The Rio Grande Foundation was set up in 2000 by former New Mexico Attorney General Hal Stratton and George Mason economist Harry Messenheimer. Current president Paul Gessing took over as the first full-time manager of the organization in early 2006. While the Foundation is a tax-exempt 501c3 educational institute, it has had a significant impact on New Mexico politics and policy, particularly since 2006.
Its tangible accomplishments include:
The Rio Grande Foundation played an instrumental role in the passage of HB 560 in the 2015 legislative session which dramatically reformed New Mexico's rules on civil asset forfeiture. The process had been abused in ways that allowed police departments to take personal property without so much as charging the individual with a crime.
The free market group FreedomWorks ranked all state laws relating to civil asset forfeiture in 2015 putting New Mexico's number one in the nation.
With Republicans controlling the New Mexico House of Representatives for the first time in 62 years, the following bills which were based on concepts put forth by the Rio Grande Foundation or were the subject of Rio Grande Foundation writing or research all passed the House of Representatives:
In 2007, the Foundation, worked closely with the libertarian law firm, the Institute for Justice, and Gov. Richardson’s eminent domain task force and the Legislature, helped improve New Mexico’s eminent domain protections to make them among the strongest in the nation;
In November of 2006, the Foundation led the organized opposition to Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez’s proposed streetcar system. The system (which was not built) would have cost at least $224 million to build.
Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, debated US Rep. Martin Heinrich on the health care legislation that would ultimately become “ObamaCare” at a packed townhall meeting in August of 2009. Footage of this debate is available here.
Efforts of the Rio Grande Foundation led to dramatic improvements in transparency and openness in government. All legislative votes are now posted online and all floor debate is webcast. Cities and counties including Albuquerque and Rio Rancho and Bernalillo post payroll information online. Lastly, due to legislation passed in the 2011 session, information requests requested electronically, must now be fulfilled electronically rather than forcing citizens to obtain costly and unwieldy printed documents.
In the summer of 2010, the Rio Grande Foundation brought the “Florida Model” for K-12 reform to New Mexico. Under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida achieved dramatic improvements in educational performance, particularly in reading scores. Aspects of this model have already been adopted and will hopefully continue to be adopted over time.
Prior to the 2011 legislative session, the Rio Grande Foundation proposed capping New Mexico’s generous film incentive program – which costs taxpayers an undermined amount up to $70 million annually – at $30 million annually. The program was ultimately capped at $50 million annually, a good first step.
While we didn’t “win” the battle to stop the Rail Runner, the Rio Grande Foundation was an early critic of the $1.2 billion commuter train. This criticism is being proven accurate as every day goes by and the train piles up additional costs are borne by New Mexico taxpayers.
As a sign of its influence, the Rio Grande Foundation has been criticized by left-wing bloggers at ABQ Journal Watch for having an “unannounced reign over the Albuquerque Journal’s op-ed page” and “Rio Grande Foundation’s … association with and access to the Journal’s editorial pages continues to astonish.”
Another writer on the liberal site wrote, “Rio Grande Foundation funds something. They print it. Echo it in their four or five blogs. Get it in the Journal…RGF is one of the largest supporters of the tea party movement.”
New Mexico Watchdog
The New Mexico Watchdog website is our investigative journalism site. First manned by Jim Scarantino and now by David Collins, the Watchdog site is owned and managed by the Rio Grande Foundation. Reporting done for the site has resulted in reforms big and small at the national level and in New Mexico including:
In November 2009, Jim Scarantino broke a national story on the Obama “stimulus” when he found that the government’s stimulus tracking website recovery.gov had listed several phantom congressional districts in New Mexico. This story was picked up by Drudge Report and dozens of other news outlets. The story also led to similar reports from state think tanks in other states and a skit on the Colbert Report.
Scarantino’s reporting caused the Obama Administration to back away from specific claims of how many jobs have been created or saved by its $787 spending effort
The Watchdog broke another story in November 2009 on then Lt. Gov. Diane Denish’s misuse of federal stimulus funds. Scarantino found that “the Lt. Governor used $225,000 in federal funds to pay for a driver to shuttle her to meetings and press events, a contractor to take Christmas pictures and write Christmas cards, a lawyer to make hotel reservations, opinion polling and public relations services.”
In the summer of 2010, Jim Scarantino blew the whistle on the phantom solar company known as Green2V. The solar plant was set to receive millions in taxpayer subsidies, but Scarantino’s research discovered that the company and its financing were bogus.
In early 2010, Scarantino uncovered the extreme biases and conflicts of interest within Gov. Richardson’s Environmental Improvement Board which ultimately approved a New Mexico-only carbon cap.
In June 2011, David Collins clearly demonstrated that Gov. Richardson’s judicial nominees donated far more to political candidates than their predecessors.
In May of 2011, David Collins exposed how one company that received at least $35 million in stimulus money has promised alternative path to fusion for decades with zero results.
Capitol Report New Mexico
1) In the summer and fall of 2010, Watchdog reporter Rob Nikolewski uncovered multiple occasions in which public buildings have been named after lawmakers and public officials who are still active in the legislative process that funds those same structures. Nikolewski dubbed the series "Monuments to Me." In one case, the Speaker of the House in New Mexico has a gymnasium named after him ... and that same gymnasium serves as a polling place in elections the Speaker is actually taking part in. Inspired by the articles, a Republican state senator introduced legislation to end the practice.
2) In August of 2010, by pestering the US Department of Labor, Rob Nikolewski discovered through the department's yearly statistics that New Mexico ran up $98.7 million in overpayments in state unemployment benefits – the third highest rate in the US. New Mexico also had the sixth-highest rate of unemployment fraud in the US.
3) By digging through public records, Rob Nikolewski discovered Santa Fe County had spent nearly a million dollars ($861,130) to hire out of state consultants to help the county develop a "sustainable growth plan." The report prompted one of the county commissioners to admit on camera that the payouts were a mistake and the story was picked up by other media outlets. Since then, the county says it will discontinue the practice.
4) Rob Nikolewski of New Mexico Watchdog broke the story that someone who had leased public land from the state of New Mexico had dumped more than 20 acres of chicken manure on the property, leaving the state on the hook for the cleanup. The Watchdog posted exclusive photographs of the offending area, prompting major media outlets to follow up on the story. The State Land Office is now in the process of trying to recover money from the offending party to help defray the cost of the cleanup.