"Capitol Report New Mexico" Latest Blog Postings

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

Why there’s a federal land dispute brewing out West

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

WHOSE LAND IS THIS LAND? Unlike states in the East, vast swaths of acreage in the West is owned by the federal government.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

ALBUQUERQUE – Glance at a map showing the percentage of state land owned by the federal government and you’ll see a remarkable difference between the East and the West.

East of the Rocky Mountains, the feds own no more than 13 percent of the land in any state. West of the Rockies, in the continental U.S., the federal government owns at least 29.9 percent of the land in each state. In eight states — California, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming — the feds own more than 40 percent of the land.

When Alaska (69.3 percent) is included, that number grows to nine.

Take a look:

Carl Graham thinks that should change. He’d like to see the federal government transfer some — but not all — of those vast swaths of territory to the states themselves.

“What we’d like to see is shifting that balance back to where we have more state and local governments, who are much more accountable to their people, making those decisions that affect people’s lives,” said Graham, director of the Sutherland Coalition for Self-Government in the West, based in Salt Lake City.

Graham says in a domestic economic situation rife with sequesters and budget deficits, Western states in particular are too dependent on the federal government. The title of his group’s website makes no secret of that: www.EndFedAddiction.org

There was a time when the federal government owned most of the land in the Eastern states. But in the early 19th century, those lands were transferred to the states through grants, sales and homesteading.

But the same thing didn’t happen for states in the West.

“What happened in the late 19th century was, Teddy Roosevelt and others looked out to the West and said, ‘Hey, nobody’s out there yet really using these lands. Let’s start fencing them off and preserving them and keeping people off of them,’ ” Graham told New Mexico Watchdog.

As a result, there’s a marked difference between the amount of federally owned land between one border state and another, such as Montana (29.9 percent) and North Dakota (just 2.7 percent), even though both states entered the Union in the same year — 1889.

“It’s a matter of fairness,” Graham said. “A promise has been broken.”

Advocates like Graham say states can do a better job of managing land and believe Western states are losing millions of dollars in revenue each year. They’re calling for a Transfer of Public Lands Act to shift some federal land now managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to state and local control.

“We’re not talking about national park land or wilderness areas, national monuments, military installations or tribal lands,” Graham said during a speech in Albuquerque. “We’re talking about multiple-use land,” totaling about 640 million acres in various Western states. “Nobody is talking about drilling for oil in Carlsbad Caverns.”

But the idea has generated opposition, especially among environmental groups.

“It’s laughable,” John Horning, executive director at WildEarth Guardians New Mexico, said when the subject came up last fall. “Public lands are a birthright for all Americans … I think the state is probably in over its head, acquiring federal land and managing it.”

There’s also the legal question about whether Western states can get federal land transferred to them at all.

For example, the Enabling Act of 1910 that eventually saw New Mexico and Arizona admitted into the Union defers all public land issues to the federal government.

The act states “that the people inhabiting said proposed state do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated and ungranted public lands lying within the boundaries thereof.”

But the movement has generated momentum.

Utah passed a land transfer bill calling on the federal government to give back 20 million acres; a quick analysis by the Idaho’s State Management of Federal Lands estimated a net gain of at least $51 million if 16.4 million acres of federal land was transferred to state control.

Nevada recently became the fifth Western state to establish a task force to look into the potential benefits of transferring federal land. In one of its early findings, a study showed BLM land in Nevada operated at a loss of 91 cents per acre, while the average of state land operated by four states earned more than $28 per acre.

“That’s an enormous difference per acre when you’re talking about, literally, millions and millions of acres,” Graham said.

But critics question the numbers.

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.’ ”

But Graham says what was good enough for Eastern states such as Maryland should be good enough for Western states, such as Montana.

“It’s not a loss,” he said. “There’s going to be money to fight fires, to maintain roads, to take care of recreational facilities. The revenues that can responsibly taken from these lands while still conserving them are more than adequate to manage them.”

