"Capitol Report New Mexico" Latest Blog Postings

Three cops in NM’s infamous anal cavity search case still on the job

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-05-30 12:37

STILL ON THE JOB: At least three officers involved in a series of anal cavity searches of a New Mexico man suspected of carrying drugs are still on the force, despite a $1.6 million settlement in the victim’s favor.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — It’s one of the most shocking and infamous cases to ever come out of New Mexico: a man, falsely suspected of carrying drugs, forced to undergo multiple anal cavity searches.

Now, a year and half after the incident and six months after a settlement of $1.6 million in local taxpayer money was announced, New Mexico Watchdog has learned at least three police officers involved in the case are still on the job, while the status of three others remains a secret.

Deming Police Chief Brandon Gigante told New Mexico Watchdog on Thursday that all three officers in his department who were listed as defendants in a subsequent lawsuit are still on active duty. Gigante wouldn’t say why or reveal if the officers were disciplined.

“That is a personnel matter,” Gigante said in a telephone interview.

Three members of the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office were also listed in the suit, but county officials refused to answer any questions about their status in the aftermath of the case involving Lordsburg resident David Eckert.

Back in January, a settlement was announced in which the 64-year-old Eckert will get $950,000 from the city of Deming and $650,000 from Hidalgo County — a total of $1.6 million for which taxpayers in the two communities are responsible.

According to the lawsuit, in early 2013 Eckert was pulled over by Deming cops for allegedly not coming to a full stop at a stop sign in a Walmart parking lot in Deming. Hidalgo County sheriff’s officers also arrived on the scene.

Authorities suspected Eckert was carrying drugs inside his anal cavity and over a 14-hour period subjected Eckert to two rounds of X-rays and three enemas and took him to a hospital in another county where Eckert was forced to undergo a colonoscopy.

No drugs were found. Eckert also received a bill for $6,000 for the colonoscopy. The case made international headlines, with noted legal scholar Jonathan Turley saying, “This case took my breath away.”

Two messages left with Hidalgo County Sheriff Saturnino Madero have gone unreturned.

Hidalgo County Commissioner Darr Shannon told New Mexico Watchdog, “I don’t know (about the status of the officers). I hate to admit it, but I don’t know anything … A county commissioner cannot have anything to do with personnel matters.”

Hidalgo County Commission Chairman Ed “Bim” Kerr referred questions to the county manager, Jose Salazar, who referred questions to the county’s attorney in the Eckert case, Damian Martinez.

“I can’t give any comment as to that,” Martinez said when contacted by New Mexico Watchdog.

Why not?

“I know where you’re coming from, but I’m (part of a) private law firm and my law firm’s policy is we don’t discuss litigation,” Martinez said. “Sorry I couldn’t help you, but I like your website.”

If public money has been spent, don’t taxpayers have a right to know if the officers involved are still on the force?

“It’s (Madero’s) department,” Shannon said. “I would be like you, I would be wanting to find out for the public, but I’m here to tell you government works in a way that is extremely odd, especially county government.”

New Mexico Watchdog is in the process of filing an Inspection of Public Records Act request with Deming and Hidalgo County authorities, seeking information about the case.

When news of the Eckert case broke, Deming Police Chief Gigante told KOB-TV, “We follow the law in every aspect, and we follow policies and protocols that we have in place.”

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

A ‘freedom of expression’ policy at NM college comes under fire

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Thu, 2014-05-29 12:29

NOT SO FREE?: Critics say a proposed “Respectful Campus and Freedom of Expression” policy at a New Mexico college is too vaguely worded.

By Rob Nikolewski│New Mexico Watchdog

It sounds agreeable enough on the surface: Officials at Northern New Mexico College are about to adopt what’s called a “Respectful Campus and Freedom of Expression policy” for students and staff.

But the vice president of the student Senate worries the policy may lead the small school of 2,100 students into potential lawsuits.

“My main argument is that it could be done as a guideline but to adopt it in its current form is problematic,” Samuel LeDoux told New Mexico Watchdog. “It’s too broad … it’s just a bunch of buzzwords that don’t mean anything.”

The policy has not been finalized and is open for revision and public comment until June 12. The NMMC board of regents is expected to vote for or against adoption June 20.

“By no means do we want to infringe on anybody’s right to expression or speech,” said Ricky Serna, NNMC’s vice president for Institutional Advancement, said in a telephone interview. “We need to have a policy in place so when the administration works even on the most egregious of offenses they have some policy to protect us legally. If it isn’t written down somewhere, we can’t enforce anything.”

But LeDoux sees problems with the way the policy is worded.

For example, any “planned demonstrations” on campus must be scheduled at least 24 hours in advance with the Office of Institutional Advancement.

“But elsewhere in the policy it says it doesn’t apply to spontaneous demonstrations,” LeDoux said. “How do you determine that and who determines what’s spontaneous?”

Serna said the 24-hour rule merely ensures facilities at the college aren’t overwhelmed by a demonstration involving large numbers of people, as well as avoiding logistical concerns.

“We’re a small institution,” Serna said. “We’re very limited for space and we want to make sure that if we’re holding an event or hosting a group that everybody’s activities are coordinated.”

But the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit based in Philadelphia that defends individual rights on college campuses, produced its own critique of the policy.

“It appears students and faculty may face censorship or disciplinary action for not ‘respecting diversity and difference’ (in Section 2 of the proposal), or for failing to promote ‘civility’ and ‘respectful communication’ (Section 3),” Azhar Majeed, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Education Program, wrote in response to questions about the proposal.

Majeed said the policy gives ultimate power to the college’s officials “to define and enforce those broad, amorphous terms.”

The NNMC proposal says the appropriate response to speech that may offend is “speech expressing opposing ideas and continued dialogue, not curtailment of speech” but then adds that “speech activity that unduly interferes with the rights of others or the ability of the College to carry out its mission is not protected by the First Amendment and violates this policy.”

FLASHPOINTS: A proposed free speech policy is the latest in a series of controversies at Northern New Mexico College, located in Espanola, N.M.

The University of New Mexico — the largest school in the state — has its own “Respectful Campus and Freedom of Expression” policy that’s similar to the NNMC proposal. But LeDoux says that doesn’t mean NNMC should adopt it.

“UNM has been under the same kind of scrutiny by free speech organizations like the ACLU and FIRE,” LeDoux said. “Besides, UNM has the financial fortitude to fight lawsuits. NNMC does not.”

Serna says the policy is still going through the vetting process. “We sent these policies out to students and the campus communities,” Serna said. “We solicit the criticism. We’re not trying to be top-down about this.”

The free speech policy debate is the latest in a series of controversies at NNMC.

The school’s faculty entered a “no confidence vote” against the school’s administration in April and has protested a number of moves by the administration, including cutting three vocational programs.

Serna defended the moves, saying the school has been losing money on programs with low attendance, low graduation rates and low career placement rates.

Earlier this month the school spent $5,000 for private investigators. Administrators wouldn’t say why, but an assistant professor told the Albuquerque Journal the money was spent to look into assault charges the professor filed after an alleged altercation with the human resources director.

“It just seems like (the freedom of expression policy) is a response to all the drama from last month,” LeDoux said.

Serna denied that, saying the policy reviews started more than a year ago.

“There’s no question that along the path there’s going to be dissent, and these policies don’t say they’re not allowed,” Serna said. “They say as long as we do that in a professional and appropriate way then all of that is welcome.”

But LeDoux says free speech sometimes doesn’t fall into appropriate or professional categories.

“People do not have the right to not be offended,” he wrote in a letter to the Rio Grande Sun. “In college we discuss very controversial subjects, as we should, because college is where we try to learn to fix our problems, not censor them.”

You can read the NNMC’s “Respectful Campus and Freedom of Expression” policy here:

2240 RespectfulCampus and 2220 Freedom Expression Dissent(1)


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

Speed cameras on track for a comeback in Santa Fe

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-05-28 11:26

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — A lot of people just don’t like traffic cameras.

Two years ago, a 65-year-old Santa Fe man received the nickname “Speedcam Commando” after he pulled up to a camera set up on Bishop’s Lodge Road, got out of his car clad only in a nightshirt and pulled out a gun, firing five times at the speedcam. He then got back into his vehicle and drove home. It was all caught on tape:

The “Speedcam Commando” ended up making a plea deal and agreed to 18 months probation.

