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An MRAP switcheroo for Albuquerque police?

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-08-04 13:07

MAKING A CHANGE: The Albuquerque Police Department has applied for a $350,000 grant acquire an armored tactical vehicle called the MedCat.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Last week, the Albuquerque Police Department announced it was getting rid of its massive 45,000-pound Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle largely due to concerns over criticism about over-militarization.

But now, APD has disclosed it has already purchased one tactical vehicle and plans on obtaining another.

“There’s a lot of sensitivity about using a military vehicle and we understand those concerns and that’s why we’ve gone into the civilian market,” said Janet Blair, Albuquerque Police Department communications and community outreach director.

Over the weekend, APD told the Albuquerque Journal the department spent $240,000 two weeks ago to buy a bullet-proof skid loader called The Rook that APD will use in situations involving barricaded subjects and bomb threats.

In addition, APD is applying for a $350,000 grant to obtain what’s called a MedCat, an armored vehicle similar to an MRAP that carries medical equipment and will be used to transport SWAT team members. On Monday morning, Blair said she wasn’t sure from where the grant money is coming.

Update 5:51 p.m.: Blair said the money would come from a federal grant but added, “The MedCat is at least several months down the road and there’s no guarantee we’ll get it.” She also emphasized that the tactical vehicles are used for defensive purposes, “for the protection of police and any civilians who need to be rescued or assisted.”

“I think (the MedCat and The Rook) are a much better fit for police,” Albuquerque Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry said in the Journal article.

ON BOARD: While the Albuquerque Police Department will return its MRAP, it has already spent $240,000 on a bullet-proof skid loader called the Rook.

Is the decision to get rid of the MRAP, only to replace it with two other tactical vehicles, just administrative sleight of hand?

“These are civilian vehicles,” Blair said Monday morning. “Armored? Yes, they’re armored for civilian police use.”

Lifelong Albuquerque resident Linda Klauschie doesn’t see much difference.

“I think they are focusing on the wrong things,” Klauschie told New Mexico Watchdog. “The more aggressive the police approach, the more likely that the person they’re after is going to be aggressive. People react to aggression with aggression.”

APD has been the focus of a series of protests, triggered by the shooting death of a homeless man in March. Since 2010, Albuquerque police have shot and killed 27 people, and the U.S. Justice Department issued a report saying APD has a pattern of using excessive force.

Blair said Monday yet another tactical vehicle at APD’s disposal called the BearCat, which dates back to the 1970s, is being overhauled. Once that’s completed, the MRAP will be taken out of commission.

MRAPs have been used by the U.S. military in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. But with U.S. involvement in those war zones winding down, the Department of Defense is offering the mammoth vehicles to local police entities through the federal government’s 1033 program that oversees the dispersal of excess military equipment.

That’s led some critics to question whether local police forces are going overboard.

“There’s a blurring of the military mission and the civilian police mission and that is a dangerous thing,” Tim Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., told New Mexico Watchdog last week. “We want our civilian police departments not to lose sight of the fact that they are dealing with people on a day-to-day basis with constitutional rights, and we want them to use a minimum amount of force to bring suspects into a court of law.”

New Mexico police chiefs who have obtained MRAPs say the vehicles are useful.

“Being down here in a desert area, along the border, we have a lot of remote areas,” said Brandon Gigante, the chief of police in Deming, population 14,793. “We can offer assistance to agencies like the Border Patrol and help move people out, evacuate or rescue (people) out in the desert (who may be) dehydrated.”

According to records obtained by New Mexico Watchdog, 18 police entities in the state have acquired MRAPs, including the campus police department at New Mexico State University.

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

Why does ridesharing freak out some regulators?

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-08-04 10:05

THE RIDESHARING DEBATE: Regulators across the country are debating whether to treat ridesharing companies like Lyft and Uber the same as taxi cabs.


By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Economist Matthew Mitchell says ridesharing companies make a lot of sense in places like Albuquerque, N.M., where he was born and grew up.

