By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
Call it “Logo-gate.”
Or simply another example of how overly litigious our society has become.
But the fuss over the mascots at Oklahoma State University and New Mexico State University seems to have catalyzed on a pennant selling for $26.98 at the NMSU bookstore.
Earlier this week, a Tulsa law firm representing the Board of Regents for Oklahoma State filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against NMSU, claiming damages stemming from NMSU’s use of an old cowboy logo that NMSU Aggie sports teams used to display.
The lawsuit also calls on NMSU to “deliver up all products, printed materials, signage, and other articles in possession” bearing the logo to be “destroyed.” Plus, NMSU must make an accounting to Oklahoma State of “all profits derived” from the use of the old logo.
“We were surprised that OSU took this step,” NMSU said a statement released Monday, saying school officials are “confident that good sense will prevail.”
Oklahoma State — whose sports teams are nicknamed the Cowboys — has long employed a logo of a craggy and cranky-looking cowpoke armed with a six-shooter nicknamed Pistol Pete.
New Mexico State used to employ a logo that was virtually identical:
But nine years ago, NMSU changed its logo to a cowboy with a lasso:
Aggies fans didn’t like the logo very much so it was altered to have the cowboy armed with a couple of pistols:
OK, so what’s the big deal? The updated NMSU logos look nothing like the OK State logo. So why the lawsuit?
Because New Mexico State is apparently using the old logo to sell some merchandise.
OSU spokesman Gary Shutt sent New Mexico Watchdog a photo that was snapped at the NMSU campus Barnes & Noble of some pennants featuring the old logo, accompanied by script reading, “Classic Aggie”:
Oklahoma State objects to “however (the old logo is) being used in the Classic Aggie collection,” Shutt said.
“Whether that’s on pennants or shirts and things. Clearly, it’s related to the old school Pistol Pete.”
Shutt said he didn’t know when the photo was taken or who took it.
NMSU spokesman Justin Bannister confirmed to New Mexico Watchdog the “Classic Aggie” pennants have been sold at the bookstore and, as of Wednesday, were still on the shelves.
“We’re hoping we can resolve this soon,” Bannister said.
OK, maybe NMSU should get rid of all merchandise featuring the old cowboy logo.
But does this dustup merit the trouble, publicity and expense of filing a lawsuit?
The eight-page legal document submitted Monday accuses NMSU of “causing irreparable injury and damage” to Oklahoma State.
Really? Even in the unlikely event that NMSU has sold 100 Classic Aggie pennants this school year, at $26.98 a pennant that comes to $2,698. One would think that attorneys fees to merely write and file the lawsuit would roughly equal that.
And speaking of attorneys, New Mexico Watchdog confirmed Thursday that lawyers enlisted by the OSU Board of Regents are not from the school’s general counsel but from an outside firm in Tulsa. And the firm is not taking the case on a contingency fee basis. Since Oklahoma State is a state university, that means Oklahoma taxpayers are picking up the tab.
That is, unless, New Mexico taxpayers pick up the legal fees incurred, as the OSU lawsuit is calling for.
Even an Oklahoma state representative has his misgivings.
“If the state of Oklahoma were to spend more money (on the lawsuit) than we received based on the fact that we’ve got that unique logo, it would be a total waste of taxpayer dollars,” state Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, told New Mexico Watchdog on Thursday during a brief telephone interview. “So until we find out how much money we made off of that (merchandise), I don’t know why in the world we would want to stop anyone from using it.”
“I don’t have an answer on how much money this will cost” NMSU in legal fees to defend itself in the legal case, Bannister said.
The story has been picked up by media outlets in New Mexico and Oklahoma as well as a host of national sports websites.
Judging from some of the online comments, Oklahoma State officials are catching some heat and being accused of heavy-handedness.
“Just a large university trying rob a smaller one. who cares that they look alike just play ball & let the mascot fiasco rest,” one commenter on the Yahoo! Sports website posted.
“Hopefully, all of this will get settled fairly soon and this won’t be an issue any longer,” Shutt said. “I think that’s what both Oklahoma State and New Mexico State are hoping.”
Click here to read the lawsuit filed in the western district of Oklahoma.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
Two years ago, some voters in the third-largest city in New Mexico, Rio Rancho. had to endure waits of more than five hours on Election Day in a community where a lopsided number of voters are Republicans. The GOP accused Democrats in the county clerk’s office of intentionally trying to suppress the Republican vote.
At the same time, the Otero County clerk called in sheriff’s deputies into the southern New Mexico town of Chaparral after voters overwhelmed poll workers during the evening of the 2012 General Election in a precinct that’s majority Democrat. That incident led to allegations from Democrats of voter intimidation.
Will Election Day 2014 avoid similar incidents?
The newly elected county clerks in each respective area say there will be no rerun.
“As far as having confidence, I do,” said Denise Guerra, a Republican who succeeded fellow Republican Robin Holmes as Otero County clerk in January 2013.
“As far as I can see, it’s not going to happen again,” said Sandoval County Clerk Eileen Garbagni, a Democrat. “Everywhere you turn there will be a voting place.”
The Rio Rancho incident was well documented, with Albuquerque TV stations showing long lines of frustrated voters, some of whom had to wait until nearly midnight to cast ballots.
“We should not have a line,” Garbagni told New Mexico Watchdog. “It’s not going to be like it was in 2012, I can assure you of that.”
Two Republican hopefuls in the Legislature lost close races and GOP officials accused then-Sandoval County Clerk Sally Padilla, a Democrat, of purposely placing too many voting centers in areas of the county dominated by Democrats while not putting enough in Rio Rancho, where 80 percent of the county’s Republicans live.
“We did it right,” Padilla insisted in the election’s aftermath, but a lawsuit filed by the two defeated GOP candidates and an angry Rio Rancho voter ended up in federal court.
Last month, U.S. District Court Judge William “Chip” Johnson sided with the plaintiffs, calling the 2012 election in Rio Rancho “a debacle” and “a complete disaster.”
In blunt language rarely seen from the bench, Johnson excoriated Padilla, then-deputy county clerk Garbagni and county elections bureau director Eddie Gutierrez and declared, “It is clear that the intentional actions of those in charge of the 2012 Election led to the long voter lines which resulted in the disenfranchisement of voters.”
Click here to read the judge’s 22-page ruling.
Johnson issued an injunction ordering the Sandoval County clerk to establish 17 voting convenience centers in Rio Rancho for this year’s election.
Garbagni said she had already decided to put 17 convenience centers in Rio Rancho before the judge issued his ruling.
Nonetheless, Garbagni’s office appealed the judge’s order, but lost in the 10th Circuit Court. Undeterred, the clerk’s office filed another appeal, only to be rebuffed again Monday.
If the county has already agreed to install 17 voting convenience centers in Rio Rancho, why appeal?
Garbagni said she couldn’t comment beyond what she said in a news release issued last week.
In it, Garbagni said, “If we didn’t fight this injunction, it could set the stage for the federal government to insert itself into any election in any county in New Mexico,” adding that the New Mexico Association of Counties support the appeal.
Garbagni also worried the judge’s order could lead to county taxpayers picking up the tab for attorney’s fees that “would likely be in the six-figure range.”
Republicans in Rio Rancho aren’t buying it.
“My question to (Garbagni) is, how much is the lawyers that were hired outside of the county costing to appeal this,” said Charlie Christmann, chairman of the Republican Party of Sandoval County. “I don’t know what these outside lawyers are charging them, but it’s got to be a lot of money … I think they’re throwing good money after bad at this point.”
Rio Rancho has been here before.
In Johnson’s ruling, Padilla testified there have been long lines in Rio Rancho “many, many times” in the past and a three-to-four hour wait was “the norm” prior to 2012.
“Our goal is to make sure all voters — Republicans, Democrats, independents and myriad other minor parties in Rio Rancho — should have access without having to stand for hours in line to get to the ballot box,” Christmann said.
“The election should go very, very well for us,” Garbagni said. “If anything, there’s going to be an overkill … I pray to God everything goes well.”
The 2012 election-night controversy in Chaparral didn’t receive the attention the Rio Rancho incident garnered, but the feelings are almost as raw.
“I’m not confident things have been taken care of,” said state Rep. Nate Cote, D-Organ, who in the past has called for Otero County officials to place an early voting center in Chaparral, a town of about 15,000. “But I am confident things will go a little smoother because there will be fewer people voting” because 2014 is a midterm election while 2012 was a presidential election year.
To address the issues from the 2012 flap, Guerra told New Mexico Watchdog her office will bring in a mobile voting center to Chaparral on Nov. 1, three days before Election Day. The center will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“I’ve always been confident in my election workers,” Guerra said in a telephone interview. Guerra said she’ll have two additional employees in Chaparral to help out and thinks the mobile voting center will alleviate some of the burden on Election Day.
Cote remains skeptical.
“One early voting mobile van down there with that population is just not going to do it,” he said.
