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After two months, an uneasy coexistence at NM immigration facility continues

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-08-15 14:02

TWO MONTHS ON: The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, N.M. has been renovated to house up to 700 women and children who entered the U.S. illegally.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

It’s been nearly two months since the federal government decided to send up to 700 women and children who entered the U.S. illegally to a facility in Artesia, a town of just more than 10,000 in southeast New Mexico.

The progress report, says the town’s mayor, is a bit mixed.

“I guess things are going as well as they could be,” Mayor Phil Burch told New Mexico Watchdog in a telephone interview Thursday morning.

That’s hardly a ringing endorsement but, on the other hand, it’s not as if Burch and city leaders had a lot of say in the matter.

In late June, thousands of immigrants entered the U.S., many willingly turning themselves into Border Patrol agents. Nearly all migrated from countries in Central America; it’s been estimated that more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors have come across the border since October.

Scrambling for potential solutions, the federal government, led by the U.S. Homeland Security Department in conjunction with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, looked at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center as a way to house and process the flow of humanity.

In Artesia for nearly 30 years, FLETC trains future agents for the Border Patrol and other federal agencies. On June 17, federal officials told Burch about the plan to house women and children up to the age of 17 in converted dormitories on the center’s property. The immigrants arrived later that month.

MAKING DO: Phil Burch, the mayor of Artesia, says the federal employees at FLETC are doing a good job but there is still a sense of anxiety about the facility. Photo by Rob Nikolewski.

New Mexico Watchdog wanted to get reaction from federal officials about the progress at FLETC, but multiple emails and voice mail messages went unreturned.

“The stated purpose of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center is to train law enforcement personnel,” Burch said. “Anything other than that, in my mind, takes the focus off of what they’re there for. Personally, I was opposed to it … but I realize they’ve been fulfilling the mission they’ve been given.”

There have been some bumps, though.

Some of the issues include:

Health

Burch said the residents’ quarters are still under a 21-day quarantine after two cases of chicken pox were discovered. Burch said no new residents have been added until the quarantine is lifted. That’s expected to come Aug. 21. “It’s been pretty quiet because of that,” said Burch, who said the facility’s population is down to 542.

Education

Federal law mandates children at public facilities receive an education. Burch, who attends weekly meetings at FLETC, said Thursday officials are choosing among three bidders. “I would doubt it would be a public school,” Burch said. On Tuesday, the superintendent of the Artesia Public Schools told New Mexico Watchdog the school district is not one of the bidders, and he understands that any instruction will be conducted on the FLETC site. Burch said instruction should begin in about two weeks

Deportations

Shortly after it opened, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson toured the facility and announced that about 40 immigrants would be flown back to their countries of origin. Burch said those deportations have continued, as people are processed in and out of the facility. Burch said a FLETC report July 29 said 209 people had been repatriated. Eighty-five more were sent back last week — 19 to Honduras, 26 to Guatemala and 40 to El Salvador. Burch said all 85 were cleared of carrying chicken pox.

Costs

Burch said local officials have been assured the federal government will pick up all costs, but he added, “There are costs. They’re difficult to quantify.” For example, Burch said FLETC agrees to pick up medical costs incurred by the residents through Medicare. But Medicare payment rates frequently don’t match the cost of services. “That void is there and we haven’t been told how it’s going to be dealt with,” Burch said.

How long the immigration facility will stay

When it opened, federal officials said they expected the facility to remain open for six to 12 months but Burch — and other local lawmakers — have their doubts. “My own opinion is they will keep this facility in operation until somebody controls the border,” Burch said. “Until the flow of mothers and children is stopped, they’ll have to send them some place. My suspicion is that until the federal government does something to control the border, nothing is going to stem the flow.”

Artesia has not been the site of protests seen in other parts of the country because, Burch said, some of the town’s major concerns have been addressed and he gives officials at the facility high marks for professionalism. But there’s still a level of anxiety.

“The community, while it’s more comfortable about security issues and medical issues than it was six or eight weeks ago, they’re still on edge,” Burch said. “But by and large, they’re tolerating it pretty well.”

A second town hall meeting is scheduled Thursday, hosted by elected officials in Artesia and Eddy County.

Sunday, a prayer rally will be held by an immigrants rights group and eight religious organizations in front of FLETC, protesting the deportations.

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

Who’s teaching the kids at New Mexico’s immigration facility?

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Thu, 2014-08-14 10:20

QUESTIONS REMAIN: Immigrant children at the federal facility in Artesia, N.M., will receive educational instruction but the details are still up in the air.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – The school year is about to start for kids across New Mexico.

And the same goes for the children staying in the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, N.M., which has been remodeled to house up to 700 immigrants, nearly all of whom came to the U.S. from Central America.

But who has been contracted to teach and how much it will cost is not so easy to discover.

New Mexico Watchdog has emailed and called federal officials at the facility multiple times, as well as left messages with the office of Artesia Mayor Phil Burch, but we haven’t gotten a response.

Shortly after the FLETC facility was refurbished in late June to accommodate the immigrants, officials at with the U.S. Homeland Security Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement told elected officials in the Artesia area the children would receive educational instruction.

Few specifics were spelled out.

“As of last Tuesday, they said the education question was still on the table,” said J.R. Doporto, a city councilor from nearby Carlsbad who attends weekly meetings HSD and ICE officials hold with local lawmakers. “It is slated to be done with a contractor, but that’s all I know.”

The superintendent at Artesia Public Schools on Tuesday said his school district will not be involved.

“We have nothing to do with educating any of those students,” superintendent Crit Caton said in a brief telephone interview. “It’s all in-house, with ICE … As a matter of fact, they haven’t asked anything from us, services, whatever. They’re doing everything in-house, within their confines.”

Update 10:15 a.m.: Burch called New Mexico Watchdog Thursday morning and said he’s been told that federal officials at FLETC are considering three bids from contractors to supply the educational component for children at the facility. Burch said he’s been told it will take “a couple of weeks” until instruction begins.

Dennis Kintigh, the mayor of Roswell, 41 miles north of the facility, took a tour of the site along with other local officials Aug. 5. Kintigh said he picked up some details during the tour, but also said the federal officials should be more forthcoming.

“Silence results in rumors and all kinds of myths and legends circulate,” Kintigh said. “You do not combat falsehoods with silence. You prevent falsehoods with truth.”

But as far as the running the facility and questions about safety, Greg Fouratt, secretary of New Mexico’s Department of Public Safety, gave federal officials high marks.

“They have allayed any concerns that any reasonable person could have about security,” said Fouratt, who has toured the facility three times. “They are managing this population very effectively … I have to say I’m proud of the Homeland Security people and the job they’re doing. It really is a first-class operation.”

Shortly after the facility opened, some 40 adults and children were deported back to their home countries.

Two cases of chicken pox led to a quarantine that Kintigh said put a temporary halt to the flights, but Kintigh said the quarantine has been lifted and repatriation flights out of the Roswell airport have resumed.

There was concern about tuberculosis, Doporto told New Mexico Watchdog, but no positive cases turned up on X-ray examinations. “They said they were bringing in some X-ray machines on site,” said Doporto. “They were slated to be online this week.”

