"Capitol Report New Mexico" Latest Blog Postings

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

Still no word on which state will win the Tesla ‘giga-factory’ sweepstakes

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-05-07 16:39

NO DECISION YET: Tesla owner and billionaire Elon Musk won’t say which states are still in the running for a “giga-factory” that promises to employ 6,500 workers.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – The Tesla tease continues.

There was speculation that Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk would announce on Wednesday two potential locations for a $5 billion “giga-factory” that promises to employ 6,500 workers to assemble lithium-ion batteries in the company’s electric cars but in an investors call, Musk did not winnow the field of four states — including New Mexico — that are in the running.

In fact, he confirmed reports that California is a fifth state in the running, sort of.

“California is improbable but not impossible,” Musk said. California is the home state of Tesla’s headquarters but Musk said he’s concerned about regulations in California potentially delaying the building of the giga-factory.

“It’s not so much the incentives but how fast the site can be completed,” Musk said, adding that the company can’t afford to wait a year or more for a permit before proceeding.

“In other states, it’s much more streamlined,” Musk said.

But one thing that did come out of Wednesday’s call? A decision is coming very soon.

Last week, Musk said the company will announce two potential sites for the factory to lower the risk that one site may not work out. On Wednesday, Musk said he plans to break ground on the first giga-factory site “next month” and “one to months after that, we’ll break ground on the second.”

So it’s still “hurry up and wait” for government officials in New Mexico — along with Nevada, Texas, Arizona and now, California.

The size of the Tesla project has spurred furious speculation inside the states in contention for the plant, with business insiders handicapping the fiscal strengths and weaknesses of each state and what kind of incentive package they can produce to lure Musk.

Nevada, for example, is considered a strong contender because it has no state income tax, is adjacent to California and is home to a lithium mine.

Among New Mexico’s potential advantages? It’s the home of Spaceport America, where Musk’s SpaceX rocket company already has a lease to flight-test a reusable rocket program. Plus, the state has recently cut the corporate tax rate to go along with New Mexico’s renewable energy tax credit.

As for New Mexico’s disadvantages? One industry expert pointed out that New Mexico was the only one of the four contenders that is not a right-to-work state– where workers can decided for themselves if they want to join a labor union or not.

“New Mexico would be wise to move in that direction and do what Indiana and Michigan did and become right to a work state,” John Boyd Jr., the president of a company in New Jersey that works with companies on site selection, told KOAT-TV.

“States give huge incentives to get this kind of business in their regions,” Jakki Mohr, marketing instructor at the University of Montana, told www.marketplace.org earlier this week, and this is a way of “playing one state against another to receive better incentives to locate there.”

Back in February when Tesla announced that New Mexico was one of the finalists, New Mexico Economic Development Director Jon Barela said winning the Tesla contract “would be a transformational opportunity for this state” and, “we would covet a project like this.”

Barela said he could not reveal any details of what New Mexico might offer to lure Tesla, citing confidentiality provisions in such negotiations.

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

NM is 20th in per-pupil spending, but near the bottom in results

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-05-06 14:18

NO. 20 AND RISING: An annual study done by the National Education Association shows New Mexico jumped from 25th to 20th in per-pupil spending in the past year.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — For years, New Mexico has finished near the bottom in national educational measurements such as reading and math, which has led to calls from some interest groups to increase student spending.

But according to an annual study by the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in the country, New Mexico ranks 20th in per-pupil spending.

That’s five notches higher than last year, when New Mexico ranked 25th in expenditures for public schools per student in kindergarten through 12th grade.

The NEA’s “Rankings of the States 2013 and Estimates of School Statistics 2014″ came out this spring showing New Mexico spent $11,019 per student for the 2012-2013 school year. That’s 20th in the country and slightly above the U.S. average of $10,938 and above the national median of $10,251:

The per-pupil figure is $816 higher than last year’s NEA study, reported by New Mexico Watchdog, that showed the state spending $10,203 per student.

What’s more, NEA researchers this year ranked New Mexico sixth in the nation for per capita state government expenditures for all education, which included higher education.

In the 19 measurements of school expenditures done by the NEA study, New Mexico finished in the top 10 in the nation in six categories and finished in the top half in 17.

New Mexico’s lowest finish was 26th in the nation in two measurements of expenditures per K-12 students who are listed under the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Click here to read the entire NEA study and see pages 52-58 for the data on school spending by state.)

State Rep. Eliseo Lee Alcon, D-Milan, said he’s in favor of increasing spending on public education, adding that the NEA study doesn’t change his mind.

“We’re spending a lot of money but you’ve got to remember, we have a lot more needs,” Alcon told New Mexico Watchdog. “We have so many different cultures in our state, and that makes it difficult to teach.”

But the NEA numbers did not surprise state Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming.

“John Q. Public really has no idea of how much financial effort that the taxpayers and the citizens have poured into this and are still waiting for different outcomes,” Smith said. “The issue that puzzles me the most is that when suggestions come on how we should change things, there’s an outcry and the final result is, let’s keep doing the same thing.”

Charles Goodmacher, government relations director for NEA-New Mexico, didn’t dispute the national NEA numbers, but said the state should spend more money on education.

“If other (states) are underfunding too, then that doesn’t mean we’re doing a good job of funding because we’re funding at a higher level than they are,” Goodmacher said.

Goodmacher said New Mexico’s high poverty rates means many students have to deal with more out-of-school issues than children in other states.

“That requires more spending per pupil to make up for,” he said. “There are so many extra services that are needed in New Mexico to have the students ready physically as well as emotionally.”

New Mexico’s fourth-grade reading scores in 2013 were lower than those in 49 other states, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and the state’s fourth-grade math scores were lower than 46 other states.

About the same time the NEA released its findings, a scholar from the Cato Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C., made headlines by claiming there is no correlation between school spending and academic achievement.

In his study of academic performance during the past four decades, Andrew Coulson concluded that despite large increases in spending , “the takeaway from this study is that what we’ve done over the past 40 years hasn’t worked. The average performance change nationwide has declined 3 percent in mathematical and verbal skills.”