What exactly happened on election night in 2012 in Chaparral is in dispute.
Describing the crowd as “unruly,” Holmes called the county sheriff’s office. Democrats accused Holmes of overreacting and said the police presence — complete with crime scene tape — intimidated some voters. “People were not unruly at all,” Cote said, adding people were irritated after they “waited in line three or four hours to vote.”
Guerra, who was chief deputy clerk in 2012, said “there was a lot of chaos” she said was fueled in part by candidates registering people to vote using provisional ballots “knowing that their ballot wouldn’t count.” Guerra denied claims there were no Spanish translators available.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
State taxpayers have already kicked in $218.5 million to build Spaceport America, the commercial space venture in southern New Mexico that is still waiting for its anchor tenant Virgin Galactic to launch its first flight into suborbital space.
But federal taxpayer money?
That’s never really been on the table.
Both the Democrat and Republican in the race for U.S. House of Representatives in New Mexico’s Second Congressional District say they support the idea of federal funding going to the project.
At a debate on statewide television last week, moderator and former ABC News correspondent Sam Donaldson asked incumbent Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., and challenger Roxanne Lara, “Would you pursue and approve of federal funding … for the Spaceport?”
Pearce said he “would be glad to support it” and Lara said the Spaceport “needs a good plan that’s going forward and the federal funding can be a part and a piece of that.”
Here’s the entire exchange from the debate aired at the KRWG-TV studios in Las Cruces:
Located in a desert just west of the White Sands Missile Range, Spaceport America receives “a little direct” federal funding, Spaceport executive director Christine Anderson told New Mexico Watchdog, but the numbers are small in comparison to the project’s overall budgeting and sunk costs.
The direct funding comes to about $500,000 in grants from the Federal Aviation Administration for things like advanced weather operations systems and infrastructure improvements.
Some indirect funding comes from the NASA Flight Opportunities Program, designed to promote suborbital commercial flight. However, the NASA money didn’t go to Spaceport America but to one of the facility’s customers, UP Aerospace, a private spaceflight firm based in Denver.
Anderson said the Spaceport Authority hasn’t actively pursued federal funding outside of the grants they’ve received. “We don’t have any plans to do that,” she said. “We’re a commercial spaceport and we’re trying to earn revenue through our launch tenants.”
Spaceport America had its grand opening in 2011, with billionaire Richard Branson showing off his flair for promotion by rappelling down the façade of the facility’s main building.
Branson is the CEO of Virgin Galactic, the anchor tenant for Spaceport that’s signed up well-heeled customers and celebrities to pay up to $250,000 to launch into suborbital space in what supporters say will be the first step in a burgeoning future for space tourism and travel.
Branson originally expected to lift off from New Mexico in 2012, but has repeatedly pushed back the launch date as his company’s officials work out the daunting engineering issues involved in the project. Last month, Branson told David Letterman he’s expecting the first launch in “February or March of next year.”
The prospect of federal funding for Spaceport doesn’t sit well with Paul Gessing, the president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Albuquerque.
“Spaceport America has been open for three years now,” Gessing said in an email. “New Mexico taxpayers have spent more than $200 million on this project to date with none of the promised ‘space tourism’ activity…While this has been a costly and unfortunate boondoggle, it would be even more unfortunate if the federal government started funding spaceports in New Mexico and around the nation as Rep. Pearce and candidate Lara apparently desire.”
Virgin Galactic isn’t the only tenant or customer at Spaceport.
And SpaceX, a space transport venture fronted by billionaire Elon Musk, has spent $2 million in infrastructure improvements at Spaceport as SpaceX develops its Falcon 9R rocket, a reuseable design that launches and then lands back on Earth.
Yet Virgin Galactic is in many ways the face of Spaceport. Under the terms of its lease, the company will pay between $25,000-$75,000 to the state for each flight that takes off. That money doesn’t start flowing until launches begin.
“Ironically, while discussions of ‘inequality’ remain hot topics, New Mexico’s spaceport exacerbates it by taxing the citizens of one of the poorest states in the nation for the benefit of a foreign billionaire, Richard Branson, and millionaire celebrities like Ashton Kutcher, Paris Hilton, and Justin Bieber, who are spending $250,000 for a few minutes in space,” Gessing said.
“We’re acting like a commercial entity,” Anderson said. “Rather than having a handout for more state money, we’re thrilled with what we have gotten. That was very generous of the state (to fund Spaceport). We’re trying to make the Spaceport a big success in terms of jobs for the state of New Mexico so we’re tying to be self-supporting and trying to earn it like any other commercial enterprise.”
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE — The accusation is a blunt one: That ranchers who hold permits from the federal government to graze their cattle on public land are little more than welfare recipients. The response is just as blunt: Like hell we are.
The argument has kicked around the West for years, and it’s come into sharper focus in recent months as ranchers in parts of northern and southern New Mexico have clashed with environmentalists over the recent listing of a critter most people in the Land of Enchantment have never even seen — the meadow jumping mouse.
In June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the mouse — which can hop up to three feet from its hind legs — on the endangered list. That has prompted the U.S. Forest Service to reinforce a gate along the Agua Chiquita in Otero County and erect barbed-wire fencing near the Rio Cebolla creek in the Santa Fe National Forest to keep cattle from damaging the mouse’s habitat.
“The livestock industry has enjoyed special treatment from the federal government for so long that our streams have been trampled to death,” Bryan Bird, program director at WildEarth Guardians, said earlier this month when his group filed a lawsuit just before the fencing was constructed.
Bird’s comment echoes a long-running complaint environmentalists have about grazing fees on public lands.
They say ranchers have been getting a sweetheart deal from the government for too long, pointing to fees charged by the entities such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service charging $1.35 a month for what’s called “Animal Unit Months,” compared to an estimated $16-$20 a month on private land.
“Ranchers have benefitted from a whole suite of subsidies. I used to call them welfare queens,” John Horning, the executive director of WildEarth Guardians-NewMexico, told New Mexico Watchdog in an interview in July. “I don’t really care if it’s welfare because the bigger issue for me is not that (taxpayers) subsidize it, but that we allow the activity to degrade so many valuable things.”
But cattle growers push back just as forcefully.
“It couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association. “And it’s a tired old argument.”
Cowan says the price difference between grazing fees is misleading because ranchers have to pick up the costs for things such as managing and fencing their allotments, supplying their herds with water and absorbing any losses due to death and attacks by predators that aren’t usually incurred when grazing on private property.
“It’s kind of like you renting a house in Albuquerque that has all the amenities,” Cowan said. “It’s furnished, you’ve got electricity, all the utilities are done.” But grazing on public lands is like “renting a house that’s totally vacant, has no amenities … and anyone can come through your house and use the bathroom anytime they want … The price is low until you look at the amenities that don’t go with it.”
But Horning counters the pricing formula for grazing on public land has essentially been frozen by the executive order since 1986 when Ronald Reagan was president.
“The grazing fee today is the same as it was 30 years ago,” Horning said. “Name one commodity or one resource that you can extract today for the same fee you could 30 years ago.”
But for ranchers like Mike Lucero, grazing cattle along the Rio Cebolla is something his family has done for generations, going back to the time of land grants in New Mexico, predating the existence of the U.S. Forest Service.
“This is my family and ancestors’ heritage,” said Lucero, a member of the San Diego Cattleman’s Association.
Unique to states such as New Mexico, land grants were awarded to settlers by the Spanish government during colonial times. Under the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the U.S. government pledged to honor the grants, but property disputes have persisted in the Southwest ever since.
“I totally agree, there is a discounted rate involved,” Lucero told New Mexico Watchdog this summer. “But when that used to be a land grant, that wasn’t federal land at all. So you’re telling me I don’t have a right to get a discount when it was taken away from my ancestors to begin with? Everyone knows land grants are for the people in those communities to make a living off of.”
Ranchers at the Rio Cebolla say their cattle only use the meadow for four-five weeks in the fall and one-two weeks in the spring. They insist they keep the area in excellent shape.
But environmental groups say the habitat for the meadow jumping mouse has been systematically degraded in New Mexico, as well as Arizona and Colorado.
“We are asking the Forest Service to keep cows out of 1 percent of public lands that have streams and rivers,” Bird said. “The livestock industry needs stop kicking and screaming and cooperate to ensure clean water and healthy wildlife.”
“Ranchers are responsible for the stewardship of their land,” said Cowan. “Recreationists don’t pay to hunt or hike or fish on those lands. But the timber industry, the oil and gas industry, the livestock industry (do). I think guides and outfitters even have to have some kind of permit. Those folks are paying the government something.
While WildEarth Guardians has filed its lawsuit to protect the mouse’s habitat, the ranchers have filed their own, alleging the Forest Service of heavy-handedness and not following its own environmental analysis.
Regardless of what decision is reached, it’s clear the debate — and the rhetoric — over grazing fees would continue.
“Grazing permits are costly food stamps for cattle,” wrote an attorney from Utah in the Salt Lake City Tribune earlier this year.