Now, two years after the video went viral, the Santa Fe City Council is on the verge of bringing back the speed cameras.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN?: The Santa Fe City Council is considering bringing back unmanned speed cameras.

The city’s Public Safety Committee approved a proposal to sign an agreement with Phoenix-based Redflex Traffic Systems to place three unmanned SUVs equipped with cameras at strategic locations to nab speeders.

The City Council is expected to vote in July on the proposal.

Councilor Ron Trujillo says he’s is in favor of bringing back the cameras, which have idle for the past five months after the city’s contract with Redflex expired.

“I’ve got people who I represent saying, ‘Councilor, I’ve got people speeding through my neighborhood like it’s a raceway,’ ” Trujillo told New Mexico Watchdog. “You put those speed cameras in there and guess what? They call back and say the speeding has gone down dramatically.”

But some Santa Fe residents don’t want the speed cameras back at all.

“Regular traffic enforcement is what works,” retired lawyer Marlene Foster said in a telephone interview. “It’s not really about safety.”

Redflex has made headlines in other locations across the country.

In Chicago, Redflex lost its $100 million contract with the city after allegations surfaced that the company bribed local officials. Six Redflex executives were fired. One said the company handed out gifts and favors to communities in 13 states.

“I’m just appalled” that the city of Santa Fe is considering a new contract with Redflex, Foster said.

“That’s just astonishing to me.”

Redflex was the only company to bid on the Santa Fe contract.

“It’s unfortunate what happened in Chicago and other cities,” said Trujillo. “I personally think that’s outright wrong what they did but Redflex says they’ve gotten to the source of what the problem was … I think they want to be more diligent about what they’re doing but, in my opinion, this program has worked in this community.”

Trujillo says he has not received any gifts or campaign donations from Redflex.

Supporters cite statistics they say show a reduction in traffic mishaps after the cameras are installed. But critics say the surveillance causes rear-end accidents as drivers slam on their brakes when they see the SUVs.

“They say it’s about safety but it truly has nothing to do with safety,” Foster said. “I think you can find studies that show it doesn’t help with that. It has to do with revenue collection.”

According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, the city’s SUVs produced$2.3 million since 2009. Half of revenue derived from the citations goes to the state and the other half is divided between Redflex and the city.

Under the proposal before the City Council, the city will net between $8.50 and $18 per ticket issued.

Drivers caught speeding on the Redflex cameras receive $100 tickets. The citations are not counted on a driver’s record or insurance.

“I know theoretically you can challenge (the ticket) but it’s really difficult,” said Foster. “I know some people who tried to do that without too much success and they just gave up and paid.”

“I wish I could have a police officer 24 hours a day patrolling each street, but that’s not realistic and that’s not going to happen,” Trujillo said. “This is just a tool to aid our police officers … A lot of people hate it. Of course they do. Nobody wants to get a ticket. But the thing about it is, is it OK for you to run a red light or a stop sign just because a police officer is not there?”

Other cities in New Mexico have tried and then rejected traffic surveillance cameras.

In Albuquerque, despite calls from Mayor Richard Berry and other city officials to keep red-light cameras, 53 percent of voters in 2011 voted to get rid of them.

In Las Cruces, red-light cameras were deactivated on March 30 after city officials decided not to renew their contract with Redflex. But $2.9 million in fines are still outstanding, and City Manager Robert Garza said drivers who received tickets are still responsible for them.

“Those that were recorded during the program operation still have outstanding citations, and those who received the citations are expected to pay the associated fine or follow the appeal process outlined with their citation,” Garza told the Las Cruces Sun-News.

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

Editorial: New Mexico needs new ideas for job growth

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-05-27 11:36

TIME FOR NEW THINKING: Fred Nathan of Think New Mexico proposes two ideas to jump-start the state’s job market.

By Fred Nathan │ Special to New Mexico Watchdog

Prompted by a large decline in federal spending, New Mexicans are now engaged in a healthy and useful dialogue about how best to diversify our economy.

Think New Mexico would like to offer two ideas we believe could propel private-sector job growth in our state – and that gubernatorial and legislative candidates from both parties should be able to embrace.

Both ideas were advanced in Think New Mexico’s 2013 policy report, “Addressing the Jobs Crisis.” The first would establish a post-performance incentive that would reward companies only after they create high-paying jobs or make major capital investments. It is designed to encourage existing business to expand in New Mexico and new businesses to relocate to the state.

Six years ago, Utah, which now ranks second in the nation for job growth, became the first state to move to an economic development strategy based on post-performance incentives.

Utah’s post-performance incentive has led to the creation of 25,546 high-paying jobs from blue chip companies like Boeing, eBay, and Proctor and Gamble. That is in addition to $5.16 billion in new capital investment and $1.62 billion in new state revenue since the incentive was established in 2008. (Several weeks ago Idaho became the second state to enact this sort of post- performance incentive).

Think New Mexico drafted a bipartisan post-performance incentive bill (SB 10), modeled after Utah but tailored to New Mexico. The bill was introduced in the last session by Senate Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, and state Sen. Sue Beffort, R-Albuquerque, and it offered businesses a rebate of 30 percent of the new tax revenue produced when they relocate to or expand operations in New Mexico. The incentive would be available only after new jobs and new tax revenue have been created.

SB 10 passed two Senate committees unanimously before dying on the Senate floor without a hearing. SB 10 would have been an effective tool to attract companies like Tesla.

The second proposal is designed to expand New Mexico’s entrepreneurial talent pool, which is what will ultimately drive job growth over the long term.

Entrepreneurs come disproportionately from two groups: those who work in the STEM fields — science technology, engineering and math — and immigrants, who are generally accustomed to taking risk and sometimes have to create their own businesses to find work.

Combining these two groups would create a powerful engine of entrepreneurship. That is what exists in Silicon Valley, where an enormous number of companies have been started by foreign-born entrepreneurs in the STEM fields. Think of Russian-born Sergey Brin at Google and Hungarian-born Andy Grove at Intel, for example.

To generate more start-ups and jobs, New Mexico needs to attract more international STEM students to our public universities. We currently have very few of those students, in part because of the relatively high cost of out-of-state tuition. (Our in-state tuition remains a big bargain).

In 1999, faced with a declining state population, North Dakota started offering in-state tuition to international (and out-of-state) students. After graduating, many of these students stayed in North Dakota and started companies, particularly in the information technology, computer science, medical and defense industries, according to a 2011 Wall Street Journal article. Considering the many amenities and excellent quality of life New Mexico has to offer, we are in an even better position than North Dakota to attract and retain international students.

Think New Mexico developed SB 8, sponsored by Papen and state Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, in the last session to allow New Mexico’s public universities to offer in-state tuition to international STEM students and to enhance their STEM programs for local students. SB 8, like SB 10, passed two committees unanimously before dying on the Senate floor without a hearing.

As a small state, like North Dakota and Utah, New Mexico needs an innovative economic development strategy. Both SB 8 and SB 10 should be part of that strategy, and we plan to bring back these bills in the 2015 session. You can learn more by visiting Think New Mexico’s website at: www.thinknewmexico.org.

Fred Nathan is the executive director of Think New Mexico, an independent, results-oriented think tank based in Santa Fe. It is best known for its successful work to make full-day kindergarten accessible to every child in New Mexico and to repeal the food tax.

On Memorial Day, some history of the holiday

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Sun, 2014-05-25 19:36

Vintage Memorial Day postcard

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Originally called Decoration Day, the Memorial Day holiday officially recognizes all who died as members of the U.S. armed forces.

It’s not to be confused with Veterans Day, which celebrates all who have served or are serving, living or dead.

Memorial Day had its beginnings at the end of the Civil War, when the North and South went about commemorating the dead who fell in what remains the bloodiest war in American history.

An estimated 620,000 soldiers died. That’s more than 200,000 more who died in World War II.

And another 1.1 million were wounded between 1861 and 1865. Those are staggering figures for a nation that, at the outbreak of the Civil War, numbered 31 million.

To put that in perspective, if you adjust those figures to the population in the U.S. today (315 million), it would translate into well more than 6 million dead and 11 million wounded.

One of the survivors of the Civil War was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who, as a Union officer, was thrice wounded at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Antietam,and Chancellorsville, respectively. Holmes later became a member of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Holmes gave a Memorial Day speech on May 30, 1884, in Keene, N.H., where he concluded by saying:

“Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death — of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.”

