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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

Sandra Jeff gets bounced off the ballot

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-04-21 17:18

BOOTED FROM THE BALLOT: A district court judge ruled that Rep. Sandra Jeff did not turn in enough valid signatures to be placed on the ballot for the Democratic primary in June.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

The maverick ended up getting roped by a lack of valid signatures.

Rep. Sandra Jeff, D-Crownpoint, described by her supporters as independent and by her detractors as erratic, got bounced off the 2014 Democratic primary ballot on Monday afternoon by a district judge in Gallup who ruled that 23 of the 91 candidate petition signatures from voters in her Four Corners district were invalid, leaving her 10 shy of the minimum of 78 she needed.

That means Jeff is off the ballot for the June 3 Democratic Party primary and her time as state rep in District 5 is almost certainly over — unless she wants to run in 2016.

The ruling from District Judge Louis DePauli was greeted with cheers from liberals across the state, who disliked Jeff for repeatedly voting against the Democratic majority on the issue of granting driver’s licenses to undocumented workers, passing on a vote to raise the minimum wage and going against Democrats in a tightly-contested budget battle in the most recent legislative session.

Democrats cling to a 37-33 advantage in the House and Republicans and Gov. Susana Martinez are making an all-out effort to swing the majority to GOP hands in November.

 New Mexico Watchdog left a voicemail message for Jeff to get a comment from her but has not yet received a return call. Update: In an email message, Jeff said she was “extremely disappointed” and indicated she will appeal Monday’s decision to the New Mexico Supreme Court. “In the end I have full faith and confidence in the NM State Supreme Court that they will uphold many years of established law and precedence and will protect voters from being disenfranchised,” she said.

Ken Ortiz of the Secretary of State’s Office told New Mexico Watchdog that because of the judge’s ruling, Jeff cannot run as a independent or minor-party candidate. Her only campaign option is to run as a write-in candidate — and no write-in candidate has ever won a legislative race in New Mexico history.

Jeff can appeal Monday’s ruling to the New Mexico Supreme Court but the high court ruled against her last week and remanded the case back to Judge DePauli, setting up Monday’s hearing.

The case against Jeff was filed by Larry King, a registered voter in the district who is supporting Doreen Johnson, one of two other Democrats running against Jeff. There are no Republicans in the race so the June 3 Democratic primary will for all intents and purposes will decide the race in the district largely made up of citizens of the Navajo Nation.

“The judge did the right thing today,” King said in a statement after the ruling was announced. “His decision confirms that everyone has to follow the rules.”

King’s challenge was funded by Conservation Voters New Mexico, an environmental group that opposed Jeff.

Jeff has served in the Legislature since 2008. She ran unopposed in 2010 and in 2012, she won with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Collecting enough valid — or legible — signatures for candidates’ petitions nearly tripped up a handful of House and Senate candidates from both parties two years ago. Why Jeff didn’t collect enough signatures to at least discourage her political opponents remains the big question in light of Monday’s decision.

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

Editorial: The hits on Susana are coming from within

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Sun, 2014-04-20 08:32

Rob Nikolewski. Photo courtesy of Santa Fe New Mexican/Clyde Mueller.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – It’s been said you need to keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

For Gov. Susana Martinez, the difficulty comes in trying to keep your frenemies away.

Politicos all around the state are still buzzing about a secret audio recording, showing the governor and staffers from the 2010 gubernatorial campaign swearing and deriding political opponents while advisor Jay McCleskey discusses how the administration could respond to criticism by posting “a YouTube video that no one will ever see.”

It all seems like a scene from “House of Cards.”

The audio cuts came from a scathing article appearing in the liberal magazine, Mother Jones that calls Martinez petty, vindictive and weak on policy.

Within an hour of the story being posted, the Martinez campaign responded with an email bomb to supporters and potential donors, saying the article “shows just how far the Left is willing to go to stop reforms in New Mexico.”

The reaction was predictable: Martinez opponents swooning and getting into high moral dudgeon at the sound of politicians talking like, well, politicians (as if conference calls involving, say, Bill Richardson or Rahm Emanuel or Bill Clinton would never include such coarse exchanges) and Martinez supporters decrying the recordings as exercises in the politics of personal destruction (as if Republicans wouldn’t take advantage of a similar incident involving a Democrat).

But the larger question centers on the fact that, obviously, the recordings came from someone inside the Martinez camp who then turned them over to the author of the article in the first place. Who did it?

An FBI investigation into allegedly stolen emails led to federal charges and a pending case against former Martinez campaign manager Jamie Estrada. But the article says the recordings come from October of 2010. Estrada was gone from the Martinez campaign by December of 2009.

Could it be Anissa Ford, another former Martinez campaign employee, who got crossways with the governor’s staff? She won’t confirm or deny it. Maybe the recordings come from someone else.

The editors at Mother Jones wouldn’t tell Steve Terrell of the New Mexican who supplied them.

The incident is similar to one that put Martinez chief of staff Keith Gardner in an embarrassing spot. In September of 2012, Gardner was caught on audio tape saying how he avoids putting anything on his state email account and cussing like a sailor, calling then Senate Pro Tem Tim Jennings a … well, let’s just say it’s a word that, if directed to a referee by any NBA coach, leads to an immediate ejection.