“The whole purpose of what (environmental groups) are doing on the land is not to save anything, it’s to protect it from people who actually doing something productive and I’m talking about ranchers ,” said C.J. Hadley, publisher of the pro-rancher publication RANGE magazine.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE — New Mexico is a slow poke when it comes to turning in its financial disclosures, but the state agency in charge of the data argues a sarcastic award from a fiscally conservative accounting group is unfair.
“Truth in Accounting is bestowing the annual Tortoise Award on New Mexico — again,” wrote Sheila Weinberg, CEO and founder of Truth in Accounting, last week.
Based in Chicago, Truth in Accounting bills itself as a resource for taxpayers to understand what it calls “the truth about government finances.”
Earlier this year, Truth in Accounting produced a report illustrating New Mexico’s overreliance on federal dollars. Between 1992 and 2012, the group’s findings showed, New Mexico’s share of federal money as part of state revenue increased a whopping 63.3 percent — a growth rate that was No. 1 in the country.
This time, Truth in Accounting knocked the state for going more than 450 days since releasing its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, which states submit each fiscal year.
“New Mexico has missed the standard release deadline of 180 days after fiscal year end four years in a row,” Weinberg wrote.
But the Department of Finance and Administration, contacted by New Mexico Watchdog, said the criticism is unfair, citing the state’s long and frustrating problems with the Statewide Human Resources Accounting and Management Reporting System, called SHARE, that was rolled out in 2006.
The system has had a long history or troubles properly matching fund balances shown by state agencies with cash in the state’s bank accounts.
“We identified the issue in October 2011, and our staff has been working diligently since then to correct it,” DFA spokesman and records custodian Tim Korte wrote in an email. “Since mid-2013, we have been able to guarantee the accuracy of the books going forward. Meanwhile, we continue to work to reconcile hundreds of thousands of transactions going back to 2006.”
Korte said DFA has provided regular updates to the Legislative Finance Committee and is working on developing an audited Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for the first time.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE – She’s sure to get flak from the political right who insist the border is porous, but long-time Republican and former Reagan administration official Linda Chavez says the Border Patrol shouldn’t be spending its time and money “chasing down gardeners and nannies.”
Instead, she argues, immigration laws should be revamped along what she says are small-government principles.
“We shouldn’t have laws that are ridiculous,” Chavez told New Mexico Watchdog during a recent visit to Santa Fe.
“We have a law now that says if you want to have somebody mow your lawn every week, you better check their papers and you better keep a record … and keep the documentation for five years. And if you fire that person and hire somebody two weeks later, you better keep those papers too. That’s big government and Big Brother writ large … Since when it is a conservative idea that I have to call the federal government to ask to hire somebody? How is that conservative?”
But Bob Dane, communications director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit based in Washington D.C. that favors stricter border enforcement, said Chavez is off-base.
“You want to talk about big government,” said Dane in a telephone interview. “The net effect would be destabilization, higher unemployment, less disposable income and higher individual and corporate taxes, all adversely affecting the business climate. That’s not a small-government approach. That’s crony capitalism. It’s big government attempting to gain the big appetites for big business to flood the market with unlimited and unregulated flows of immigration that displaces U.S. workers and corrodes wages.”
Chavez just launched her own nonprofit and policy organization, called the Becoming American Institute and based in Boulder, Colo., as a way to “reach out to conservatives and basically tell the good news about how well Hispanics are assimilating, including Hispanic immigrants.”
Chavez agreed “our borders need to be secured,” but also said, “the border is more secure today than it has been at any point in my lifetime, certainly.”
Last month, a coalition of sheriffs from border states in the Southwest met in Santa Fe and said just the opposite. Boards from five sheriffs’ organizations issued a three-page statement describing he immigration crisis as “spiraling out of control” and calling on the federal government to resist “outright amnesty” for people in the country illegally.
“The focus is getting the really bad guys,” Chavez said, “and letting (in) the good guys, the people who just want to work. Mexican-born men have the highest force participation rate of any group — 30 percent higher than whites do. These people want to work. They don’t want to get welfare.”
“Coming here to work does not permission an individual to break the law,” Dane countered. “Probably about half the world would love to come to the United States to work, but we have a finite amount of jobs and it does not permission that active entering without inspection.”
Chavez argues for overhauling the immigration law spearheaded in 1965 by former Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., that instituted a preference system and emphasized, in part, the family connections of potential immigrants. Instead, Chavez said immigration rules should be tied to market considerations.
“We ought to take a look at what our economic needs are,” Chavez said. “It ought to be market-based. We ought to bring in more people in boom times and fewer people when times are bad … and we need to make the process streamlined.”
Danes said there are plenty of Americans in technology-related fields who are undercut by foreign workers who get paid less.
“We don’t need big government to properly enforce the laws already on the books,” Dane said. “We already have enough (laws), we already have enough resources. The only thing that needs to be added is the will by this administration to follow the law.”
Chavez contends the current law is badly flawed and its enforcement mechanism is “nutty.”
“Yes, we should have respect for law and therefore we should pass laws that are enforceable and make sense,” she said. “We don’t make employers be border patrol agents … We could save a lot of money. Again, when has it become a conservative idea to throw money at a problem? But when you hear about the border it’s, ‘Let’s throw more money, let’s hire more people, let’s get more government employees.’ ”
Dane said Chavez’s recommendations are “wedded to” calls from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an organization whose policies, FAIR says, keep wages depressed for workers already in the country.
“That may be the market and economic solution for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and for Linda Chavez, but that’s the worst possible scenario for the put-upon American worker,” Dane said. “We need to establish a better equilibrium between the supply of foreign labor and the available amount of jobs. Nobody can make the case for more immigration from the standpoint of a surplus of jobs. It’s simply not true and hasn’t been true for a long time, if it ever was.
“Do you want to pay $5 for a tomato at the grocery store? I don’t think so,” Chavez said. “Do you want (a lot) of these jobs shipped overseas?”
Dane’s response? “We’ve got plenty of American workers, skilled and unskilled, and, mostly importantly, unemployed Americans, ready willing and able to work.”
Active in politics for decades and a syndicated conservative columnist, Chavez said she’s aware her stance will draw fire from some on the right.
“I’ve been standing up for what I thought was right,” she said. “I stood up against liberals and I’m happy to stand up against those people on my side of the fence that I think are doing to the wrong thing and the wrong thing for America.”
Here’s an excerpt from New Mexico Watchdog’s interview with Chavez:
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
JEMEZ RANGER DISTRICT — The fencing is up. The next question is whether the fighting is over.
In reaction to the listing of the meadow jumping mouse as an endangered species, the U.S. Forest Service just completed erecting fences along a creek in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains. It has become ground zero in a battle between ranchers who have grazed cattle in the meadow for generations and environmentalists who insist the mouse’s habitat must be zealously protected.
“I’m encouraged,” said Bryan Bird, program director at WildEarth Guardians. “I think it’s the right thing to do. I think it’s the reasonable thing to do.”
“We’re not crazy about it but, for now, we can live with it,” said Mike Lucero, a rancher with the San Diego Cattleman’s Association, pointing out his family’s cattle will have access to water above and below the area that’s fenced off. “We can manage around it because we can still get to water.”
But that doesn’t mean the mouse war — that started when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in June listed the tiny rodent as endangered — is over.
First, the fencing is listed as temporary.
Second, each side has filed lawsuits against the Forest Service.
The ranchers have filed their own suit, asserting they have taken good care of the creek, called the Rio Cebolla, and that the federal government has overreached and is not following its own environmental policies.
New Mexico Watchdog drove to the area Monday to look at the 4-foot-high barbed wire fencing, completed by the Forest Service just before the cows come down for their annual fall grazing.
The fencing extends about 10 feet to 30 feet from the edges of the creek with signs posted by the Forest Service.
Some 222 acres are closed — including 118 acres of fencing along the Rio Cebolla — near Fenton Lake in northern New Mexico on land often used for hiking, fishing and camping.
Ranching families like Lucero’s own federal grazing permits and have run their cattle along the creek though the old New Mexico land grant system that predates the U.S. Forest Service.
Lucero said the cattle graze and drink in the area one to two weeks in the spring and four to five weeks in the fall after the herd is cut.
A little more than a week ago, a judge turned down the ranchers’ attempts for a temporary restraining order to stop the fencing, but the lawsuit is still going forward in U.S. District Court.
“We’re not going to let it drop as long as the threat continues,” Lucero said.
Environmentalists filed their own lawsuit against the Forest Service, insisting the habitat for the mouse has badly degraded in the three states — New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado — it inhabits.
“It’s important to all of us,” Bird said. “These resources are ours and we need to make sure we’re protecting for them for everybody’s enjoyment, not just the livestock industry … It may seem like a little mouse to people but it’s a big indicator.”
In many ways, the Forest Service is caught in the middle — criticized by environmental groups for what they see as foot-dragging and by ranchers who claim the agency too often sides with environmentalists for fear of litigation.