Here’s New Mexico Watchdog’s interview with Graham before he spoke Tuesday night at a conference sponsored by the Rio Grande Foundation:

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

Senate committee offers compromise on NM’s Norman Bay

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-06-18 15:13

NOT SO FAST: It looks like former New Mexico attorney Norman Bay will have to wait until next year to become the new chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Norman Bay is on target to head to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but he’s going to have to wait.

In what could lead to the end of a Capitol Hill turf battle, the former New Mexico prosecutor and law professor was part of a compromise hammered out Wednesday by a divided Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. It intends to see Bay become the chairman of FERC, but only after serving as a commissioner for nine months.

In the meantime, Cheryl LaFleur will remain acting chairwoman.

In a 13-9 vote, the committee elected to promote Bay from his current position as director of FERC’s Office of Enforcement to become one of its three commissioners. It also voted, 21-1, to keep LaFleur on until next year.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WVa., said there would be “a nine-month time period that Cheryl LaFleur will stay, but she will be the chairman in full, with full privileges of a chairmanship. That gives Mr. Bay, who’s a good man, a chance to get the experience needed on that commission, as far as with regulatory experience.”

“That nine months will start at the point of confirmation on the Senate floor,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who chairs the Senate committee. Landrieu is recommending Bay’s nomination be considered by the Senate in September.

Bay has been the choice of the Obama administration and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., but he received opposition from some committee members who said he lacked experience in the energy industry.

“I do understand that he’s a smart man, and that smart people can learn the ropes, if you will,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “But I’m not interested in the chairman of the FERC being somebody that is doing on-the-job training, particularly when we have a woman (LaFleur) — the only woman on the Commission — who has been at the helm as the acting head of this commission, and by all reports, from Democrats and Republicans alike, she has been doing a good job.”

Reid is opposed to keeping LaFleur as chairwoman. There’s speculation Reid wants Bay to become chairman of FERC because Bay may be more open promoting renewable energy, an industry with ties to Reid’s home state.

“Norman Bay is a close ally of Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Obama — and I’m concerned he will serve as a rubberstamp for the president’s new unworkable cap-and-trade rule that will drive up electricity prices and hurt our economy,” Sen. David Vitter, R-La., was quoted as saying to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

But retired Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., himself a former chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, says Bay would be an excellent choice to run the agency that oversees the nation’s electrical grid.

“The job that (Bay) is seeking demands somebody just like him,” Domenici said before the committee last month. “I’m not a great fan of the president of the United States and people know that, but I think this is a great appointment. So I am on his side on this. I don’t see how you can miss.”

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

Albuquerque Tea Party reacts to lost IRS emails: ‘There is no rule of law’

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-06-18 12:37

GONE: The Internal Revenue Service says a crashed server is to blame for lost emails from former IRS official Lois Lerner but an official with a Tea Party group in Albuquerque, N.M., says he thinks the IRS isn’t telling the truth.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — An official with the Albuquerque Tea Party isn’t buying the explanation from the Internal Revenue Service about missing emails.

“It’s just lies,” said Rick Harbaugh, former president and current secretary of the group that has waited 4 1/2 years to receive nonprofit status. “I don’t know what to say. Either they’re absolutely incompetent or they’re absolutely violating the law constantly and don’t give a damn.”

The Internal Revenue Service said Friday it can’t find two years’ worth of emails from Lois Lerner, former head of the IRS exempt organizations division.

Then, on Tuesday, congressional investigators said the IRS “cannot produce records from six other IRS employees involved in the targeting of conservative groups.”

”I think people are getting to the point where they expect their government to lie to them and they don’t care,” Harbaugh said in a telephone interview with New Mexico Watchdog.

Lerner has been the heart of a scandal that broke more than a year ago. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in March assured congressional investigators the emails were “stored in servers.” But now, the IRS blames a crash of Lerner’s hard drive in 2011 for its inability to retrieve emails that came primarily from outside the IRS, including the White House and other major offices and departments.

Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee say the IRS knew as early as February that emails were missing but were not told until late Friday.