New Mexico Voices for Children, which has long advocated for increased spending for public schools, disagreed.

“The Cato report assumes that education money is spent the same way it was in the 1960s and ’70s,” the organization said in an email. “In fact, schools have been mandated to provide many more services — special education, after-school programs, computer sciences, etc. — and today’s classrooms require much more technology than they did in the days of the mimeograph.”

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

US leads the way in drop in global greenhouse gas emissions

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-05-06 10:22

CUTTING DOWN ON EMISSIONS: An increased use of natural gas has helped the U.S. drop its greenhouse gas emissions to its lowest amount since 1994.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – There’s been plenty written about the amount of greenhouse gases getting pumped into the atmosphere but a recent international study shows the amount coming from industrialized nations is actually declining — and the U.S. is leading the way.

Compiling data submitted to the United Nations, the Reuters news agency determined that greenhouse gas emissions fell by 1.3 percent in 2012, with the U.S. reporting a decrease of 3.4 percent — down to 6.5 billion tons, the lowest amount since 1994.

“The fall was linked to low natural gas prices, helped by a shale gas boom and a shift from coal,” Reuters reported.

“The success story is the declining emissions in the United States,” said Glen Peters, of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway.

New Mexico has one of the largest natural gas deposits in the world, located in the San Juan Basin in the northwestern part of the state. Natural gas producers have been calling on the Obama administration to increase and develop liquefied natural gas exports to foreign countries such as Japan.

The report said the European Union saw a dip in emissions of 1.3 percent in 2012 to 4.5 billion tons. That’s down 19.2 percent from 1990 levels, the European Environment Agency said.

But there’s concern that emissions from emerging nations such as China, Brazil and India are more than making up for the reductions seen in the U.S. and other industrialized nations.

The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has called for cutting global greenhouse gas emissions of 3 percent per year and Corinne Le Quere, professor of climate change at Britain’s University of East Anglia, said far tougher action was needed.

“It requires a transformation in the way we use energy,” she said.

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

Is the $5 million solar project in Santa Fe a good investment?

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-05-05 16:50

LONG-TERM INVESTMENT: Santa Fe Community College has spent $5 million from a taxpayer-approved bond to build a solar array. Is it a good investment? Photo from SFCC website.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — Santa Fe Community College has just unveiled a solar array that it says will save the college at least $200,000 a year on its utility bills.

But the array, funded by taxpayers in a 2010 bond election, will cost $5 million.

You don’t have to be a math major at the college to figure out it would take 25 years of $200,000 cost savings per year to reach the $5 million mark for the project to just break even.

So is the solar array a good deal?

SFCC interim president Randy Grissom thinks so.

First off, Grissom told New Mexico Watchdog the college expects to save more than $200,000 a year on utility bills.

“We took a really conservative approach in doing our analysis,” Grissom said. “We anticipate it will be between $200,000 to $300,000 (a year in savings).”

But even at $300,000 a year, it would take almost 17 years to break even, right?

“We did a ‘net present value’ analysis of the project,” Grissom said, adding that the analysis showed “a gain of $1.5 million” over the life of the solar array, which, Grissom says, is guaranteed to last 25 years.

But given some of the solar industry’s problems in recent years, some taxpayers have reason to be skeptical.

For example, in summer 2012, after getting $16 million in grants from the state, Schott Solar shut down its manufacturing plant in south Albuquerque and laid off 250 workers. New Mexico taxpayers had to eat more than $12 million because the administration of then-Gov. Bill Richardson did not include any clawback provisions in the deal with Schott.

Taxpayers also got stuck losing millions in 2009, when Advent Solar went belly-up, despite receiving nearly $17 million through the State Investment Council and its private equity arm.

Nationally, the Brookings Institution reported the U.S. government has allocated more than $150 billion to green initiatives since 2009, and the International Energy Agency estimates nations across the globe have made more than $2 trillion in renewable energy investments in the past 20 years.

“There’s too little to show from the investments, however,” Wall Street Journal reporter Gregory Zuckerman wrote in his book, “The Frackers,” about the oil and gas industry in the U.S.

“Cars don’t run on waste, and wind and solar aren’t yet ready to power the world,” Zuckerman said. “Instead, a group of frackers, relying on market cues rather than government direction, achieved dramatic advances by focusing on fossil fuels, of all things. It’s a stark reminder that breakthroughs in the business world usually are achieved through incremental advances, often in the face of deep skepticism, rather than government-inspired eureka moments.”

But SFCC’s Grissom, who said, “we worked on projects like this all the time” when he used to be a vice-president of a technology business at General Electric 14 years ago, said he’s confident of a positive return on investment in the $5 million solar array.

“We went through the whole process to make sure this was a good project for the college to do,” Grissom said. “Not only is it good for the college, but for the taxpayers.”

Grissom said analysis for the project included renewable energy credits the college will rack up from PNM, the state’s largest electric utility, and conservatively predicted modest 1 percent annual increases in energy rates. With energy increases usually higher than that, SFCC claims the project will be a financial winner.

In addition, Grissom said the solar array has an important educational element for SFCC students, who can earn certificates as solar installers, designers and sales people.

“This will save money the over the long-term, and that money can go back to the students, rather than paying utility bills,” Grissom said.

Earlier this year, the SFCC Governing Board came under fire for spending $500,000 in taxpayer money to oust former president Ana “Cha” Guzmán. Grissom has been named the school’s interim president and has expressed his desire to fill the job permanently.

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

Editorial: Ukraine’s crisis and its fateful decision in 1994

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Sat, 2014-05-03 21:42

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

There’s an old, unfortunate adage all too often repeated when it comes to the Middle East: It can always get worse.

Sadly, Ukrainians are learning that phrase is quickly applying them.

In the space of two months, they’ve seen Russia’s Vladimir Putin — acting like a bully shaking down a kid in a schoolyard for his lunch money — grab the Crimean Peninsula.