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

VIDEO: Discussion of the Otero County showdown between cattle and a mouse

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-05-23 16:52

WATER WAR: The U.S. Forest Service has locked out cattle belonging to ranchers in Otero County, N.M., because it wants to protect the habitat of the meadow jumping mouse. Photo from KVIA-TV.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

The land battle out West between the federal government and local ranchers has moved into New Mexico.

In Otero County in the southern part of the state, the U.S. Forest Service has blocked cattle from a creek in order to protect the habitat of a creature most people have never heard of — the meadow jumping mouse — and that has local authorities steaming.

New Mexico Watchdog has covered the story. Click here to read our most recent take on the mouse vs. cattle controversy.

And the story was a topic of discussion on a web-extra edition of “New Mexico In Focus,” the weekly public affairs program seen throughout the state on KNME-TV.

Joining host Gene Grant is Rob Nikolewski of New Mexico Watchdog, Associated Press reporter Jeri Clausing, former New Mexico state Rep. Dan Foley and Center for Civic Policy communications director Javier Benavides:

At 7 p.m. Friday night, the one-hour broadcast edition of New Mexico In Focus will be aired on KNME, Channel 5 and features an interview with Albuquerque Mayor R.J. Berry, discussing the ongoing crisis surrounding the Albuquerque Police Department. The broadcast will be repeated on Saturday on Channel 9.1 and Sunday at 7 a.m. on Channel 5.1.

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

Editorial: No reason to amend the First Amendment

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-05-23 08:06

KEEP FREE SPEECH FREE: Paul Gessing of the Rio Grande Foundation says a U.S. Senate resolution to change the Constitution is misguided.

By Paul Gessing │ Special to Watchdog.org

At 45 just words, the First Amendment has been a bulwark in protecting unpopular speech in the United States for more than 200 years. Whether that speech involved flag burning, the KKK, or unpopular political speech, the amendment’s clear and concise statement that “Congress shall make no law…” has been an exceptionally American statement of principle.

The First Amendment remains a clear statement by the American Founders that “democracy” or popular rule must be restrained in our republican form of government. Popular speech needs no special protections.

From reading the media these days, one might believe political speech undertaken by the Koch Brothers, the tea party, and other politically active Americans are less popular than the KKK. None other than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has called the Kochs “un-American” for engaging in the political process.

So, why would the head of New Mexico’s free market think tank write about the First Amendment right now? One reason is that our own political representatives, led by Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are working right now to undermine free speech by amending the First Amendment.

In fairness, Udall, the lead sponsor of Senate Joint Resolution 19, which would give Congress new powers to regulate fundraising in federal campaigns, is at least taking the proper approach (the amendment process) to abridge Americans’ free speech. A previous “campaign-finance law,” McCain-Feingold, nonetheless passed Congress and was signed by then-President George W. Bush only to see large portions thrown out by the Supreme Court.

Why would elected U.S. senators take it upon themselves to undermine the First Amendment when it has done so much to protect Americans for hundreds of years? After all, so many components of the Bill of Rights have been eroded over the years yet Americans’ freedom of speech remains the envy of the world.

For starters, Udall and his co-sponsors (as well as previous speech-limiters John McCain and Russ Feingold) all have one thing in common: they launched their assaults on political speech as incumbent politicians. McCain-Feingold was often called the “Incumbent Protection Act” because it placed limits on the ability of outside groups and challengers to raise money — money that could be used to unseat incumbent politicians.

Incumbents, with their ability to send mail at taxpayer expense via the franking privilege, gain favorable media attention through event appearances and legislative initiatives, and fundraise from Washington insiders whose livelihoods they often control, have tremendous advantages over even the best-funded challenger. In 2012, with congressional approval ratings at record lows, an astonishing nine in 10 members of the House and Senate who sought new terms this year were successful.

Yes, money in politics is not always attractive. Election season television and radio barrages are annoying. And there is no doubt special interests of all political persuasions are adept at using both money and manpower for their own benefit.

But as long as long as government bureaucrats and elected officials control large swaths of the American economy, big money will find its way into the system. After all, total government spending now exceeds 40 percent of gross domestic product and new regulations that could make or break businesses and even industries are put forth daily. People with resources at stake are going to find a way to influence those decisions.

Ironically, the Koch Brothers are among a small group that spends large sums not to increase political control over economy, but to reduce it through less government spending, smaller government and greater personal freedom. For that they are vilified mercilessly by politicians and the media. If Americans focused on taking the politics out of our economy (by reducing the government’s role) rather than money out of politics by restricting free speech, we’d all be better off.

Paul Gessing is the President of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.

Disabled state: NM disability numbers up 65.2 %in 10 years

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-05-23 07:33

NEW MEXICO’S SPIKE: The number of New Mexico workers receiving disability payments from the government has spiked 65.2 percent in a 10-year period.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — The number of Americans receiving disability payments from the government is at an all-time high, and the percentage of New Mexicans on disability is running well ahead of the national rate.

A review of the national and statewide numbers by New Mexico Watchdog shows, in the space of a decade, the number of workers on disability in the Land of Enchantment has jumped 65.2 percent.

Earlier this week, the Social Security Administration released its national figures for the end of April, showing the number of disability insurance recipients across the country hit 10.99 million.

That number — made up of 8.9 million disabled workers, 153,475 spouses of disabled workers and 1.9 million children of disabled workers — is an all-time high:


Source: Social Security Administration. Chart by CNS News.


The statistics for individual states will not be updated until October, but New Mexico Watchdog looked at the most recent numbers available. As of December 2012, New Mexico had 63,286 workers on disability.

That represents a 4.1 percent increase over the previous year.

Going back over a 10-year period, New Mexico has seen a 65.2 percent increase in workers receiving disability payments:

That’s nearly 15 points above the national average. Between 2003 and 2012, the total number of workers receiving disability in the U.S. rose 50.3 percent.

“The long-term (disability insurance) program growth was predicted many years ago and is driven, for example, by the aging of the baby boom generation and the fact that more women have joined the labor force and have become eligible for benefits,” Sarah Schultz-Lackey, regional communications director in Dallas for the Social Security Administration, said in an email to New Mexico Watchdog.

But experts say there are other factors at work because the percentage has increased faster than the population has aged.

Michael D. Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a free-market think tank based in Washington D.C., points to three things in particular.

First, older workers are having a hard time finding jobs.

“It’s very difficult for someone who’s, say, 60 years old, to get hired again,” Tanner said in a telephone interview. “They’re kind of waiting around until they’re eligible for Social Security and Medicare and they’re using disability insurance as sort of a way station.”

Second, Tanner says some administrative judges are lax in awarding disability claims that are appealed.

“Essentially, it’s a two-step process,” Tanner said. “You apply, you either get accepted or denied by the Social Security Administration, which is relatively strict. If you lose, you’re allowed to appeal to these special administrative judges.”

And third, what’s considered a disability has been greatly expanded since the program was created in 1956.

“Twenty years ago, disability was primarily heart disease, cancer, things like that which are pretty clear diagnoses,” Tanner said. “Today, the leading two causes of disability are stress and back injuries, which are vague.”

To make matters worse, the disability trust fund is running out of money. A government report released last year estimated the fund could be completely depleted in as little as two years from now.

What can be done?

Tanner calls for a crackdown on administrative judges who essentially rubber-stamp claims. “Some of these folks, year after year, are in the 98 percent range.” Tanner said.

Tanner suggests the government should create a “partially disabled” category.

“We need to move away from this all or nothing approach so some people on disability can work and earn some money and get disability payments as a supplement if they can’t work full-time, for example,” Tanner said.

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

Can’t beat ‘em at the polls? Slash their tires

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-05-21 08:40

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – Politicians can sometimes be a little nutty but a former congressional candidate here in New Mexico draws top honors when it comes to loopy behavior.

On Tuesday, Gary Smith pleaded no contest to aggravated stalking in an Albuquerque courtroom, stemming from charges that he repeatedly slashed the tires of his opponent in the 2012 Republican primary for Congress, Janice Arnold-Jones.

On top of that, Smith was also suspected of slashing the tires of his former campaign manager, Rhead Story.

The incidents occurred in the fall and winter of 2012, with Story reporting that 54 tires of his vehicles had been slashed and Arnold-Jones reporting $4,000 in damages from punctured tires in cars belonging to her and her husband John Jones.