“It looks like the American people were lied to and the IRS tried to cover-up the fact it conveniently lost key documents in this investigation,” committee chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., said in a statement.

“I think it’s entirely reasonable. And it’s fact,” incoming White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Monday. Earlier this year, President Obama said there was “Not even a smidgen of corruption” surrounding the IRS controversy.

Harbaugh says the IRS has become a political arm: “It’s a tool to intimidate. It’s a tool to abuse.”

But what about reports that liberal political groups were scrutinized, too?

“You can say that, it’s true,” Harbaugh said. “But they looked at eight to 10 of them and did nothing. They’ve looked at tea party organizations throughout the United States and are abusing them unmercifully.”

Harbaugh said it would be “wonderful” for a special prosecutor to be appointed to determine what happened and to retrieve the missing emails.

“The information is still there,” Harbaugh said. “It’s just more difficult to find now. It’s on servers somewhere. You just have to do better investigating.”

The Albuquerque Tea Party, which first applied for tax exempt status as a 501(c)(4) social welfare group in December 2009, is one of a number of conservative political groups that accuses the IRS of hassling them and delaying their approval as nonprofits.

Harbaugh says his organization’s voice has been muted. “We have this big pile of money that we can’t do anything with because the Internal Revenue Service is behaving so poorly.”

The Albuquerque Tea Party has joined 41 organizations in 22 states in filing a lawsuit in Washington, D.C., with the American Center for Law and Justice, taking on the IRS, the Department of Justice and other federal officials. In its filings the ACLJ pointed to a IRS letter from its D.C. office in 2010 to the Albuquerque Tea Party asking the group a series of 10 follow-up questions. Among them was information into Marianne Chiffelle’s Breakfasts.”

New Mexico Watchdog later discovered that “Marianne Chiffelle’s Breakfasts” was not a restaurant or business, but an 83-year-old great-grandmother and former World War II internment camp survivor who is active in Republican politics in Albuquerque.

“There is no rule of law and we’re in a situation of tyranny and something needs to be done to restore the American values that have kept us alive for 250 years,” Harbaugh said.

The Albuquerque Tea Party held two big taxpayer rallies in 2010 and 2011 in front of the IRS building in Albuquerque that, Harbaugh said, drew between 8,000 to 11,000 people. He said a rally this year drew just 300.

“They’ve given up,” Harbaugh said. “They’re hiding. They don’t trust their government anymore.”

Democrats on Capitol Hill dismissed talk about government-inspired plots and schemes.

“It is unfortunate that the IRS experienced equipment failure that resulted in several computers crashing and some email data being lost from Lois Lerner’s hard drive between 2009 and 2011,” Rep. Sander Levin, D-Michigan, the top Democrat on Ways and Means said. “But every equipment failure is not a conspiracy.”

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

Should New Mexico make a pension switch?

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-06-18 12:23

TIME FOR A CHANGE?: More states are converting to 401(k)-style pension plans. Should New Mexico lawmakers at least consider a change?

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — Three weeks ago, Oklahoma became one of a growing number of states switching from traditional retirement systems for new state employees to plans that resemble 401(k)s.

The New Mexico Legislature so far hasn’t moved to follow the trend.

“I wouldn’t support it,” state Rep. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, and chairman of the Investment and Pension Oversight Committee, said Tuesday. “Our plan is doing well … A 401(k) would work, but the risk would be there, greater than what we have in our pension system.”

But Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, is open to the idea.

“I think at least we need to look at it,” Baldonado told New Mexico Watchdog. “Not only as a state but as a nation, for years, we had these really nice pension plans, but the truth is … with improved medical technology, we have people living well into their 70s and 80s … You don’t want to end up where everyone’s bankrupt and nobody gets anything.”

Signed by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin on May 30, the new Oklahoma pension plan will see new state employees go from what is called a defined-benefit plan — in essence, a pension plan in which employees receive a fixed amount of money each month — to a defined-contribution plan, such as Oklahoma’s. Under that plan, workers will contribute a minimum of 3 percent to their retirement, and the state will match contributions up to 7 percent.