“That’s always kind of my litmus test,” said Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, an organization based in Albuquerque that advocates for hunting, fishing and the outdoors. “If the people on the far sides are pissed off, it means the Forest Service did its job.”
Documents released by the agency say the fencing order is a “short-term special closure” that will stay in effect for one year, “until (an) environmental analysis is conducted ” and “consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can be concluded.” Click here to read the Forest Service documents.
“We need more studies on the area and will work in consultation with the Fish and Wildlife, as well as the permittees, to find a solution that protects the mouse,” Forest Service spokeswoman Donna Nemeth told the Albuquerque Journal. “In the meantime, we have to take protective measures to protect the habitat.”
In addition, the Forest Service has closed off a portion of the San Antonio Campground, a popular recreation spot a few miles from the Rio Cebolla, to protect the mouse’s habitat.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
Judging by unemployment numbers, New Mexico isn’t doing well. The seasonally adjusted rate in August was 6.7 percent — 36th in the nation.
But many experts say the unemployment rate should be looked at in tandem with what’s called the “labor force participation rate,” because the LFPR measures the number of people who have jobs, as well as those who are actively looking for work.
Unfortunately, New Mexico fares even worse in labor force participation numbers — 48th in the nation, according to a recent ranking.
“The policy direction of America matters,” said Matt Mayer, chief operating officer at the Liberty Foundation, a free-market organization based in Oklahoma, which took 2013 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and compiled rankings for all 50 states plus the District of Columbia.
In the Liberty Foundation rankings, only Arkansas, Mississippi and West Virginia fared worse than New Mexico.
Since the U.S. has a population that is retiring in bigger numbers, the labor force participation rate is expected to decline as more baby boomers turn 65.
But New Mexico’s population is 17th youngest in the country, so you would think the state’s rankings in the LFPR would be better than where it stands nationally on unemployment.
But New Mexico finished third from the bottom in the Liberty Foundation rankings, with just 57.5 percent of people in the Land of Enchantment actually in the workforce. The percentage for men is 64.2 percent and barely more than half — 51.3 percent — of women with jobs.
And New Mexico’s numbers have been on the slide in recent years:
There’s often a sharp difference along ethnic lines in national LFPR numbers, but in New Mexico the differences between whites and Hispanics is virtually indistinguishable — 57.4 percent for whites and 57.5 for Hispanics:
The rate for African-Americans in New Mexico is 60.0 percent, higher than for whites and Hispanics. The Liberty Foundation did not have numbers for Native Americans.
Nationally, the LFPR numbers are eroding, too.
Last month the U.S. Department of Labor announced the labor participation rate hit its lowest level since 1978, with 100,000 potential workers giving up their job searches and leaving the workforce. So while the national unemployment rate is at 5.9 percent — its lowest level since the summer of 2008 — the rate is considered artificially low because it doesn’t count those who have given up looking for a job.
What’s particularly troublesome is the Labor Department says the number of young unemployed people is up and their participation rates in the workforce is declining faster than the general population.
So what can be done?
New Mexico Voices for Children, a policy organization with a liberal bent, released a report calling for a host of remedies aimed at young people, including scaling up the state’s Youth Conservation Corps, making the state’s college lottery scholarship needs-based and increasing the minimum wage.
“Raising the minimum wage improves the economy because it puts money into the hands of those who are most likely to spend it — low income workers” the report said.
But Mayer disagrees.
“When you want to jack up the minimum wage,” Mayer said last week in a radio interview in Colorado, it “moves those jobs from 16- to 19-year-olds to an older group of people because you can make more money now. When you create Obamacare, (it) makes it harder for businesses to employ people because they hit a magic number and now they suddenly have to do all these mandates and regulatory requirements. These policies are having (an) enormous tremendous impact on that next generation.”
Which state finished on top of the Liberty Foundation rankings? North Dakota, due in large part due to the shale energy boom that has jolted its economy for nearly a decade. Nearly 73 percent of the North Dakota population holds jobs:
Historically, there’s been a gender gap between men and women participating in the labor force. Some of the reasons include stay-at-home moms and the fact that because women tend to live longer than men, they make up a larger segment of retirees.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
ALBUQUERQUE – Email hacking is a crime and a former campaign manager who turned on the Republican governor in New Mexico is going to do time.
Jamie Estrada was sentenced to nine months in federal prison Wednesday for breaking into the email campaign account of Gov. Susana Martinez and disseminating some of the messages to her political opponents
“To whom much is given, much is required,” said Judge William “Chip” Johnson, quoting scripture as he passed the sentence on Estrada, who pled guilty earlier this year to intercepting the governor’s email and lying to the FBI about it.
Johnson said he considered agreeing with federal prosecutors, who argued for one year and one day in prison, but Johnson knocked off three months because Estrada is the primary caretaker for a brother who is suffering from potentially fatal non-alcoholic liver disease.
In one of the most dramatic moments in the three-hour sentencing hearing, Martinez read a statement, saying, “I am here as a victim, not as the governor.”
Martinez said Estrada “manipulated” his way into the Martinez campaign for governor in 2009, only to attack her with the stolen emails after he was turned down for employment in the Martinez administration following her victory in November 2010.
“The only deterrence is with a maximum sentence,” Martinez said, addressing the judge. “That will tell the next person it’s not worth it.”
Near the end of the hearing, Estrada addressed the judge and said he was sorry for “my indulgent behavior and lack of self control” and apologized to Martinez and others who had their email communication stolen.
“My career is in ruins,” said Estrada, who once served in the administration of George W. Bush, holds two bachelor’s degrees, an MBA from Georgetown University and had what seemed to be a promising political career in New Mexico.
Estrada admitted in court that he “took full advantage” of his access to the emails, turning over many of them to Martinez opponents and others connected to the Democratic Party in the state.
“It’s sad that given such a stellar and impressive background, we’re here today,” said Johnson said just before pronouncing the sentence.
Estrada and his attorney, Zachary Ives, did not answer questions from reporters after the sentence was issued. In addition to the nine-month sentence, Estrada was fined $10,000 and must perform 100 hours of community service once he’s done serving his time.
Estrada was not taken into custody afterwards. He’ll be allowed at least 60 days to report to the U.S. Marshall for incarceration.
“We’re pleased with the conviction,” was all that federal prosecutor Fred Federici said to reporters.
“He certainly expressed an apology to the governor,” said Albuquerque attorney and Republican activist Pat Rogers, whose emails were among hundreds that were intercepted. “I’m not sure how much further than that Mr. Estrada feels or believes. I’m very sorry for all the people that were injured by this, including his own family. But when someone steals emails and disseminates stolen emails and lies about it, they should expect to do prison time.”
Prosecutors argued for the one-year and one-day sentence, citing a similar punishment given to a former University of Tennessee student who hacked into former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s email account during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Estrada left the Martinez campaign in December 2009. He says he left on his own volition but Martinez and her campaign advisor, Jay McCleskey, contend he was fired.
In an email to McCleskey, Estrada reportedly wrote, “I can’t understand how [Martinez] wouldn’t think there are political consequences for treating me poorly or unfairly.”
Estrada was not hired by the Martinez administration and was also unable to get a job at the office of Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, a Republican.
After Estrada parted ways with Martinez, he kept his password to the susana2010.com account and later re-activated the account using a fake name and fake address from a Chipotle restaurant in Colorado.
Estrada initially pled not guilty when the charges were first brought but turned in a guilty plea in June.
In addition to the Martinez email scandal, prosecutors said Estrada also tried to harm the campaign of Amy Orlando, a Martinez ally who ran an unsuccessful campaign for district attorney in Doña Ana County.
John D’Antonio, a Democrat who defeated Orlando in a bitterly-fought race, was one of 69 people who wrote letters supporting Estrada and urging Judge Johnson to sentence Estrada to probation rather than prison time.
Orlando herself is now the focus of an email controversy for allegedly destroying electronic communications before leaving office.
In one of the strange offshoots of the Estrada case, former Democratic Party employee Jason Loera is facing child pornography charges.
Federal agents say they were investigating whether Loera had received some of the stolen emails. When FBI computer specialists looked at the computers and compact discs found at a house they say was occupied by Loera, “the examiners identified four writable CDs which appeared to contain images of child pornography,” according to an affidavit.
Loera at one time worked for congressman Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, and former Democratic activist and now chairman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico Sam Bregman.
“We are shocked to hear about the indictment,” Luján spokesman Andrew Stoddard said after news of the arrest of Loera was made. “These are very serious charges and they deserve to be fully addressed through the legal system.”
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE — It looks like Old Man Winter may blow in a very cold December across large portions of the U.S., which could lead to a spike in natural gas prices.
That could mean some good financial news for New Mexico. And if prices stay up for a number of months, it could mean very good news.
That’s because natural gas prices historically have had an outsized impact on the economy on the Land of Enchantment.
