote in the 2012 Sunland Park elections, which were marred by allegations of voter tampering.

*Salinas is still awaiting trial on multiple charges that include bribery, extortion and receiving illegal kickbacks.

After spending two years and hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to help run Sunland Park’s dysfunctional city government, the Department of Finance and Administration on June 5 returned complete control of the city’s management to Sunland Park officials.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

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