After three such incidents, the Jones family installed security cameras around their home in Northeast Albuquerque and captured these images of a man with an icepick:

PLEADS NO CONTEST: Republican Gary Smith, seen here in a 2012 campaign photo, is about to be sentenced for slashing the tires of one of his opponents and a former campaign manager.

Smith, then 65 years old, originally denied that it was him on the videotape but police arrested him in January of 2013.

As reported by Peter St. Cyr of the Santa Fe Reporter, Smith made his plea Tuesday afternoon before a district court judge who deferred sentencing until June 3.

Smith, who’s been sitting in jail for more than a year, faces up to 30 months in prison but may received credit for time served and could be released on probation.

“This man tortured us for seven months,” Wanda Story, the wife of Rhead Story told St. Cyr. Rhead Story died last year from heart failure.

“The fact that we got targeted is very scary and it’s clear that something is very wrong with him,” Arnold-Jones told New Mexico Watchdog Tuesday night. “For us, the bigger issue with Mr. Smith is safety because you can’t predict this kind of behavior.”

Smith signed up to run against Arnold-Jones in the GOP primary for the US House of Representatives seat in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District. A longshot who had never run for political office before, Smith had his signature petitions qualifying him for the June primary ballot challenged by Arnold-Jones and a district court judge agreed, saying not enough of the signatures were valid, thus kicking Smith off the ballot.

Smith was angry after the decision, telling KOB-TV at the time, “When you go to your own kind, your own brother, your own sister, and they stab you in the back repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly.”

Arnold-Jones and Wanda Story are seeking restitution for the damage caused.

Oh, and one other thing: Smith still isn’t out of the woods yet.

He could be extradited to El Paso, Texas, to face charges from his former next door neighbors who say tires in their cards were punctured and Smith threatened to burn down their house.

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

Gary Johnson blasts Forest Service review of Taos Ski Valley crackdown

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-05-20 16:35

HARD FEELINGS: An internal review of a Forest Service crackdown at the Taos Ski Valley calls for better coordination between the agency and ski valley officials but a former governor of New Mexico says the report doesn’t go nearly far enough.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – Former Gov. Gary Johnson says he’s “still mad as hell” upon reading an internal review of a crackdown conducted back in February by armed officers of the U.S. Forest Service at the Taos Ski Valley.

“Nothing has been resolved by this,” said Johnson, an avid skier and harsh critic of the operation that featured four Forest Service agents in bullet-proof vests and a drug-sniffing dog.

“The upshot from this review is, (the Forest Service) is going to do this again. And if these things are going happen again, somebody’s going to get hurt. It’s either going to be the person they confront or vice-versa … I really thought they were going to come up with a policy change,” Johnson said in a telephone interview.

The review found the operation was justified, although the agency promises to coordinate with the ski resort and local police “in the future to more effectively and efficiently work through employee and public concerns.”

In addition, a Forest Service supervisor will have to OK future “saturation patrols.”

“They’ll coordinate with me,” Aban Lucero, Forest Service Regional Patrol Commander, told New Mexico Watchdog. “If I feel it’s warranted, we’ll go ahead and proceed.”

The Forest Service officers descended on the ski resort on Feb. 22, saying they were working on tips about possible drug deals, as well as reckless and drunk driving. The searches didn’t yield much — citations and warnings were issued for violations ranging from “possession amounts” of marijuana to cracked windshields — but angered a number of patrons who said the operation was heavy-handed. Several people accused the officers of being rude.

In the immediate aftermath of the sweep, Johnson went so far as to call them “jack-booted thugs.”

In response, an “after-action review,” conducted by four Forest Service officials, was ordered.

The report recommended the Forest Service set up a meeting with officials at the ski resort, local law enforcement, Taos businesses and the community to “work together on potential solutions to reduce criminal activity.”

But, at the same time, the review stressed that “Forest Service, state and local law enforcement agencies retain full authority to inspect, investigate and enforce all regulations and laws upon public lands.”

Portions of the Taos Ski Valley sit on U.S. Forest Service land, and the resort has worked as partners with the Forest Service since it was founded in 1954.

According to the review, six officers were supposed to take part in the sweep but two Forest Service officers pulled out, citing “higher priority assignments.” If the two officers had been there, they would have been “patrolling the mountain on skis, looking for violations of distribution, possession, and use of illegal drugs.”

“MAD AS HELL”: Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson says a patrol of the Taos Ski Valley shows the U.S. Forest Service has “too much funding.”

That nugget of information infuriated Johnson.

“If the Forest Service has enough money to send four armed officers and a drug-sniffing dog halfway across the state to spend a Saturday at a family ski area in the hope of busting a handful of folks for minor drug possession, they clearly have too much funding,” Johnson said Tuesday in a news release.

“Adding insult is the admission that their original plan was to have two more officers on skis cruising the slopes. Congress needs to take a very close look at the appropriations for not just the Forest Service, but the whole range of agencies who conduct these kinds of operations. They may have some legitimate law enforcement responsibilities related to their statutory missions, but harassing skiers, families, and employees at a relatively crime-free ski area isn’t one of them.”

As for complaints about the Forest Service officers being armed and wearing military attire, the review said the uniforms and equipment were standard and noted that the drug-sniffing dog was muzzled.

Regarding accusations that the officers were rude, the review did not come to a conclusion, saying only the use of “personal video recording devices by officers would have assisted the Forest Service in responding appropriately to complaints.”

“The officers were clearly within their authority,” Lucero said. “However, we have communicated and expressed … that in future saturation patrols, we need to coordinate within our internal and external partners.”

The report did not discuss whether Forest Service officials should defer investigations about drug activity to other federal entities, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“U.S. Forest Service land is our primary responsibility, it’s not the DEA’s,” Special Agent Robin Poague told New Mexico Watchdog in March.

There has been speculation the drug sweep came in response to reports of a quota system on the part of forest service administrators, but Poague said that wasn’t the case and the review made no mention of it.

Johnson said the saturation patrol was an example of government overreach.

“Better coordination and public relations does not make an abuse of power any less abusive,” Johnson said. “It is difficult to believe that, in granting federal agencies such as the Forest Service some degree of law enforcement authority, Congress envisioned armed officers conducting drug sweeps in parking lots and busting people for cracked windshields.”

“I think the key to the lessons learned is, we have a need for frequent and positive communications, coordination and relationship-building efforts between us and the local community businesses and organizations,” Lucero said, adding, “I think we’ll have better results.”

Here’s the entire 11-page after-action review:

Forest Service After-Action Review of Taos Ski Valley Saturation Patrol

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

Udall joins Democrats urging Obama to fast-track LNG terminals

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-05-19 15:05

BACKING LNG EXPORTS: Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, joined four other Senate Democrats urging the Obama administration to quicken the pace for liquefied natural gas exports.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, normally enjoys strong support from environmentalists in his home state but conservation groups are not happy with a recent letter Udall and four other Senate Democrats sent to President Obama urging the administration fast-track development of liquefied natural gas terminals.

“This is terrible,” said Eleanor Bravo, southwest senior organizer for Food and Water Watch New Mexico, “We are very disappointed.”

In the two-page letter, Udall, along with his cousin, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., U.S. Mary Landrieu, D-La., U.S. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and U.S. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., complained about what they said is the Energy Department’s slow pace of reviewing applications for LNG export terminals, which would ship U.S.-produced natural gas to foreign markets.

“We strongly believe that the export of LNG can help the United States strengthen global energy security while generating significant economic benefits domestically in an environmentally responsible way,” the letter said.

“Anything that can allow for a more open energy market I think will be good for New Mexico,” said Wally Drangmeister, communications director for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.

He said it was a “pleasant surprise” to hear about the letter.

New Mexico is home to the San Juan Basin, one of the world’s richest natural gas deposits. In recent years, flat prices have kept down the pace of drilling in the region.

“I’m a supporter of a national renewable electricity standard and strong standards on natural gas development to protect New Mexico’s environment,” Udall said in an email to New Mexico Watchdog. “But natural gas is an increasingly important part of a ‘do it all, do it right’ energy strategy with fewer emissions than coal or oil. It’s also an important industry in New Mexico, which provides jobs and energy to our communities, along with revenue for schools and state services.”

A recent study by the Legislative Finance Committee estimated that a 10-cent increase in the price of natural gas translates into a $10 million boost to the state’s general fund.

A federal permit has been given a conditional OK for a LNG facility on the coast of Oregon, but dozens of other proposed plants aimed at shipping to overseas customers, especially Asia, are on hold from the Energy Department.