An estimated 53,000 unaccompanied minors, most from Central America, have entered the U.S. in recent months. The facility in Artesia houses women and children but no adult men.

The feds are obligated to provide educational instruction to the children.

“There is a federal law that any juvenile who is federal custody or who is in the kind of custody where federal money is spent, there is a requirement that these kids are educated, no matter whether they are there for a week or a year,” Fouratt said.

In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 ruled that withholding state money for children who are in the country illegally violates the equal protection clause of the Fourth Amendment.

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

New Mexico moves up to No. 5 in U.S. oil reserves

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-08-12 11:57

UP TO NO. 5: An annual study shows New Mexico increased its oil reserves 11.4 percent in the space of one year. Photo by Rob Nikolewski.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Move over, Oklahoma. New Mexico has regained its position as the fifth-richest oil state in the country.

In an annual report of the top 10 oil states put together by the financial website 24/7 Wall St., New Mexico supplanted the Sooner State with 965 million barrels of proved oil reserves.

That’s an 11.4 percent increase over the previous year’s total of 866 million barrels. “A new oil field and 170 extensions in 2012 also buoyed oil production,” wrote the editors at 24/7 Wall St., who based their survey on numbers compiled at the end of 2012 by the International Energy Agency.

In last year’s report, New Mexico slipped from No. 5 to No. 6, but the oil boom in the Permian Basin, which extends from West Texas into eastern New Mexico, put the Land of Enchantment back into the fifth-highest spot.

“I’m not surprised at all,” said Dan Steffens, president of the Energy Prospectus Group in Houston. “You’re getting production of 1,000-1,500 barrels a day in the Delaware Basin,” which is located in the western edge of the Permian Basin.

Oklahoma actually saw its oil reserves increase by 55 million barrels in 2012, but it couldn’t keep up with the increase New Mexico made.

Here’s a look at the Top 10:

North Dakota made the biggest gain over last year’s numbers, leaping past California and Alaska to take over the No. 2 spot. North Dakota is home to the Bakken shale formation, which has proved to be one of the world’s most productive oil fields due in large part to advances in hydraulic fracturing.

“This is all technology driven,” Steffens said of the boom in the Permian. “It’s all horizontal drilling that’s doing it. That and tight (geological) formations.”

Overall, U.S. states turned in a banner year, combining to amass more than 30.5 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, up 15 percent from the end of 2011.

“As new technologies make oil easier and more affordable to extract, the United States is poised to become the world’s leading oil producer as soon as 2015,” 24/7 Wall St. said.

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

As Armstrong heads to NM Legislature, conflict-of-interest questions arise

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-08-12 11:55

POTENTIAL CONFLICTS?: Debbie Armstrong runs the day-to-day operations of New Mexico’s high-risk insurance pool. She’s also about to become a member of the state legislature.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – Debbie Armstrong will become a member of the New Mexico Legislature in January.

She’s also running the state’s high-risk insurance pool.

Is that a potential conflict of interest?

Armstrong doesn’t think so, but her status will soon be a topic of conversation when the board at the New Mexico Medical Insurance Pool meets next month.

“Conflict of interest is a really important thing in New Mexico, to make sure we keep credibility in government in what we do,” said John Franchini, the state’s Superintendent of Insurance and chairman of the NMMIP board.

“Anytime that you’re looking at government spending with folks that are going to benefit from that, I think it deserves a higher level of scrutiny,” Jason Sandel, one of the board’s members, told New Mexico Watchdog.

Armstrong won the Democratic Party primary in June in House District 17 in Albuquerque. She has no Republican opponent in the November general election so she has a clear path to become a member of the Legislature when it convenes a 60-day session in January 2015.

She’s president of Delta Consulting Group, which won an extension worth up to $600,000 in March to manage the high-risk insurance pool for the state. Click here to read the New Mexico Watchdog story about that.

As executive director of the pool, Armstrong is in charge of the day-to-day operations of NMMIP, which was created by the New Mexico Legislature and, according to Sandel, handles $250 million annually. The pool serves about 5,600 patients.

“This is not a contract with the state,” Armstrong said. “The pool is not a state agency. It receives no state appropriations.”

Armstrong said the high-risk pool is about 25 percent funded through premiums, a “very small federal grant” and the rest is paid for by insurance carriers in the state who take part.

“I fully expect to recuse myself (in legislative votes) if there’s anything directly related to the pool and, potentially, my contract,” Armstrong said.

“I don’t have a definitive opinion yet,” said Gabriel Parra, staff attorney for Presbyterian Healthcare Services and a member of the NMMIP board. “My thought on it is, because we have a citizen-based Legislature, we should understand what are the rules when anyone — an insurance professional, a lawyer, anyone else — is in the Legislature and has an opportunity to vote on matters that affect them. We should look through that.”

CHANGING THE POOL: Any changes to the New Mexico Medical Insurance Pool, which has 5,600 patients, will probably need to go through the Legislature.

Members of the New Mexico Legislature do not receive salaries, but they do get a $159 per diem and are reimbursed for travel.

Armstrong said she would not recuse herself from health care issues that don’t affect NMMIP.

“That’s my area of expertise,” she said. Armstrong was secretary of the New Mexico Aging and Long Term Services Department under Gov. Bill Richardson from 2004-2007. “I won’t stay out of health care (issues) in general but certainly anything that would directly impact the pool and impact my contract with the pool, I would recuse myself from.”

Officials at Delta Consulting have close ties to the Democratic Party in the state.

One of the co-founders at Delta is Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012 and is running for re-election this fall. According to Lujan Grisham’s campaign website, she used to be president and co-founder at Delta.

“She and I started Delta Consulting,” Amstrong said. “She is still a part owner but she has no operational authority at all. She’s not the board, not an officer, nothing.”

Armstrong told New Mexico Watchdog she took leave from Delta to help Lujan Grisham run her state office but “I don’t do anything official for Michelle anymore.”

Armstrong said she has placed her daughter on Delta’s board and that Lujan Grisham has placed one of her own daughters on the board. “It’s an unpaid board,” Armstrong said.

In addition, the CEO at Delta, Reena Szczepanski, is executive director of Emerge New Mexico, an organization that recruits Democratic women to run for office in the state.

“We’ve been engaged in politics,” Armstrong said. “Our work at Delta has been to do a little bit of work, mostly to manage a nonprofit organization, providing health care, health insurance … That’s how I make my business, which is not political.”

One potential issue is the existence of the state’s high-risk pool itself.

With the passing of the Affordable Care Act, about half of the 35 states that constructed high-risk insurance pools have eliminated — or in the process off eliminating — them because one of the major provisions in “Obamacare” prohibits insurance companies from denying patients policies if they have pre-existing conditions.

Any move to shut down the pool, Franchini said, would probably need to go through the Legislature.

In fact, any changes at all to the NMMIP — for instance, there is no requirement that recipients have to be U.S. citizens — may have to be made by the Legislature.

“How we deal with them is really a question for the Legislature because the statute doesn’t give us the authority to exclude them,” Parra said.

Franchini said he expects the NMMIP board to discuss Armstrong’s status in September.

“We will address this and we will get professional opinions from our attorneys as to how she should proceed,” Franchini said.