But in each case, what’s telling is the information that damaged Martinez and/or her staff did not come from an outside agency. It wasn’t like a cabal of liberals had installed a Soviet-style recording system into the Martinez inner sanctum.

That certainly fuels fire that while the Martinez team may be politically effective, it leaves plenty of hard feelings in the process.

A highly critical article from the National Journal last fall was most noteworthy because it got Harvey Yates — the former chairman of the state Republican Party — to go on the record with his complaints about McCleskey, urging Martinez in an email to make “it clear that you run the government and he does not.”

Whether all this will really matter to New Mexico voters come November is an open question.

Intraparty infighting and handicapping elections make for lively discussion in a state long consumed with political intrigue but Martinez has a substantial campaign war chest and the five Democrats fighting for the gubernatorial nomination seem oddly unfocused with little more than six weeks to go until the June 3 primary.

But it’s safe to say one thing about the latest round of secret recordings of Martinez and her staff: It sure doesn’t help her.

 This editorial first appeared in the Sanata Fe New Mexican on April 20, 2014. Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Washington Post picks up NM Watchdog story on Hobbs PD UPDATE: Town in Minnesota also has armored personnel vehicle

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Thu, 2014-04-17 18:53

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – New Mexico Watchdog’s story on the 30-second commercial for the Hobbs Police Department is getting national attention.

The Washington Post website picked up the story on “The Watch,” a blog on civil liberties and the criminal justice system that’s written by Radley Balko, the author of “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.”

The Hobbs Police Department has been running the commercial on TV stations across New Mexico, trying to lure recruits with good pay and benefits.

But the images in the 30-second spot of Hobbs officers in riot gear — as well as an armored personnel vehicle — prompted criticism from a Cato Institute scholar. Click here to read the New Mexico Watchdog story. Here’s the commercial itself:

Balko offered his own critique in the Post:

“Now ask yourself: What sort of person would be attracted to a career in law enforcement based on the images and activities depicted in that video? And is that the sort of person you’d want wearing a badge and carrying a gun in your neighborhood?

“The video isn’t disturbing only because of the type of police officer it’s likely to attract. It also suggests that the leadership in the Hobbs police department believes that these are the aspects of police work most worth touting — that this is the face they want to project to the community.”

But Hobbs isn’t alone. Balko offered examples of other cities and towns that produced videos for their police departments that also highlighted aggressive images.

Such as Newport Beach, Calif.:

And Springdale, Ark., a town of 70,000 that seemingly had a budget big enough to produce a video that looks like something out of a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced movie:

In addition to Balko’s post, former Gov. Gary Johnson also tweeted the NM Watchdog story out to his 123,000 followers:

By the way, in our original story, we mentioned the video of the Hobbs SWAT team that’s on the police department’s website. We have since found a link to the video that combines shots of officers firing automatic weapons to a heavy-metal music soundtrack:

Update 4/21: Working on a tip from a colleague in Minnesota, we came across a story from last fall about how the police department in St. Cloud, Minn., rolled out an armored vehicle that was originally used for military training:

ROLLING OUT IN ST. CLOUD: A retrofitted armored military vehicle is in use by the police department in the town of St. Cloud, Minn.

According to WJON Radio in St. Cloud, the vehicle is an MRAP — Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected — and came from the Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department. It’s worth $400,000 and the town of just under 66,000 residents spent $10,000 to retrofit it for the city’s SWAT team.

Lt. Jeff Oxton said during the unveiling that the MRAP “has full ballistic capabilities, which will help us against any kind of small arms fire, rifle fire, even explosives and things like that.”

Back in 1988, hundreds of students at St. Cloud State University rioted during homecoming week at the school. As many as 1,500 people were involved and about 50 arrests were made.

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

Effort to kick Sandra Jeff off the ballot is alive again UPDATE: Decision due Monday

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-04-16 12:42

COURT SETBACK: The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that a suit aimed at kicking Rep. Sandra Jeff, D-Crownpoint, off the ballot is still alive.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – Sandra Jeff‘s career at the Roundhouse is in jeopardy.

On Wednesday morning, the New Mexico Supreme Court, in a 4-1 ruling, sent back a legal case challenging the number of valid signatures that Jeff turned in for her re-election effort.

That means the Democratic state representative who has often voted with Republicans in the House of Representatives will have to prove in court that at least 78 of the 91 candidate signature petitions Jeff filed are from registered Democrats who are eligible to vote in House District 5, which is made up largely of members of the Navajo Nation.

If not enough of those signatures are deemed valid, then Jeff, who has served for six years, will not have her name on the ballot for the June 3 primary.

“I’m totally happy,” with the court’s decision, said Larry King, a Churchrock voter who filed the challenge said after the hearing. King supports Doreen Johnson, one of two of Jeff’s primary opponents.

Wednesday’s ruling overturns a significant part of an earlier ruling by District Court Judge Louis DePauli, who ruled against King on technical grounds, saying King’s attorneys did not properly serve Jeff with the papers challenging the petition signatures.

The justices determined that a final decision on the lawsuit will now be made by Judge DePauli between April 18 and April 21.