Losing its warm-water port was bad enough but now, Ukraine’s very existence is in doubt. Earlier this week, the mayor of an eastern Ukrainian city was shot in the back and, as of this writing, remains in critical condition as pro-Russian forces threaten to swallow large chunks of the country, if not the entire thing.

An old Cold War truth is merging with today’s cold, hard truth: a belligerent Russia may well succeed in annexing Ukraine.

It’s clear that words won’t deter Putin, who is determined to take back territory that was lost after the Soviet Union collapsed 23 years ago.

And what’s happening in Ukraine is putting leaders on edge in countries with large Russian-speaking minorities such as Georgia, Moldova and Estonia.

Estonia is crucial because it’s a member of NATO and Article 5 of the NATO agreement stipulates an attack on one member is an attack on all of its members.

Another cold truth? Don’t count on the U.S. and western European nations going there.

Now, nobody’s talking about NATO/American boots on the ground in Eastern Europe but the Obama White House has been slow on the uptake ever since this crisis began.

It still has not even offered to share military intelligence with Ukraine and has repeatedly said it will not supply the Ukrainians light military weaponry in the face of a potential Russian assault. (The Russians have an estimated 40,000-50,000 troops lined up on Ukraine’s border.)

Instead, the administration hopes that economic sanctions will do the trick.

Yet President Obama still has not countered Putin by hitting the Russian economy where it would hurt the most: in its energy sector. A threat of exporting liquefied natural gas to Europe could well compel Putin to at least think twice about the economic wisdom of intrusion.

Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry called on Europe to end its dependence on Russian oil and gas but didn’t offer any specifics.

But the Obama administration looks like zealots compared to European leaders.

Fearful of Russia shutting off their oil and gas supplies, it took unmistakable signs of aggression — such as pro-Russian forces holding European monitors hostage — to get EU leaders to find some spine.

Near the end of World War II, upon being asked about Catholics in Poland, Josef Stalin famously asked. “How many divisions does the Pope have?” In 2014, Europe may have NATO divisions at its disposal but if Putin reckons they’ll never be used, he has no reason not to take whatever he wants.

In these existential times for Ukraine, one can only imagine the enormous regret its people must have looking back at 1994.

That year, in the optimism of a post-Cold War world, Ukrainian leaders went to Budapest for an international meeting. Under the Soviet regime, nuclear missiles were still deployed in Ukraine. The U.S. and western European urged Ukraine to allow those missiles to be dismantled. The Ukrainians agreed after getting assurances that their borders would never be violated and would be defended if they were.

So much for that promise.

But a sobering geopolitical lesson may extend beyond Ukraine.

In a post-post-Cold War world, leaders in vulnerable countries may very well conclude — with logic that’s hard to argue with — that having their own nuclear arsenal equals protection.

And that figures to make the world a much more combustible — and deadly — place.

(This commentary first appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican on May 4, 2014. You can contact Rob Nikolewski through the website he edits, www.newmexicowatchdog.org.)

Mixed results for Obamacare numbers in NM

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-05-02 14:20

A SURGE, BUT …: The number of people in New Mexico signing up for Affordable Care Act quadrupled in the last few weeks of open enrollment but there are some concerns behind the numbers.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – The number of people in New Mexico signing up for individual policies under the Affordable Care Act surged during a six-week push before the open-enrollment deadline passed.

But there are questions about how many have paid their premiums, and the number of so-called “young invincibles” is still below expectations.

In numbers released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 32,062 New Mexicans have signed up for Obamacare.

More than half of those (17,050) signed up in March and the first 15 days in April. The enrollment deadline was originally set for March 31, but President Obama extended it.

“It was a very significant increase,” Mike Nuñez, the interim CEO of the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange (NMHIX), told New Mexico Watchdog. “The deadline drove a lot of people to motivate, to call, to get in lines, to take actions.”

Compared to the results from February, the 17,050-figure represents an increase of a whopping 402 percent, snapping a two-month skid that saw the percentage in New Mexico drop in January and February.

“We did a lot of work to get a lot of people connected,” Nuñez said, including sending 10,000 electronic post cards, 3,700 emails and 28,000 phone calls to eligible enrollees.

But warning signs still accompany the statistics.

First, only 23 percent of those enrolled in New Mexico were between the ages of 18 and 34 — the “young invincibles” that need to sign up to keep premiums from increasing. That’s 3 percent higher than March but 5 percent less than the national 18-34 figure of 28 percent:

“Our goal is at least 30 percent” of enrollees being under the age of 35, said Dr. J.R. Damron, chairman of the NMIX board. “We want to at least match what the feds have. It’s got to be affordable.”

“It means we need to further intensify our efforts,” Nuñez said.

Even the national numbers for the 18-34 category are 12 percent below the 40 percent expected when the ACA rolled out last year.

The largest age group signing up in New Mexico were people between from ages 55 to 64 — 32 percent, which is 7 percent higher than the national average.

Second, HHS has not disclosed how many of the 8 million people across the nation who have signed up have actually paid their first-month’s premiums.

But saying it cross-checked the HHS numbers with insurance companies, the House Energy and Commerce Committee claims 33 percent of those on individual plans have not paid their first-month premiums.

HHS on Thursday said it won’t have numbers for paying customers until later this year but contended the House committee numbers looked at only about half the insurers who offer ACA plans.

“It doesn’t match with public comments by insurance company executives, most of which have indicated that they are seeing 80 (percent) to 90 percent of their enrollees pay their premiums,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday.

“If you were a business owner and you have accounts receivable and 20 percent of your accounts on a monthly basis did not pay their bill, you’d say, we’ve got a problem here,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, who sits on the committee.

Nuñez said NMHIX doesn’t know how many enrollees in New Mexico have paid their premiums. “We’ve been focused on getting the enrollments in,” he said. “Now we can start looking at who’s in, who’s paid and do some analysis on that.” Nuñez did not have a specific date when that analysis would start.

Here is the breakdown for enrollees by gender and those receiving federal subsidies:

The next open enrollment period for Obamacare starts Nov. 15, but NMHIX officials are appealing to HHS to let New Mexico start Oct. 1.