The letter also mentioned that LNG exports can act as a counterweight against Russia, which has been accused of using natural gas as a weapon against Ukraine and NATO nations in Europe, who are heavily reliant on energy from Russia.

“Even before the crisis in Ukraine, I’ve been pushing the administration to remove unnecessary obstacles to LNG exports in order to increase our allies energy security and to encourage the use of cleaner-burning fuel,” Udall said in his email.

That doesn’t sit well with Bravo, whose group is opposed to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which is used to extract oil and gas from below the surface.

Natural gas is “as dirty as coal when you take it into its total picture,” Bravo said. “And when you’re shipping it across the Pacific, you’re increasing the carbon footprint. And if we encourage these countries to use fossil fuels, they will delay their transition over to renewables.”

“Modern industrial societies require energy to operate, and they’ll get that energy from somewhere,” Drangmeister said. “The key is, we can be a part of that … The United States’ greenhouse gas production has gone down dramatically recently and that’s because of natural gas use” that burns much cleaner than coal.

Four of the five Democrats who signed the letter to Obama are up for re-election this fall.

In his email to New Mexico Watchdog, Tom Udall did not respond to a question about whether the pending election had any bearing on his decision to sign the letter.

In November, Udall will take on either David Clements or Allen Weh, who face each other in the Republican primary June 3.

Here’s the letter the five Democrats sent to President Obama:

Letter Pressing President to Swiftly Review, Approve Pending Liquefied Natural Gas Export Facilities by Mark Udall

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

Editorial: Why I don’t like Bill Clinton

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Sun, 2014-05-18 00:04

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

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

I don’t like Bill Clinton.

From the get-go, his Eddie Haskell Goes To Washington act rubbed me the wrong way.

But we’re talking about politicians, not popes, and I was never one of those Clinton haters who frothed at the mouth, seeing conspiracies behind every potted plant from Little Rock to D.C.

Now, Monica Lewinsky is back in the news because the former White House intern wrote an article in this month’s edition of Vanity Fair, reflecting on her tryst that convulsed the media and the entire nation for nearly two years.

We all know the sordid story but whether you thought it was a witch hunt or not, the bottom line was that Bill Clinton was to blame for it, not the 22-year-old intern.

From the moment news of the scandal leaked, Clinton looked out only for himself. He let White House insiders begin a whispering campaign that Lewinsky was sex-crazed stalker. At the time, maybe they didn’t know the truth.

But Clinton did and he did nothing to stop it.

He let the rumors and slander swirl around the young woman until the infamous stained blue dress left Clinton, in the words of the late Christopher Hitchens, with no one left to lie to and he had to fess up.

In the meantime, Lewinsky, the object of countless dirty jokes, could barely show her face in public and considered suicide.

To be sure, she was not blameless. But think of the immature/reckless things you did when you were that age. I can think of plenty but my mistakes were not dissected on worldwide television and a nascent Internet.

And what of the power imbalance between the man holding the highest office in the most powerful nation in the world and a young woman with stars in her eyes? Where was the feminist sisterhood calling for Clinton’s ouster as it did for Bob Packwood or Clarence Thomas? Sorry, Monica, they came down with a case of laryngitis that they still haven’t quite overcome.

We all remember Clinton wagging his finger and saying, “I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”

Here’s what he should have said:

“Yes, I’m ashamed to say, it’s true. I did have a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. I hope my wife and daughter can forgive me. And I hope the American people can too.

“But I want to add one more thing: Do not vilify this young woman. She’s a nice person and I urge the media to give her space. If you want to blame someone for what happened, blame me. I’m the one who should have stopped this relationship before it started. Let her go in peace.

“My personal failings should not, I think, disqualify me from office. But that’s up to the American people to decide. Even the President of the United States is a public servant and I will abide by what the citizens of this great country say.”

Of course, Clinton the politician knew if he said something like that, his presidency probably would have come to an end.

But it would have been the decent and honorable thing to do. And it certainly would have spared one young woman, now 40 years old, an infinite amount of pain.

Shortly after the Vanity Fair story came out, it was reported that Clinton is considering making a public apology to Hillary Clinton and Lewinsky. Bad idea.

A public apology to his wife will be seen for what it is — a political calculation to help Hillary’s potential presidential run.

An apology to Lewinsky should be done in private, with sincerity.

But it doesn’t matter anyway, Bill. You’re 16 years too late.

This editorial first ran in the Santa Fe New Mexican on May 18, 2014. You can contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

A mouse vs. cattle: Showdown between ranchers and the feds in Otero County continues

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-05-16 17:06

WATER WAR: The U.S. Forest Service has locked out cattle belonging to ranchers in Otero County, N.M., because it wants to protect the habitat of the meadow jumping mouse. Photo from KVIA-TV.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

The dispute isn’t over between ranchers whose cattle have been locked out of drinking from a creek in southern New Mexico by federal agents who say the water is vital in order to protect a mouse expected to be listed as an endangered species.

What was called a “facilitated discussion” was held Friday morning in Albuquerque at the U.S. Attorney’s Office between officials from Otero County representing the ranchers and about a dozen representatives of the federal government, including the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Justice.

But no agreement was reached between the two sides, according to Blair Dunn, the county’s attorney.

“Basically, the Forest Service said they don’t have the authority, and neither did DOJ or anyone at that meeting, to just allow the gate to be opened,” Dunn told New Mexico Watchdog.

Phone messages left with acting U.S. Attorney for New Mexico, Damon Martinez, and to the communications office of the DOJ’s office in Albuquerque were not returned as of 5 p.m. Friday. Update: At 5:48 p.m., public affairs officer Elizabeth Martinez of the Department of Justice District of New Mexico office released a brief statement saying  “no resolution was reached” at Friday’s meeting.

The controversy marks another battle in the West between the federal government — which owns vast expanses of land in states like New Mexico, Utah and Nevada — and local ranchers who graze their cattle.

In Otero County, the officials at the U.S. Forest Service have fenced off access to water for the ranchers’ grazing cattle, hoping to protect the habitat of the meadow jumping mouse, which is expected to be listed as an endangered species next month.

The Forest Service says it is worried cattle will damage 23 acres along the Agua Chiquita that includes a natural spring. Opponents say the federal government has no right to control access to the water their cattle, thirsty from a long drought that has hit New Mexico, need.

The environmental group WildEarth Guardians, which has been lobbying to put the meadows jumping mouse on the endangered species list, sent out a letter Friday just before the meeting started, calling on the feds to keep the fences up.

MOUSE IN THE MIDDLE: The meadow jumping mouse is expected to be listed as endangered next month.

“There is an all-too-common misconception in some western rural communities that ranchers somehow have a ‘right’ to graze by the virtue of their grazing permits,” citing a number of court cases as well as the Enabling Act the state of New Mexico signed in 1910 before becoming the nation’s 47th state.

“Our national forests do not belong to a permitee who would like to exploit their resources or local politicians who would allow it,” WildEarth Guardians program director Bryan Bird said in the letter. “They belong to all Americans.”

“It’s extremely frustrating,” Dunn said in a telephone interview. “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” Friday.

Before Friday’s meeting the ranchers had asked Sheriff Benny House to cut off the locks. House attended the meeting Friday but it’s not clear what the next step will be.

Dunn said Otero County officials will look into filing criminal complaints and civil lawsuits against the feds as well as asking the U.S. Congress to look into the issue.

Before Friday’s meeting, Rep. Steve Pearce, R-New Mexico, told Associated Press, “These disputes could be easily avoided if federal bureaucrats would stick to their constitutional oath and respect property rights.”

The Otero County standoff comes one month after Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy squared off against officials at the Bureau of Land Management. Bundy, who has lost
repeatedly in court, tends his cattle on federal land. After the BLM tried to round-up his cattle and sparked a protest, the BLM stopped the roundup and is considering what to do next.

“They (the federal agents at Friday’s meeting) don’t want to have a Bundy Ranch situation,” Dunn said. “But they wanted to try to push the county and the sheriff to tell their citizens to quiet down. That was what repeatedly came up was, ‘we really can’t promise to open the gate and we can’t really promise you anything to make things better but we want you to help us and go down there and get everybody to be quiet .’ As much as anything it was said to the county, you better quiet down or we’ll come after you.”