The bill signed by Fallin makes exceptions for teachers and “hazardous duty” employees such as cops and firefighters.

The law goes into effect next year and will affect all newly elected officials.

“Oklahoma pension systems currently have $11 billion in unfunded liabilities,” Fallin said upon signing the law. “The system as it stands today is not financially sound or sustainable. Moving future hires to a 401(k)-style system helps to ensure we can pay our current retirees and employees the benefits they have already earned.”

As state pension plans became more generous in recent years and a higher percentage of state employees reached retirement age, states have struggled to meet their increasing financial burdens. One estimate reports the U.S. has racked up $4.1 trillion in unfunded liabilities in public pensions.

As a result, more states are switching to 401(k)-style plans to save money.

All told, Oklahoma joined 19 states that have made the switch or at least offer options or hybrid systems for state employees.

Here’s an interactive graphic from the Illinois Policy Center, a free-market think tank in favor of 401(k)-style plans:

To do something similar in New Mexico, the Legislature would have to get the ball rolling.

“Around here, you’re going to get a little more pushback,” said Rep. Tim Lewis, R-Albuquerque.

In 2013, Gov. Susana Martinez signed a bill aimed at shoring up an estimated $12 billion hole in the state’s two giant state employee funds — the Public Employees Retirement Association and the Educational Retirement Board. Some critics say the fixes didn’t go far enough. PERA and ERB officials say the plans are back on solid financial ground.

“I think we should wait and see for at least the next three or four years and see how (the 2013 pension fix) works out,” Trujillo said.

Baldonado said it would be prudent to at least discuss making changes.

“If you worked all these years and then the system you paid into is not able to pay back, then you’ve got a bigger mess on your hands,” Baldonado said. “Look at the city of Detroit. That’s a disaster.”

Detroit is trying to climb out of a $18.5 billion bankruptcy filing, driven primarily by unsustainable retirement-benefit liabilities and mounting general-obligation debt.

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

Former campaign official pleads guilty to hacking emails of NM governor

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-06-16 18:10

PLEADS GUILTY TO HACKING EMAILS: Former campaign manager Jamie Estrada leaves the U.S. District Courthouse in Albuquerque after pleading guilty to hacking the email account of Gov. Susana Martinez. Photo by New Mexico Watchdog.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

ALBUQUERQUE – Federal prosecutors say it was a 21st political crime with an old-fashioned result.

The former campaign manager for Republican Gov. Susana Martinez pleaded guilty in federal court of hacking into the emails belonging to the Martinez camp, passing them on to political opponents and then lying about it to FBI agents.

“We as citizens in the community, we have an expectation of privacy when we receive an email, when we send an email, and it’s wrong for anybody to unlawfully intercept that email and redirect it, which is what occurred in this case,” U.S. Attorney Damon P. Martinez, District of New Mexico, told New Mexico Watchdog after Jamie Estrada entered into a plea agreement to unlawful interception of wire communications intended for others and false statement charges — each felonies.

Estrada faces up to one year and one day in prison plus potential fines. Sentencing is expected within the next 75 days in Albuquerque.

Why did he do it? Estrada did not speak to reporters after making his plea before federal magistrate Judge Lorenzo Garcia.

“I can’t speak for Jamie Estrada,” Damon Martinez said.

But when Estrada was first indicted last year, Gov. Martinez accused him of hacking into the email account after he was let go by the Martinez campaign and then passing the intercepted emails to her political opponents out of spite.

“I knew the defendant to be a man of suspect character,” Martinez said in a statement May 30, 2013. “That is why I fired him from my campaign in 2009 and why I rejected him for a position within my administration after being elected.”

Estrada at first pleaded not guilty, saying that the Martinez administration officials were trying to “divert attention from their own improper actions,” including charges of trying to rig the bid for a contract at the Albuquerque Downs racino, something the Martinez administration vociferously denied.

In Monday’s plea agreement, Estrada admitted, “I gave the emails to Governor Martinez’s political opponents knowing that certain emails would be disseminated to others.”