The timing of a decision is a big consideration because the Secretary of State’s Office must print and send out ballots to overseas and absentee voters in the run-up to the primary.

A voicemail message from New Mexico Watchdog to Rep. Jeff asking for reaction to Wednesday’s decision has not been returned.

With the House closely divided between 37 Democrats and 33 Republicans, the fate of Jeff’s seat figures to crucial in this election season. Liberal groups and many Democrats have been itching for a primary challenger to defeat Jeff and the environmental organization, Conservation Voters New Mexico, is supporting King’s legal action.

“She’s terrible on the environment,” said Demis Foster, the executive director of CVNM.

King’s attorney, Sara Berger, told reporters after the hearing that “we have affirmative proof” that Jeff did not turn in enough valid signatures to put her name on the June ballot.

Berger claims there are six duplicates and up to a dozen signatures from ineligible voters listed on Jeff’s petition form. “We feel confident about our results,” Berger said.

New Mexico Watchdog left a message with Jeff’s attorney, Germaine Chappelle of Santa Fe, asking for comment but has not heard back from her.

UPDATE 4/19: A hearing in Judge DePauli’s court on Friday did not reach a decision. The hearing will resume Monday (April 21) with a verdict expected by 5 p.m


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

Who judges when the judges are up for a raise? NM case gets complicated UPDATE: Four justices recuse themselves

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-04-15 18:12

CONFLICT OF INTEREST?: The five justices of the New Mexico Supreme Court have a case before them that would grant all judges in the state an 8 percent raise.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – The five justices of the New Mexico Supreme Court may find themselves in a position most American workers can only dream of: Giving themselves a raise.

That’s because the state Supreme Court has been asked to rule whether a line-item veto from Gov. Susana Martinez that refused to grant an 8 percent pay raise for all judges in the state is lawful or not. And those 8 percent raises would include the five justices themselves.

Will any of the members of the high court recuse themselves from the case?

“There hasn’t been any action on that,” Joey Moya, chief clerk of the New Mexico Supreme Court told New Mexico Watchdog on Tuesday. “The case was just filed yesterday.”

The lawsuit comes at the behest of eight judges across the state, as well as groups representing magistrate and district judges, plus two state senators who maintain that the Legislature — not the governor — has the right to set judicial salaries.

The petitioners want the state Supreme Court to make the final decision.

But there are complications.

For example, Martinez administration spokesman Enrique Knell says that the state Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, Petra Jimenez Maes, lobbied the governor’s office in favor of judicial raises during the legislative session earlier this year.

“If she or any other judge actually thinks the executive has no role in the process of setting salaries for judges, then why would she have personally lobbied the executive to approve the very large salary increase?” Knell said in an email. “But more importantly, this presents an extraordinary conflict of interest, and it would be a brazen move for the Supreme Court to hear a case that would produce an outcome that could financially benefit them … and about which they themselves lobbied in favor of one position.”

Might Maes recuse herself? New Mexico Watchdog wanted to ask Maes directly but chief clerk Moya said that might be impermissible, given that any comments could be construed as ex parte communications now that the case is pending.

Moya said it will be up to individual members of the high court to determine whether they should recuse themselves.

A minimum of three justices must preside to hear a case, Moya said.

Who would hear the case if at least three members of the New Mexico Supreme Court recuse themselves? “That’s a good question,” Moya said. “That, I’m not sure.”

During the legislative session that wrapped up in February, state employees were given across-the-board 3 percent raises. But the Legislature passed and additional 5 percent “personal services and employee benefits” appropriations for all judges in the state.

New Mexico has one of the lowest salaries for trial judges in the country.

In her line-item veto message, Martinez said, “though I would have supported a more modest 3 percent increase in pay for judges that would have put them on par with other pay raises in the budget, I cannot support the dramatic 8 percent raise requested in the budget. This would have amounted to nearly three times the raise that teachers received, in a year in which taxpayers are being asked to contribute additional funds to shore up the judicial and magistrate retirement systems, in addition to five new judgeships throughout New Mexico.”

The lawsuit also claims that by issuing her line-item veto, Martinez left no provision to pay judges at all once the new fiscal year begins. It calls the decision “an unworkable piece of legislation that conflicts with itself and other current laws.”

The lawyer representing the judges, Ray Vargas of Albuquerque, said he filed the lawsuit with the Supreme Court because it’s the appropriate venue as per state law and said he believes the justices can be impartial should the case be heard before them.

“In our (state) constitution, it is solely up to the Legislature to set judicial pay, which it did,” Vargas told Patrick Malone the Santa Fe New Mexican. “By vetoing judicial salaries, the governor exercised powers the executive branch does not have and ignored the system of checks and balances built into the constitution.”

“The argument that the executive plays a role in setting the salaries of every state worker except judges is not only brazen, but quite arrogant,” Knell said. “Judges are not above the law, and their salaries are set through the legislative process as well — a process that includes the governor.”

According to a 2013 report from the New Mexico Judicial Compensation Commission, the median salary for a justice in supreme courts across the country is $150,000 but in New Mexico, the Chief Justice receives $126,927 and the other four justices earn $124,927 a year.