In fact, it’s estimated that just a 10-cent increase in the annual price of natural gas translates into a $9 million boost to the New Mexico general fund.
“It’s unbelievable how much this industry pumps into the state,” said Tom Clifford, the secretary of the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration.
For example, earlier this year the price of natural gas jumped 86-cents between January and February when a deep freeze hit the East Coast, the Southeast and the Midwest. Clifford performed a quick estimate and guessed that the one-month spike led to about $9.9 million in state and local revenue.
“It’s an upside,” Clifford told New Mexico Watchdog. “We call it a positive risk. We don’t build into the (state’s economic) forecast to be cautious but it is a positive risk.”
Natural gas prices have generally been flat , hovering around $4 per MMBtu (British thermal units in millions). But Dan Steffens, the president of the Energy Prospectus Group, an investment firm specializing in oil and gas in Houston, said he expects to see a spike soon because some weather forecasters are calling for very cold weather in the eastern half of the U.S.
“Natural gas is the No. 1 source for home heating,” said Steffens, pointing out that last year’s “polar vortex” sent prices up to $6 per MMBtu.
Prices quickly came down but looking ahead, Steffens said there’s less storage capacity now, which could increase the chances for a price bump.
“If there’s an early start to winter this year, if there’s a cold December, then you’ll really see prices go up,” Steffens said.
Last week, weatherman Joe Bastardi predicted a cold snap in December for much of the eastern half of the country:
But for New Mexico taxpayers to really see a significant impact, the price of natural gas would need to go up and stay up.
“Sustained higher prices would habitually flow through” the state’s general fund, said Wally Drangmeister, director of communications for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. “You just have to see how high and how long.”
Clifford said the Department of Finance and Administration isn’t counting on a temporary spike in natural gas prices, just to be on the safe side.
“When you do the (state’s economic) forecast, you presume normal weather,” he said. “Our forecast for natural gas is basically status quo. It assumes a little bit of growth.”
New Mexico produces 1.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per year, with the vast majority of natural gas coming from the San Juan Basin, in the northwestern corner of the state.
It remains to be seen if the forecast for a cold December proves accurate and whether cold temperatures persist all winter. Steffens, for one, predicts that a spike would be short-lived. In addition, dealing with fluctuations in the commodities market always is fraught with uncertainty.
But New Mexico does seem to be in a good position to take advantage of a rise in natural gas prices, even if it’s just a temporary spike.
“In the short term,” Drangmeister said, “anything helps.”
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE — We’ve heard plenty about the so-called “War on Women” and how society doesn’t do enough to nurture its girls, but I’ve got news for you: Boys aren’t doing so well, either.
In fact, a quick glance and Google search turns up some startling numbers that indicate millions of boys aren’t just heading into a danger zone but already are living in it.
Some national statistics:
*Preschool boys are expelled nearly five times more often than girls
Here in New Mexico, the figures are just as bad, if not worse.
The people at LFC did some more digging for me and came back with even more depressing numbers.
Boys make up 62.5 percent of the students in the past school year suspended or expelled and 60.7 percent of those who had to repeat the ninth grade. The numbers for Hispanic and Native American boys were disproportionately high.
The pattern continues into higher education.
The number of women attending colleges and universities across the country first exceeded men back in 1979, and the numbers have widened since. Today, young men account for less than 43 percent of those enrolled in college.
And the same goes for those enrolled for post-graduate studies, where women have outpaced men every year since 1988.
The numbers in New Mexico mirror that.
For example, at the University of New Mexico this fall, 56 percent of the enrollment is female, and just 44 percent are male. And UNM enrollment officials told me we have to go back more than 30 years to find a time when men outnumbered women on the UNM campus.
Yet there’s been a relative silence about all this. It would be safe to guess the average American isn’t aware of these figures and you can bet, if the numbers were reversed, there would a national hue and cry.
But the huge question is why the numbers for boys have eroded so relentlessly.
What in American society in recent years has caused so many boys to fall through the cracks?
Is it an absence of fathers?
A work force that is increasingly more service-oriented and less blue-collar?
One recent book claims schools are “boy unfriendly” by focusing a curriculum on “writing about ‘feelings’ and its purging of ‘high-action’ reading material, from the rise of video gaming and schools’ unease with technology to the lack of male teachers as role models.”
Another theorizes schools have boys “spend too much time sitting and not enough time learning by doing, making and building things.”
Maybe, but didn’t the old-fashioned school insist on boys sitting still in class and absorbing the material? Plus, that doesn’t explain why the problems have gotten worse.
Or is it something — or some things — else?
I’ve never been much for the ethnic or gender cheerleading that has littered far too many policy discussions in the past 30 years or so. Whether the debate centers on economics or culture, we too often slip into a zero-sum game exercise where, if one side wins, that automatically means another side loses. That’s a false choice.
Turning around the statistics for boys must not come at the expense of our girls.
But it’s often said that admitting you have a problem is the first step toward fixing it.
America and New Mexico, we have a problem. And it’s a big one. Our boys are in crisis and we need to find some answers before another generation finds itself with a one-way ticket to the underclass.
(This commentary originally ran Sunday in the Santa Fe New Mexican.)
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE — Officials at the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange are making a number of changes as Year Two of Obamacare rolls out, but one big element remains: individual policies will still go through the same www.HealthCare.gov website that experienced a series of embarrassing mishaps when the Affordable Care Act rolled out last winter.
“I’m hoping the feds do a better job this year,” said Gabriel Parra, staff attorney for Presbyterian Healthcare Services and a member of the NMHIX board. “They can’t go anywhere but up.”
Another NMHIX board member, Jason Sandel, is much more blunt. When asked what grade he would give the ACA’s debut, Sandel said, “An F.”
“We’re dependent upon them and every bit of involvement that I’ve had with the federal government has been a disaster,” Sandel told New Mexico Watchdog after the board wrapped up its recent monthly meeting. “So I’m apprehensive about what the future holds for this open enrollment.”
In little more a month — Nov. 15 to be exact — a 90-day open enrollment period begins for New Mexicans looking to obtain individual ACA health care policies.
While a host of questions surround the second year of the ACA, the largest is whether the HealthCare.gov site can smoothly sign up all the new enrollees the NMHIX board hopes will respond to an upcoming multi-million dollar marketing, advertising and public relations blitz across the state.
“I think it’s prudent for the board to get the most bang for the buck,” said NMHIX board chairman Dr. J.R. Damron. “The bucks we’re talking about (come from) taxes.”
But worried that IT issues wouldn’t get resolved in time for the November re-enrollment period, board members voted 11-1 in July to stick with the federal site for one more year.
“We’ve got a year under our belt,” said Dr. Martin Hickey, director of the NMHIX marketing, public relations and outreach committee. “We’ve not only learned from New Mexico, but we’ve learned from other states.”
On the positive side, 165,000 previously uninsured New Mexicans signed up for Medicaid in the past year and 34,200 signed up for individual policies.
But last year’s goal was 83,000 individual policies. After the botched roll-out of healthcare.gov, NMHIX adjusted its goal to 40,000 but still fell short of expectations.
Even though New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the country, the number of enrollees receiving subsidies to reduce their premiums was six points lower than the national average.
To make things worse, a statewide poll commissioned by the board showed that despite a $7 million marketing and advertising campaign to convince New Mexico enrollees to sign up, only 40 percent of respondents even knew what the state’s health care exchange did.
In response, the NMHIX board has put its marketing and advertising contract up for re-bid and hired a new CEO — Amy Dowd, who comes over from Idaho where she won favorable reviews for running the Your Health Idaho exchange.
“I’m looking very strategically how we’re going to spend our money,” Dowd told New Mexico Watchdog.
“We need to work hard to get the uninsured in New Mexico insured,” Damron said. “That is our key element. An emphasis will be on the Hispanic population.”
But staying tied to the HealthCare.gov site means that as the feds go, so goes New Mexico.
“They’re working out the bugs and the cumbersome parts to it so I’m feeling confident that it will work on Nov. 15,” Hickey said.
Sandel, though, admits he’s worried.
“I’m concerned that our success is being based on whether or not they’ll be able to perform,” he said.
Two weeks ago, the General Accounting Office reported “weaknesses remained in the security and privacy protections applied to HealthCare.gov and its supporting systems.”
What’s more, the load in New Mexico figures to be heavier this year. Earlier this week, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of New Mexico sent out notices to 30,000 customers saying their policies were being canceled because they didn’t meet the minimum requirements of Obamacare.
NMHIX officials haven’t disclosed what numbers they hope to reach this time around, but Damron told New Mexico Watchdog the goal is to reduce the percentage of uninsured in New Mexico from 23 percent to less than 10 percent.
“We’re working on it,” Damron said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s a two to five-year process.”
“It’s absolutely a critical year,” Sandel said.