Damon Martinez would not say whether any of the recipients of the intercepted emails are being investigated.

“We’re here to talk about the Jamie Estrada case,” he said.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, Estrada accessed the email account in July of 2011 by using a fictitious name and renewed the account using a prepaid gift card to cover his tracks. He then changed the domain’s settings so that he would receive the emails instead of the recipients in the Martinez camp. The Attorney’s Office says the intercepted communications included personal emails, internal political communications and emails from ordinary citizens.

“That violation is very similar to wire tapping,” Special Agent Carol K.O. Lee of the Albuquerque Division of the FBI, said.

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s New Mexico Watchdog video of U.S. Attorney Martinez talking about the Estrada plea on Monday:

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

Federal energy nominee from NM runs into static

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-06-16 12:26

NOMINATION AT BAY: Norman Bay of New Mexico has been nominated as the new chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission but he’s running into resistance.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – The nomination of New Mexico’s Norman Bay is hitting turbulence on Capitol Hill, even though President Obama wants Bay as chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is lobbying for him.

“I’m not opposing his nomination, but there are legitimate questions about his ability to lead FERC,” said William Yeatman, a specialist on environmental regulation and energy markets at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Bay’s potential chairmanship also has received pointed questions from Democrats as well as Republicans on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“I think he needs the experience to have regulatory experience to become an effective chairman,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, told the Wall Street Journal last week. “I don’t think anyone has been in that position who hasn’t had regulatory experience.”

Since 2009, Bay has served as the head of FERC’s law enforcement division but has never served as a commissioner at FERC.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has expressed her own reservations about whether Bay has the relevant experience to run the commission. Bay comes from a legal background, serving for 11 years as an assistant U.S. attorney and spending one year as U.S. attorney in the District of New Mexico in 2001.

“I don’t know if that’s the sort of bedrock experience one wants,” Yeatman said.

While most Americans aren’t very familiar with FERC, it regulates the country’s electric-grid and energy infrastructure, such as pipelines, and 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.

The committee was supposed to vote on Bay’s nomination Thursday, but that was delayed until this coming Wednesday. The hearings have become an inside-the-Beltway fight between pro-energy members of the committee and Reid, who is not on the committee but exerts great influence as Senate leader.

FERC’s current chairwoman is Cheryl LaFleur, but Reid is opposed to keeping her on. In fact, Reid has blocked two potential nominees to FERC’s top spot before settling on Bay.

“He’s been pushing hard for Bay for chairman,” Yeatman told New Mexico Watchdog in a telephone interview Monday. “That’s been acknowledged” by committee chairwoman Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana. “He’s exerted a similar degree of control over the Nuclear Regulatory Commission … There’s a lot of mystery to that. Nobody is quite sure what his motivations are.”

Reid has expressed his desire to grow renewable energy in his home state.

When asked by the Wall Street Journal whether his influence has been appropriate, Reid turned sarcastic.

“Oh really? No kidding,” Reid said. “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.”

There’s speculation that, as a compromise measure, the committee will bring back LaFleur as chairwoman for up to one year while Bay could be nominated as a commissioner until he gains enough experience to take over as chairman.

“It would seem that the stars are aligned for (Bay to get voted as commissioner instead of chairman),” Yeatman said, “and for the committee to say, ‘You can get on FERC, no problem, but given these times, you shouldn’t be the chairman of FERC. We’re going to keep Cheryl LaFleur in charge of that.”

Complicating things for Bay are accusations from former FERC General Counsel William Scherman that the agency’s law enforcement division — headed by Bay — has failed to produce legal documents concerning investigations. Bay says that’s not true.

“This is a former FERC general counsel (Scherman), a lawyer, he’s not allowed to lie,” Yeatman said. “Norman Bay’s a lawyer, he’s not allowed to lie. But one of the two is lying.”

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

VIDEO: What now for Mora County’s fracking ban?

