"Capitol Report New Mexico" Latest Blog Postings

Otero County’s fight with the feds over cattle and the meadow jumping mouse

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-05-14 12:08

MOUSE IN THE MIDDLE: The meadow jumping mouse is expected to be listed as endangered next month.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — It hasn’t reached the fever-pitch of the showdown involving Cliven Bundy, but a handful of ranchers in southern New Mexico have locked horns with the federal government.

Their complaint? Officials at the U.S. Forest Service have fenced off access to water for the ranchers’ grazing cattle because the feds want to protect the habitat of the meadow jumping mouse, which is expected to be listed as an endangered species next month.

The Forest Service says it is worried cattle will damage 23 acres along the Agua Chiquita that includes a natural spring it says is essential the protect the ecosystem for the mouse.

Ranchers are angry the feds have reinforced locks and fences to keep out their cattle, thirsty from a long drought that has hit New Mexico. Besides, they say, the land belongs to a local rancher.

“The Forest Service has no right to appropriate water under New Mexico law,” Blair Dunn, an attorney for Otero County, told New Mexico Watchdog.

But the Forest Service disagrees and says the fences have been in place since the 1990s and the creek itself is on federal property.

“We’ve provided reasonable access to the water, even if there is a water right on these sites,” Forest Supervisor Travis Moseley told KVIA-TV.

Tensions are rising.

On Monday, Otero County Commissioners voted 2-0 to authorize Sheriff Benny House to open the gate.

LOCKED OUT: The U.S. Forest Service has locked out ranchers in southern New Mexico from a creek said to protect the habitat of the meadow jumping mouse.

“I’ve never seen one of these mice, and the Forest Service claims they caught one last year,” Commissioner Tommie Herrell told Reuters.

The endangered listing for the meadow jumping mouse comes after a settlement was reached with WildEarth Guardians in 2011.

“The job of the Forest Service is to balance uses for the greatest good for the greatest number of Americans, not to provide subsidized grazing to welfare ranchers,” WildEarth Guardians posted on its Facebook page May 6.

Otero County resident Denise Lang said he hopes the feds win the dispute.

“This is the U.S. Forest Service who is protecting the sustainability of our forest,” Lang told commissioners at Monday’s meeting.

Sheriff House has not acted yet. Instead, what’s being called a “facilitated discussion” between the two sides has been scheduled for Friday at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Albuquerque to try to come to a compromise.

“Hopefully we can get something resolved on Friday,” said House.

“This is part of a larger issue,” Dunn said. “There’s a big, strong push, which comes from the White House, to push grazing and oil and gas uses off federal ground. This incident here is just another example.”

“The Forest Service will continue to work to ensure all parties involved understand that the fence is fully compliant with state and federal law,” the service said in a statement released earlier this week.

The Otero County flare-up comes a month after Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy squared off against officials at the Bureau of Land Management. Bundy, who has lost repeatedly in court, tends his cattle on federal land. After the BLM tried to round-up his cattle and sparked a protest, the BLM stopped the roundup and is considering what to do next.

In Utah, meanwhile, another protest has popped up over the use of ATVs on trails that go into Recapture Canyon in the southeastern part of the state that have deemed off-limits.

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

Big bucks: Up to $80m for technology upgrades and free computers for kids in Santa Fe

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-05-13 17:00

A COMPUTER FOR EVERY KID: Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Joel Boyd (left) says a $55 million, five-year investment in technology is a tool to help students compete in the 21st century. Santa Fe Public Schools photo.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — Taxpayers in New Mexico’s capital city have spent plenty in recent years for improved technology and computers for the Santa Fe Public Schools system.

Now they’re about to pay a lot more.

“While we were doing a lot and there was a lot of investment, it certainly was not meeting the needs of our youngsters and it wasn’t enough to meet the needs of our teachers in the classroom,” Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Joel Boyd told New Mexico Watchdog.

As a result, the Santa Fe board of education recently passed a $55 million Digital Learning Plan that promises to integrate technology for students and teachers, upgrade computer infrastructure and eventually give personal computers to each of the 14,000 students in the district.

Just two years ago, Santa Fe voters approved a bond to provide $12.7 million per year for six years to fund construction and technological enhancements. That comes to $76.2 million. Included in that amount was $2.4 million to buy Apple computers and technology for students in the summer of 2012.

Carl Gruenler, the SFPS chief business officer, told New Mexico Watchdog the majority of the $76.2 million is going to building maintenance, and “approximately 25-33 percent has been spent for technology infrastructure and equipment since 2012.”

So what happened to the $2.4 million for Apple computers?

Gruenler said that went to replacing old computers at the district’s two high schools.

The just-passed $55 million Digital Learning Plan will be spread out over five years and the school board has approved the first $11 million to be released this school year.

