The Karma of Quack: Gary King and Pay-to-Sue

duckbillNew Mexico Attorney General Gary King was singled out for a special scolding by the mighty Wall Street Journal yesterday over the so-called “pay-to-sue” practices allegedly common among some state Attorneys General.

Yesterday’s editorial was triggered after King called the paper to complain about being mentioned in a previous WSJ editorial called The Pay-to-Sue Business.

That April 16th editorial focused on the questionable practice of state attorneys general accepting large campaign donations from law firms, then turning around and retaining those firms in no-bid contracts for “off-the-shelf” suits that require little original work.  Most of the editorial focused on Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and donations he accepted in 2006 from the firm of Houston attorney F. Kenneth Bailey, who was later given a no-bid, contingency-fee contract to sue a pharmaceutical company on behalf of the state.

But the piece, in listing other contributions made nationwide by the Houston firm, also mentioned a $50,000 campaign donation the firm made to King shortly before his election in 2006.

In yesterday’s editorial, titled Mr. King and His Courtiers, the WSJ explained how King’s explosive reaction to merely being mentioned in the story compelled them to look more closely at operations in King’s office.

“Some public officials are touchier than others. Take Gary King, the New Mexico Attorney General, who reacted to our recent passing reference to him by denouncing us and calling our pay-to-play facts nothing but politics. That sounded like an invitation to investigate Mr. King further, and, sure enough, he deserves an editorial all to himself.”

The editorial goes on to dig into the details regarding the donation to King from the Houston firm and notes that the firm was later retained by the state of New Mexico to sue a pharmaceutical company in a suit similar to others the firm had tried. It also uncovers some embarrassing irregularities regarding the contracts and ultimately, forces King to defend the practice of contracting private law firms altogether.

The knock on King has not gone unnoticed in New Mexico.

Perhaps the most interesting response comes from conservative blogger Mario Burgos, who references widely-ridiculed statements that King has made in connection with his definition of political campaign intervention, an issue that is currently in the courts.

“There’s an old saying that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then its probably a duck,” say AG King. “And I think we know a duck when we see one.”

I’m quite certain King is hoping no one decides to use the old “quacks like a duck” legal standard on him in this case.

City Charter Task Force: What the Journal Won’t Tell You

coaI had the honor of serving on Albuquerque’s City Charter Revision Task Force, along with 13 other dedicated individuals. Our group ranged across the political spectrum with diverse interests and was most professionally chaired by former State District Court Judge Wendy York.

Based on the Albuquerque Journal’s story and editorial this week, you’d think all we did over the past eight months, consisting of 17 full Task Force meetings and numerous subcommittee meetings, was argue over the issue of nonprofits – the topic with which the Journal is so clearly obsessed.

Amazingly, the Journal failed to mention – in both its news story and its editorial – that the Task Force actually killed the proposed nonprofit amendment to the City Charter sponsored by Chuck Gara for lack of support and because of gaping holes in its application and constitutionality.

That’s right. Gara’s amendment was withdrawn. Only after the amendment’s withdrawal did the Task Force cast a symbolic vote to request the City Council look at the nonprofit issue, just as the Council will consider the tens, if not hundreds of governance issues, when it takes up the Charter next month.  But if the Journal is your only news source, you could hardly be blamed for believing that the Task Force’s sole accomplishment over these past eight months was sending this nonprofit issue up to the Council for “action” — even though the amendment was killed.

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The Media Game has Changed

If it’s Friday, it must be time to connect the dots after a particularly tumultuous week.

A couple of local institutions took major hits – not the least of which was the governor’s office.  For starters, the Washington Post suggested that Gov. Bill Richardson’s days on the national stage may be over.

Whether anyone should ever count Richardson permanently out of consideration for higher office is debatable – our esteemed governor has persevered after many setbacks in a remarkable career. Richardson is smart, engaging and incredibly well-connected. And let’s not forget, there’s trouble in North Korea and an American hostage in Iran right now that probably only he can pry loose.

A Right Jab

The Albuquerque Journal’s Win Quigley took some potshots at Richardson that didn’t go over well with former Albuquerque mayor and media watchdog Jim Baca, who said he’s noticed an inordinate number of hits on Richardson lately in the Journal. Saying the city’s remaining daily paper is turning into a (gasp) blog, Baca suggested the Albuquerque Journal change it the name of its “UpFront” series of columns to “The Grudge Report.”

El Jefe

The mayor’s office took some hefty blows this week, too, with a story in Tuesday’s Journal detailing alleged wrongdoing in connection with an airport contractor at Double Eagle Airport. According to the story, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into Bode Aero Service’s allegations that Mayor Martin Chavez retaliated against them after it refused to provide free or discounted services for Chavez during his aborted run for Senate last year.

Add to that the Journal’s extensive coverage of the legal battle that’s brewing with the City Council over a $6.5 million swimming hole the mayor wants at Tingley Beach, and it’s not likely the mayor is enjoying reading the newspaper much lately.