“We want to have as long an enrollment period as possible to reach out to all those folks tell them that they can come to us,” Nuñez said.

Starting this fall, enrollees in New Mexico can deal directly with the NMHIX website, www.bewell.nm.com, instead of the www.healthcare.gov site that was plagued by so many problems earlier this year.

“I don’t think we would have had those challenges that occurred, especially in the first 75-90 days with the federal website,” Damron said.

When the NMHIX site launched late last year, officials set a goal of 83,000 sign-up for individual policies by the end of 2014. That’s a little more than 51,000 shy of where New Mexico stands now.

“At 32,000 we’re in the ballpark, but it’s not where we want to be,” Damron said.

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

When it comes to campaign expenses, you can keep on truckin’ in NM

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-04-30 15:51

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — It’s said you don’t ever want to get between country folk and their pickup trucks.

And in most cases in New Mexico, if you’re a candidate for statewide office, using campaign funds to fix and maintain your vehicle is considered an allowable expense.

For example, a glance at candidate filing forms shows that Public Regulation Commissioner Pat Lyons listed more than $5,100 in repairs on his 1999 Ford F-250 in his paperwork with the Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees the paperwork turned in by candidates for statewide office.

CHUGGING ALONG: Candidates in New Mexico are often allowed to use campaign funds to pay for repairs and upkeep on vehicles.

“You don’t know what it’s like to campaign in the fifth-largest state (in area), in a state that big,” an irritated Lyons told New Mexico Watchdog of PRC District 2, which he says consists of 35 million acres. “You want to stir up controversy.”

SOS Chief of Staff Ken Ortiz told New Mexico Watchdog in an email, “based on past records in this office, this appears to be an allowable expense.”

That’s because state law provides candidates wide latitude when it to comes to defining the use of campaign expenses. The statute in New Mexico allows for expenditures “that are reasonable related to the performing of the duties of the office held, including mail, telephone and travel expenditures.”

Lyons is running for a second term on the PRC in a district that’s composed of the eastern part of the state. Lyons, a Republican, is running unopposed in both the party primary in June and the general election in November.

A cattle rancher in the town of Cuervo, Lyons said he uses the truck strictly for campaign purposes.

“I’ve put on a million miles in New Mexico,” Lyons said of his time in the Legislature, as State Land Commissioner and in his four years at the PRC. “My district makes up half the state … Let me point out that that money was not taken out from the public … That’s (campaign) money I raised myself. There’s not any taxpayer money involved.”

“Repairing your vehicle, I guess it does fit the letter of the law,” said Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, an advocacy group that calls for campaign finance reform. “It’s good that it’s not taxpayer money, but is this what people expect when they write a check for 25 or 50 bucks?”

Harrison said the New Mexico statute is similar to campaign expenditure guidelines in other states.

In the filings to the Secretary of State, Lyons listed the following expenses from an auto shop in Portales:

Lyons is hardly the only New Mexico politician who has used campaign funds for expenses associated with driving,

Two years ago, longtime state Sen. Phil Griego, a Democrat from San Jose, cited $3,000 on upkeep and maintenance on a 1955 Chevy pickup truck Griego used on the campaign trail.

One of Greigo’s opponents in the Democratic primary complained to the secretary of state’s office and Griego defended the expenditures, saying the classic truck “is used for attention and is a popular attraction at events such as parades and other related campaign rallies.”

The secretary of state’s office eventually OK’d Greigo’s expense.

Lyons’ colleagues on the PRC have listed similar campaign expenses. A search of SOS filings by New Mexico Watchdog showed:

Democrat Valerie Espinoza spent $1,555.55 on a rental truck in her successful run in 2012.

Republican Ben Hall listed more than $4,500 for mileage, postage, internet and telephone expenses in his 2010 campaign, including $359.47 to fix a blown tire.

Democrat Theresa Becenti-Aguilar, listed $446.40 in the space of seven weeks on trips to the gas station during her successful run for commissioner in District 4 in 2010.

New Mexico Watchdog found no vehicle-related expenses from Commissioner Karen Montoya, who spent the vast majority of her campaign expenses in 2012 on media, advertising and consulting fees.

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

VIDEO: Sandra Jeff loses in the NM Supreme Court UPDATE: Will run as a write-in candidate in November

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-04-29 16:36

OFF THE BALLOT: Rep. Sandra Jeff, D-Crownpoint, lost her appeal to the New Mexico Supreme Court on Tuesday. Due to a lack of valid signatures on her campaign petitions, she is off the ballot for the June 3 Democratic primary. New Mexico Watchdog photo.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – Sandra Jeff lost in the New Mexico Supreme Court on Tuesday and now she’s relegated to running as a write-in candidate if she has any hope of retaining her seat in the state House of Representatives.

In a 5-0 vote, the high court ruled that the maverick Democrat violated the “clear and unambiguous statutory language” that requires candidates to turn in a minimum number of valid signatures on their candidate petitions.

Jeff needed to turn in 68 signatures from residents who are registered Democrats in House District 5, located in the northwest corner of the state and is made up primarily of citizens of the Navajo Nation. A district court judge invalidated 33 of the 91 signatures Jeff turned in, leaving her 10 shy of being placed on the ballot for the June 3 primary.

The New Mexico Supreme Court upheld the district court judge’s decision Tuesday.

“I’m disappointed in the court’s decision,” Jeff said after the ruling. “They should have let the voters decide. I look forward to future public service. I will be back.”

Jeff said she’s seriously considering running in the November general election as a write-in candidate. But no write-in candidate in the history of the New Mexico Legislature has ever won a general election. UPDATE 5:28 p.m.: Saying, “this is a good old boy system,” Jeff told reporters in an impromptu news conference that she will definitely run as a write-in candidate in November. “I will make history and I’m coming back with a vengeance,” she said.

“Rep. Jeff has no one to blame but herself,” said Demis Foster, the executive director of Conservation Voters New Mexico, an environmental group that funded the lawsuit brought by Larry King, a District 5 voter and supporter of Doreen Johnson, one of two Democrats who were challenging Jeff in the Democratic primary. “She was able to gather enough signatures in other elections. She didn’t this time.”