“New Mexico is next to last in pay for Court of Appeals Judges and ranks last in pay for Supreme Court Justices among the nine states in the mountain west region,” said the commission’s report.

A 2012 report said that district judges in New Mexico make $111,631 a year and magistrate judges earn $79,537.

Update 4/20: Four the justices on the New Mexico Supreme Court have recused themselves from the case. The remaining justice — Richard Bosson — will serve as acting chief justice on a panel that will include temporary justices to hear the case. No date for the hearing has been set. A University of New Mexico law professor told the Santa Fe New Mexican that the move “is exactly the action that is appropriate” according to state law.

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

New Mexico a little bit poorer in this year’s ‘Rich States, Poor States’ survey

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-04-15 12:57

DOWN FOUR NOTCHES: New Mexico fell four places in the annual “Rich States, Poor States” survey.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — The Land of Enchantment did not prove to be much of a land of opportunity in the past year, dropping four places in the “Rich States, Poor States” ratings.

After moving up in recent years in the study, New Mexico dropped from 33rd in the nation to 37th in the 2014 Economic Outlook Ratings that are conducted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that embraces fiscally conservative policy recommendations.

In 2011, New Mexico ranked 39th and in 2012 the state finished 35th.

The slippage may reflect New Mexico’s stagnant economy, which has been stuck in neutral for more than a year.

For example, numbers released by the state’s Department of Workforce Solutions show that New Mexico was the only state in the Southwest with negative regional employment growth between January 2013 and January 2014. New Mexico finished at minus-0.5 percent while neighboring states Texas and Colorado posted 3 percent gains.

One of the “Rich States, Poor States” co-authors, Jonathan Williams, said one hopeful note was the passage of a corporate tax cut in the 2013 legislative session — reducing the top rate from 7.6 percent to 5.9 percent in an effort to lure more business to New Mexico.

“That was a very important tax cut for the business community,” Williams told New Mexico Watchdog. “You can expect to see New Mexico get a boost of that next year.”

The ALEC study, co-authored by conservative economist Arthur Laffer of “Laffer Curve” fame, looks at 15 factors it deems necessary for economic growth, including low taxes and a competitive business environment.

New Mexico finished 49th in sales tax burden and was penalized for not being a “right to work” state.

Here’s a look at the states that finished in the study’s top ten and the bottom ten:

As you’d expect, there are critics of the ALEC study. In late 2012, a left-leaning economist called the “Rich States, Poor States” survey “snake oil” and claimed its policy prescriptions “produce lower wages, lower incomes.”

But Williams defended the survey, saying it “connects the dots for people to show that it’s not just conservative economic theory here. This is real world, in practice examples of states getting things right and reaping the economic rewards, whether that’s in income growth, jobs growth or a an overall more healthy state economy.”

Click here to read the 59-page “Rich States, Poor States” report.

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

On tape: Did Alan Webber break a campaign promise? UPDATE: Money numbers on gubernatorial candidates

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-04-14 17:05

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – Campaign filings released Monday show that Alan Webber, one of five contenders for the Democratic nomination for governor, has so far committed $450,000 of his own money on his campaign.

Nothing wrong with that but last October, in an interview with New Mexico Watchdog, he said he wasn’t a fan of candidates who use gobs of their own money to pay for their campaigns.

“I don’t believe in self-financing campaigns. I don’t think it’s good for democracy,” Webber said, but added, “I think people should not buy their way into public office. I’m going to put some of my own money in the game. I think candidates should put their own skin in the game.”

Here’s the entire question and answer, on video:

According to documents filed Monday with the Secretary of State’s Office, Webber and his wife Frances Diemoz have spent $300,000 of their own money in his campaign and Webber loaned himself $150,000. That makes up more than half of the $811,613 Webber reported in funding for the first filing period.

“Critics are going to say what they’re going to say,” Webber campaign manager Neri Holguin said to New Mexico Watchdog. “At the end of the day … he’s raised a substantial amount of money. He is not self-financed. It’s not quite perfectly half and half but it’s pretty close.”

Webber, who lives in Santa Fe and has never run for office in New Mexico, made a name for himself when he co-founded Fast Company magazine in 1993. Seven years later the magazine was sold for $365 million, which Webber says is the second-largest sale price for any magazine in U.S. history.

Webber has never held public office, although he has worked for political candidates and office-holders in the past.

In the Democratic Party’s pre-primary convention in March, Webber qualified for the ballot by finishing second with 21.58 percent of the delegates. State Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, came in first with 29.28 percent of the vote.

As for the other four Democrats running for governor, the documents are due Monday but as of 4:25 p.m., much of the data had not been posted on the Secretary of State’s website.

We’ll up date the numbers for Morales, Lawrence Rael, Linda Lopez and Gary King as they become available.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has no primary challenger. The Albuquerque Journal reported Monday afternoon that the Martinez campaign released a summary showing $2.1 million has been raised in the last six months, giving her a cash balance of nearly $3.3 million as of Oct. 7.

We’ll update as the numbers get posted on the Secretary of State’s website.

