"Capitol Report New Mexico" Latest Blog Postings

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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