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

Editorial: Bringing back SNAP requirements not too much to ask

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-08-11 08:48

A MODEST PROPOSAL: New Mexico’s Human Services Department wants to bring back work requirements for those receiving food stamps.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Work should not be a four-letter word, even when it comes to getting food stamps.

New Mexico’s Human Services Department plans on reinstating requirements in place before 2009 for people who receive food stamps under the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

HSD wants some — not all — of the recipients to look for work, attend a job training program or perform community service to keep their SNAP benefits.

Some anti-poverty groups are calling foul.

“We definitely think when you expand the number of people subject to mandatory work requirements, you’re obviously going to expand the number of people who can’t comply and who will be sanctioned out,” Louise Pocock, an attorney with New Mexico Center on Law Poverty, told KOB-TV.

But wait a minute. The rule won’t be forcing young mothers to abandon their toddlers. It won’t apply to disabled people who use food stamps, or the elderly.

The only people affected will be able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 59. Teenagers 16 and 17 who get SNAP benefits have to prove they’re in school or in a jobs training program.

According to HSD spokesman Matt Kennicott, if you’re a single parent with a child younger than 6, you’re exempt.

If you are receiving unemployment benefits, you’re exempt.

If you’re a college student — even if you’re only in school part-time — you’re exempt. Pregnant women are exempt.

If you have a low-paying job, you don’t have to apply for a better-paying job to keep your benefits.

If you’re a single parent with a kid older than 6, you have to prove you’re looking for a job but you can skip the jobs training and community service requirements.

All told, it will affect about 26,600 of the 420,000 in New Mexico who receive SNAP benefits.

They won’t be required to work a 40-hour work week, but rather spend 20 hours a week in one of the three programs for which they’re eligible.

But there aren’t any jobs, critics say.

HSD officials counter by saying they will assign case workers to the SNAP recipients to help. If they still can’t find work, the food stamps won’t end, but people must stay in the program to keep them. HSD will also supply child care assistance and a transportation reimbursement.

Welfare is “a second chance, not a way of life,” Bill Clinton said in 1993. In 1996 he signed legislation tying work requirements to government assistance. The requirements for SNAP benefits were suspended after the economic downturn.

The plan introduced by HSD simply reinstates the requirements that were on the books.

Yes, the New Mexico economy is in dumps, but there should be an incentive for able-bodied people to improve their economic situations. When you receive unemployment benefits, you have to turn in documentation to the Department of Workforce Solutions showing you’re making a good-faith effort to find work before getting a check.

If that’s not an undue burden, the HSD requirements hardly seem unreasonable, even in tough times.

The overwhelming majority of people receiving welfare benefits are honest people who need some help.

But, just as in any program, a handful abuse the system.

Here in New Mexico, Watchdog reporter Jim Scarantino two years ago discovered that in a two-month period, electronic benefit transfer cards were used at liquor stores, casinos, strip clubs and smoke shops — including a hookah lounge. Somebody even made an EBT withdrawal at a ski resort.

Taxpayers have a right to expect their tax dollars are spent efficiently and wisely. If money is being wasted on military spending or political cronyism or building projects or anti-poverty programs, the government you pay for has an obligation to root it out.

That’s not being mean-spirited. That’s being a good steward of the public’s dollars.

This editorial first appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican on Aug. 10, 2014. Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Can charter schools help fix public education?

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-08-08 14:00

CHARTER SCHOOL CHAMPION: Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute believes charter schools can help improve the quality of public education in the U.S. Photo by Rob Nikolewski.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

ALBUQUERQUE — The American education system is under fire for inconsistent — and often lackluster — results.

Last December, for example, U.S. students didn’t crack the top 20 in an international study of 65 countries.

In results compiled every three years by the Program for International Student Assessment, U.S. students ranked below average in math and about average in reading and science compared to other developed countries.

Rick Hess believes charter schools can help reverse that trend.

“For me, the way you take a lousy college team and turn them into a good team is not by saying, ‘We want to go 12-0,’ but, how do we do things better,” said Hess, a former high school social studies teacher who is now the resident scholar and director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C.

“So rather than worry about grand progress for the U.S., my attitude is let the charters take care of their business and educate their kids well. If good charter schools expand and serve more kids, little by little they’re going to help the performance of all our children and U.S. performance will improve.”

Hess argued the public education model is outdated and broken.

“I think the big challenges to American education are, we’ve got systems that just weren’t built to educate all of our children to a high level in this century,” said Hess, who spoke to about 50 people in Albuquerque on Tuesday. “They were built around a labor force that has changed due to changes in work opportunities for professional women and the behaviors of college graduates.”

As examples, Hess cited a few statistics:

*In the 1800s, 90 percent of teachers in the United States were men

*In 1900, just 1 in 10 Americans graduated from high school

*And it wasn’t until 1970 that 90 percent of students in the country showed up for school every day

“We haven’t yet figured out how to build a system that actually works given the realities of the 21st century,” Hess said.

Hess, who also writes a blog for Education Week magazine, is a big proponent of school choice, especially charter schools, although he’s quick to say there’s no quick and easy fix.

“There’s no magic there,” he told New Mexico Watchdog after his speech at a luncheon sponsored by New Mexico’s free-market think tank, the Rio Grande Foundation.

Charter schools, which are sometimes called magnet schools, receive public funding, but they operate independently and often offer emphasis in programs such as arts or sciences.

They’re relatively new — Minnesota was the first state to pass a law creating them in 1991 — but they have their critics, especially among public school teachers unions.

One of the knocks is that charter schools don’t perform appreciably better than traditional district schools.

“I would find that (criticism) much more compelling if, A) charters weren’t spending a whole lot less per kid than district schools and if B) we didn’t see hundreds or thousands of examples of charter schools that used their autonomy to do the kinds of things for kids who need them that district schools find much more difficult to do,” said Hess, author of seven books on education, including “The Same Thing Over and Over.”

In New Mexico, the school that received the top ranking from the U.S. News and World Report was a charter school — the Albuquerque Institute of Math and Science.

On the other hand, Hess told the audience Tuesday “there are some awful charter schools.”

In just the past week, the FBI seized documents from a consortium of four charter schools in Albuquerque. The state auditor charges that two of the schools spent $1.1 million since 2008 to lease aircraft from a company owned by the school’s head administrator.

“What charter schools should do is bring out schools that are lighting it up and encourage them and get rid of those that are not lighting it up,” Hess said.

“I think the key is to rethink and reimagine how we operate and deliver schooling in the 21st century,” Hess said. “You can imagine doing this wholesale (but) it’s enormously difficult to do and so voucher and charter and tuition tax credit models and such are one important way to open the door for that kind of rethinking.”

Here are some excerpts of the New Mexico Watchdog interview with Hess:

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

Tourism Department plays hard to get with ‘The Bachelor’

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-08-06 12:58

PLAYING HARD TO GET: The New Mexico Tourism Department is waiting before committing $50,000 to lure ‘The Bachelor.’ But the Santa Fe City Council has already promised up to $100,000.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – The Santa Fe City Council may have committed up to $100,000 of taxpayer money to try to lure the ABC-TV reality show “The Bachelor” to tape its upcoming season in the state capital, but the New Mexico Tourism Department is playing hard to get.