After rendering its decision, the Supreme Court ordered the Secretary of State’s Office to start printing ballots — something the office had suspended doing until the outcome was reached in Jeff’s case.

Jeff has angered liberals in New Mexico as well as some colleagues in the Democratic caucus for her penchant for voting with Republicans on critical issues, such as repealing the state law granting driver’s license for immigrants who are in the state illegally. In the legislative session that wrapped up earlier this year, Jeff voted with the GOP against a budget bill endorsed by House Democrats and was absent for a vote on a bill that called for raising the state’s minimum wage.

Conservation Voters New Mexico said it funded the petition challenge because the group accused Jeff of having a weak record on environmental issues.

The big question surrounding the controversy over the number of valid signatures on Jeff’s petitions was a simple one: Why didn’t Jeff simply turn in a lot more signatures to ward off a potential challenge?

“Rob, I had the signatures,” Jeff told New Mexico Watchdog, adding, “The bottom line is, why didn’t they challenge me prior (to this election cycle)? Let’s put it out there. Why didn’t they challenge me before? Why are they challenging me now? All I can see is special interest groups. They’re not thinking about my constituents.”

Here’s video of the exchange:

“This is about honesty,” King said. “We followed the law and so should everyone else.”

“Clearly, anyone who was qualified to vote as a Democrat in District 5, who signed the petitions, and probably her opponents and herself, were counted,” said King’s attorney, Sara Berger. “There was no disenfranchisement.”

Democrats hold a slim 37-33 lead in the House of Representatives and Jeff’s seat has proved to be crucial, especially in the upcoming election season. Republicans are hoping to win enough seats to take control of the chamber — something the GOP has not done since 1953.

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

Despite the energy boom, old perceptions linger

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-04-29 10:15

NO LONGER OVER A BARREL: A cartoon about the 1973 oil embargo by Gib Crockett from the old Washington Star showing then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at the mercy of oil-rich countries in the Middle East.

New By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — The image of an oil sheik from the Middle East holding America’s energy needs hostage is badly outdated, but the perception lingers, according to a recent survey.

When asked last fall which country is the largest supplier of foreign oil, 58 percent of those surveyed in a national poll by the University of Texas said Saudi Arabia. Just 13 percent came up with the right answer — Canada:

Yes, Saudi Arabia makes up just 16 percent of America’s foreign oil; Canada accounts for 28 percent.

Actually, when you look at overall consumption, the numbers are a lot lower for foreign sources when you consider the U.S. is producing much more oil and gas from sites right here in America.

Last fall, industry statistics showed that, for the first time in nearly 20 years, the U.S. produced more crude oil than it imported. As a result, just 35 percent of the petroleum used in the country came from foreign countries.

A major reason has been the developments in hydraulic fracturing used to break apart shale rock that has led to a 24-year high in domestic production — despite protests from environmental groups.

Speaking of oil production, the Oil Patch in New Mexico continues to boom. The most recent numbers from the state show Eddy County has surpassed Lea County for the amount of barrels produced in 2013.

According to the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division, Eddy County produced 51.5 million barrels of oil, compared to Lea County’s 42.4 million.

A story in the Carlsbad Current Argus reported that Eddy County had 51 active wells in the county lines. Lea County had 31 active wells.

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

In-house parole: A program costing NM taxpayers $10 million a year to keep prisoners in prison

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-04-28 16:00

ON PAROLE BUT STILL IN PRISON: The practice of “in-house parole,” where inmates serve part of their paroles behind bars, costs New Mexico taxpayers an estimated $10.3 million a year.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — New Mexico has a real problem getting inmates out of prison and into parole programs.

An increasing number of inmates don’t get released at all and serve what’s called “in-house parole.” That means they stay locked up for weeks and sometimes months at a time.

And that costs the state’s taxpayers an estimated $10.3 million a year.

“It’s a major problem,” said Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, co-chairman of the Criminal Justice Reform Subcommittee.

“When I first heard of in-house parole, I thought, what the hell is that?” New Mexico Corrections Department Secretary Gregg Marcantel told New Mexico Watchdog. “It’s a term that doesn’t make any sense.”

A recent study by the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) estimates that 290 inmates are serving in-house parole in state facilties. Given that the tab is $99.31 a day to house one in-house parolee, the costs add up.

“That’s a lot of money for taxpayers,” Maestas said.

In-house parole occurs for three big reasons.

First, some inmates, such as those who are convicted of sexual and/or violent crimes, are often hard to place into halfway houses.

Second, strange as it sounds, some inmates prefer prison to parole.

“Some people have been unsuccessful with parole in the past and some literally hate being supervised on the streets so much that they’d rather do, say, three months in prison than a year of parole,” said Maestas, who spent 10 years as a criminal defense attorney.

But statistically, the biggest reason for in-house parole in New Mexico is because the paperwork isn’t getting done.

A plurality of the inmates serving in-house parole are sitting in prison because they’re waiting for their parole certification completed by prison facilities:

“You would think that someone’s liberty would demand more than what, essentially, is bureaucratic indifference,” Maestas said.

LFC analysts in 2007 figured that in just one month, taxpayers incurred $1.2 million in additional costs due to in-house parole and for this year, the annual price tag was estimated at $10.3 million.

“I don’t know about the veracity of that particular number,” Marcantel said. “But obviously, if they’re sitting in prison to the tune of $100 per day instead of out there working and paying taxes, that’s a real cost we can measure.”

“IT MAKES NO SENSE”: New Mexico Corrections Department Secretart Gregg Marcantel says his department has instituted measures to reduce in-house parole.

In the first three months of 2012, the New Mexico Parole Board had to remove more than 70 parole cases from the hearing docket because of “pending administrative issues and erroneous paperwork” from the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD). That included missing plan packets, pending parole plans and wrong case numbers.

One day in March 2007, 74 percent of the 38 inmates scheduled for hearings at the Lea County Correctional Facility had to be scratched primarily because of missing documentation. For one inmate, it marked the fourth time his case got bounced, according to an LFC report.