Update 9:02 p.m.: According to the New Mexico Telegram, here are the financial figures for the gubernatorial candidates through the first reporting period (in addition to Webber):

*Howie Morales raised  $172,916.31 between last October and April 8 of this year. At the end of the fundraising period Morales had $46,624.61 in hand. Morales also loaned his campaign $25,000 of his own money.

*State Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, raised just $28,570 and spent $25,973.23. She has $19,289.07 cash on hand. Lopez has not used any personal money in her campaign.

*Lawrence Rael raised $322,693.60 and that included three loans he made out to himself that totaled $176,950.60. Rael has $228,767.50 cash on hand as of April 7.

*Attorney General Gary King raised $229,479.00 and of that, King has donated $100,000 of his own money during the reporting period. King’s total campaign debt is a little more than $143,000 and he has $89,177.60 cash on hand.

So judging from these numbers, Webber appears to have raised more money from outside contributors than the other Democrats in the field.

As for Martinez, the governor raised $1,396,169.51 in the fundraising period. That means her campaign has $4,212,263.47 cash on hand — and that doesn’t include money raised by her political action committee, SusanaPAC.

That’s a big lead in money for Martinez but the campaign is still early.

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

This ain’t your grandpa’s PD: Hobbs commercial raises eyebrows

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-04-14 14:31

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — It’s a commercial that’s been playing across New Mexico for weeks now: A 30-second spot encouraging people to apply to the Hobbs Police Department, offering high pay and good benefits.

But the images in the commercial — of cops shooting guns, helmeted officers bursting into a home, an armored vehicle turning a corner and a canine straining on a leash — has some wondering what kind of image the booming oil patch town of 43,000 is actually showcasing.

“It’s kind of disturbing, the way they play up these militaristic tactics,” said Tim Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. “It seemed more like they were looking for people who wanted to join the Army instead of a police department.”

Here’s the commercial:

SHOCK AND AWE: This photo from the police department website in Hobbs, N.M., reflects the image a 30-second commercial the department is airing to lure recruits.

Hobbs Chief of Police Chris McCall told New Mexico Watchdog the images in the commercial were not intended to send out an overly aggressive image of the department.

“I think that was the production company that came in and wanted to look and see what kind of equipment we had to offer,” McCall said in a telephone interview. “It’s a representation of an aspect of the Police Department that is there, what we do every day, the tools that we use and work with.”

But Lynch, who has been a critic of what’s been called an over-militarization of police forces across the country, says the commercial sends the wrong signals to potential recruits.

“The message seems to be, we’re looking for aggressive, confrontational interactions with the public and that is not what the police should be looking for,” Lynch said. “We should be looking for officers that are just fine with a peaceful day at work … But this is all about a very aggressive and confrontational type of policing that most communities don’t want or need.”

The commercial includes a shot of the Hobbs PD’s armored personnel vehicle, which is also featured on the department’s website.

McCall said the vehicle is used “any time we have a call-out involving a high-risk incident where we’re concerned about the safety of our officers or the safety of the citizens in our area.” McCall said it also provides cover because it’s armor-plated.

ON PATROL: A photo from the Hobbs PD website features the department’s armored personnel carrier and its 14-member SWAT team.

Hobbs also has a 14-member SWAT team, which in addition to being featured in the commercial has a page on the department’s website dedicated to it with a video attached to the page. The video opens with a man’s voice, intoning, “The rules of engagement of SWAT are simple: Defeat the enemy … any way you can,” and is accompanied with heavy metal music and shots of Hobbs SWAT team members going through exercises with guns blazing.

The commercial is running as New Mexico law enforcement authorities try to cope with at least two incidents that have drawn negative attention to the state.

The first was a $1.6 million settlement in the case of a man in southwestern New Mexico who was forced to undergo anal cavity searches and a colonoscopy after he was suspected of possessing narcotics. No drugs were found.

“This case took my breath away,” said Jonathan Turley, a nationally recognized legal scholar and professor at the George Washington University Law School.

The second and most recent story that made national news was the shooting death of a homeless man in the Albuquerque foothills. The incident was caught on tape and marked the 23rd fatality at the hands of the Albuquerque Police Department in the past three years, prompting protests, including one that turned into a near-riot. Last Thursday, the U.S. Department of Justice declared that APD has engaged in a pattern of excessive force and called for an overhaul of the department.

“By coming on the heels of the findings about the city of Albuquerque, this is another indication that one of the problems seems to be this culture of the style of policing that’s become all to common — of disregarding rules, confronting people and taking them down as the military does,” Lynch said. “That’s exactly the type of culture that leads to problems.”

McCall said that wasn’t what the ad tried to convey.

“Really, what we’re doing (in the commercial) is demonstrating some of the equipment and things that we have available,” he said. “We’ve never really put it into that context. It’s meant to protect the public.”

Spurred by a bursting energy sector, Hobbs has gone through a boom cycle. According to U.S. Census figures from 2012, Hobbs is the nation’s eighth-fastest growing community of between 10,000-50,000 people.

Just three murders were reported in 2012, but overall statistics show the crime rate in Hobbs is higher than the national average in just about every major category, including violent crimes.