All told, the total price tag for technology related items (infrastructure, upgrades, computers, support, software for all 34 schools in the mix, etc.) may reach as high as $80 million over the next six years.

That’s a lot of money for a district with 14,000 students.

Boyd said the Digital Learning Plan is necessary after hearing complaints from teachers of “slow systems, slow start-ups and inadequate services for technology for 21st century learning for kids … In order to do what our children need, that’s what it costs.”

“This is no small challenge,” Gruenler said.

School board member Steven Carrillo defends the plan, which passed in February.

“I think it’s not only good, it’s essential if we’re going to provide technology for our children that most school districts have throughout the country,” Carrillo said.

“That’s the biggest first piece — getting our infrastructure into the 21st century,” Carrillo said. “I’m not kidding when I say (the current system is) back there in the 1990s. That’s not an exaggeration.”

SFPS officials conducted a large-scale poll of 600 likely Santa Fe voters and Boyd said 70 percent agreed an investment in technology was needed. “That’s overwhelmingly supportive,” he said.

Can giving students free computers lead to better academic outcomes?

“These are tools,” said Boyd, who took over as superintendent in August 2012. “These don’t take the place of teachers or other things that we’re doing … Each generation has different tools that are needed in the classroom and these happen to the be the tools of this generation.”

Neal McCluskey, education analyst at the Cato Institute, a free-market think tank based in Washington, D.C., is more skeptical.

“Any time I’ve looked at it, there doesn’t seem to be much support for the idea that more technology leads to better outcomes,” he said. “I don’t think there’s been anything systematic that says it has.”

But a growing number of school districts – from Maine to Texas to Oregon to California – are making big investments in technology and giving out free computers to students.

The Los Angeles Unified School District planned to distribute iPads to all of its 660,000 students in 2013. The program ended up costing millions of dollars more than expected and, to the district’s embarrassment, a number of tech-savvy students quickly learned how to disable the firewalls and used the computers to access computer games and pornography sites.

One of the local TV stations called it ” the district’s iPad quagmire.”

Boyd said Los Angeles can’t be compared to Santa Fe.

“L.A. Unified is a district of 700,000 kids,” Boyd said. “It’s the second largest city in this country … It’s vastly different.”

In addition, Boyd said the five-year rollout by SFPS will help ensure potential problems can be avoided.

What kinds of computers will Santa Fe students get? Boyd said it will depend on the needs of each school. Ramirez Thomas Elementary is one of the first schools to receive computers. Boyd said students there will receive iPads.

Even before implementation, the Digital Learning Plan received criticism because the $55 million project was not approved as a bond measure by voters.

Instead, a divided school board approved it by using Educational Technology Notes. Passed by voters in 1996 as an amendment to the state constitution, the notes allow school boards to impose a property tax on their own.

The measure passed on a 3-2 vote, with school board members Lorraine Price and Glenn Wikle voting against it.

“I thought it should go to the voters … Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” said Day, who added that she supports the plan now that it has passed.

“If it was a bond, we would have had to wait two years for the proceeds of the bond (to materialize) and that would have set us further behind,” Carrillo said. “I can say honestly and I’m not exaggerating, I only got three emails — three — from people that did not appreciate that we didn’t go to the voters.”

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

Freedom Works boss: Tea Party ‘stronger, not weaker’

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-05-13 09:01

THE PARTY’S NOT OVER: Matt Kibbe, the CEO of the political action group Freedom Works, says the Tea Party’s influence is not waning, but on the rise. NM Watchdog photo.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

ALBUQUERQUE – They’ve been attacked by Democrats such as Harry Reid as “anarchists,” vilified by the main character on the cable show “The Newsroom” as “the American Taliban” and criticized by some Republicans who point to defeats in Delaware, Indiana and Nevada as possibly costing the party control of the U.S. Senate.

But one of the people responsible for creating the Tea Party says the movement is as strong as ever.

“A lot more of these activists are (focusing) more on local precinct captain divisions, local school boards, state legislators,” said Matt Kibbe, the president and CEO of Freedom Works, a political nonprofit based in Washington D.C., that proclaims “lower taxes, less government, more freedom” as its motto.

“So they’ve gone local,” Kibbe told New Mexico Watchdog. “They still think nationally but they’ve focused on the mechanics on a local level. That to me is a sign of a stronger social movement, not a weaker one.”

Kibbe’s group was instrumental in organizing what became the founding event for the Tea Party movement — a Taxpayer March on Washington back on Sept, 12, 2009 that drew hundreds of thousands.

“We had zero advertising,” Kibbe told a crowd of about 75 Monday at a luncheon sponsored by the Rio Grande Foundation. “It was all due to social media … That’s the power of decentralization.”

A little more than a year later, Tea Party favorites such as Rand Paul and Justin Amash were elected to Congress and Republicans took control of the House of Representatives.