Marcantel, who has been secretary of the corrections department since November 2011, said he sees all three factors behind in-house parole as “a big picture problem” that needs to be fixed.

To tackle the paperwork issue, the department is making changes. In the past, a parole plan was compiled 90 days before an inmate was up for parole. But a new program instituted in the past 18 months, called “Cradle to Grave,” directs caseworkers to gather parole documentation from the moment an inmate is processed into a facility.

“If you’re scurrying around in the last 90 days … it’s not going to be an effective thing and you’re going to have a lot errors,” Marcantel said.

In addition, Marcantel said the corrections department is assessing fines to private prison contractors who don’t parole their inmates in a timely manner with plans to help ensure public safety.

“Arguably, the community thinks (private prisons) sometimes are more incentivized not to get those parole plans together because they have more bed-pays in their contract,” Marcantel said. “Well, we’re penalizing them on a per-day basis.”

“Maybe we should hire more case managers,” Maestas said. “Some might say, ‘hiring case managers costs money,’ but hiring one case manager per facility at $40,000 or $50,000 is a hell of a lot cheaper than $10 million.”

As for hard-to-place inmates, the NMCD has instituted a parole program in Otero County Prison Facility for sex offenders and is refurbishing a facility in Los Lunas to serve as a halfway house for female inmates.

“It has 18 beds,” Marcantel said. “We’ve got a small facility … but think of it this way: I get 18 more women out, that’s to the tune of (saving) a hundred dollars a day (in expenses to house a prison inmate) and they are now producing and paying for their halfway house fees. They’re now contributing and succeeding.”

To deal with inmates who would rather serve their parole in prison, Marcantel said NMCD is now tying the benefits of good behavior — what’s called “good time” — to accepting parole guidelines.

“Now I’m telling them, ‘Here’s the deal: Your good time is dependent upon you positively participating in finding a way for you to succeed when you get out of prison,’ ” Marcantel said.

The problems with in-house parole are “costing taxpayers a lot and it’s actually contrary to public safety,” Maestas said. “You don’t want someone to go from, say, 23 hours of lockdown to freedom. Parole should be about transitioning into the community and toward a program of rehabilitation.”

“You’re either in prison or you’re on parole,” Marcantel said. “I don’t want to hear that word (in-house parole) anymore because it’s stupid and it makes no sense. These are inmates that are release-eligible and we have a responsibility to do everything we can to get them released.”

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

California may be joining New Mexico in the running for the Tesla battery factory

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Sat, 2014-04-26 14:58

THE TESLA SWEEPSTAKES: There are indications that the Tesla electric car company be considering California — in addition to New Mexico and three other states — as the site of a battery factory that promises to create 6,500 jobs.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – New Mexico is one of four states in the race to win a contract from Tesla to build a “giga-factory” that would make batteries for the company’s expensive and sporty electric cars. The project promises to bring 6,500 jobs.

But there are rumblings that Tesla may also be looking at California – already home to the company’s headquarters — as a potential site, joining New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and Nevada in the competition.

A couple of developments indicate that the Golden State may be a contender for the $5 billion factory that will make litihium-ion batteries:

First, Tesla corporate officials have been quietly gobbling up a couple of parcels of land in California but won’t exactly say why.

As reported by the SFGate.com, Tesla has leased a 430,000 square foot facility in Lathrop, a small city due east of the Bay Area in California’s Central Valley. The building used to be a former distribution center for DaimlerChrysler. Tesla is based in Fremont, Calif., which is about an hour away from Lathrop.

And last Tuesday, a Tesla spokeswoman said Tuesday that the company has signed leases for more than 625,000 square feet of California real estate in the last two months.

The spokeswoman wouldn’t say exactly what Tesla plans to do with them.

Second, California Gov. Jerry Brown and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein have been appealing to Tesla’s founder and billionaire, Elon Musk, to consider California for the giga-factory — and a Tesla executive confirmed it.

“Yes, California has shown interest. And, yes, conversations are going on with the state,” Simon Sproule, vice president for Tesla’s communications and marketing, told columnist Dan Moraine of the Sacramento Bee last week.

Building the giga-factory in California would seem to make geographical sense for Tesla. It may also make a lot of economic sense too, considering how much money in subsidies Musk has received from the Golden State.

Consider, as Morain points out: The California Energy Commission spent $10 million to upgrade Tesla’s factory in Fremont, the state paid $650,000 to train workers for Tesla and the California financing authority has given Tesla sales tax breaks on manufacturing equipment worth up to $90 million.

Tesla has also received lucrative inducements from California through green energy initiatives, which prompted this barbed response from Wall Street Journal columnist Allysia Finley:

“We suspect Mr. Musk will ultimately decide to build the giga-factory in California and is merely stringing other states along while it negotiates the price tag in Sacramento. Liberals often complain about billionaires trying to buy state elections. Mr. Musk, on the other hand, doesn’t need to spend a cent since politicians give him so much for free.”

Here in New Mexico, Economic Development Department Secretary Jon Barela told New Mexico Watchdog that getting the Tesla deal would be “a transformational opportunity for this state” but wouldn’t go into specifics of what kind of package the state is putting together, saying discussions are confidential.

New Mexico Land Commissioner Ray Powell says he’s offered to set aside thousands of acres of state land as a way to lure Tesla and Gov. Susana Martinez is considering calling a special session of the Legislature to discuss economic incentives.

Meanwhile, for what it’s worth, one car expert told Bloomberg News that Nevada has the inside track to get the Tesla contract because, among other reasons, there’s a railroad line that connects northern Nevada to Tesla’s assembly plant in northern California.

In addition, Nevada — along with Arizona and Texas — are right-to-work states. New Mexico and California are not.

Tesla officials haven’t given a specific date as to when the company will announce a decision but the company’s projected timeline for “zoning, design and build” of the plant is slated for later this year.

The factory is scheduled to launch in 2017 and plans to be fully operational by 2020, expecting to produce up to a half-million cars a year.