“The Forest Service is well within its right to completely restrict access the area and the water therein, a measure that WildEarth Guardians would support to ensure protection of the jumping mouse,” Bird said in his letter. “Furthermore, such a complete restriction would be reasonable as it would apply to a mere 23 of the28,850 acres (less than .1 percent of the grazing at issue), and there is other water access therein that the permittee can use for cattle.”

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

Watch out, Bambi! Hunters can still use drones — for now

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Thu, 2014-05-15 15:51

DEATH FROM ABOVE?: New Mexico is considering an outright ban of drones that are used to help hunters track down big game.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

ALBUQUERQUE – Look out, Bambi. You’re still in danger from drones in New Mexico.

On Thursday, the State Game Commission decided to wait until next month to consider outlawing hunters from using drones in New Mexico.

“We’ll take a good, hard look to see if it’s within our power to get an outright ban,” commission chairman Paul Kienzle said as the seven-member board unanimously voted to table a proposal that would prohibit what scientists call “unmanned aerial systems” from tracking down big game by monitoring their activity from the air.

“It’s a fair chase issue,” Robert Griego, colonel of field operations at the New Mexico Game and Fish Department told New Mexico Watchdog. “That’s what we always want to maintain. We don’t want things to get to the point where it’s just like shooting fish in a barrel.”

“A person can use a drone to find a trophy animal or simply find all the animals and get a head start on other hunters,” said John Crenshaw, board president of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. “It’s unfair to the hunters and it’s unfair to the game.”

“It’s just wrong,” said Elisabeth Dicharry, an open spaces advocate from Los Lunas who wants to see an outright ban. “All species (such as coyotes and prairie dogs) should not be hunted with drones.”

The federal Airborne Hunting Act prohibits the use of aircraft to track or shoot animals, but there is no federal law covering drones.

The measure tabled Thursday would make it illegal to use drones “to signal an animal’s location, to harass a game animal or to hunt a protected species observed from a drone within 48 hours.”

“It’s starting to grow nationwide,” said Oscar Simpson, chairman of the New Mexico chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “I was talking to some sportsmen people here in New Mexico over the last nine months and I had three of them say their hunts were screwed up because somebody used a drone to move an elk out of the way, or to move it down to where they were.”

New Mexico isn’t the only state to consider outlawing drones for hunting.

Alaska, Colorado and Montana have already passed bans, and a combination of sportsmen’s groups and animal protection agencies are calling for states across the country to join in.

“As the price of drones comes down, they have a lot of potential for abuse,” Crenshaw told commissioners. “It seems the electronics is outrunning the rulemaking.”

While using drones for hunting is under fire, drones have also been used in places such as Africa to protect animals against poachers and to track the movement of herds for wildlife research.

“You’d look at having a research, a law enforcement exception,” Kienzle said after the meeting.

In an unusual twist, in Massachusetts, representatives of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals used drones to videotape hunters in the field. PETA said it did so to make sure hunters were obeying the law.

“To me, using drones to monitor wildlife or monitor hunters, that would be harassment,” Simpson said.

The New Mexico Game Commission plans to bring the issue up again when it meets next month in Ruidoso.

Drones aren’t new to New Mexico.

The state is home to the only flight test center approved by the Federal Aviation Administration — the Unmanned Aerial Systems Technical Analysis and Applications Center at New Mexico State University — that flies and tests drones in the southern portion of the state.

Drone deployment has spiked across the country in recent years. They’ve been employed, for example, by highway officials to check traffic conditions and by forest rangers to track forest fires.

Last December, amazon.com executives unveiled plans to use drones to deliver packages.

But there’s been pushback, with some civil libertarians expressing concern about drones being used as “Big Brother” and invading privacy.

Legislation was introduced in Louisiana and an ordinance put up for a vote in Colorado that went so far as to allow property owners to shoot down drones for trespassing. Neither measure passed.

As for drones and hunting in New Mexico, here’s more from Oscar Simpson:

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

Hispanic lawmaker blasts ‘Anglo Democrats,’ then apologizes … to some

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-05-14 18:26

‘TREACHERY IN OUR RANKS’: Longtime Democrat in the NM House of Representatives, Miguel Garcia, attacked “Democratic Anglo newcomers” in an email.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – A longtime Democrat in the New Mexico House of Representatives apologized Wednesday for a blistering email he sent to fellow House members, urging opposition to two white Democratic candidates running against Hispanic candidates in the upcoming June 3 party primary.

In a portion of the email under the heading, “Treachery In Our Ranks,” Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, called on members to support Andrew Barreras and Frank Otero in their respective primaries over fellow Democrats Jim Danner and Teresa Smith de Cherif in Valencia County.

“A minority of unsuspecting Democratic leaders are supporting the Democratic Anglo newcomer opponents in Andrew’s and Frank’s primary races. Anglo Democrats with egos as big as Texas, mouths as big as the Grand Canyon, and much ‘green’ (moolah) from the East and the West Coast,” the email said, as first reported by KRQE-TV.

At first, Garcia did not apologize for the email, sending a text to KRQE that said, “I did not send the email to the media. I have nothing to share regarding my email seeking support for two outstanding candidates.”

But news of the email spread quickly across the state and by Wednesday afternoon, Garcia apologized for making “inappropriate comments.”

Garcia also released an email he sent to Danner to the Santa Fe New Mexican.

“I want to ask for your forgiveness regarding the negative manner in which I questioned your character or campaign pursuits,” Garcia wrote. “It is not in me to speak negatively of fellow Democrats, or anyone for that fact, that I am not personally acquainted with or familiar with. In my legislative career I pride myself on always taking the ‘moral high ground’ on issues of bigotry, discrimination, inequality, prejudice, intolerance, hatred — I faltered in reaching that in my email.”

But Garcia, who has served in the House for 17 years, did not apologize for the attacks he made in his original email on two incumbent Republicans in Valencia County and one incumbent Democrat who sometimes sides with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

In reference to Rep. Sandra Jeff, D-Crownpoint, Garcia called Jeff “a renegade Democrat who licks the Governor’s (armpits).”

He referred to Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Belen, as a “loyal lapdog” of Martinez and wrote that Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, “always falls in line every time Gov. Martinez snaps her blood-stained fingers.”

“I feel it’s pretty disgusting,” Jeff told New Mexico Watchdog. “I don’t think, as Democrats, that’s not our values. He should be ashamed. That’s a personal jab.”

Baldonado said he doesn’t think Garcia owes him an apology. “He can’t change his perspective on things if that’s the way he looks at things,” Baldonado said in a phone interview.

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

Otero County’s fight with the feds over cattle and the meadow jumping mouse

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-05-14 12:08

MOUSE IN THE MIDDLE: The meadow jumping mouse is expected to be listed as endangered next month.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — It hasn’t reached the fever-pitch of the showdown involving Cliven Bundy, but a handful of ranchers in southern New Mexico have locked horns with the federal government.

Their complaint? Officials at the U.S. Forest Service have fenced off access to water for the ranchers’ grazing cattle because the feds want to protect the habitat of the meadow jumping mouse, which is expected to be listed as an endangered species next month.

The Forest Service says it is worried cattle will damage 23 acres along the Agua Chiquita that includes a natural spring it says is essential the protect the ecosystem for the mouse.

Ranchers are angry the feds have reinforced locks and fences to keep out their cattle, thirsty from a long drought that has hit New Mexico. Besides, they say, the land belongs to a local rancher.

“The Forest Service has no right to appropriate water under New Mexico law,” Blair Dunn, an attorney for Otero County, told New Mexico Watchdog.

But the Forest Service disagrees and says the fences have been in place since the 1990s and the creek itself is on federal property.

“We’ve provided reasonable access to the water, even if there is a water right on these sites,” Forest Supervisor Travis Moseley told KVIA-TV.

Tensions are rising.

On Monday, Otero County Commissioners voted 2-0 to authorize Sheriff Benny House to open the gate.

LOCKED OUT: The U.S. Forest Service has locked out ranchers in southern New Mexico from a creek said to protect the habitat of the meadow jumping mouse.

“I’ve never seen one of these mice, and the Forest Service claims they caught one last year,” Commissioner Tommie Herrell told Reuters.

The endangered listing for the meadow jumping mouse comes after a settlement was reached with WildEarth Guardians in 2011.

“The job of the Forest Service is to balance uses for the greatest good for the greatest number of Americans, not to provide subsidized grazing to welfare ranchers,” WildEarth Guardians posted on its Facebook page May 6.