“We’re not going to commit $50,000 to a project that we don’t know is going to happen,” Tourism’s Communications Director Rebecca Latham said.

There have been reports the Tourism Department already had committed $50,000 in the hopes of getting the producers of “The Bachelor” to come to New Mexico, but Latham told New Mexico Watchdog last week the department has made no decision on whether to jump into the bidding.

“Until we hear what’s set, we’re not going to make any firm committment,” Latham said Wednesday morning.

Latham said other cities are in the running to land the show, which has been on the air since 2002 and has spawned similar versions in 13 other countries, but didn’t know how many other contenders are in the race.

The show’s producers “hold all this stuff really close to the vest,” Latham said. “They’re the ones holding all the cards. ”

Santa Fe already has put up money to lure the reality show.

Last week, the Santa Fe City Council voted to commit at least $50,000 and up to $100,000 to the project even though there’s no guarantee the producers will choose the City Different.

The council vote was close (5-4) with proponents saying the show’s estimated audience of 14.3 million will give Santa Fe worldwide publicity.

But critics question the potential economic impact and the use of taxpayer dollars on a venture that may not come to fruition. The comments pages and letters to the editor accompanying the stories of the city council’s decision have been overwhelmingly negative.

“This is so stupid,” said Santa Fe resident Jill Meyer. “We have so many other needs in Santa Fe.”

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

Despite Obamacare, NM’s high-risk insurance pool stays afloat

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-08-05 16:43

THE POOL IS STILL AFLOAT: Since Obamacare is the law of the land, why does the New Mexico high-risk insurance pool still exist?

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — Earlier this year, the board at New Mexico’s high-risk insurance pool extended a contract worth up to $600,000 to an Albuquerque consulting group to run the day-to-day operations of the pool, which was designed to offer insurance to people who had trouble getting coverage.

But wasn’t the Affordable Care Act, colloquially called “Obamacare,” supposed to make high-risk insurance pools obsolete?

“I’ve been asking that for two years,” John Franchini, the New Mexico Superintendent of Insurance, said with a laugh. “I do know the federal Affordable Care Act says all these pools should be dissolved. But we have a problem in New Mexico. We have a statute that created the New Mexico Medical Insurance Pool and since that statute is active and in place, we have to make sure we don’t violate that.”

Franchini said his office is working on legislation to limit the pool’s population.

There are currently 5,600 patients in the New Mexico Medical Insurance Pool, Franchini said, compared to about 10,000 at the beginning of last year.

Franchini said he’d like to see the numbers reduced to “no more than 1,000 — that’s my expectation.”

But if the ACA prohibits insurance companies from denying patients with preexisting medical conditions, why does the pool still exist?

“I think the answer is: not every New Mexican can avail themselves of the Obamacare system,” said Gabriel Parra, staff attorney for Presbyterian Healthcare Services and a member of the NMMIP board. “We didn’t want to put New Mexicans at risk by kicking them out of the pool and we wanted to do that in a more thoughtful way.”

New Mexico isn’t alone.

According to the National Association of State Comprehensive Health Insurance Plans, 35 states had high-risk insurance plans before the ACA went into effect.

Of those, 12 states have eliminated their pools and six are the process of shutting them down, but 17 other states haven’t made any specific plans to drain their pools, so to speak. Click here to see the state-by-state breakdown.

But won’t there come a time when the existence of the pool is superfluous?

“That’s a matter of great debate among the board members,” said board vice chairman Jason Sandel. “Some folks feel like it needs to happen by Dec. 31, 2014. Others feel that, based upon the experience of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, that that period be extended to 2016.”

“I don’t think we’ll ever be down to zero because I think there will always be a few people in transition that are going to need a safety net for a short period of time,” said Franchini in a telephone interview with New Mexico Watchdog. “We have some people in the pool who have no other place to go.”

Examples include those who are under the age of 65 who are buying Medicare supplements through the pool and patients with severe kidney problems that are on dialysis.

There’s also another wrinkle: While those who are in the country illegally cannot sign up under the ACA, there are people who are not U.S. citizens in the New Mexico high-risk pool. That’s because there is no requirement for proof of citizenship, only for residency, to be eligible for the New Mexico plan.

Officials say most of the undocumented patients in the pool are sick children.

“We’re talking about over 200 children,” Franchini said. “We’re looking right now at how we’re going to have that funding source provide these same kind of coverages for these children outside of the pool … They’ll probably end up going to one to four insurance companies that will spread the risk.”

“Historically speaking, there has been no citizenship test to access care through the pool,” said Parra. “How we deal with them is really a question for the Legislature because the statute doesn’t give (the board) the authority … to exclude them.”

The New Mexico Medical Insurance Pool board of directors in March extended its contract with the Delta Consulting Group, based in Albuquerque, to continue managing the operation of state’s high risk pool.

Franchini said the contract pays Delta and its president and executive director of the pool, Debbie Armstrong, up to $600,000 — a $300,000 base package, plus another $300,000 in incentives to bring the numbers in the pool down to what the board considers to be a minimal level.

Not every member of the board thought a contract worth up to $600,000 was appropriate.

“I personally think that it’s a little much,” said Sandel, who voiced concerns over the bonus package. “There’s quite a bit of incentive built into that contract … to move people out of the pool.”

“For me, it really wasn’t an incentive to move them out as it was a recognition that as you move people out it takes work,” Armstrong said.

“The incentive program is a very fair one,” Franchini said. “It saves the medical insurance pool and the state of New Mexico huge amounts of money.”

Franchini said depopulating the pool could translate into savings of $80 million in premiums for insurance companies in the state. “It is very hard to do this work.”

As for the long-term existence of the pool in New Mexico, that’s still up in the air.

“We ought to be thoughtful and predictive on how we depopulate the pool, ” Sandel said. “In other words, that we don’t just hope people leave, that people begin to build an expectation of when it is that their coverage is going to end.”

“Our goal is to get this pool as small as possible as soon as possible,” Franchini said, “and get all those people into Medicaid or the state exchange.”

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

An MRAP switcheroo for Albuquerque police?

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-08-04 13:07

MAKING A CHANGE: The Albuquerque Police Department has applied for a $350,000 grant acquire an armored tactical vehicle called the MedCat.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Last week, the Albuquerque Police Department announced it was getting rid of its massive 45,000-pound Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle largely due to concerns over criticism about over-militarization.

But now, APD has disclosed it has already purchased one tactical vehicle and plans on obtaining another.

“There’s a lot of sensitivity about using a military vehicle and we understand those concerns and that’s why we’ve gone into the civilian market,” said Janet Blair, Albuquerque Police Department communications and community outreach director.

Over the weekend, APD told the Albuquerque Journal the department spent $240,000 two weeks ago to buy a bullet-proof skid loader called The Rook that APD will use in situations involving barricaded subjects and bomb threats.

In addition, APD is applying for a $350,000 grant to obtain what’s called a MedCat, an armored vehicle similar to an MRAP that carries medical equipment and will be used to transport SWAT team members. On Monday morning, Blair said she wasn’t sure from where the grant money is coming.