Update 10/2: As expected, the Rio Arriba County Commission on Thursday morning selected James Luján to immediately take over for Tommy Rodella as sheriff in a 3-0 vote. But the Albuquerque Journal reported that Luján has had his own trouble with the law: Serving two years probation in connection to tax evasion charges in 2002.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
ESPAÑOLA — Despite a conviction on two felony charges and facing up to 17 years in federal prison, Tommy Rodella has still refused to resign as sheriff of Rio Arriba County.
But Wednesday, the county manager said residents in the northern New Mexico community are no longer paying Rodella’s $56,000 salary and, as long as Rodella’s conviction stands, he will never again run for political office in the county.
“I ended his pay Friday once a conviction was rendered,” said Tomás Campos, Rio Arriba county manager. “Once he’s declared a felon, he can no longer be an elected official … And the commission declared they wouldn’t pay for his legal defense, either, so that’s it. There’s no tax money being spent.”
County commissioners discussed Wednesday how to handle the Rodella situation. After a 43-minute executive session, they announced plans to appoint a new sheriff Thursday.
Commissioners did not elaborate but are expected to promote James Luján, a former officer at the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office once fired by Rodella but who returned to defeat him in June’s Democratic Party primary. There is no Republican opponent in November, and Luján was scheduled to assume office the first of the year.
“It’s important because the deputies are the ones on the front line and they’re the ones that need someone in charge,” Campos said.
Since Friday, when Rodella was convicted of one count of violating a resident’s civil rights, county undersheriff Vince Crespin has been the office’s acting sheriff. Rodella, defiant to the end, has not turned in his resignation.
A review of the county’s website shows Rodella’s profile has been scrubbed.
Campos joined the three county commissioners in the closed-door session Wednesday, joined by First Judicial District Attorney Angela “Spence” Pacheco, whose jurisdiction includes Rio Arriba County.
Pacheco has filed a petition with the state district court, calling on the court to declare the sheriff’s job vacant in light of the conviction.
“The Rio Arriba County Commissioners are hesitant to take action in recognizing or filling the vacancy … without a Court order or formal interpretation of the law,” Pachecho said in the petition.
Rodella, who has a sentencing hearing scheduled Dec. 26, faces up to 10 years for the criminal civil rights violation plus a mandatory seven-year term for brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence.
Rodella insists he’s not guilty and says Damon Martinez, the U.S. District Attorney in Albuquerque, has a vendetta against him— something Martinez flatly denies.
Since Rodella was initially charged in an incident in March — a 26-year-old motorist accused the sheriff of pulling a gun and shoving his badge into the motorist’s face — Rodella turned back calls from the commission to resign and collected his salary.
But Campos said Wednesday that ended the moment Rodella was convicted by a jury of 11 women and one man.
“This wasn’t just done arbitrarily or capricious,” Campos said. “It’s been thought out.”
Before becoming sheriff, Rodella earned state pension benefits for serving 13 years for the state police. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported the general counsel for the New Mexico Public Employees Retirement Association said Rodella’s conviction won’t affect his ability to collect benefits.
But the conviction will keep him from ever running again for public office in Rio Arriba County, Campos said. That is, unless Rodella is successful on appeal.
“I have a sense of calm, but I never have a sense of relief,” Campos said. “I’ve seen so many things happen in the last 20 years.”
In Campos’ four years as county manager, he has clashed with Rodella, but Campos told New Mexico Watchdog the two have known each other all their lives and are distantly related.
“I never thought he’d get convicted,” Campos said. “I’m not happy he’s in jail, but we’ve had a very difficult time dealing with him as a sheriff.”
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
Officials at the New Mexico Racing Commission have been trying to clean up the perception that horse racing in the state is rife with cheaters who inject the horses with dangerous amounts of painkillers.
But a mysterious photograph of two men celebrating after the biggest event in quarter horse racing has led to an investigation and raises new questions about the depth of the rot.
“We are looking at it,” Vince Mares, executive director at the NMRC, told New Mexico Watchdog. “We’re trying to find the validity of (the allegations). I really don’t want to get into what we’re going to do but, yeah, we are concerned about it.”
Shortly after the running of the All American Futurity — the Kentucky Derby of quarter horse racing — a photo was circulated of two men holding the winner’s trophy in what appears to be the stables at Ruidoso Downs.
Some believe the two men in the photo are Roberto and Alejandro Sanchez-Muñoz, who each have been suspended for 20 years by the Oklahoma Racing Commission for allegedly drugging racehorses with dermorphin — a powerful painkiller that’s considered 30 to 40 times more potent than morphine.
Under the generally accepted terms of the suspensions, the Sanchez-Muñoz brothers are not supposed to be allowed onto the grounds of a licensed track in the U.S.
Mares said the commission’s investigation started last week into whether the two men in the photo are “program trainers” —horse trainers whose names are on the program for a given race but work under a false identity, often because they’ve been suspended.
“Program trainers are a real problem in New Mexico,” Mares said, “not only in New Mexico but across the country, and we want to find out if these (men) were in fact program trainers who had this horse.”
The All American Futurity, which is run each Labor Day, was won this year by a horse named JM Miracle, owned by Javier and Elsa Marquez of J & M Racing and Farms in Monahans, Texas. According to the program on race day, Umberto Belloc trained the horse.
New Mexico Watchdog contacted Javier Marquez on Tuesday morning by telephone, and he denied that the Sanchez-Muñoz brothers secretly trained JM Miracle.
“Those are just rumors,” Marquez said. “I have nothing to do with those guys.”
Marquez said he has no idea how the two men in the photograph got their pictures taken with the All American Futurity trophy, although he did say his son told him they are the Sanchez-Muñoz brothers.
“I’m mad on this, too,” Marquez said. “I see the picture, and how the hell did those guys get to the trophy?” Marquez said he welcomes the investigation by the New Mexico Racing Commission.
“If your license in suspended in one state, (race tracks) practice reciprocity and your license is supposed to be suspended in other states,” said Ray Paulick, a journalist who has covered horseracing for more than 30 years and edits the Paulick Report website. But, Paulick said, security at race tracks varies state to state and is oftentimes lax.
“A racing commission can ban somebody, but if the race tracks in charge of security aren’t doing their job, then it’s not a very effective ban,” Paulick said. “They have to work with each other. The race tracks have a lot of money because they all have casinos, so there’s really no excuse.”
The mystery photo is one of a number of questions surrounding this year’s All American Futurity.
After winning the race, JM Miracle pulled up, failed to make it to the winner’s circle and was taken off the track by van. A stablemate who won earlier in the day suffered a similar fate.
“The horse was so tired,” Marquez said of JM Miracle. “He gave 110 percent to win the race. But the next day when we were taking pictures with him, you couldn’t even hold the thing. He was jumping around and he was OK.”
There have even been rumors the horse that won the race really wasn’t JM Miracle but was a different quarter horse. Mares said the racing commission has found no substantiation to support the claim, but that hasn’t stopped rampant speculation. “I’ve even heard three times that the horse was cloned,” Mares said.
The latest controversy comes as the NMRC has passed a series of rules in the past three years to crack down on trainers suspected of drugging their horses, including instituting more frequent random drug tests and increasing the suspensions and fines against alleged violators.
“There’s always work to be done,” Mares said. “We’re going to stay the course and address these issues. The commission has made huge strides in cleaning up this industry in the last three years.”
Paulick gives the racing commission high marks but said the tracks need to do a better job beefing up security by installing and monitoring surveillance cameras to ensure suspended trainers and owners are kept off the grounds.
“I just feel that the race track casinos are not taking the racing side of their business nearly as seriously as they take the casino side of the business,” said Paulick.
In the meantime, the mystery photo only fuels more skepticism.
“It’s not a sport where you see a lot of Cub Scouts,” Paulick said.
By Rob Nikolewski │ Watchdog.org
The U.S. energy sector keeps posting impressive numbers and it’s on the verge of reaching another international milestone.
For the first time in nearly 25 years, American liquid petroleum production, which includes oil and natural gas, is on pace to surpass Saudi Arabia.
According to figures released by the International Energy Agency in Paris, the United States is just about even with the Saudis at 11.5 million barrels per day of oil and related liquids.
Saudi officials insist it still has the capacity to increase production, but as the Financial Times of London reported Monday, “even Saudi officials do not deny that the rise of the U.S. to become the world’s largest petroleum producer — with an even greater lead if its biofuel output (of about 1 million barrels a day) is included — has played a vital role in stabilising markets.”
The last time the United States produced more liquid petroleum than Saudi Arabia was in 1991.
The news comes little more than two months after a study was released predicting that as early as 2015, the United States can be the world’s largest producer of oil.
“If you had said that a decade ago, you would’ve been laughed at and called a fool,” wrote Walter Russell Mead, the editor-at-large of The American Interest, a magazine specializing in foreign affairs and geopolitics. “What a difference fracking makes.”
Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques in places such as the Permian Basin in West Texas and eastern New Mexico have spurred what’s called a “shale revolution” to get to oil and natural gas in fields that used to be considered nearly impossible to reach.