According to regulatory filings, Tesla would raise $1.6 billion through a bond issue to help finance the factory and the auto maker said it plans to contribute $2 billion toward the proposed battery factory. Tesla also said it was in discussions with Panasonic about investing in the facility, something Panasonic officials have confirmed.

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

Tom Udall is a shoo-in — so says the New York Times

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Thu, 2014-04-24 12:00

LOOKING FOR AN UPSET: A New York Times computer model claims Allen Weh (left) and David Clements have just a 1 percent chance of beating Tom Udall in the U.S. Senate race in New Mexico. Photos by New Mexico Watchdog.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — The U.S. Senate may flip from a Democrat to a Republican majority after the November elections, and political pundits are spending plenty of time handicapping races in each state.

But for what it’s worth, a computer model touted by the New York Times says the race in New Mexico isn’t even worth ruminating about.

“According to our statistical election-forecasting machine,” the Times posted on Wednesday, Democrat and incumbent Tom Udall has a 99 percent chance of defeating whomever wins the Republican nomination in New Mexico — either Allen Weh or David Clements.

In fact, the Times forecast says the New Mexico race is one of 14 Senate races, featuring six Democrats and eight Republicans, where the favored candidate has a 99 percent or better chance of winning:

New Mexico Watchdog asked the Weh and Clements campaigns for their reaction and — surprise! — each of scoffed at the Times prediction model.

“This article doesn’t come as a surprise since Tom Udall has spent 15 years in Washington and is part of the Udall political dynasty,” said Weh’s campaign manager, Diego Espinoza. “But this is why we have campaigns. We are confident that New Mexicans will be ready for a change once they find out the truth about Tom Udall and his voting record, including the fact that he’s ranked as the most liberal member of the Senate, has the absolute worst record on taxes and spending of all 535 congressmen, and votes with Obama 94 percent of the time.”

“Political prognosticators don’t exactly have the best record in calling races this far away from Election Day,” Clements said in a email. “This is especially true in cases where the winner in the primary could be an actual political outsider.”

Clements then took a shot at Weh.

“It’s no secret that observers believe that Udall will cruise to an easy re-election if Republicans nominate a tired, perennial, self-funding candidate with decades of worth of political baggage. I think the turnout is completely different if I get the nod,” Clements said.

The Clements-Weh battle has been getting nastier lately.

The Weh campaign has sent out news releases criticizing Clements on a number of fronts. Earlier this week, it accused Clements of not filing paperwork in time with the Federal Election Commission. “Apparently it’s amateur hour at the Clements campaign,” Espinoza said.

The Clements campaign denied the charge, saying the paperwork was filed by certified mail and sent out its own news release with Clements saying, “This is another example of how Allen Weh will lie and cheat in an attempt to slow our grassroots momentum.”

The GOP primary is set for June 3 and so far, no debates have been scheduled between Weh and Clements. But if there ever is one, it looks like it would be a doozy.

Oh yes, getting back to that New York Times forecast: It says calls the Senate “essentially the same as a coin flip” as to whether Democrats or Republicans take control.

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

Too much spending threatens a $4.5 billion fund

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-04-23 14:42

TOO MUCH MONEY GOING OUT: The New Mexico State Investment Council received an analysis showing that the $4.5 billion Severance Tax Permanent Fund is on a downward track. Photo by NM Watchdog.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — The Severance Tax Permanent Fund (STPF) isn’t looking so permanent these days.

The fund, worth a whopping $4.5 billion, is managed by the State Investment Council (SIC) and gets its money from taxes on oil, gas and mineral extraction on state lands.

Each year, about $180 million goes to the state’s general fund, with the Legislature using that money for tax bonds on projects such as water infrastructure, tribal spending and public schools. The money reduces the burden on New Mexico taxpayers.

Since the Oil Patch in New Mexico is booming, you would think the fund is in great financial shape.

Think again.

During a monthly SIC meeting at the Roundhouse on Tuesday, members were told an analysis shows the fund has just a 22.6 percent probability in the next 50 years of being greater or equal in size, according to projected contributions.

“It could be half its size in the coming decades,” SIC Director of Communications Charles Wollmann told New Mexico Watchdog.

Why? Because there’s more money going out than coming in. As recently as the 1990s, about 50 percent of severance tax revenue was used for bonding capital projects with the other 50 percent transferred to the STPF.

But in recent years the distribution has swung to 95 percent for bonding programs, with just 5 percent going to the permanent fund.

In fact, in fiscal 2013, by the time the Legislature had taken money for various capital projects, Wollman said the the fund received just $339. For you math majors, that’s just 0.0000000753 of the fund’s total value.

The STPF works on an expected rate of return on investments of 7.5 percent, but in to keep the corpus of the fund stable, the analysis says, investments would have to outperform 75 percent of their peers.

“We’d have to hit it out of the park,” Wollmann said.

By contrast, the Land Grant Permanent Fund, the state’s other mammoth investment fund worth more than $13.5 billion, is in much better financial shape going forward.

The analysis predicted that fund has a 51.2 percent of maintaining its current balance in the next 50 years. Financial experts say a 50 percent rating is optimal because it reflects the fund is not weighted too heavily in favor of current or future recipients.

For example, if a fund has a 75 percent chance of keeping its 50-year balance, it’s weighted too heavily for future withdrawals, while a 25 percent estimate is weighted too much in favor of spending for today.

Here’s one of the slides the SIC members saw Tuesday, looking at the long-range forecast for the STPF, using a “middle contribution scenario:”

Why did the distribution change from 50-50 to 95-5?

In 1999, after a court-ordered “school equalization” ruling resulted in more money spent on low-income communities, the Legislature increased severance tax bonding to 62.5 percent. Lawmakers then raised the rate to 87.5 percent in 2000 and to 95 percent in 2004.

While Tuesday’s report was alarming, warning signs about the STPF’s long-term health have been discussed in Santa Fe for going on two years.

In the just-completed legislative session, a bill in the House would have reduced the bonding percentage from 95 to 87.5 percent. The bill, by Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, passed three committees but did not reach the Senate.