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

Report: 85 percent of public pensions may run out of money in 30 years

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Thu, 2014-04-10 14:40

ON BORROWED TIME? A series of financial stress tests from a noted hedge fund indicate 85 percent of public pensions could fail in 30 years.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — Public pension systems across the country may be heading toward a financial meltdown, according to a series of stress tests conducted by a respected hedge fund.

Bridgewater Associates, based in Wesport, Conn., estimates it will take about $10 trillion for public pensions to meet their financial obligations in the coming decades as an aging population retires, but according to Bridgewater’s report there is only about $3 trillion in assets to invest.

In order to cover the coming expenses, Bridgewater estimates pension plans would need to earn an annual return of 9 percent.

The report said most states’ public pension systems work on a presumption of a 7-8 percent annual return on their investments, but Bridgewater says a more realistic goal is 4 percent — or even less.

Given all those factors, Bridgewater’s report concludes that as much as 85 percent of public pension plans could run out of money within three decades.

New Mexico’s two big public pension plans — the Public Employees Retirement Association and the Educational Retirement Board — work on presumptions of annual returns of almost 8 percent.

On the other hand, New Mexico is one of the few states that have passed a pension reform “fix” to try to tackle the looming financial problem.

In the 2013 legislative session, Republicans and Democrats — working with PERA, ERB and the state’s chapter of American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees — hammered out bills aimed at shoring up pension solvency.

“We haven’t let ours go completely in the cellar,” said state Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, who sponsored the ERB fix. “We tried to tackle the problem and I’m hopeful that we solved it. But our investments have to make some money. If not, we’ll have to come back and change them.”

State Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, spearheaded PERA pension reform in the 2013 session, but worries about the annual rate of return assumptions.

“I think the 6 percent range, 6 and three-quarters” is more realistic, Muñoz told New Mexico Watchdog. “You’re floating that line. The economy is such a rollercoaster, there are no flat line projections where you can get a solid smoothing over for a three to five year period.”

The ERB plan works on a presumption of 7.75 percent a year. That’s pretty high, but last month ERB reported its investment portfolio returned 11.7 percent for the calendar year.

Ingle said adjustments may be needed in the future, but is relieved New Mexico passed the pension bill.

“Before, it was a like a gusher,” he said. “Now there’s a certain stream of money going out, but the pipe’s cut down from 12 inches to maybe three.”

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

Court sides with ‘The Elephant Man’ of NM’s public meetings

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-04-09 16:04

TURNING BACK THE BAN: Ched MacQuigg (left), being escorted out of a 2011 Albuquerque Public Schools meeting, has been granted a preliminary injunction against the decision to bar him from APS public meetings. Photo by Mark Bralley.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — He’s been called a gadfly. He may annoy the heck out of the Albuquerque Public School’s Board of Education, and he even attended one public meeting wearing an elephant mask.

Still, Ched MacQuigg has every right to speak before the board, according to a federal judge in Albuquerque.

Furthermore, the judge says, the board overstepped its bounds by barring MacQuigg from its meetings for nearly four years.

“The public has an interest in seeing public meetings conducted in a manner that respects attendees’ First Amendment rights,” Chief U.S. District Judge M. Christina Armijo said in her March 31 ruling that granted a preliminary injunction against the APS school board in the long-running dispute.

“I feel vindicated,” said MacQuigg, a former APS shop teacher whose verbal jousts with the board prompted then-Board of Education President Martin Esquivel and APS Chief of Police Steve Tellez to send MacQuigg a letter in September 2010 “revoking” his “privilege” to attend public meetings of the board.

“APS has invested a lot of energy and resources into making me appear to be a crackpot,” MacQuigg said in a telephone interview with New Mexico Watchdog. “They really did violate my civil rights by not letting me stand up at a public forum and ask them questions.”

Esquivel did not return phone calls from New Mexico Watchdog asking for his reaction. [Update 4/11: Esquivel did speak to the Albuquerque Journal and said, “I have never disagreed more with a legal opinion in my 25 years of practicing law.”]

“We don’t comment on pending litigation,” APS executive director of communications Monica Armenta said.

MacQuigg has filed a civil lawsuit against the APS Board and six APS employees, including Esquivel, Armenta and superintendent Winston Brooks.

MacQuigg’s clashes with the board date back to 2006, when he began criticizing board members for not being proper role models for APS and not living up to the goals of a curriculum called “Character Counts,” which has since been phased out.

A regular attendee at board meetings and persistent critic of the board on his website, Diogones’ Six, MacQuigg frequently spoke during the two-minute segments in which people are allowed to address the board.

But Esquivel and others members accused MacQuigg of speaking out of turn and interrupting meetings. They also accused him of making personal attacks and, in their papers to Armijo, worried that MacQuigg was a “ticking time bomb.”

“ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM”: Ched MacQuigg wearing an elephant mask that he refused to remove while attending a 2008 Albuquerque Public Schools meeting. Photo by Mark Bralley.

MacQuigg was ejected on a number of occasions, including from one meeting in 2008 when he wore an elephant mask and refused to take it off.

“I started going to board meetings and asking them to defend their actions, and they were basically ignoring me,” said MacQuigg, who twice ran unsuccessfully against Esquivel. “So the elephant mask was an effort to get them to stop ignoring me and talk about the elephant in the room.”