“From an overall energy standpoint, we’re in a much, much better shape than we used to be,” energy analyst Dan Steffens, president of the Energy Prospectus Group in Houston, told Watchdog.org Monday. “We used to be worried about what the hell we’re going to do with natural gas because we were running out. That was in the year 2000 … But then they figured out how to get into the shale gas and now we’re just floating in the stuff.”
Steffens predicts the United States will become a net exporter of natural gas by 2017 because of domestic production and the move towards exporting liquefied natural gas to markets, particularly in Asia:
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
A chart focusing on the San Francisco Bay Area may go a long way in explaining why.
Dubbed “The Uber Effect,” the chart, presented recently at a municipal transportation agency meeting, shows how many fares cab companies have lost over the past two years, since ridesharing companies, also known as transportation network companies, burst onto the Bay Area business landscape:
Kate Toran, interim Taxis and Accessible Services director for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, reported trips logged by the average taxi plummeted from 1,424 to about 504 since January 2012. That’s a 65 percent drop.
In that time, Bay Area passengers have increasingly used ridesharing to help them get to work, airports, train stations and sports events.
Perhaps other reasons account for the drop, but the numbers reflect the threat cabbies and limo companies see from the blossoming ridesharing market.
“This is like a pirate cab company coming into the area and putting up a taxi sign and running around,” said Raymond Sanchez, an attorney for the Yellow Cab Co. of Albuquerque. Sanchez has been trying to persuade the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission to take a hard stand against Uber and Lyft, which opened for business this summer in New Mexico’s largest city.
“Taxi companies are worried about ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft, and they should be,” said Matthew Feeney, policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research institution promoting free-market values. “It’s like evolution. You adapt or you die.”
The debate is playing out in cities across the country:
*William McManus, police chief in San Antonio, told the San Antonio Express-News, “The cabs didn’t want anything to change.”
*Last Friday, a district court judge in Albuquerque refused to impose a temporary restraining order, which taxis and limos wanted to effectively shut down Uber and Lyft. The judge said the decision is up to state regulators, not the courts.
*In the nation’s capital, the Washington, D.C., City Council proposed forcing ridesharing companies charge no less than five times what D.C. cab companies charge customers, but it had to back down after it was flooded by calls from angry consumers.
Unlike traditional cab series, ridesharing companies are summoned by an app on a customer’s smartphone. No cash is passed because passengers enter their credit cards into the app, which the companies provide for free. Drivers, who often work part-time and set their own schedules, are considered individual contractors, rather than employees.
Passengers can rate drivers online, and drivers can rate passengers.
“Consumers have spoken,” said Mark Perry, professor of Finance and Business Economics at the University of Michigan-Flint. “People do not want the old (taxi) model … The old model is a cartel.”
But the ride hasn’t been smooth.
Ridesharing companies have received plenty of resistance — even in California, where most of the ridesharing startups are based.
California regulators want Sidecar to end its newly installed carpooling feature, which allows multiple passengers to hop into a car to help save money on fares. All three companies have adopted the app as a way for passengers to carpool to work, but regulators say the feature violates California state code.
“We’re frankly disappointed and a little baffled that there would be all of this pushback,” Sunil Paul, chief executive of Sidecar, told the Wall Street Journal.
District attorneys in Los Angeles and San Francisco have filed injunctions questioning the thoroughness of background checks for drivers.
In June, an Uber driver in San Francisco was charged with two counts of battery in an alleged assault of a passenger and, last week, another Uber driver made headlines after being charged with striking a passenger in the head with a hammer. Ridesharing defenders respond by offering examples of licensed cab drivers who have also been charged with mistreating and assaulting passengers.
In New Mexico, cab companies say they’re being treated unfairly and complain that while they must pay for licenses and adhere to state Public Regulation Commission rules, Uber and Lyft flout those rules.
“They’re taking people from point A to point B and charging them a fare,” said Sanchez, the former New Mexico speaker of the House. “They’re operating illegally. Go by the same rules everybody else is going by.”
“There’s only so much piece of the pie, and when you keep up cutting that piece of the pie, business and service just keep going down,” Steve Abraham, the president of Yellow Cab, told New Mexico Watchdog in August. “It’s doesn’t get better, it goes down.”
But Perry doubts that once consumers get a taste of riding, they’ll accept going back.
“The future is Uber and Lyft. In the end, they’ll win out,” said Perry, citing what he calls Perry’s Law: Competition breeds competence.
“That’s what we want as consumers — the most amount of competition as possible,” said Perry, who is also a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “The French economist (Frederic) Bastiat said it best. He said all issues should be looked at through the viewpoint of the consumer … We should look at this as what’s best for the consumers, not what’s best for the taxi cartels.”
“My preferred route would be to deregulate the taxi industry,” said the Cato Institute’s Feeney. “Instead of adding pages to the regulatory rulebook, we should be thinking about getting rid of pages that already exist … It seems to me that adding regulations to an already overregulated industry is not going to help.”
In the meantime, the debate rages.
In New Mexico, for example, the PRC’s public comment period continues Wednesday. The five commissioners appear divided on what do about Uber and Lyft, with a final solution possibly coming in conjunction with the state Legislature, which convenes a 60-day session in January.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
Its future may still be uncertain for the long haul but, for now, ridesharing in New Mexico drives on.
New Mexico District Court Judge Nancy Franchini ruled Friday against five taxi cab and limousine owners in the state that wanted a temporary restraining order issued against two ridesharing companies — Lyft and Uber — that are still picking up passengers in Albuquerque while the Public Regulation Commission decides what to do with them.
“Today’s ruling is a positive step forward for ridesharing in New Mexico and recognizes that cities can benefit from a range of transportation options,” said Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson. “We look forward to continuing to work with the PRC toward a solution that preserves Lyft’s safe, affordable and reliable rides for all Albuquerque residents.”
“We’re disappointed but we’re going to keep fighting,” said Michael Cadigan, attorney for the taxi and limo companies that believe ridesharing unfairly cuts into their businesses and have filed a lawsuit. Cadigan said the suit is pursuing claims for financial damages against Lyft and Uber.
The taxi cab and limo businesses wanted Franchini to issue the restraining order to immediately stop the ridesharing companies from operating, but Franchini said the cab and limo owners did not show they would “suffer irreparable injury” unless the injunction was granted and that “this matter falls under the powers and duties of Public Regulation Commission.”
The PRC has been spending more than three months trying to decide how best to license and regulate Lyft and Uber. The PRC issued a cease-and-desist order against Lyft this summer, but the San Francisco-based company, along with Uber, is still operating. Lyft officials say drivers are taking “donations” when they pick up customers.
The legal action in New Mexico is part of a series of maneuvers to rein in ridesharing companies across the country, but Mark Perry, a professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan-Flint and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, thinks they will fall short in the long run.
“That seems like a losing battle to fight this model that seems to be embraced by consumers around the world as the future of transportation,” Perry told New Mexico Watchdog in a telephone interview Friday. “I think they might win some temporary restrictions, but it seems like consumers in a lot of markets won’t stand for it … People have gotten a taste of that service, and it’s going to be hard for people to go back.”
Unlike traditional cab series, ridesharing companies are summoned by an app on a customer’s smartphone. No cash is passed because passengers enter their credit cards into the app, which the companies provide for free. Drivers, who often work part-time and set their own schedules, are considered individual contractors rather than employees.
Passengers can rate drivers online, and drivers can rate passengers.
But Cadigan says ridesharing companies have an unfair advantage over cabs and limo services that have to abide by the state’s Motor Carrier Act.
“At the end of the day, when you look at what they’re doing, they are a taxi service,” Cadigan told New Mexico Watchdog. “It’s a taxi service that uses contract employees and has a fancy IPhone app and there’s no reason they should be exempt from the rules when all of the legal taxi cabs spend hundreds of thousands of dollars complying with the rules.”
The PRC has been taking public comment about how to proceed. The commission appears divided on which way to go, with some commissioners saying ridesharing companies are no different from cabs and others saying the state should encourage economic innovation.
In the end, the PRC may have to hammer out legislation with the state’s lawmakers in the upcoming 60-day legislative session to settle the issue.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
New Mexico slipped 10 spots in an annual ranking of pro-business states, and the man who has produced the survey for the past 11 years says the Land of Enchantment has some work to do luring companies to set up shop in the state.
“You really need to take some action in New Mexico if you want to compete,” Ronald R. Pollina, chairman of the American Economic Development Institute, said in a telephone interview from his Chicago office. “You’re competing with super-competitive states like Utah, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska.”
New Mexico received an overall C grade for 2014 — the same grade it got in 2013 and 2012 — but tumbled from 25th in the AEDI rankings to 35th, tying Oklahoma for the most precipitous drop of the year.
Some of the reasons for the poor showing?
New Mexico received an F in seven of AEDI’s 19 grades for labor, taxes and other factors.