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Sun, 2014-06-15 17:06

WHAT NOW?: The defeat of a commissioner in a rural New Mexico county could mean big trouble for the fracking ban the county passed a year ago.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

One of the country’s strictest — and controversial — bans on hydraulic fracturing may be in jeopardy.

Earlier this month, voters in Mora County ousted the man who spearheaded an ordinance giving the local government the power to permanently keep the entire county’s 1,933 square miles off-limits to any development of hydrocarbons — something critics say eradicates private property rights. The ban also prohibits hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking.”

The defeat of commissioner John Olivas by more than 25 points to George Trujillo, could mean trouble for the ban, which has plunged the county into two potentially expensive lawsuits.

Rob Nikolewski, editor of New Mexico Watchdog, talked about the implications the Olivas defeat may have on the ban while appearing last Friday on the public affairs program, New Mexico In Focus, seen across most of the state on New Mexico PBS.

Nikolewski was joined by Julie Ann Grimm, the editor of the Santa Fe Reporter, and host Gene Grant:

Click here to read more about the Mora County election and what it may mean for the fracking ban.

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

Editorial: NM House races are where the action is this fall

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Sat, 2014-06-14 22:01

Rob Nikolewski. Photo by Santa Fe New Mexican/Clyde Mueller

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – The Democratic donkey in New Mexico may be feeling little like Eeyore, judging from some of the comments from the blue end the political spectrum in the wake of Gary King taking the party primary.

Here’s a sample of the comments posted on the Santa Fe New Mexican website accompanying stories of King’s November matchup with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez:

“Maybe the TV commercial bombardment from Martinez will lighten-up, being that she won’t need to spend even half her millions to beat King.”

“I think the state would be better off with anyone else [than Martinez], although I admit I am not crazy about King.”

“I am a long term Democrat, and I will not vote for this self-serving incompetent.”

Ouch.

But there’s plenty of time between now and November and, in a state where Democrats outnumbered Republicans in 2012, 49 percent to 35, King still has a puncher’s chance of delivering a knockout, even if the two-term attorney general doesn’t exactly inspire Beatlemania among party regulars.

But while the governor’s race may move to the background, the fight for control of the state House of Representatives figures to take on greater significance.

Republicans haven’t held the majority in the House since 1953 — when Dwight Eisenhower swept into the White House with coattails so long they extended all the way to Santa Fe. I should say I’m making that presumption about Ike’s influence because I’m hard-pressed to find any members of that Roundhouse class who aren’t dead.

Put it this way: It’s been so long since the GOP had the majority that Nick Salazar wasn’t even serving in the House then.

The Martinez camp would like nothing more than to cap a victory in November by seeing Republicans take control of the House but it’s an uphill climb.

Talking privately last week, a retiring Republican in the House told me the chances of a GOP takeover are “about 25 percent.”

Right now, Democrats have a 37-33 lead in the House. A net gain of two for Republicans would mean a 35-35 tie and a net gain of three would get them to the majority.

That sounds simple enough but it’s a lot harder than it looks.

First, 21 of those seats are held by Democrats who are running unopposed. Sixteen Republicans are unopposed.

That leaves 33 races up for grabs. Of that, 13 are Democratic incumbents, many from safe districts.

There are two Democrats who are running for the first time (Matthew McQueen in District 50 and Mariaelana Johnson in District 53) but they’re looking to succeed Democrats who used to hold those seats (Stephen Easley and Nate Cote, respectively).

Plus, Republicans can’t afford to lose any seats they already have.

Three House Republicans won very close elections in 2012 (Kelly Fajardo, Paul Pacheco, Terry McMillan) and figure to have tough fights ahead of them this year too.

In addition to that, Sharon Clahchischilliage won two years ago up in the Four Corners area after Democrat Ray Begaye self-destructed following a scandal over double-billing expenses. Democrats are running a different candidate this year so the road for Clahchischilliage figures to be tougher.

GOP loyalists counter by saying a number of Democrats (Emily Kane, Stephanie Garcia Richard and Elizabeth Thomson, for instance) escaped with close wins in 2012 and a big Martinez victory could carry Republicans over the top.