Daily Grind

The contiguous thread here is the Journal, still far and away the best-read of all print newspapers in Albuquerque, N.M.

Despite the malaise affecting newspapers everywhere, the Journal is still chugging along. But it took some hits this week, too. Yep, there’s only one big newspaper in Albuquerque, but now there are lots of little blogs that can take potshots of their own.

In addition to Baca’s commentary, there was  this from blogger and middle school teacher Scot Key, calling attention to a story that the Journal ran this week detailing some of the reasons why an earlier story it published a few weeks ago was pointless and wrong.  The original Journal story, which printed the name of every elementary school teacher in APS next to arguably meaningless test scores from their students, understandably alienated a large number of hardworking teachers who felt they were held up to public ridicule for no good reason.

Ink by the Barrel?

Despite once being part of the mainstream media machine, I sure as heck am enjoying the lively give and take between the media behemoths and the smart, scrappy bloggers that goes on these days.

No matter the issue, no matter the political stripe – the tempest kicked up by Key’s blog and Baca’s blog and the criticisms and commentaries raised by the many, many other New Mexico-based blogs just underscores the point – the media game has changed. It’s no longer a one-way communication street, where people timidly submit their information to the daily paper and hope everything comes out alright.

And picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel isn’t quite as futile as it used to be.

Time to track state tax expenditures

The State of New Mexico loses an estimated $80 million a year in revenues through a loophole that allows multistate corporations operating in the state to avoid corporate income tax.  Moreover, as much as $5 billion is subtracted from potential state revenues through what are known as “tax expenditures” — tax deductions, exemptions, and credits that have been passed into law over the years.

That’s a staggering amount for a state with a $5.5 billion operating budget.  Much of this tax burden is shifted onto the backs of workaday New Mexicans.

Those are just two of the facts contained in a thought-provoking op ed piece in today’s Albuquerque Journal (subscription) by Gerry Bradley of New Mexico Voices for Children.

According to Bradley:

The tax expenditures themselves are not necessarily a problem. They can be useful in achieving good public policies — such as keeping physicians or encouraging economic development.

The problem is that we don’t know if they are actually achieving these public policies or if they are just giveaways.

This is not the case for the $5 billion-plus that the state spends every year via the operating budget. Every item in that budget must be justified every single year. If a program isn’t working the way it was supposed to, its funding can be cut. Not so for a tax expenditure that isn’t working.

New Mexico is one of just nine states that does not track the cost of tax expenditures…

And we wonder why we’re always behind other states when it comes to test scores, graduation rates, and poverty. Taking a closer look at who’s getting the big tax breaks and why would be two ways to begin to catch up.

For more outstanding research on New Mexico economic development and tax policies, check out the reports produced by NM Voices for Children.

A Transforming Force — Enlace Communtario

Maria Eugenia Leon -- a promotora at Enlace Comunitario

Maria Eugenia Leon -- a promotora at Enlace Comunitario

Successful social programs don’t always take a whole lot of money.

Sometimes they just take a bit of thought and a whole lot of heart.

Consider the promotora program at Enlace Comunitario, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit that provides services and counseling to those in the city’s Spanish-speaking immigrant community who are victims of domestic violence.

The promotora (literally, promoter) concept has its roots in the culture of Central and South America, where trusted members of communities are trained to work as health paraprofessionals among their own people, identifying health programs and guiding people toward healthier lifestyles.

Increasingly, governments and agencies in the United States are using the promotora model of health education as a lower-cost, culturally-sensitive way to improve health and overall quality of life in migrant communities all across the country.

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Teabag protest is not about responsible tax policy

As we face another April 15, the great American debate over taxes and the proper role of government has taken a turn toward the grotesque.

Those screaming the loudest this Tax Day are the self-named “teabaggers,” who are angrily carrying signs and delivering tea bags to elected officials in actions they say are based on the 1773 Boston Tea Party.

In that historic event, American colonists dumped tea into Boston Harbor to protest taxes levied by the government of England. At the time, the more than 1.5 2.2 million colonists (roughly a quarter of the size of population of England) were not allowed to elect members to Parliament – they were taxed without any representation.

That’s a far cry indeed from the massive turnout – and resulting mandate – produced by the U.S. electorate in November 2008.

Many have noted that it’s a rather disingenuous for the teabaggers to scream about Obama’s tax policies, inasmuch as Bush’s policies transformed a budget surplus into a massive deficit with tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefited the wealthiest members of our society.  The Obama  tax cuts benefit 95% of Americans — those whose incomes have been stagnating.

Sadly, the teabaggers are open to ridicule for so much more than their unfortunate name.

In the face of a relentless publicity push by Fox News and right-wing talk radio, questions  have arisen over who is really organizing the protests and whether they truly sprang from grassroots protestors or in fact are backed by corporate lobbyists or multi-billionaire media companies. It’s suggestive of a word coined a few years ago – astroturfing.  Astroturfing is basically fake grassroots organizing.