After getting the 2010 letter kicking him out of board meetings, MacQuigg filed his court case on the grounds that the board had no right to ban him from its public meetings.

On March 31, in a preliminary injunction hearing, Armijo agreed.

While acknowledging that MacQuigg “has exhibited idiosyncratic behaviors,” Armijo ruled in favor of MacQuigg in all four factors she believed the case addressed, including free speech rights.

“A preliminary injunction restoring (MacQuigg’s) right to attend Board meetings and speak during the public comment segment should not impair the Board’s ability to conduct orderly meetings,” Armijo wrote.

As for the elephant mask?

“The Court concludes that the Board violated Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights by requiring him to remove his mask,” Armijo wrote. “To the extent that the Board relied on Plaintiff’s refusal to remove the mask as grounds for issuing the September 1, 2010 letter, the Board compounded its violation of Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights.

In addition to being a member of the APS board, Esquivel is an attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues.

“I’m very sensitive to how the law should work in terms of people having a right to express themselves, and I have absolutely no reservations about doing what we did as it pertains to Mr. MacQuigg,” Esquivel told the Albuquerque Journal in November 2012.

Despite the injunction allowing him to return to meetings, MacQuigg says he won’t be attending APS meetings soon because of the civil suit he’s filed, charging the board with violating his First Amendment rights of free speech and 14th Amendment due process rights. MacQuigg said the case in the midst of a settlement conference.

“All the parties agreed that it might be in everybody’s best interests if I didn’t go to a board meeting and stir things up in the middle of negotiations to resolve issues,” MacQuigg said. MacQuigg wouldn’t say how much money he’s seeking.

According to the agenda for Friday’s 7:30 a.m. school board meeting, members will consider gathering in executive — i.e., closed — session to discuss MacQuigg’s lawsuit.

As for MacQuigg’s legal fees, he said he has a pair of attorneys working on a contingency fee.

And how much has APS — a public institution funded by taxpayers — spent to fight MacQuigg in court?

APS Communications Specialist Johanna King told New Mexico Watchdog the estimated legal fees will come to “about $250,000.”

“They’ve always expected me to admit I’ve done something wrong and promise to never do it again,” MacQuigg said. “Our position is, I’ve never done anything wrong.”

Click here to read Judge Armijo’s decision.

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

Branson: Spaceport launch ’90 percent’ certain in September

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-04-09 14:20

SEE YOU IN SEPTEMBER: Richard Branson says he’s “90 percent convinced” that Virgin Galactic will have its inaugural launch from Spaceport America in September.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – Will we have liftoff?

After spending at least $212 million to build Spaceport America in the desert of southern New Mexico, the state’s taxpayers have been waiting with alternating degrees of skepticism and anticipation as to when Virgin Galactic will finally launch its first spaceship into suborbital space.

Now, billionaire Richard Branson is offering a more firm date for an inaugural voyage.

“I’m pretty convinced that by this summer a large, new spacecraft will go into space,” the Virgin Galactic owner said in an interview with Fusion.net, adding, “and then I think by September, myself and my family will go into space. I’m 90 percent convinced that will happen.”

Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant at Spaceport and is lining up well-heeled customers to pay $250,000 to take part in a venture that the telegenic Branson promises will revolutionize travel and tourism. Under the terms of Virgin’s lease, Spaceport will receive $25,000-$75,000 per launch.

Early in the project, Branson predicted a couple of launches per week, with the number rising to 700 per year by 2015. But it’s 2014 and Virgin Galactic has yet to take off.

“It is rocket science, nothing is guaranteed,” Branson told reporter Jorge Ramos. “We’ve had difficulties. NASA had problems when they were first building their spaceships as well.”

Two months ago, Spaceport Executive Director Christine Anderson told New Mexico Watchdog she still has great confidence in Branson and Virgin Galactic.

READY: New Mexico Spaceport Authority Executive Director Christine Anderson says the facility is ready whenever Branson is.

“No, I’m not discouraged (by the delays),” Anderson said. “We’re ready for them … We’ll have front row seats right here in New Mexico, and I think we are getting close.”

Branson has come under criticism on a number of fronts in recent months. British investigative journalist Tom Bower, who has tangled with Branson in the past, released a book blasting Branson’s business model for Virgin Galactic and doubting whether the spaceships the company is building can generate enough power to reach suborbital space.

“In life you will always find one person who has great pleasure in attacking other people,” Branson said. “But 99.99 percent of people, I think, respect people for getting out there and making a difference in the world.”

New Mexico taxpayers were sold on the idea of building the futuristic-looking facility outside Truth or Consequences, N.M., as a way to spur business and technology to the state.

A handful of companies have lifted off with payload launches at Spaceport and Elon Musk’s SpaceX signed a three-year lease last May to take part in a reusable rocket-testing program.

But Virgin Galactic is considered the entity that will largely determine whether Spaceport lives up to its billing.

Click here to see the Branson interview with Fusion.net.

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

There’s nothing free about Tax Freedom Day

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-04-08 08:55

PAYING TO BE FREE: What’s called “Tax Freedom Day” is coming three days later this year.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE— Hey, New Mexico, it’s time to celebrate Tax Freedom Day 2014.