Otero County resident Denise Lang said he hopes the feds win the dispute.

“This is the U.S. Forest Service who is protecting the sustainability of our forest,” Lang told commissioners at Monday’s meeting.

Sheriff House has not acted yet. Instead, what’s being called a “facilitated discussion” between the two sides has been scheduled for Friday at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Albuquerque to try to come to a compromise.

“Hopefully we can get something resolved on Friday,” said House.

“This is part of a larger issue,” Dunn said. “There’s a big, strong push, which comes from the White House, to push grazing and oil and gas uses off federal ground. This incident here is just another example.”

“The Forest Service will continue to work to ensure all parties involved understand that the fence is fully compliant with state and federal law,” the service said in a statement released earlier this week.

The Otero County flare-up comes a month after Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy squared off against officials at the Bureau of Land Management. Bundy, who has lost repeatedly in court, tends his cattle on federal land. After the BLM tried to round-up his cattle and sparked a protest, the BLM stopped the roundup and is considering what to do next.

In Utah, meanwhile, another protest has popped up over the use of ATVs on trails that go into Recapture Canyon in the southeastern part of the state that have deemed off-limits.

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

Big bucks: Up to $80m for technology upgrades and free computers for kids in Santa Fe

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-05-13 17:00

A COMPUTER FOR EVERY KID: Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Joel Boyd (left) says a $55 million, five-year investment in technology is a tool to help students compete in the 21st century. Santa Fe Public Schools photo.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — Taxpayers in New Mexico’s capital city have spent plenty in recent years for improved technology and computers for the Santa Fe Public Schools system.

Now they’re about to pay a lot more.

“While we were doing a lot and there was a lot of investment, it certainly was not meeting the needs of our youngsters and it wasn’t enough to meet the needs of our teachers in the classroom,” Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Joel Boyd told New Mexico Watchdog.

As a result, the Santa Fe board of education recently passed a $55 million Digital Learning Plan that promises to integrate technology for students and teachers, upgrade computer infrastructure and eventually give personal computers to each of the 14,000 students in the district.

Just two years ago, Santa Fe voters approved a bond to provide $12.7 million per year for six years to fund construction and technological enhancements. That comes to $76.2 million. Included in that amount was $2.4 million to buy Apple computers and technology for students in the summer of 2012.

Carl Gruenler, the SFPS chief business officer, told New Mexico Watchdog the majority of the $76.2 million is going to building maintenance, and “approximately 25-33 percent has been spent for technology infrastructure and equipment since 2012.”

So what happened to the $2.4 million for Apple computers?

Gruenler said that went to replacing old computers at the district’s two high schools.

The just-passed $55 million Digital Learning Plan will be spread out over five years and the school board has approved the first $11 million to be released this school year.

All told, the total price tag for technology related items (infrastructure, upgrades, computers, support, software for all 34 schools in the mix, etc.) may reach as high as $80 million over the next six years.

That’s a lot of money for a district with 14,000 students.

Boyd said the Digital Learning Plan is necessary after hearing complaints from teachers of “slow systems, slow start-ups and inadequate services for technology for 21st century learning for kids … In order to do what our children need, that’s what it costs.”

“This is no small challenge,” Gruenler said.

School board member Steven Carrillo defends the plan, which passed in February.

“I think it’s not only good, it’s essential if we’re going to provide technology for our children that most school districts have throughout the country,” Carrillo said.

“That’s the biggest first piece — getting our infrastructure into the 21st century,” Carrillo said. “I’m not kidding when I say (the current system is) back there in the 1990s. That’s not an exaggeration.”

SFPS officials conducted a large-scale poll of 600 likely Santa Fe voters and Boyd said 70 percent agreed an investment in technology was needed. “That’s overwhelmingly supportive,” he said.

Can giving students free computers lead to better academic outcomes?

“These are tools,” said Boyd, who took over as superintendent in August 2012. “These don’t take the place of teachers or other things that we’re doing … Each generation has different tools that are needed in the classroom and these happen to the be the tools of this generation.”

Neal McCluskey, education analyst at the Cato Institute, a free-market think tank based in Washington, D.C., is more skeptical.

“Any time I’ve looked at it, there doesn’t seem to be much support for the idea that more technology leads to better outcomes,” he said. “I don’t think there’s been anything systematic that says it has.”

But a growing number of school districts – from Maine to Texas to Oregon to California – are making big investments in technology and giving out free computers to students.

The Los Angeles Unified School District planned to distribute iPads to all of its 660,000 students in 2013. The program ended up costing millions of dollars more than expected and, to the district’s embarrassment, a number of tech-savvy students quickly learned how to disable the firewalls and used the computers to access computer games and pornography sites.

One of the local TV stations called it ” the district’s iPad quagmire.”

Boyd said Los Angeles can’t be compared to Santa Fe.

“L.A. Unified is a district of 700,000 kids,” Boyd said. “It’s the second largest city in this country … It’s vastly different.”

In addition, Boyd said the five-year rollout by SFPS will help ensure potential problems can be avoided.

What kinds of computers will Santa Fe students get? Boyd said it will depend on the needs of each school. Ramirez Thomas Elementary is one of the first schools to receive computers. Boyd said students there will receive iPads.

Even before implementation, the Digital Learning Plan received criticism because the $55 million project was not approved as a bond measure by voters.

Instead, a divided school board approved it by using Educational Technology Notes. Passed by voters in 1996 as an amendment to the state constitution, the notes allow school boards to impose a property tax on their own.

The measure passed on a 3-2 vote, with school board members Lorraine Price and Glenn Wikle voting against it.

“I thought it should go to the voters … Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” said Day, who added that she supports the plan now that it has passed.

“If it was a bond, we would have had to wait two years for the proceeds of the bond (to materialize) and that would have set us further behind,” Carrillo said. “I can say honestly and I’m not exaggerating, I only got three emails — three — from people that did not appreciate that we didn’t go to the voters.”

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

Freedom Works boss: Tea Party ‘stronger, not weaker’

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-05-13 09:01

THE PARTY’S NOT OVER: Matt Kibbe, the CEO of the political action group Freedom Works, says the Tea Party’s influence is not waning, but on the rise. NM Watchdog photo.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

ALBUQUERQUE – They’ve been attacked by Democrats such as Harry Reid as “anarchists,” vilified by the main character on the cable show “The Newsroom” as “the American Taliban” and criticized by some Republicans who point to defeats in Delaware, Indiana and Nevada as possibly costing the party control of the U.S. Senate.

But one of the people responsible for creating the Tea Party says the movement is as strong as ever.

“A lot more of these activists are (focusing) more on local precinct captain divisions, local school boards, state legislators,” said Matt Kibbe, the president and CEO of Freedom Works, a political nonprofit based in Washington D.C., that proclaims “lower taxes, less government, more freedom” as its motto.

“So they’ve gone local,” Kibbe told New Mexico Watchdog. “They still think nationally but they’ve focused on the mechanics on a local level. That to me is a sign of a stronger social movement, not a weaker one.”

Kibbe’s group was instrumental in organizing what became the founding event for the Tea Party movement — a Taxpayer March on Washington back on Sept, 12, 2009 that drew hundreds of thousands.

“We had zero advertising,” Kibbe told a crowd of about 75 Monday at a luncheon sponsored by the Rio Grande Foundation. “It was all due to social media … That’s the power of decentralization.”

A little more than a year later, Tea Party favorites such as Rand Paul and Justin Amash were elected to Congress and Republicans took control of the House of Representatives.

But in 2012, Barack Obama won re-election and since then, there’s been plenty of speculation that the Tea Party is losing steam.

WHERE IT STARTED: A Taxpayers March on Washington in 2009 marked the beginning of the Tea Party movement.

While Kibbe emphasizes that Freedom Works and the Tea Party movement are independent — “They don’t work for us and we don’t work for them” — Kibbe thinks the Tea Party’s principles are alive and well.

“Very strong support for the Tea Party runs about 30 percent,” Kibbe said. “But if you look at the issues that we fight for — balancing the budget, limiting federal power, defending individual liberty — those issues are trending dramatically in the United States, in large part as a reaction against the Obama administration.”

But does the Tea Party split Republican power?

John McCain and Lindsey Graham have criticized some Tea Party-identified candidates such as Ted Cruz and Speaker of the House John Boehner has wrestled with the Tea Party caucus in the House.