“There’s limited public transportation there and there are a bunch of drunk 20-year-olds on a typical Friday and Saturday night,” he says with a laugh.

But opponents, including regulators in various locales across the nation, aren’t laughing at all.

They insist companies like Uber, Sidecar and Lyft must abide by the same rules as taxi cab companies and, in some cases, they’re cracking down hard on the startups that use smartphone apps to attract passengers.

Case in point: The City Council in Washington, D.C., not only wanted to heavily regulate ridesharing companies, but proposed making them charge no less than five times what D.C. cab companies charge their customers.

So a $20 fare in a cab would cost a passenger using a ridesharing company at least $100?

“That’s right,” said Mitchell, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. “But these companies alerted their tech-savvy customers and within 24 hours, these tech-savvy customers inundated the City Council with about 20,000 complaints. City Council has never had that kind of reaction from anything they’ve ever proposed, and they withdrew their proposal.”

There are other examples.

Why the hard line?

“For some (regulators), they see this as a rule of law issue,” Mitchell said. “They say, hey, this is what the law says, we can’t just ignore the the law.”

But, Mitchell said, there’s something else at play — the concept of what public-choice economists call “regulatory capture.”

“It’s the idea that over time, regulatory bodies often end up seeing the world in much the same way as the industries they are regulating,” Mitchell said. “It doesn’t always have to be a nefarious (situation) where the taxi cab companies buy them off. Sometimes it’s just, well, the people you end up interacting with the most are the folks you’re regulating.”

In New Mexico, the Public Regulation Commission is wrestling over what to do as Uber and Lyft break into the Albuquerque market.

On one hand, the PRC has locked horns with Uber and Lyft — and even issued a cease and desist order against Lyft. There’s also been talk of using the New Mexico Department of Public Safety to enforce sanctions, including potential fines up to $10,000 per violation.

On the other hand, the commission also islooking at carving out new rules to allow ridesharing companies to operate in the state.

The PRC’s five commissioners appear divided.

“It’s a new, innovative idea,” said Commissioner Pat Lyons, “Let’s see how it works.”

But Commissioner Valerie Espinoza said ridesharing companies are no different than taxi cabs, limousines and van services.

“I’m all for competition,” she told New Mexico Watchdog, “but our first concern should be with public safety or it’s going to be a free-for-all.”

YOU CAN STILL CATCH A RIDE: Despite opposition from the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, two popular ride-sharing services are still operating in Albuquerque.

Neither Lyft nor Uber have received licenses from the PRC, but both companies are operating in Albuquerque. Lyft officials say drivers are taking “donations” when they pick up customers.

“If they want to operate legal, I welcome them,” said Commissioner Ben Hall. “But if you don’t want to operate legal, we don’t want you in our state.”

Ridesharing companies insist they’re entirely different than cab companies.

“Trying to regulate a ridesharing service like Lyft as if it were a taxi service is trying to put a square peg into a round hole,” Lyft spokeswoman Katie Dally said from the company’s headquarters in San Francisco.

Unlike hailing a cab from the street or calling a limo service and setting up an appointment, ridesharing companies work strictly through the free smartphone apps they offer to customers.

The app allows potential passengers to find the location of nearby drivers, track the length of the trip in distance and time and calculate the cost of a ride. Since the app transfers the fee from the user’s credit card, no cash changes hands.

The drivers are independent contractors and set their own work hours. The companies get paid by getting a percentage of the fares. Lyft, for example, makes 20 percent per transaction.

But cab companies say these are all distinctions without a difference.

“They’re taking people from Point A to Point B and charging them a fare,” said Raymond Sanchez, the former New Mexico speaker of the House, who is an attorney for Yellow Cab Co. of Albuquerque and a regular presence at PRC meetings where the ridesharing debate has gone on for more than two months. “They’re operating illegally. Go by the same rules everybody else is going by.”

One of the PRC lawyers last week cited a report of a ridesharing driver charged with assaulting a passenger in Washington, D.C.