Update 5:51 p.m.: Blair said the money would come from a federal grant but added, “The MedCat is at least several months down the road and there’s no guarantee we’ll get it.” She also emphasized that the tactical vehicles are used for defensive purposes, “for the protection of police and any civilians who need to be rescued or assisted.”

“I think (the MedCat and The Rook) are a much better fit for police,” Albuquerque Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry said in the Journal article.

ON BOARD: While the Albuquerque Police Department will return its MRAP, it has already spent $240,000 on a bullet-proof skid loader called the Rook.

Is the decision to get rid of the MRAP, only to replace it with two other tactical vehicles, just administrative sleight of hand?

“These are civilian vehicles,” Blair said Monday morning. “Armored? Yes, they’re armored for civilian police use.”

Lifelong Albuquerque resident Linda Klauschie doesn’t see much difference.

“I think they are focusing on the wrong things,” Klauschie told New Mexico Watchdog. “The more aggressive the police approach, the more likely that the person they’re after is going to be aggressive. People react to aggression with aggression.”

APD has been the focus of a series of protests, triggered by the shooting death of a homeless man in March. Since 2010, Albuquerque police have shot and killed 27 people, and the U.S. Justice Department issued a report saying APD has a pattern of using excessive force.

Blair said Monday yet another tactical vehicle at APD’s disposal called the BearCat, which dates back to the 1970s, is being overhauled. Once that’s completed, the MRAP will be taken out of commission.

MRAPs have been used by the U.S. military in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. But with U.S. involvement in those war zones winding down, the Department of Defense is offering the mammoth vehicles to local police entities through the federal government’s 1033 program that oversees the dispersal of excess military equipment.

That’s led some critics to question whether local police forces are going overboard.

“There’s a blurring of the military mission and the civilian police mission and that is a dangerous thing,” Tim Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., told New Mexico Watchdog last week. “We want our civilian police departments not to lose sight of the fact that they are dealing with people on a day-to-day basis with constitutional rights, and we want them to use a minimum amount of force to bring suspects into a court of law.”

New Mexico police chiefs who have obtained MRAPs say the vehicles are useful.

“Being down here in a desert area, along the border, we have a lot of remote areas,” said Brandon Gigante, the chief of police in Deming, population 14,793. “We can offer assistance to agencies like the Border Patrol and help move people out, evacuate or rescue (people) out in the desert (who may be) dehydrated.”

According to records obtained by New Mexico Watchdog, 18 police entities in the state have acquired MRAPs, including the campus police department at New Mexico State University.

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

Why does ridesharing freak out some regulators?

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-08-04 10:05

THE RIDESHARING DEBATE: Regulators across the country are debating whether to treat ridesharing companies like Lyft and Uber the same as taxi cabs.

 

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Economist Matthew Mitchell says ridesharing companies make a lot of sense in places like Albuquerque, N.M., where he was born and grew up.

“There’s limited public transportation there and there are a bunch of drunk 20-year-olds on a typical Friday and Saturday night,” he says with a laugh.

But opponents, including regulators in various locales across the nation, aren’t laughing at all.

They insist companies like Uber, Sidecar and Lyft must abide by the same rules as taxi cab companies and, in some cases, they’re cracking down hard on the startups that use smartphone apps to attract passengers.

Case in point: The City Council in Washington, D.C., not only wanted to heavily regulate ridesharing companies, but proposed making them charge no less than five times what D.C. cab companies charge their customers.

So a $20 fare in a cab would cost a passenger using a ridesharing company at least $100?

“That’s right,” said Mitchell, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. “But these companies alerted their tech-savvy customers and within 24 hours, these tech-savvy customers inundated the City Council with about 20,000 complaints. City Council has never had that kind of reaction from anything they’ve ever proposed, and they withdrew their proposal.”

There are other examples.

Why the hard line?

“For some (regulators), they see this as a rule of law issue,” Mitchell said. “They say, hey, this is what the law says, we can’t just ignore the the law.”

But, Mitchell said, there’s something else at play — the concept of what public-choice economists call “regulatory capture.”

“It’s the idea that over time, regulatory bodies often end up seeing the world in much the same way as the industries they are regulating,” Mitchell said. “It doesn’t always have to be a nefarious (situation) where the taxi cab companies buy them off. Sometimes it’s just, well, the people you end up interacting with the most are the folks you’re regulating.”

In New Mexico, the Public Regulation Commission is wrestling over what to do as Uber and Lyft break into the Albuquerque market.

On one hand, the PRC has locked horns with Uber and Lyft — and even issued a cease and desist order against Lyft. There’s also been talk of using the New Mexico Department of Public Safety to enforce sanctions, including potential fines up to $10,000 per violation.

On the other hand, the commission also islooking at carving out new rules to allow ridesharing companies to operate in the state.

The PRC’s five commissioners appear divided.

“It’s a new, innovative idea,” said Commissioner Pat Lyons, “Let’s see how it works.”

But Commissioner Valerie Espinoza said ridesharing companies are no different than taxi cabs, limousines and van services.

“I’m all for competition,” she told New Mexico Watchdog, “but our first concern should be with public safety or it’s going to be a free-for-all.”

YOU CAN STILL CATCH A RIDE: Despite opposition from the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, two popular ride-sharing services are still operating in Albuquerque.

Neither Lyft nor Uber have received licenses from the PRC, but both companies are operating in Albuquerque. Lyft officials say drivers are taking “donations” when they pick up customers.

“If they want to operate legal, I welcome them,” said Commissioner Ben Hall. “But if you don’t want to operate legal, we don’t want you in our state.”

Ridesharing companies insist they’re entirely different than cab companies.

“Trying to regulate a ridesharing service like Lyft as if it were a taxi service is trying to put a square peg into a round hole,” Lyft spokeswoman Katie Dally said from the company’s headquarters in San Francisco.

Unlike hailing a cab from the street or calling a limo service and setting up an appointment, ridesharing companies work strictly through the free smartphone apps they offer to customers.

The app allows potential passengers to find the location of nearby drivers, track the length of the trip in distance and time and calculate the cost of a ride. Since the app transfers the fee from the user’s credit card, no cash changes hands.

The drivers are independent contractors and set their own work hours. The companies get paid by getting a percentage of the fares. Lyft, for example, makes 20 percent per transaction.

But cab companies say these are all distinctions without a difference.

“They’re taking people from Point A to Point B and charging them a fare,” said Raymond Sanchez, the former New Mexico speaker of the House, who is an attorney for Yellow Cab Co. of Albuquerque and a regular presence at PRC meetings where the ridesharing debate has gone on for more than two months. “They’re operating illegally. Go by the same rules everybody else is going by.”

One of the PRC lawyers last week cited a report of a ridesharing driver charged with assaulting a passenger in Washington, D.C.

“People are riding at their own risk,” Espinoza said. “The state has a responsibility to protect people.”

The ridesharing companies say their drivers all go through background checks and carry insurance. Lyft drivers carry $1 million primary liability policies, said spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson.

Ridesharing fans accuse critics of simply trying to block out competition and innovation.

“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,” said Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Albuquerque.

While ridesharing companies have been stiff-armed in some locales, they’re getting the green light in others. In the past month, the city of Seattle and the state of Colorado each passed rules allowing the companies to pick up passengers who often employ the companies’ high-tech rating system to instantly evaluate their experiences.