“We don’t win ‘em all,” Kibbe said. “But what’s different is the extraordinary shift in the conversation … we’re all talking about the national debt, we’re talking about overreach in Obamacare. And if you if you look at the polling going into (the 2014 elections), it’s our issues that define this election.”

In New Mexico, a move to replace then-Speaker of the House Ben Luján with a more conservative Democrat was undermined when Tea Party chapters in the southern part of the state pressured Republicans to reject a power-sharing coalition, citing the chapters’ opposition to abortion. Luján survived and many of the GOP members later regretted the decision.

“There are certainly a lot of pro-life tea partiers,” Kibbe said. “But generally speaking, they don’t work on those issues as a group … It shifts and flows and I think that’s where its power comes from. It’s not directed from any top-down organization.”

A Grateful Dead aficionado, microbrew maven and fan of the movie, “The Big Lebowski,” Kibbe is a self-identified libertarian. His most recent book, “Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take Their Stuff,” is called a manifesto of the virtues of small government. But he’s also a registered Republican. Which one comes first?

“They’re two different things,” Kibbe said. “I’m a small ‘l’ libertarian because libertarianism is a set of values and a philosophy. Republicans are a political party. And quite often, political parties are empty vessels that can be filled with ideas. I think on rare occasions in my life, Republican Party has lived up that standard.”

Kibbe’s book features “Six Rules for Liberty.”

“Saul Alinsky had 13 rules,” in Alinsky’s book, “Rules for Radicals,” Kibbe told the crowd Monday. “I came up with six.”

Among Kibbe’s rules? Honoring the importance of hard work — something that the actor Ashton Kutcher expressed earlier this year.

“He said, ‘opportunity looks a lot like hard work,’ ” Kibbe said. “He’s basically saying, ‘No one’s going to give this to you. You gotta go get it.’ That was controversial in Hollywood but it’s sort of a common sense notion that even a movie star got and that’s a good thing.”

Here’s the New Mexico Watchdog interview with Kibbe:

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

VIDEO: Discussion on NM Watchdog’s story on per-pupil spending UPDATE: ABQ Journal also picks up story

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-05-09 15:41

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Are New Mexico taxpayers getting enough bang for their buck when it comes to spending on education?

That’s a logical question to ask after a New Mexico Watchdog story posted earlier this week reported that while student outcomes continue near the bottom in national rankings, New Mexico is ranked 20th in the nation when it comes to per-pupil spending. Click here to read the story.

The Watchdog report, as well as another story on higher education spending, was brought up in a “web extra” edition of “New Mexico In Focus,” the weekly public affairs program seen in most parts of the state on KNME-TV.

Joining moderator Gene Grant on the panel was Rob Nikolewski of New Mexico Watchdog, former New Mexico Lt. Governor Diane Denish, former state Rep. Dan Foley and attorney Sophie Martin:

At 7 p.m. Friday night, the one-hour broadcast edition of New Mexico In Focus will be aired on KNME, Channel 5 and will be repeated on Saturday on Channel 9.1 and Sunday at 7 a.m. on Channel 5.1.

Update 5/12: The state’s largest newspaper, the Albuquerque Journal, also picked up the story on Monday and put it on the front page, above the fold:

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


Core beliefs: NM education chief defends Common Core

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-05-09 11:02

HEARING IT FROM BOTH ENDS: Critics of Common Core come both the right and the left sides of the political spectrum.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — As the Common Core Standards Initiative gets implemented across the country, complaints are piling up on both ends of the political spectrum.

In education circles, a sardonic joke is making the rounds: Conservatives hate the “common” and liberals hate the “core.”

New Mexico Public Education Department Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera defends the initiative, saying it’s a vital tool to streamline K-12 standards and ensure that students are actually learning what they need to learn in a competitive 21st century environment.

“Right now we spend over $20 million (in New Mexico) for high school graduates who go on to college … and have to take remediation courses,” Skandera told New Mexico Watchdog in an interview at the PED offices in Santa Fe. “We’re not delivering on the promise of, ‘are you ready?’ We know half of our kids are not on grade level. So (Common Core) is an important step to say, let’s make sure we have high standards.”

Common Core was created in 2009 by governors, education secretaries and legislators across the country. It came largely in response to complaints about the No Child Left Behind Act that passed Congress with bi-partisan support during the administration of George W. Bush.

Some 44 states and the District of Columbia signed off on Common Core as a better way to measure student outcomes across the board, focusing on math and what’s called ELA — English language arts/literacy.

The criticisms about Common Core are relatively muted in New Mexico.

A poll of 157 New Mexico teachers conducted last summer showed that 81 percent believed “the standards will have a positive impact on students’ ability to think critically and use reasoning skills” and just 1 percent thought Common Core will have a negative impact.

But in other parts of the country, the rumbling has developed into a roar.

Two months ago, Indiana dropped out of Common Core, with a Republican state legislator calling it “a cookie-cutter education system.” Oklahoma is considering dropping out.

For some conservatives, Common Core represents a top-down edict coming from Washington that horns in on individual states.

“This is the thin end of an enormous wedge of federal power that will be wielded for the constant progressive purpose of concentrating power in Washington so that it can impose continental solutions to problems nationwide,” said columnist George Will earlier this week on Fox News.

DEFENDING THE CORE: New Mexico Public Education Department secretary-designate Hanna Skandera says Common Core helps to ensure students are learning what they need to learn.

“I disagree wholeheartedly about this idea that it’s a top-down decision,” Skandera said. “It’s a decision about what’s best for our kids and it’s made here, at the local level, in the state of New Mexico.”

“Sooner or later, you inevitably have a national curriculum,” Will said.

“When it comes to curriculum, it’s decided at the local level,” Skandera countered, adding, “There is nothing about Common Core that’s about curriculum. Common Core is about the standards.”

At the same time, some liberals complain that Common Core’s implementation has been botched and call it inflexible and too dependent on test-taking.

In a reflection of our celebrity culture, a Twitter rant against Common Core by comedian Louis C.K. was picked up last week by New Yorker magazine and has received wide distribution, especially on progressive media outlets.

“My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!” the comedian posted.

“Since Gov. Martinez has come into office we’ve reduced testing time by an average of 30 minutes per grade,” Skandera said. “And we will maintain that commitment when we transition to Common Core. Increased testing is not the case, it’s not now and won’t be when we adopt Common Core.”

Some teachers unions, who liked Common Core when it was introduced, are now backtracking.

On Thursday, the Chicago Teachers Union voted to oppose Common Core standards.

“Common Core eliminates creativity in the classroom and impedes collaboration,” said CTU President Karen Lewis. “We also know that high-stakes standardized testing is designed to rank and sort our children and it contributes significantly to racial discrimination and the achievement gap among students in America’s schools.”

“Our unions are beginning to waver on that message,” Skandera said. “I think the flip-flop is coming because we’re bringing in accountability. You can’t have high standards and not measure whether or not you’re reaching them.”

The Obama administration has backed Common Core standards, with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan saying last June, “I believe the Common Core State Standards may prove to be the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown versus Board of Education.”

Last November, Duncan had to apologize after he said some of Common Core’s criticism come from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

To try to beat back the criticism, the Common Core website has a page devoted to countering what it says are the myths versus the facts of the program.

The Common Core debate has plenty of political ironies for Skandera.

ON BOARD: Hanna Skandera (back left) attending an announcement by Barack Obama in 2011 about waivers issued to states on No Child Left Behind.

New Mexico adopted Common Core in 2010, in the final months of the administration of Democrat Bill Richardson.

“Our commitment to Common Core state standards has bridged two administrations from different parties,” Skandera said.

Throughout her tenure at PED, she has been pilloried by unions and some teachers (at a rally last fall, a sign was displayed depicting Skandera and Martinez with fangs, dripping with blood) and lambasted by some Roundhouse Democrats (Skandera still has not received an up or down vote on her nomination in the full Senate).

Yet Skandera said she’s in full support of the Obama administration and Duncan’s backing of higher standards in general and Common Core in particular. In her office is a framed copy of a newspaper front page with a photo of President Obama announcing state waivers on No Child Left Behind with Skandera in the background.

“It’s not about politics, it’s about delivering on a promise for what’s in the best interests of our kids,” Skandera said. “We made that commitment, we’ll keep it.”

But the criticism isn’t letting up.

After Indiana backed out, a critic predicted other states will follow.

The “water is warm, come on in,” said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a free-market think tank that opposes Common Core.

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

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