But in 2012, Barack Obama won re-election and since then, there’s been plenty of speculation that the Tea Party is losing steam.

WHERE IT STARTED: A Taxpayers March on Washington in 2009 marked the beginning of the Tea Party movement.

While Kibbe emphasizes that Freedom Works and the Tea Party movement are independent — “They don’t work for us and we don’t work for them” — Kibbe thinks the Tea Party’s principles are alive and well.

“Very strong support for the Tea Party runs about 30 percent,” Kibbe said. “But if you look at the issues that we fight for — balancing the budget, limiting federal power, defending individual liberty — those issues are trending dramatically in the United States, in large part as a reaction against the Obama administration.”

But does the Tea Party split Republican power?

John McCain and Lindsey Graham have criticized some Tea Party-identified candidates such as Ted Cruz and Speaker of the House John Boehner has wrestled with the Tea Party caucus in the House.

“We don’t win ‘em all,” Kibbe said. “But what’s different is the extraordinary shift in the conversation … we’re all talking about the national debt, we’re talking about overreach in Obamacare. And if you if you look at the polling going into (the 2014 elections), it’s our issues that define this election.”

In New Mexico, a move to replace then-Speaker of the House Ben Luján with a more conservative Democrat was undermined when Tea Party chapters in the southern part of the state pressured Republicans to reject a power-sharing coalition, citing the chapters’ opposition to abortion. Luján survived and many of the GOP members later regretted the decision.

“There are certainly a lot of pro-life tea partiers,” Kibbe said. “But generally speaking, they don’t work on those issues as a group … It shifts and flows and I think that’s where its power comes from. It’s not directed from any top-down organization.”

A Grateful Dead aficionado, microbrew maven and fan of the movie, “The Big Lebowski,” Kibbe is a self-identified libertarian. His most recent book, “Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take Their Stuff,” is called a manifesto of the virtues of small government. But he’s also a registered Republican. Which one comes first?

“They’re two different things,” Kibbe said. “I’m a small ‘l’ libertarian because libertarianism is a set of values and a philosophy. Republicans are a political party. And quite often, political parties are empty vessels that can be filled with ideas. I think on rare occasions in my life, Republican Party has lived up that standard.”

Kibbe’s book features “Six Rules for Liberty.”

“Saul Alinsky had 13 rules,” in Alinsky’s book, “Rules for Radicals,” Kibbe told the crowd Monday. “I came up with six.”

Among Kibbe’s rules? Honoring the importance of hard work — something that the actor Ashton Kutcher expressed earlier this year.

“He said, ‘opportunity looks a lot like hard work,’ ” Kibbe said. “He’s basically saying, ‘No one’s going to give this to you. You gotta go get it.’ That was controversial in Hollywood but it’s sort of a common sense notion that even a movie star got and that’s a good thing.”

Here’s the New Mexico Watchdog interview with Kibbe:

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

VIDEO: Discussion on NM Watchdog’s story on per-pupil spending UPDATE: ABQ Journal also picks up story

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-05-09 15:41

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Are New Mexico taxpayers getting enough bang for their buck when it comes to spending on education?

That’s a logical question to ask after a New Mexico Watchdog story posted earlier this week reported that while student outcomes continue near the bottom in national rankings, New Mexico is ranked 20th in the nation when it comes to per-pupil spending. Click here to read the story.

The Watchdog report, as well as another story on higher education spending, was brought up in a “web extra” edition of “New Mexico In Focus,” the weekly public affairs program seen in most parts of the state on KNME-TV.

Joining moderator Gene Grant on the panel was Rob Nikolewski of New Mexico Watchdog, former New Mexico Lt. Governor Diane Denish, former state Rep. Dan Foley and attorney Sophie Martin:

At 7 p.m. Friday night, the one-hour broadcast edition of New Mexico In Focus will be aired on KNME, Channel 5 and will be repeated on Saturday on Channel 9.1 and Sunday at 7 a.m. on Channel 5.1.

Update 5/12: The state’s largest newspaper, the Albuquerque Journal, also picked up the story on Monday and put it on the front page, above the fold:

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

 

Core beliefs: NM education chief defends Common Core

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-05-09 11:02

HEARING IT FROM BOTH ENDS: Critics of Common Core come both the right and the left sides of the political spectrum.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — As the Common Core Standards Initiative gets implemented across the country, complaints are piling up on both ends of the political spectrum.

In education circles, a sardonic joke is making the rounds: Conservatives hate the “common” and liberals hate the “core.”

New Mexico Public Education Department Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera defends the initiative, saying it’s a vital tool to streamline K-12 standards and ensure that students are actually learning what they need to learn in a competitive 21st century environment.