“People are riding at their own risk,” Espinoza said. “The state has a responsibility to protect people.”

The ridesharing companies say their drivers all go through background checks and carry insurance. Lyft drivers carry $1 million primary liability policies, said spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson.

Ridesharing fans accuse critics of simply trying to block out competition and innovation.

“If taxis aren’t competitive with Lyft and Uber, then the obvious thing to do is reform regulations to help them compete, not to force Lyft and Uber to adhere to onerous regulations,” said Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Albuquerque.

While ridesharing companies have been stiff-armed in some locales, they’re getting the green light in others. In the past month, the city of Seattle and the state of Colorado each passed rules allowing the companies to pick up passengers who often employ the companies’ high-tech rating system to instantly evaluate their experiences.

“You’re far from flying blind,” Mitchell said. “You’ll be able to ask 10,000 customers who rated a driver. If you don’t like what you see, you cancel it.”

In essence, the customers become the regulators.

“What they’ve managed to do with this rating system,” Mitchell said, “is provide a regulatory quality assurance that accomplishes what reams and reams regulations and 80 years of state regulations have never been able to achieve.”

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

Pick me! Santa Fe spends taxpayer money to lure ‘The Bachelor’

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-08-01 11:43

MONEY FOR ‘THE BACHELOR’: The City of Santa Fe and the New Mexico Tourism Department may spend up to $150,000 to try to lure the top-rated ABC reality show to the state capital.


By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — The reality show “The Bachelor” is one of television’s highest-rated shows. But for Santa Fe taxpayers like Jill Meyer, the decision by the Santa Fe City Council to commit between $50,000-$100,000 to try to lure the producers of the show to the state capital is worthy of two thumbs “way down.”

“This is so stupid,” Meyer told New Mexico Watchdog. “We have so many other needs in Santa Fe.”

And a separate pile of money may come from the state.

The New Mexico Tourism Department is considering spending $50,000 of its own money to try to bring the production crew of the show, which features one bachelor choosing a potential wife from a pool of 25 women, to Santa Fe.

There have been reports the Tourism Department has already committed to the project, but Communications Director Rebecca Latham told New Mexico Watchdog on Thursday no final decision has been made.

“It’s still being discussed,” Latham said, adding, “There’s a huge potential for national media exposure.”

On Wednesday night, the city council voted 5-4 to approve a request from the Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau to commit at least $50,000 and potentially spend another $50,000 to negotiate with the show’s producers, in the hopes of bringing the show to Santa Fe for one season.

Supporters point to the show’s high ratings (14.3 million viewers) as a chance to market New Mexico’s capital city to a worldwide audience.

THE CITY DIFFERENT: Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in the United States.

“I don’t know that there’s anywhere else that we could ever spend $50,000 to get 14.3 million people to look at Santa Fe for an hour,” Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales was quoted saying in the Santa Fe New Mexican, while joining the councilors voting to approve the spending.

The four councilors who voted against the plan didn’t see it that way.

“It’s a terrible show, awful,” said Bill Dimas.

“This is real money,” Councilor Ron Trujillo said Thursday morning. “I’m all for economic development, but I think there are better uses of taxpayer money than spending it on a soap opera. I don’t know why people watch this show … Besides, Santa Fe’s already on a national stage.”

During the debate Wednesday night, Councilor Patti Bushee, who voted for the request, answered Trujillo’s criticism by saying, “Ron, can’t you just imagine the mariachis serenading? The final rose given out on the Plaza? Can you just imagine? The promotion? All of it? The tears? The music?”

But Meyer, a seven-year resident of Santa Fe, points out there’s no guarantee the producers will choose the city, even if up to $150,000 of taxpayer money is spent.

“I know the money in the tourism budget is not necessarily allotted to fixing problems like homelessness,” Meyer said. “But I don’t think people who watch ‘The Bachelor’ will come to Santa Fe … It just seems to be a total waste of money.”

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

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