But here’s something to ponder: The elections could be so close that that one party could conceivably win six or seven of those toss-up races. If that happened in the Democrats’ favor, their lead in the House could grow to 40-30 or more. Conversely, if Republicans got all the breaks, they could get the majority with one or two seats to spare.

So while the governor’s race may seem a bit dull right now, the Roundhouse race for the House figures to be intense. And that will mean plenty of hardnosed campaigns — with plenty of money getting spent — between now an Nov. 4.

This column originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican on June 15, 2014. You can contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

New Mexico’s debate over a chicken and a mouse

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-06-13 09:04

A CHICKEN, A MOUSE AND A CONTROVERSY: The federal government’s listings to protect the lesser prairie chicken and the meadow jumping mouse have angered some in New Mexico.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — Welcome to New Mexico, where a colorful chicken and a very small mouse are causing a big ruckus.

On Tuesday, four counties in New Mexico joined in a lawsuit complaining about the U.S. Department of Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listing the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species.

The announcement came just one day after the Fish and Wildlife Service declared the meadow jumping mouse should be protected under the Endangered Species Act, giving it greater habitat protection but angering ranchers in a southern New Mexico county who are odds with the federal government over water and property rights.

“Yes, New Mexico has become a focal point,” said Bryan Bird, program director for WildEarth Guardians, an environmental group based in Santa Fe that hailed both decisions. “On the one hand, we’re blessed to have these beautiful, unusual animals in our state, but on the other hand, we’ve mistreated our lands so badly that they require” listings to protect them.

Critics of the meadow jumping mouse listing say the federal government moved too quickly.

“Once again, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service chose to cater to big-city radical special interests instead of protecting our jobs, and ignored the fact that conservation and economic growth are not mutually exclusive,” Rep. Steve Pearce, R-New Mexico, said in a statement.

In the meantime, officials from Eddy, Roosevelt, Lea and Chavez counties — in the heart of New Mexico’s oil patch — joined a lawsuit filed in federal court in Texas by the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, claiming the decision to protect the lesser prairie chicken puts too heavy a burden on the industry and accusing the feds of not following correct procedures when they made the listing.

“Historically, there have been at least three times when scientists have believed the bird was truly on the verge of extinction,” Ben Shepperd, president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, told KWES-TV. “What the data shows now is that the birds’ numbers and range of habitat have continued to grow although they’ve slowed down some during this period of extended drought.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service says the population of the chicken — known for its energetic clucking and strutting during mating — has been reduced by 50 percent since 2012.

Protecting the habitat for the meadow jumping mouse led the U.S. Forest Service in Otero County, in southern New Mexico, into an ongoing dispute with local ranchers.

The Forest Service reinforced the padlocks at a creek to keep cattle from drinking, saying the herds risk trampling on the area where the mouse lives.

But a group of ranchers say while the Forest Service may have access to the land along the creek, it doesn’t hold the water rights and complain the federal government is overstepping its authority.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” Blair Dunn, an attorney for Otero County, told New Mexico Watchdog after a meeting last month failed to reach a compromise. “In the past when we’ve had drought and problems the Forest Service came and opened the gate … but they didn’t have any interest in doing that.”

LAY OFF THE LIZARD: In 2012, the federal government decided not to list the dunes sagebrush lizard as an endangered species.

“Some might say, ‘why do we need to worry about a mouse?’” Bird said. “This mouse is like the canary in the coal mine. It represents the health of our streams and rivers in the state of New Mexico. If we don’t have healthy streams and rivers, nobody will thrive in the state.”

Just two years ago, many of the same parties were fighting over a different species — the dunes sagebrush lizard.

Efforts to protect the three-inch lizard, whose habitat stretches from southeastern New Mexico to West Texas, threatened to put restrictions on oil and gas production in the area.

But in June 2012, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar decided against listing the lizard as endangered after the industry and local ranchers agreed to a series of conservation agreements.

So far, the kind of compromise that worked for the lizard hasn’t been reached for the chicken or the mouse.

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

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