“Right now we spend over $20 million (in New Mexico) for high school graduates who go on to college … and have to take remediation courses,” Skandera told New Mexico Watchdog in an interview at the PED offices in Santa Fe. “We’re not delivering on the promise of, ‘are you ready?’ We know half of our kids are not on grade level. So (Common Core) is an important step to say, let’s make sure we have high standards.”

Common Core was created in 2009 by governors, education secretaries and legislators across the country. It came largely in response to complaints about the No Child Left Behind Act that passed Congress with bi-partisan support during the administration of George W. Bush.

Some 44 states and the District of Columbia signed off on Common Core as a better way to measure student outcomes across the board, focusing on math and what’s called ELA — English language arts/literacy.

The criticisms about Common Core are relatively muted in New Mexico.

A poll of 157 New Mexico teachers conducted last summer showed that 81 percent believed “the standards will have a positive impact on students’ ability to think critically and use reasoning skills” and just 1 percent thought Common Core will have a negative impact.

But in other parts of the country, the rumbling has developed into a roar.

Two months ago, Indiana dropped out of Common Core, with a Republican state legislator calling it “a cookie-cutter education system.” Oklahoma is considering dropping out.

For some conservatives, Common Core represents a top-down edict coming from Washington that horns in on individual states.

“This is the thin end of an enormous wedge of federal power that will be wielded for the constant progressive purpose of concentrating power in Washington so that it can impose continental solutions to problems nationwide,” said columnist George Will earlier this week on Fox News.

DEFENDING THE CORE: New Mexico Public Education Department secretary-designate Hanna Skandera says Common Core helps to ensure students are learning what they need to learn.

“I disagree wholeheartedly about this idea that it’s a top-down decision,” Skandera said. “It’s a decision about what’s best for our kids and it’s made here, at the local level, in the state of New Mexico.”

“Sooner or later, you inevitably have a national curriculum,” Will said.

“When it comes to curriculum, it’s decided at the local level,” Skandera countered, adding, “There is nothing about Common Core that’s about curriculum. Common Core is about the standards.”

At the same time, some liberals complain that Common Core’s implementation has been botched and call it inflexible and too dependent on test-taking.

In a reflection of our celebrity culture, a Twitter rant against Common Core by comedian Louis C.K. was picked up last week by New Yorker magazine and has received wide distribution, especially on progressive media outlets.

“My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!” the comedian posted.

“Since Gov. Martinez has come into office we’ve reduced testing time by an average of 30 minutes per grade,” Skandera said. “And we will maintain that commitment when we transition to Common Core. Increased testing is not the case, it’s not now and won’t be when we adopt Common Core.”

Some teachers unions, who liked Common Core when it was introduced, are now backtracking.

On Thursday, the Chicago Teachers Union voted to oppose Common Core standards.

“Common Core eliminates creativity in the classroom and impedes collaboration,” said CTU President Karen Lewis. “We also know that high-stakes standardized testing is designed to rank and sort our children and it contributes significantly to racial discrimination and the achievement gap among students in America’s schools.”

“Our unions are beginning to waver on that message,” Skandera said. “I think the flip-flop is coming because we’re bringing in accountability. You can’t have high standards and not measure whether or not you’re reaching them.”

The Obama administration has backed Common Core standards, with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan saying last June, “I believe the Common Core State Standards may prove to be the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown versus Board of Education.”

Last November, Duncan had to apologize after he said some of Common Core’s criticism come from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

To try to beat back the criticism, the Common Core website has a page devoted to countering what it says are the myths versus the facts of the program.

The Common Core debate has plenty of political ironies for Skandera.

ON BOARD: Hanna Skandera (back left) attending an announcement by Barack Obama in 2011 about waivers issued to states on No Child Left Behind.

New Mexico adopted Common Core in 2010, in the final months of the administration of Democrat Bill Richardson.

“Our commitment to Common Core state standards has bridged two administrations from different parties,” Skandera said.

Throughout her tenure at PED, she has been pilloried by unions and some teachers (at a rally last fall, a sign was displayed depicting Skandera and Martinez with fangs, dripping with blood) and lambasted by some Roundhouse Democrats (Skandera still has not received an up or down vote on her nomination in the full Senate).

Yet Skandera said she’s in full support of the Obama administration and Duncan’s backing of higher standards in general and Common Core in particular. In her office is a framed copy of a newspaper front page with a photo of President Obama announcing state waivers on No Child Left Behind with Skandera in the background.

“It’s not about politics, it’s about delivering on a promise for what’s in the best interests of our kids,” Skandera said. “We made that commitment, we’ll keep it.”

But the criticism isn’t letting up.

After Indiana backed out, a critic predicted other states will follow.

The “water is warm, come on in,” said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a free-market think tank that opposes Common Core.

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

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

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

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

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – The Tesla tease continues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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