“You’re far from flying blind,” Mitchell said. “You’ll be able to ask 10,000 customers who rated a driver. If you don’t like what you see, you cancel it.”

In essence, the customers become the regulators.

“What they’ve managed to do with this rating system,” Mitchell said, “is provide a regulatory quality assurance that accomplishes what reams and reams regulations and 80 years of state regulations have never been able to achieve.”

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

Pick me! Santa Fe spends taxpayer money to lure ‘The Bachelor’

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-08-01 11:43

MONEY FOR ‘THE BACHELOR’: The City of Santa Fe and the New Mexico Tourism Department may spend up to $150,000 to try to lure the top-rated ABC reality show to the state capital.

 

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — The reality show “The Bachelor” is one of television’s highest-rated shows. But for Santa Fe taxpayers like Jill Meyer, the decision by the Santa Fe City Council to commit between $50,000-$100,000 to try to lure the producers of the show to the state capital is worthy of two thumbs “way down.”

“This is so stupid,” Meyer told New Mexico Watchdog. “We have so many other needs in Santa Fe.”

And a separate pile of money may come from the state.

The New Mexico Tourism Department is considering spending $50,000 of its own money to try to bring the production crew of the show, which features one bachelor choosing a potential wife from a pool of 25 women, to Santa Fe.

There have been reports the Tourism Department has already committed to the project, but Communications Director Rebecca Latham told New Mexico Watchdog on Thursday no final decision has been made.

“It’s still being discussed,” Latham said, adding, “There’s a huge potential for national media exposure.”

On Wednesday night, the city council voted 5-4 to approve a request from the Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau to commit at least $50,000 and potentially spend another $50,000 to negotiate with the show’s producers, in the hopes of bringing the show to Santa Fe for one season.

Supporters point to the show’s high ratings (14.3 million viewers) as a chance to market New Mexico’s capital city to a worldwide audience.

THE CITY DIFFERENT: Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in the United States.

“I don’t know that there’s anywhere else that we could ever spend $50,000 to get 14.3 million people to look at Santa Fe for an hour,” Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales was quoted saying in the Santa Fe New Mexican, while joining the councilors voting to approve the spending.

The four councilors who voted against the plan didn’t see it that way.

“It’s a terrible show, awful,” said Bill Dimas.

“This is real money,” Councilor Ron Trujillo said Thursday morning. “I’m all for economic development, but I think there are better uses of taxpayer money than spending it on a soap opera. I don’t know why people watch this show … Besides, Santa Fe’s already on a national stage.”

During the debate Wednesday night, Councilor Patti Bushee, who voted for the request, answered Trujillo’s criticism by saying, “Ron, can’t you just imagine the mariachis serenading? The final rose given out on the Plaza? Can you just imagine? The promotion? All of it? The tears? The music?”

But Meyer, a seven-year resident of Santa Fe, points out there’s no guarantee the producers will choose the city, even if up to $150,000 of taxpayer money is spent.

“I know the money in the tourism budget is not necessarily allotted to fixing problems like homelessness,” Meyer said. “But I don’t think people who watch ‘The Bachelor’ will come to Santa Fe … It just seems to be a total waste of money.”

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

Happy birthday, Milton Friedman

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Thu, 2014-07-31 09:20

BIRTHDAY BOY: Milton Friedman was one of the most famous advocates for the power and merits of the free market.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Harry Truman once complained he wanted to find a one-handed economist because he was tired of asking a direct question of those on his economic team, only to have them say, “One on the hand … but on the other hand.”

If there was one hand that noted economist Milton Friedman favored, it was the “invisible hand” of the free market.

Thursday marks the 102nd anniversary of Friedman’s birth. He died in 2006, but during his long career Friedman won over admirers (and drove his left-of-center critics crazy) with his direct and eloquent defense of capitalism.

Friedman won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1976, but perhaps his greatest influence was nudging people — who otherwise may have had little interest in the “dismal science” of economics — to look at the world through a new set of eyes and question some of the assumptions they’d been told.

Here’s a look at some of Friedman’s most notable quotes:

“The most important single central fact about a free market is that no exchange takes place unless both parties benefit.”

“Most economic fallacies derive from the tendency to assume that there is a fixed pie, that one party can gain only at the expense of another.”

“A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.”

“When everybody owns something, nobody owns it, and nobody has a direct interest in maintaining or improving its condition. That is why buildings in the Soviet Union — like public housing in the United States — look decrepit within a year or two of their construction …”

“Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.”

“One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”

“If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there’d be a shortage of sand.”

On his opposition to the ”war on drugs”: “The government has no more right to tell me what goes into my mouth than it has to tell me what comes out of my mouth.”

And here’s an exchange Friedman had with Phil Donahue in 1979, when the talk show host criticized the free enterprise system:

Donahue: But it seems to reward not virtue as much as ability to manipulate the system.

Friedman: And what does reward virtue? Do you think the communist commissar rewards virtue? Do you think Hitler rewards virtue? Do you think American presidents reward virtue? Do they choose their appointees on the basis of the virtue of the people appointed or on the basis of their political clout? Is it really true that political self-interest is nobler somehow than economic self-interest? You know, I think you’re taking a lot of things for granted. Just tell me where in the world you find these angels who are going to organize society for us.

Finally, one of Friedman’s most famous examples of the power of the market came when he simply held up a pencil:

 

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

The battle over wind farms, dead eagles and a rule by the federal government

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-07-30 08:35

DANGEROUS FLIGHT: The federal government’s decision to give wind energy companies up to a 30-year permit to escape penalties for the deaths of eagles has sparked controversy. Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

ALBUQUERQUE — Paul Domski is a falconer and a bird lover. And he really doesn’t like wind farms or the federal government’s recent decision to protect wind energy companies for up to 30 years for killing eagles.

“If I was the country’s energy czar I’d get rid of (wind farms),” said Domski, who is also the Mountain Region director of the North American Falconers Association. “From an avian standpoint, from a biological standpoint, they’re a disaster.”

Domski was one of a few dozen people to show up Tuesday night at a “public scoping meeting” on eagle management by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — one of five meetings the agency is hosting across the country to gather comments about possible changes to the agency’s regulations.

One of the hottest topics is the 30-year permit the USFWS approved last December.

“The span of time that a wind project is operational is about 30 years,” Brian Millsap, the USFWS national raptor coordinator told New Mexico Watchdog. “So a five-year permit only covers them for one-sixth of a project’s life.”

Environmentalists are split when it comes to wind farms — embraced by some as a big part of the country’s renewable energy portfolio but disliked by others because of the number of birds that are killed by the turbines spinning in the wind.

“They look like they’re going slow,” Domski said, “but at their tips, they can move as fast as 150-160 miles an hour, and they just kill the birds.”

The actual numbers of birds that are killed each year is hard to determine, but last December, a study published in Biological Conservation estimated between 140,000-328,000 fatal bird collisions each year at wind farms.

In a separate study, federal biologists say at least 85 eagles have been killed by wind turbines in the U.S. since 1997.

While the bald eagle is no longer listed as endangered, killing one still carries a fine up $250,000 and even two years in prison.