Here’s the AEDI report card:
New Mexico received two F’s and one D in the survey’s grades dealing with education.
“Education has become a very important factor for employers looking to move into other states, even on the manufacturing side of the equation,” Pollina told New Mexico Watchdog. New Mexico has consistently finished near the bottom in national results for educational achievement, even though it finished 20th in the nation in per-pupil spending in the most recent analysis by the National Education Association.
There’s been debate across the state about tapping into New Mexico’s Land Grant Permanent Fund, currently worth $14 billion, to fund early childhood education programs.
“It’s not always the amount you spend, but how you spend it,” Pollina said.
The AEDI report card looks favorably upon states that adopt right-to-work legislation. New Mexico got an F for not having it.
“Look at the states surrounding you,” Pollina said. “They are right-to-work.”
But Colorado’s economy is chugging along nicely despite not having right-to-work legislation.
“The question is, can your state do better,” Pollina said.
New Mexico also received F’s for its sales and gross receipts taxes, crime rate, long-term budget planning and litigation environment. “It’s easy to sue people in your state,” Pollina said.
On the positive side, the study gave New Mexico A’s for college student funding, business inventory taxes, property taxes and transportation infrastructure.
The study also looks at each state’s economic development departments. AEDI gave the New Mexico Economic Development Department a B for incentives and an A for marketing, responsiveness to employers and its website.
“When it comes to that, New Mexico is very good,” Pollina said.
The top 10 states in the AEDI survey this year were:
6. North Dakota
9. South Carolina
10. South Dakota
The bottom 10 consisted of:
45. West Virginia
47. New Jersey
48. Rhode Island
The AEDI report card is released jointly through Pollina Corporate Real Estate, Inc., a site selection and international corporate consulting firm based in Chicago with Pollina serving as president.
“We have more and more companies going to us and saying, look, if we’re going to stay in the United States,” Pollina said, “we have to be in the absolute most pro-business location possible.”
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE — Some New Mexico lawmakers are getting impatient with Richard Branson, the billionaire owner of Virgin Galactic who announced another delay of the company’s inaugural launch at Spaceport America, a commercial space venture that cost state taxpayers $212 million to build.
“There always seems to be some kind of delay before the first flight,” state Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe told New Mexico Watchdog. “I don’t know, I’m getting a little skeptical … This thing is not working yet.”
Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant at Spaceport America, and Branson expected to send passengers into suborbital space in 2012. Many times, Branson has delayed back the launch date.
But Sept. 9, while appearing on late-night television with David Letterman, Branson put off the launch yet again.
“I’ll be on the first flight from New Mexico,” Branson told Letterman. When asked when, he said, “February or March of next year.”
Varela said Spaceport officials are scheduled to appear before the Legislative Finance Committee in October to discuss budgeting for the next fiscal year. “We may have to be tough,” said Varela, LFC’s chairman. “Give us some definitive answers.”
According to an LFC analyst, Spaceport is requesting expansion items totaling $831,000, paid for with enterprise revenue.
Spaceport America is in Sierra County, outside of Truth or Consequences,. and the county pays $300,000 a year to help fund the project.
“They’ve been delaying this for so long I’m not holding my breath,” Sierra County Commissioner Walter Armijo told Reuters. “They promised jobs, tourism and housing, and we haven’t seen any of that. None of the expectations and promises have come true.”
“This is something we’ve invested quite a bit of money into,” Varela said. “They have the customers, apparently, but we don’t have the flights.”
Of the Spaceport’s $212 million price tag, two-thirds came from state taxpayers; the rest came from bonds backed by Sierra and Doña Ana counties.
Under the terms of Virgin’s lease, Spaceport will receive $25,000-$75,000 per launch. Early in the project, Branson predicted a couple of launches per week, with the number rising to 700 per year by 2015.
At least some of the estimated 700 customers, who spent up to $250,000 for tickets sending them on a ride that lasts a little more than two hours, are starting to complain.
“I think it will fly, but I am not sure whether it will get me into space as I was promised,” one customer told The Sunday Times of London. Branson, however, says “almost none” of the passengers have complained to him.
Why the delays? Branson is vague, but it appears the spaceship is having problems generating enough thrust to go 62.1 miles above the earth’s atmosphere — to what’s called the Karman Line, the internationally recognized border between the atmosphere and outer space.
“It’s clear that (Branson) launched Virgin Galactic without remotely understanding the complexity of the technical challenges involved and, probably, still doesn’t,” British journalist Tom Bower wrote in a highly critical biography of Branson that came out earlier this year.
But some people in the New Mexico Legislature think Spaceport, in general, and Virgin Galactic, in particular, can become profitable.
“No, I’m not having second thoughts,” said state Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, who is noted around the Roundhouse for his fiscal conservatism. “When Challenger blew up, look at how many years before we flew (again). You can’t have that kind of mishap if you’re going to have a sustainable program. I’d rather err on the side of safety.”
Spaceport supporters point to the fact two of the three companies vying for a $3 billion contract to take astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017 have ties to Spaceport America.
One is SpaceX, which signed a three-year lease in 2013 at Spaceport for testing reusable rockets for a series of vertical launches. SpaceX is headed by another high-profile billionaire, Elon Musk, who dreams of colonizing Mars. Another is Sierra Nevada Corp., which supplies rockets for Virgin Galactic.
A number of other aerospace companies, including Boeing, have done testing in southern New Mexico, home to the military’s White Sands Missile Range.
“The Branson thing has been disappointing, I’m going to be honest with you,” said Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque. “But Branson’s group may not be the group that puts (Spaceport) on the map. I think it may be other groups like Boeing that become the big players there.”
Under the Virgin Galactic plan, the well-heeled customers will board an aircraft, called WhiteKnightTwo, which that will carry an orbiter called Space ShipTwo. WhiteKnightTwo will reach 50,000 feet, and SpaceShipTwo will climb to 360,000 feet, a level at which passengers can experience weightlessness, dark skies and view the curvature of the Earth.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
Officials at Western New Mexico University say a controversial questionnaire that sparked complains elsewhere in the country because it included students giving information about their sex lives and drinking habits will go forward only after it’s been vetted first by WNMU administration.
“We are going to review the questions more carefully going forward,” WNMU public information officer Abe Villareal told New Mexico Watchdog Tuesday after he said he spoke to the school’s dean of students.
The online program was designed to help schools adhere to the federal government’s Title IX requirements and raise awareness about a number of issues, including gender discrimination as well as sexual harassment and assault.
But the computer program also included questions about sex and alcohol and some students complained the questionnaire amounted to an invasion of their privacy.
*What percentage of your peers do you think has sex (including oral) at least once a month?
*How many times have you had sex (including oral) in the last three months?
*How many different people have you had sex (including oral) in the last three months?
*If you had sex (including oral) in the last three months, how many times have you: been drinking alcohol/been using recreational drugs?
*How often do you use alcohol?
*How often do you use drugs recreationally?
*Are you currently sexually active?
*(Yes or no) I have had unwanted sex while drunk or using drugs
*Think of the occasion you drank the MOST this past month. How much did you drink?
Although some of the questions included a green “anonymous” banner across the top of the screen, students at Clemson University complained because in order to complete the one-hour questionnaire they had to use their unique campus ID number to log on. They also had to include their first and last names, email addresses and housing information. Completing the program was mandatory at Clemson.
“Does the university need to know if I had oral or normal sex in the last three months after I’ve been drinking alcohol or using drugs recreationally or if I used a condom during?” a Clemson senior told Campus Reform, a politically conservative organization that first reported the story. “They don’t need to know that for a gender equality questionnaire.”
An Internet search turned up a WNMU news release dated Aug. 16 listing orientation for new students that included “meals, materials, expenses, and the Campus Clarity program.”
Villareal said the dean of students at WNMU was unaware of the controversy until New Mexico Watchdog asked, but said the school will review the program’s questions.
“We do have such a program, but it has not been administered yet,” Villareal said. “We don’t plan to use all of the questions … we can pick and choose. We are going to review it and see what questions are appropriate.”
As for security concerns, Villareal said, “We don’t collect (student) data. We don’t collect personal information. We won’t collect data and don’t plan to.”
New Mexico Watchdog contacted all six of the public, four-year institutions of higher learning in the state.
Spokespersons for New Mexico Tech, New Mexico Highlands and Eastern New Mexico said they didn’t take part in the CampusClarity program. Officials at New Mexico State say they design their own program and a spokeswoman at the University of New Mexico said, “we are researching and deciding on comprehensive online training programs for every member of the university community.”
On its website, CampusClarity says its “Think About It Program” takes a “harm-reduction approach that resonates with students and results in a healthy campus culture that fosters learning and growing intellectually.”
An unnamed official at CampusClarity told the Huffington Post the questionnaire has been in use for three years and it wasn’t until this year that any complaints were made.
One student who doesn’t attend Clemson complained online that students couldn’t complete the questionnaire unless they answered the questions regarding sex, alcohol and drugs.