"Capitol Report New Mexico" Latest Blog Postings

More controversy for a New Mexico town that thrives on it UPDATE: Judge sets Aug. 12 hearing date on disputed election

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-06-23 09:26

IT LOOKS QUIET ENOUGH: The town of Sunland Park, N.M., is once again at the center of a political controversy.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

When you think about political mischief in New Mexico, the border town of Sunland Park springs right to mind.

After all, it’s the place where a mayor once said an agreement he signed should be voided because he was too drunk at the time to know what he was doing.

And home to a recent voter fraud conviction as well as charges of extortion and prostitution.

Now, another fracas has broken out with a longtime member of the state Legislature claiming she lost a close re-election race because of what she alleges are questionable absentee ballots that came from Sunland Park.

“Right now, we’re just diligently trying to collect the facts of what occurred during absentee balloting down in Sunland Park,” Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Las Cruces told the Las Cruces Sun-News of the legal papers she filed in district court for a recount in the Democratic Party primary she lost by just 16 votes to Bealquin “Bill” Gomez.

According to Doña Ana County Bureau of Elections figures, Gomez won an overwhelming number of absentee votes in the June 3 primary. Gomez finished with 88 absentee votes, compared to just 15 for Garcia. A third Democrat, Christian Lira, received just one absentee vote and finished in a distant third place overall.

The secretary of state’s office, which oversees statewide elections, confirmed to New Mexico Watchdog it’s investigating a complaint filed about the House District 34 election. “The Office of the Secretary of State is conducting an investigation into the issues raised in that complaint,” spokesman Ken Ortiz said in an email, but didn’t offer any more specifics.

“I think it’s a bunch of bull,” Gomez said of Garcia’s challenge. “I got the most votes and that’s the way it goes … I think she’s a sore loser … I ran a clean campaign. I won and that’s the way life is.”

But Garcia isn’t the only candidate complaining about absentee ballots coming from Sunland Park.

Merrie Lee Soules also lost a close race in the Democratic primary — by 137 votes — to Sandy Jones for the Public Regulation Commission in District 5, which covers the southwest part of the state.

Although Soules said she hasn’t made up her mind whether to file for a recount, she is questioning what she says is an inordinate number of absentee votes from the Sunland Park area that went against her.

“Yes, there are some questions,” Soules told New Mexico Watchdog in a brief phone interview Friday. Soules didn’t give more specifics, saying she preferred to wait until she made a decision on filing for a recount.

JUST 16 VOTES: Incumbent state Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Dona Ana County, alleges that suspicious absentee ballots helped put challenger Bill Gomez over the top in their Democratic primary election June 3.

Garcia’s challenge is before 3rd Judicial District Court Judge Jim Martin, who has not set a date for the recount.

While Garcia lost by just 16 votes, the margin was not small enough to trigger an automatic, state-mandated recount. For that to happen, a race must be decided by 0.5 percent or less. The margin between Gomez and Garcia in the House District 34 race was 1.8 percent.

As a result, Garcia has to pick up the cost of the recount, which is estimated to be about $2,000 to $3,000. Should Garcia eventually win the race, the county will pick up the tab.

Gomez said voters simply preferred him over Garcia, who has served in the Legislature for 17 years, and said he’s confident his edge in absentee ballots will hold up.

“She’s complaining about the signatures,” Gomez said. “How does she know? Does she have a handwriting expert? I hear she and her people are harassing voters in Sunland Park. That just makes voters upset and less likely to vote.”

Update 9:12 p.m.: Judge Martin set an Aug. 12 hearing date to hear arguments over the dispute election results.  On Monday night, Garcia told New Mexico Watchdog that she will not call for a recount but will try to toss out a number of absentee ballots she claims are invalid. “That’s what we’re zeroing in on,” she said in a telephone interview. Garcia said she has hired a forensic handwriting expert to back up her claims. “There has to be integrity in our elections,” she said.

Garcia chastised Sunland Park city council members after a series of chaotic meetings at city hall in 2011 and called for the state to take over the city government — something the state eventually did in 2012.

This latest controversy is the just the latest in a string of scandals for the town of 20,000 that’s located just north of the Mexican border and west of the Texas state line:

*In August 2011, then-mayor Martin Resendiz admitted in a deposition he was drunk when he signed nine contracts with a California firm that sued the city government for not paying for services rendered.

*In February 2012, extortion charges were filed against a mayoral candidate who allegedly tried to blackmail an opponent who was shown receiving a lap dance from a topless woman on videotape. Daniel Salinas — the alleged blackmailer — defeated Gerardo Hernandez — the lap dance recipient — in city elections, but couldn’t assume office because the charges against him stipulated he couldn’t step foot into city hall.

*Later in 2012, Salinas and city manager Jaime Aguilera entered the equivalent of not guilty pleas to extortion charges.

*In May 2012, State Auditor Hector Balderas said his office confirmed that Salinas spent more than $42,000 from the city’s Border Crossing Fund to “pay for prostitutes for Salinas and the City’s former public information officer, Arturo Alba, during a trip to Mexico.”

*In March 2013, former city employee Silvia Gomez admitted to multiple charges of voter fraud for inducing non-residents to vote in the 2012 Sunland Park elections, which were marred by allegations of voter tampering.

*Salinas is still awaiting trial on multiple charges that include bribery, extortion and receiving illegal kickbacks.

After spending two years and hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to help run Sunland Park’s dysfunctional city government, the Department of Finance and Administration on June 5 returned complete control of the city’s management to Sunland Park officials.

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

Why there’s a federal land dispute brewing out West

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

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

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

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

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

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

Take a look:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the movement has generated momentum.

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

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

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

But critics question the numbers.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said advocates of public land transfers are “prepared to waste millions of taxpayer dollars in their quixotic quest to send the federal government ‘a message.’ ”

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

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

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

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

Senate committee offers compromise on NM’s Norman Bay

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

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

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

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

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

In the meantime, Cheryl LaFleur will remain acting chairwoman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should New Mexico make a pension switch?

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

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

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Former campaign official pleads guilty to hacking emails of NM governor

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

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

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Federal energy nominee from NM runs into static

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

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

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While most Americans aren’t very familiar with FERC, it regulates the country’s electric-grid and energy infrastructure, such as pipelines, and is going through what Yeatman calls “seismic shifts” as the Obama administration plans on expanding renewable energy sources — and contracting the use coal — as part of the country’s energy portfolio.

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh really? No kidding,” Reid said. “Wow, that is amazing — that a majority leader who has a responsibility of selecting people would have some opinion as to who he suggests to the White House.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

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

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

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

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

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

Ouch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Mexico’s debate over a chicken and a mouse

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

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

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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