That’s why critics of wind farms are upset with the 30-year permit, which allows — in a classic government bureaucratic euphemism — the “non-purposeful take of eagles.”

“These turbines set off currents such that the birds want to use them to fly off of to gain altitude,” Domski said.

The Audobon Society called the 30-year permit “outrageous” and last month the American Bird Conservancy filed a lawsuit in protest.

“It’s a 30-year permit but there are mandatory, at least every five years, checkpoints,” Millsap said.

Wind energy companies, he said, “have to provide us with data we use to predict how many eagles the project will take … If we find out at the end of those five years that our prediction was an underestimate of the actual fatality rate, they will be conditions in that permit that they’ll have to implement to reduce the number of fatalities.”

But how does the agency know the wind farm officials aren’t simply lowballing the numbers?

“The monitoring they do is a condition of their permit,” Millsap said, adding that the USFWS officials have the right to inspect facilities “at any time.”

But Domski is skeptical.

“How do we know they’re not just picking up bird carcasses?” he asked. “And what about energy companies that put up wind farms on private land? They’re not required to report at all.”

In New Mexico, bald eagles can be found in places such as Heron Lake, but golden eagles are much more common.

Ray Powell, the New Mexico state land commissioner, is a big fan of wind farms.

In May, he signed a lease agreement with a wind energy company for a project on 31,000 acres of private land and 19,000 acres of state trust land in Union County, making it the fifth wind project on state land.

“There were some pretty cataclysmic events that occurred when people didn’t think about where they were putting (wind farms),” Powell said. “They put them in the pathways and major flyways, particularly in California, of migratory birds.”

But Powell says the industry has made improvements.

“That doesn’t mean that there still can’t be damage done, but I think people are working really hard to minimize that damage,” Powell said.

Powell said his office does not keep track of the number of birds killed on wind farms on state trust land.

“Strictly from an energy and money point of view, (wind farms are) ineffective,” Domski said. “Their profit margin is so narrow and their lifespan is so short … and in the winter months when it’s cold out and there’s no wind they have to power them to keep them warm, so they use energy.”

After its Albuquerque stop, the USFWS makes two final stops on its five-city scoping tour — in Denver and Washington, D.C. However, the agency will take written comments from the public until Sept. 22.

So if enough people complain about the 30-year permit regulation, will the USFWS change its policy?

“We will look and consider all the comments that we receive,” Millsap said, “but certainly I would expect that if there were a lot of comments concerned about that 30-year permit, it would get a lot of serious attention in the evaluation.”

“It isn’t an either-or situation,” Powell said. “We need the energy, and this is renewable, sustainable energy. We just have to do it the right way and in the right places.”

But Domski has already made up his mind.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service, in my opinion, is a puppet organization for the executive branch,” Domski said. “And I’m a Democrat, I voted for Obama but the big push for green energy is not biologically sound and it doesn’t make sense from a carbon point of view. It’s strictly to make it look like we’re doing something positive.”

Here’s part of New Mexico Watchdog’s interview with Millsap of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:

 

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

It’s official: Albuquerque police gets rid of its MRAP

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-07-29 12:30

MRAP MOMENTUM: Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles like this one in Arizona are becoming commonplace for local police departments but the Albuquerque Police Department is getting rid of its vehicle.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

The Albuquerque Police Department‘s MRAP is about to become history.

Chief of Police Gorden Eden decided Wednesday morning to get rid of the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, according to Albuquerque Police Department Communications and Community Outreach Director Janet Blair.

“We have other vehicles that perform similar roles,” Blair told New Mexico Watchdog.

Blair didn’t offer more details about the decision, other than saying the MRAP will be returned after repairs are made to other vehicles in the APD fleet. New Mexico Watchdog made a request for an interview with Eden to get more information.

APD is one of nearly 20 New Mexico law enforcement entities that have acquired MRAPs through the federal government’s 1033 program, which allows local agencies to pick up excess military hardware and vehicles from the U.S. Department of Defense at essentially no cost.

In an earlier interview, Blair said APD acquired its MRAP “about six months ago,” but Eden has been thinking about returning it, in part, because, “We have a number of vehicles we use in similar ways so (the MRAP) might be superfluous.”

MRAPs have been the target of criticism across the country from civil liberties advocates who say the mine-resistant vehicles — that weigh up to 30 tons, seat about 20 people and are manufactured at a cost of about $658,000 each — send an overly aggressive message to police and taxpayers they serve.

“It’s a sad symptom of where we are today with the increasing militarization of police departments around the country and the federal government’s insistence on pushing this equipment,” Peter Simonson, executive director of the New Mexico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Tuesday.

The Albuquerque Police Department has come under intense criticism for overly aggressive police tactics. Since 2010, 27 people have been shot and killed by APD officers.

A New Mexico Watchdog investigation in June showed that 18 law enforcement entities in New Mexico have acquired mine-resistant vehicles. This is the first case of a law enforcement agency announcing it will return one.

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

Albuquerque police may ditch its MRAP

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-07-29 10:23

GIVE IT BACK?: The Albuquerque Police Department is considering returning its Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle. This MRAP was recently acquired by the Los Lunas, N.M. Police Department.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Law enforcement agencies in nearly 20 communities across New Mexico have acquired Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles — armored military carriers known as MRAPs — to patrol the streets in towns across the state.

But the police department in New Mexico’s largest city is considering getting rid of its behemoth.

“There are a number of different ways we might to use it, or we could give it back,” Albuquerque Police Department Communications and Community Outreach Director Janet Blair told New Mexico Watchdog. “We have a number of vehicles we use in similar ways so (the MRAP) might be superfluous.”

The federal government created what’s called the 1033 program, which allows the U.S. Department of Defense to disperse spare military equipment to local law enforcement agencies that qualify. With overseas military operations winding down in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, there seems to be plenty of equipment to go around.

And for local law enforcement, it’s all essentially free.

“The only cost we incurred was the gas it took to drive it back,” Ruidoso Police Chief Joe S. Magill told New Mexico Watchdog in June of the practically mint-condition MRAP his department picked up in Sealy, Texas. “The cost was zero dollars.”

Law enforcement officials say the bullet-proof MRAPs are useful in armed hostage situations as well as evacuating civilians in emergencies.

But the MRAPs — they weigh up to 30 tons, seat about 20 people and cost about $658,000 each — have been criticized as examples of militarizing local police forces.

“There’s a blurring of the military mission and the civilian police mission and that is a dangerous thing,” said Tim Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. “We want our civilian police departments not to lose sight of the fact that they are dealing with people on a day-to-day basis with constitutional rights, and we want them to use a minimum amount of force to bring suspects into a court of law.”

Blair said Albuquerque Chief of Police Gorden Eden is “considering a bunch of different options on the table right now,” including sharing the MRAP with other agencies such as the Albuquerque Fire Department or the state’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“It’s a heat-resistant vehicle,” Blair said, “and if we had, let’s say, a blowing gas line that exploded, that would be one way to use it.”

Blair said the MRAP was acquired “about six months ago,” before Eden was named APD chief.

APD has been the focus of a series of protests, triggered by the shooting death of a homeless man in March. Since 2010, Albuquerque police have shot and killed 27 people, and the U.S. Justice Department issued a report saying that APD has a pattern of using excessive force.