Just before the 30-day session started, Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, told the Albuquerque Journal he didn’t like the bill.

“It takes away from tribal and colonias funds, and from the state engineer for water adjudication, albeit in small amounts,” Sanchez said. “But those allocations are important to those entities.”

In the meantime, the SIC will be under a lot of financial pressure to maintain the STPF in the face of projections of a diminishing corpus of the fund.

“That really puts us in a hole to grow the fund,” Wollmann said.

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

This land is whose land? Debate over federal land heats up in West

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-04-23 08:44

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy may have brought the fight to the forefront, but western states’ public officials for some time have battled to get control of federal lands back in the hands of the states.

Officials from nine states gathered in Salt Lake City last week for the Legislative Summit on the Transfer for Public Lands, which was planned long before the controversy over Bundy’s cattle grazing on federal land became a national news story.

The issue is simple, those public officials say. Giant tracts of public land can be better managed by states, not the federal government.

BATTLE IN THE WEST: Jim Olson puts up a flag at a Bureau of Land Management protest in Bunkerville, Nev., earlier this month. It was the this standoff that brought public awareness to a fight western states are waging to try to get control of federal lands turned over to the states. AP photo.

“It’s the right thing to do for our people, for our environment, for our economy and for our freedoms,” Montana state Sen. Jennifer Fielder said at a news conference.

New Mexico state Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-Alamogordo, who was joined by Wendell Bostwick, president of the New Mexico Association of Counties, at the public lands summit, told New Mexico Watchdog the Bundy standoff “has brought awareness to the general population of what’s happening in the western states.”

However, Herrell said, “This is not a land grab, and this not about privatizing these lands.”

Herrell said those attending the land summit didn’t take a position in the Bundy standoff.

Here’s a look at the amount of land the federal government owns in the West:

Proponents of the land transfers say the feds take a huge bite out of states’ economies by taking a little more than 50 percent cut in royalties from extractive industries such as mining, oil and gas that operate on federal land. They also say the federal forest policy has made wildfires worse in recent years and claim the feds too often over-regulate property through programs such as the Endangered Species Act.

“For instance, in Wyoming, the sage grouse is listed as an endangered species, yet you can still buy hunting licenses and hunt them,” said Herrell, who said 88 percent of the taxable land in Otero County — where she lives — is owned by the federal government.

SEEING RED: Large tracts of land in nine western states are owned by the federal government.

But opponents, especially environmental organizations, fiercely oppose the plan, fearing the move will lead to development and doubt a transfer of public lands will lead to the financial windfall of between $500 million and $1 billion for New Mexico that proponents cite.

“It’s laughable,” John Horning, executive director at WildEarth Guardians New Mexico, told New Mexico Watchdog last fall. “Public lands are a birthright for all Americans … New Mexicans don’t own them, Americans own them.”

“Everybody wants to protect our environment,” Herrell said, adding that transfer would affect U.S. Forest Service land and the Bureau of Land Management, but would not touch tribal lands, designated wilderness areas, national and state parks or property controlled by the Department of Defense, such as the White Sands Missile Range.

“This is not about putting wells in the middle of the forest,” Herrell said.

But politically, the land transfer debate seems to be breaking down along partisan lines. Most lawmakers attending the Salt Lake City meeting were Republicans. Herrell has tried and failed in the past two sessions of the New Mexico Legislature to set up a task force to look into the issue, with Democrats in the House Health, Government and Indian Affairs Committee offering resistance earlier this year in the Roundhouse.

LAND FIGHT: There’s a movement to transfer public land from the federal government to individual states. Nearly 35 percent of New Mexico’s territory is controlled by the federal government.

“It’s not a red or blue thing, for sure,” Herrell said. “It’s really just the western states sticking together and seeing what they can do in terms of getting their land back.”

Utah has taken the lead, passing legislation two years ago demanding the federal government give up its land to state control.

But there are questions about whether that would be legal.

For example, the Enabling Act of 1910 that allowed New Mexico and Arizona admission into the Union contains language deferring public land issues to the federal government.

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

But Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory said the U.S. government should transfer federal lands back to the nine western states, as it did in the past for states such as Louisiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Alabama.

“The federal government is exerting control over things that it was never supposed to control,” Ivory said Monday in an interview with Fox News. “In short, going from the Revolutionary War forward, the federal government was supposed to be a trustee.”

Opponents to the potential transfer are unmoved.

“I think the state is probably in over its head, acquiring federal land and managing it,” Horning said.

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

NM’s two senators getting plenty of green from environmentalists

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-04-22 10:06

GETTING SOME GREEN FROM THE GREENS: Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich finish high in a list of top recipients from environmental groups.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — As Earth Day celebrates its 44th birthday, the environmental movement has become an increasingly larger presence in Washington, D.C.

And that means political contributions.

A look at the top recipients on Capitol Hill shows New Mexico’s two senators— Democrats Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich — finish near the top when it comes to contributions from groups and individuals with ties to the environmental movement.

According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics and its database, opensecrets.org, Udall — who is running for re-election this November — has received more than $57,000 in contributions from environmentalists during the 2013-14 election cycle (as of March 10, 2014). That’s the third-highest total for members of Congress:

Democrats made up 19 of the Top 20 recipients in the opensecrets.org rankings.

Another nonpartisan group looking at Capitol Hill contributions, maplight.org, tracked the contributions for members of Congress between 2007 and the end of 2012 and determined Heinrich has received the most from environmental concerns among members of the U.S. Senate:

Heinrich served in the U.S House from 2009-12 before getting elected to the Senate in November 2012, so some of those contributions in the maplight.org rankings came while Heinrich was a member of the House.

Conversely, another Capitol Hill member from New Mexico — House Republican Steve Pearce — finished among the highest recipients of contributions from companies operating hydraulically fractured wells and trade associations supporting the fracking industry. Here’s the list, compiled between 2004 and 2012 by the left-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW):

The exact number was $379,700 for Pearce, whose district includes New Mexico’s Oil Patch and who is up for re-election this fall. Nine of the top 10 in the CREW rankings are Republicans.

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

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