Well, maybe “celebrate” isn’t the right word.

But Tuesday — April 8 — marks the day residents of the Land of Enchantment have worked long enough to pay their tax obligations on the federal, state and local levels.

The day is calculated by the Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that aims to “educate taxpayers about sound tax policy and the size of the tax burden borne by Americans at all levels of government.”

Every year, the Tax Foundation calculates how deep into the calendar it takes for residents of the 50 states, as well as American citizens in general, to shake off their tax burdens.

The bad news for New Mexico? This year’s Tax Freedom Day comes five days later than last year.

The good news? New Mexico beat out 43 other states with Tax Freedom Days that go even deeper into the calendar — such as California, whose residents don’t clear themselves of their tax loads until April 30.

Monday, the University of Connecticut Huskies won the men’s NCAA basketeball title, but Connecticut is No. 1 in something else: It tied New Jersey for the top spot in the Tax Freedom Day calendar. The residents in those two states have to pay until May 9.

Here’s the foundation’s map of the U.S.:

Overall, the country’s Tax Freedom Day falls three days later than it did last year, indicating a heavier tax burden for Americans.

With all that in mind, let’s celebrate New Mexico’s Tax Freedom Day with a couple notable quotations:

“A democratic government is the only one in which those who vote for a tax can escape the obligation to pay it.” ~ Alexis de Tocqueville

“The government who robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

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

A Roundhouse farewell for Max Coll

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-04-07 17:18

ALL FOR COLL: A crowd of about 300 turned out Monday to pay respects to former Roundhouse legislator Max Coll. Photo by Rob Nikolewski.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – A crowd of about 300 showed up at the rotunda of the Roundhouse Monday for what can be described as “the last Coll of the House.”

Friends, constituents and fellow colleagues of former state House of Representatives committee chairman Max Coll paid their respects to the legislator who began his New Mexico legislative career as a Republican from Roswell and ended it as a Democrat from Santa Fe.

Former Speaker of the House Raymond Sanchez, D-Belen, quoted Robert Louis Stevenson in describing Coll as “The man is a success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much; who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who leaves the world better than he found it.”

“That to me epitomizes the life of my very good friend, Max Coll,” Sanchez said.

Coll died March 27 at the Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center after suffering a major stroke. Click here to read more about his life.

FISCAL WATCHDOG: Max Coll was known for watching the money at the Roundhouse. In this file photo, a sign on Coll’s desk reads, “What part of THERE IS NO MONEY do you not understand?”

In his second go-around in the Legislature, Coll became an advocate for environmental issues, the arts and health care but as current Speaker of the House W. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, mentioned, Coll was always a strong fiscal conservative.

“He would say, if you spent dollars foolishly you were taking dollars away from other sources,” Martinez said.

Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, remembered how Coll deftly handled his chairmanship of the House Taxation and Revenue Committee until his retirement in 2004. In one session, Democrats were trying to come up with a strategy to battle a complicated bill introduced by a Republican House member. Chasey said Coll’s advice was simple: “He can introduce the bill and we can misunderstand it at our leisure.”

Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, and state Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, each wore old “Viva Max” campaign buttons while delivering their remarks.

In addition to his legislative career, Coll was a river-rafting enthusiast and one of his colleagues, Associated Press reporter Barry Massey, said Coll “lived as he rode” and said Coll’s talent at negotiating rapids offered him some life lessons: “Look where the current wants to take you and figure out how to make it better.”

New Mexico Watchdog talked to Rep. Varela after the service:

Coll’s wife, Catherine Joyce-Coll, and family members put together a rather unconventional obituary for Coll in the Santa Fe New Mexican. Click here to read it.

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

Supreme Court lets ruling stand on NM wedding photographer and same-sex couple

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-04-07 12:33

YOU GOTTA DO IT: The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from New Mexico wedding photographer Elaine Huguenin, who lost a case after she refused to photograph a same-sex wedding. Photo from the Alliance Defense Fund.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – It looks like the same-sex couple has won and the wedding photographer has lost.

The legal dispute over a wedding photography studio in New Mexico that refused to photograph a ceremony involving a same-sex ceremony will not be heard in the U.S. Supreme Court after all.

The justices on Monday refused to hear an appeal on behalf of Elane Photography of Albuquerque.

That means the decision of the New Mexico Supreme Court, which sided against the photographer, will stand. The U.S. Supreme Court did not elaborate on its decision, issuing a simple one-line order saying it would not hear the case of Elane Photography vs. Willock.

Last August, New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Richard Bosson wrote in a concurring opinion that although the studio’s owners may object on religious grounds to a same-sex wedding, they must offer the service because their business is open to the public.

The owners of Elane Photography, Elaine and Jonathan Huguenin “are free to think, to say, to believe, as they wish” Bosson wrote. Nevertheless, in the “world of the marketplace, of commerce, of public accommodation, the Huguenins have to channel their conduct, not their beliefs, so as to leave space for other Americans who believe something different.”

Doing so, Bosson said, is “the price of citizenship.”

The case has drawn attention because it highlighted the collision between claims of religious freedom against state anti-discrimination laws.

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

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