Consider it all together and it’s almost funny.

But taxes – who pays them, how much different people and companies are required to pay and what is done with the money that’s collected – is too important an issue to laugh off.

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Learning to Lobby, Winning a Battle

emma2There’s been much talk about how the New Mexico State Legislature is truly an inaccessible place for many residents who don’t have the time, the money or the practical knowledge of how business is conducted in the Roundhouse.

I’ve written about how perplexed and cynical I was after my first up-close look at the session.

But I wanted to also share the frustration of someone who was deeply involved in a particular piece of legislation that could have affected the civil rights of thousands of young people in Albuquerque.

Emma Sandoval, 22, is the youth coordinator at the Southwest Organizing Project, a social justice organization based in Albuquerque.

As one of SWOP’s registered lobbyists for this year’s session, it was Sandoval’s job to organize opposition to SB 525 and HB 379 – identical bills introduced in both houses that would allow Albuquerque Public Schools to create their own police force.

APS said they wanted their own force so they’d have access to the National Crime Information Center, a computerized criminal database.

But SWOP opposed the bill saying it would lead to unfair criminalization of young people and to a greater drop-out rate, especially among low-income teens and students of color.

To fight the bills, Sandoval had to wage a complicated campaign. She needed to track the progress of the bills though the maze of committees in both houses and attend key hearings. She needed to speak to legislators to know which ones supported the measure and which ones opposed it. She needed to be on top of attempts to amend both bills. And she needed to be able to inform and mobilize the people back in Albuquerque who stood to be deeply affected by the creation of an APS police department for specific events in and around the Roundhouse

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Green Jobs Bills Signed: Moving to a sustainable tomorrow

richardsonbillsigning1Yesterday Governor Bill Richardson signed a number of great “green” bills.  By so doing, he helped New Mexico take many steps towards more sustainable economic growth in the future.

New Mexico Youth Organized had the honor of working with outstanding groups like New Energy Economy, Conservation Voters New Mexico and others to help enact two key pieces of legislation.

Senate Bill 318, sponsored by Senator Eric Griego, earmarks $1 million dollars of the Job Training Incentive Program (JTIP) fund to go towards supporting and bringing in green businesses, such as solar manufacturing, wind technology, bio-fuels production, and energy retrofits.

House Bill 622, sponsored by Speaker of the House Ben Lujan, has many components of the Federal 2007 Green Jobs Bill. It will provide support to the Department of Higher Education for implementing green jobs training programs in colleges throughout the state.  Not only that, it also prioritizes many local populations (single mothers, unemployed, at risk youth) to provide them with new opportunities in the emerging green economy.

Environmental leaders across the state also worked with state legislators to enact the following policies:  add a 10% state tax credit to the 30% federal tax credit to help people install solar power systems (SB 257), provide tax credits for production of utility scale solar and geothermal plants (SB 237), and form financing districts (SB 647) or use a special property tax assessment to also help New Mexico residents install renewable energy technology.

New Mexico is beginning to move in a direction where we can begin to use our vastly underused resources of solar, wind, and geothermal.  Significant federal support exists to help take us in this direction, and, from what I saw at yesterday’s signing ceremony, we are beginning to gain a great amount of state support as well.

With the enactment of these policies, we are creating opportunities for residents of New Mexico to become part of the green economy.

A big round of thanks goes out to all the great individuals and organizations that played a part in this success. A thank you as well to Governor Richardson, Senator Griego, Speaker Lujan, and all the other legislators who are helping to create a more sustainable New Mexico.

Hard to Swallow: The Fox News “Tea Bagging Revolution”

Fox News is whipping up “Tea Bagging” fever —  multi-city protest demonstrations against letting the Bush tax cuts for the rich expire.

Watch this entertaining segment about the tea bagging “movement” from last night’s Rachel Maddow Show in which Ana Marie Cox and Rachel attempt to unpack the weird contradictions of the Tea Bag Revolution:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OLsKt4O4Yw8&hl=en&fs=1]

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Huzzahs to the Best NM Political Blogs!

Congratulations to Democracy for New Mexico, FBIHOP and Heath Haussamen for making this year’s Best State Political Blogs list – an honor role produced by Washington Post blogger, Chris Cillizza (The Fix).

Between these three, we’ve gotten the whole package — penetrating analysis, unabashed activism and courageous reporting. And they’ve pursued their on-line craft with unflagging integrity. (Whew. Chewed up a lot of adjectives there.) Barb, Matt and Heath have reshaped our state’s political landscape for the better — much to the consternation of the powerful and well-connected.

And let us not fail to recognize the fourth blog that made the list.  Give Joe Monahan his due. Please. Day in and day out, he does produce THE reliable house organ for his anonymous “alligators” – the good-old-boy-lobbyist/entrenched-politico class of New Mexico.