Peter Simonson, executive director of the New Mexico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he’d like to see APD return the MRAP.

“I think that, at least as a symbolic gesture, it would signal a skepticism about the department’s use of military-grade weaponry and whether it’s actually necessary,” Simonson said.

“Returning it might be the beginning of an acknowledgement that maybe they’ve gone down the road and they’re trying to find their way back,” Lynch said.

Blair said a decision may come within a matter of days.

“We are actively reviewing the uses (of the MRAP) … but there is no final decision yet,” she told New Mexico Watchdog last Friday.

Here’s the list of the 18 law enforcement entities who have MRAPs, according to documents obtained in June by New Mexico Watchdog from the New Mexico Department of Public Safety:

 

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

Oil boom may be just starting in Permian Basin

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-07-28 09:00

STILL BOOMING: The explosive growth in the Permian Basin in eastern New Mexico and West Texas shows no signs of slowing.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — Oil production in New Mexico keeps on booming. Don’t expect it to go bust anytime soon.

In fact, some energy experts say the peak still hasn’t been reached.

“I think the forecast is great” said Parker Hallam, president and CEO of Crude Energy in Dallas. “I’m excited.”

The Permian Basin, located in eastern New Mexico and West Texas, recently has become one of the world’s biggest sources for crude oil.

The Bakken Formation in North Dakota, the Eagle Ford “play” in South Texas and the Permian Basin are each producing more than 1 million barrels of oil per day, with the Permian leading the pack at 1.6 million barrels a day.

Domestic production has grown so large 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.

In New Mexico, field production has doubled in the past three years and is on the verge of surpassing 10 million barrels a month, according to figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

And according to Bernstein Research, the Permian Basin can expect to see a 21 percent increase in spending growth this year.

“I think the next 10 years, we can expect to see three to three-and-a-half million (barrels a day from the Permian Basin),” Hallam told New Mexico Watchdog in a telephone interview. “We could see even more than that.”

The reason?

Horizontal drilling, using hydraulic fracturing — “fracking.”

In the past, drillers in the Permian Basin relied on drilling vertically — straight down to get to the crude oil. Horizontal drilling was used more widely in places such as the Bakken and Eagle Ford but now, the Permian is getting into the game.

In addition, the geology of the Permian Basin makes it a prime source for oil extraction.

Zones in the Permian Basin such as the Wolfcamp, Strawn, Fusselman, Cline, Mississippian and Atoka possess multiple layers of rock that are sometimes stacked on top of each other, making the area ideal for drilling.

“You may luck into something else because of these stacked formations,” said Raye Miller, the president of Regeneration Energy in Artesia, N.M. “That has significantly enhanced the recovery … It is now economical to drill and compete.”

All that has led to plenty of action in eastern New Mexico towns like Hobbs and Artesia.

 

The Permian Basin’s 560 rigs account for a quarter of the rig count for the entire country, Hallam said.

And that means more money for New Mexico’s general fund because of severance taxes taken from oil production in the state. Nearly one-third of the general fund comes from the oil and gas industry, and New Mexico’s Land Grant Permanent Fund has grown to nearly $14 billion thanks in large part to leases and royalties on extractive industries.

But environmental groups, which consider fracking dangerous to ground water, aren’t celebrating New Mexico’s oil boom.

“It’s very short sighted and it perpetuates our dependence on fossil fuels,” said Eleanor Bravo, senior organizer for Southwest Food and Water Watch. “And it eliminates the potential for creating new jobs in renewables.”

Can’t you do both?

“You could do both, but we are against the continued use of fossil fuels because of global warming and climate change,” Bravo said.

For now, though, the bloom is hardly off the Permian rose.

“I think the future is extremely bright and if prices stay the same, it will continue to be good,” Miller said. “If prices go up, it will be even crazier … I will caution, though, I’ve been in this business for a long time and if the prices go down to $60 or $40 a barrel, things can change quickly.”

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

Ride-sharing demand grows in NM as regulators debate stifling it

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Thu, 2014-07-24 09:08

IN DEMAND: A member of the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission says 19,000 people in Albuquerque and Santa Fe have downloaded the smartphone app to use the ride-sharing company Uber.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — The fate in New Mexico of ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft is still up in the air, but judging from the number of people signing up as potential customers there’s plenty of demand for their services.

At Wednesday’s New Mexico Public Regulations Commission hearing, commissioner Karen Montoya said 15,000 people in Albuquerque and 4,000 people in Santa Fe have signed up for the smartphone app to use Uber’s services.

A spokeswoman for Lyft wouldn’t give out the company’s figures for New Mexico, saying only that “tens of thousands” of Lyft drivers in 67 cities across the country have completed “millions of rides.”

“We’ve had huge, enthusiastic support from the Albuquerque community,” Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson told New Mexico Watchdog. “The community has made it very clear they want more transportation options.”

But while Montoya quoted the figures, she also expressed concern that Uber and Lyft are picking up passengers despite not being licensed by the state.

“We have 19,000 people who potentially could be in harm’s way,” Montoya said during the meeting.

Uber and Lyft each say they have insurance policies in place to protect their drivers and the passengers they pick up.

“We actually have a very comprehensive insurance policy,” Wilson said, adding, “The moment (Lyft passengers) are matched with a driver … they’re covered by our $1 million primary liability policy.”

In the meantime, the ongoing regulatory battle over ride-sharing continued at Wednesday’s hearing.

On one hand, the commission will vote next week to begin the process of a “Notice of Public Rulemaking” that could carve out distinctions in the state’s Motor Carrier Act to allow ride-sharing companies to get licensed.

That process can be lengthy, but Montoya told New Mexico Watchdog after the hearing it can be sped up by making the notice an emergency measure.

But on the other hand, the PRC also decided to vote next week on whether to start enforcing financial penalties against Uber and Lyft.

“Why haven’t we fined them?” asked Commissioner Ben Hall. “We can fine ‘em up to $10,000 a day … I think these 19,000 are riding at their own risk.”

“We have to put our foot down,” Commissioner Valerie Espinoza said.

The PRC issued a cease and desist order against Lyft in May and voted 3-2 last month to deny a request from Uber for a certificate to operate as a “specialized passenger service.” But both services are still operating in the Albuquerque area, with Lyft saying its drivers are taking donations from passengers.

“We’re not anti-regulation,” Wilson said. “We believe in common sense regulation and those regulations have to prioritize public safety and consumer choice and there are ways to do that without stifling innovation.”

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.

The battle over regulating ride-sharing companies have played out across the country, with ride-sharing fans accusing cab companies in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco of trying to wield influence to snuff out competition. In June, the Department of Motor Vehicles department in Virginia fined Uber and Lyft for not having “proper operating authority” to do business in the state.

But last month Colorado became the first state to authorize ride-sharing and eight days ago, the city council in Seattle voted 8-1 in favor of legalizing transportation network companies.

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

New health exchange boss in NM survived controversy in Idaho

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-07-23 07:29

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

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obamacare court decision ‘potentially crushing’ for NM health exchange

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

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

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cannon said the Halbig decision will not increase premiums.

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

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

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

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

Risky business: Naming buildings after New Mexico politicians

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

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

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other examples across the state include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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