Cheese Sandwich Regurgitation

Government_Surplus_CheeseI can’t lie -  I was pretty pissed off when I first heard of the Albuquerque Public Schools cheese sandwich debacle a few months ago.

Growing up in Southeastern New Mexico as a child in a low-income family, I know how it feels to have to eat a free lunch and be scorned by other students for not being able to pay for it.  Yet, APS took it to a whole other level when it began punishing students because their parents didn’t pay their lunch tab.

Yet, now we just learned from APS Superintendent Winston Brooks that the district had money to cover the lunch debt all along.  In fact, the $140,000 lunch debt reported by the district seems rather insignificant when compared to the $16 million that APS just “discovered.”

But this is not to say that that the lunch debt is the biggest issue here.  It just automatically came to mind because this “discovery” of money could have led to many APS children eating healthier and not being degraded as a result of eating the “poor kids” lunch.

Let’s face it…

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Advocates With a Pen

RFK_CesarThere’s been so much talk about the decline of the traditional media and concern about what kind of in-depth journalism might rise up to up to take its place.

But I’m more encouraged now about the future of journalism since I’ve seen the ambitious and righteous project called  “Divided Families,” a series of stories by journalism students at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

The series, a melange of photos and text which movingly examined the lives of  families divided by the U.S. – Mexico border, won the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in the college print journalism category. It traces the stories of families who are separated as a result of both legal and illegal immigration and explores the social consequences of public immigration policy.  (To view the full series, go to the above link and click on the PDF file on the right side of the page. )

The Divided Families project was the work of 17 students in the Cronkite School’s In-Depth Reporting class. Students took more than 30 trips to the border, deep into Mexico and to various parts of Arizona to report, record and photograph their stories.

You can read about the other winners, which included The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Charlotte Observer and National Public Radio, here.

The prizes will be awarded today in a ceremony at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

The RFK Journalism Awards program honors outstanding reporting on issues that reflect Robert F. Kennedy’s concerns, including human rights, social justice and the power of individual action in the United States and around the world. Winning pieces examine the causes, conditions and remedies of injustice and analyze relevant public policies and attitudes and private endeavors.

Crashing the Gates of the Mainstream Media

Check out this great read from PBS’s excellent Mediashift website about the crucial role the blogosphere plays in media criticism. My favorite line is about bloggers crashing the gates traditionally kept by the so-called “legacy” media:

Here comes the crowd, and in many instances, they’re not very happy and they have cheap global distribution for their thoughts. And you won’t like them when they’re angry.

Give it a read!

PNM and Carbon Pollution: Will consumers get the shaft?

Jeff Sterba

PNM Resources CEO Jeff Sterba

Right now in Washington, members of Congress are debating a twist to climate control legislation that could lead to a massive corporate giveaway for oil and gas companies.

The Energy & Commerce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives is considering the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, (ACES) a comprehensive climate and energy legislative package that would limit carbon pollution and require the development of renewable energy. The bill is expected to go on to the full House of Representatives, and later this summer, to the Senate.

The fact that Congress is finally moving to limit carbon pollution by “capping” the overall amount of emissions allowed and issuing permits to emit carbon within those limits is a crucial step toward slowing global warming. Read what Al Gore has to say about it here.

What’s not so great is what Congress may decide to do with the trillions of dollars that could be generated by requiring companies to pay for the permits.

The plan that makes the most sense is to make companies pay for the permits, therefore making them financially responsible for limiting their emissions and forcing them to develop alternative forms of energy. The estimated billions that would be raised by a 100 percent auction of the permits would be returned to energy customers – you and me.

But this week, news emerged that some in Congress are apparently being swayed by the powerful oil and gas companies, who want Congress to agree to give them the permits for free.

New Mexico’s own Jeff Sterba (CEO of PNM Resources) was among a long string of utility executives who told the House committee last month that requiring companies to cap carbon emissions and develop alternate forms of energy would force them to charge their customers more.

New Mexicans know PNM well.  It’s the company that was just fined $6.9 million for federal and state air quality violations at the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station in the Four Corners. According to the New Mexico Environment Department, it was the largest fine ever levied by the state for air quality violations.

In light of those violations and others, New Mexicans need to question whether we can really trust utility companies to act on their own to reduce carbon emissions.

Moreover, if there is really no penalty for polluting (because the fines will be given right back to energy companies like PNM), then where is their incentive to “pass the savings” back to the consumer?  The whole construct just doesn’t make sense.

Congress needs to resist pressure from the oil and gas industry and hold companies financially responsible for their carbon pollution. Implement the carbon caps – and give the billions of dollars raised by the 100 percent auction of the carbon pollution back to energy consumers where it belongs.

They know all about you…and it’s not the government

electrodeThey know everything about you.  They use sophisticated databases and enhanced psychological techniques to bend you to their will.

“They” are the credit card industry.

Award-winning investigative reporter Charles Duhigg (an Albuquerque native and Valley High School grad) has the incredible story in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine — What Does Your Credit-Card Company Know About You?

Learn how the industry peers through the window to your soul:

The exploration into cardholders’ minds hit a breakthrough in 2002, when J. P. Martin, a math-loving executive at Canadian Tire, decided to analyze almost every piece of information his company had collected from credit-card transactions the previous year… Martin could often see precisely what cardholders were purchasing, and he discovered that the brands we buy are the windows into our souls — or at least into our willingness to make good on our debts. His data indicated, for instance, that people who bought cheap, generic automotive oil were much more likely to miss a credit-card payment than someone who got the expensive, name-brand stuff. People who bought carbon-monoxide monitors for their homes or those little felt pads that stop chair legs from scratching the floor almost never missed payments. Anyone who purchased a chrome-skull car accessory or a “Mega Thruster Exhaust System” was pretty likely to miss paying his bill eventually.

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Live From Rio Rancho….

Health care costs are on everyone’s mind, including some of the 2,300 or so New Mexicans who crowded into the Rio Rancho High School gym yesterday for President Barack Obama’s townhall meeting on credit card company abuse.

The first query right off the bat was about healthcare, and Obama ably converted the townhall into a forum about why he believes significant health care reform must be achieved by Labor Day.

“Medicaid and Medicare costs are the single biggest driver to deficits and national debt, as well as Social Security, defense and interest on the national debt,” he told the Rio Rancho crowd. “These are the lion’s share of the national budget. Most of what’s driving us into debt is health care.”

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Obama’s Office of Budget and Management director Peter Orszag writes more about why Obama believes health care reform is key to American’s fiscal future – and why it needs to be done now.

Go and read it. You’ll be glad you did.

Borrowed Time: Predatory Lenders vs. Native Americans

Great White SharkWhen President Barack Obama comes to New Mexico on Thursday, he’ll apply the considerable power of his presidency to the problem of credit card consumer abuse.

In a speech at Rio Rancho High, Obama will endorse current federal legislation that would force the powerful credit card companies to outlaw sudden interest rate hikes, unfair penalties and hidden fees while prohibiting them from giving cards to anyone under 21.

This consumer advocacy is welcome, coming from the only people with the power to actually make the hugely profitable industry retract apparently arbitrary policies that hurt millions of Americans.

But the shameful practices of the credit card companies are just one leg of a sticky web of predatory lending practices that include car title loans, payday loans and tax refund anticipation loans.

That point is borne out shockingly in a new report that says New Mexicans living in counties with high Native American populations paid more than $12 million in fees in 2005 to obtain tax refund anticipation loans, or RALs. The loans, which are unregulated in New Mexico, can carry interest rates of up to 500 percent.

The report, Borrowed Time: Use of Refund Anticipation Loans Among EITC Filers in Native American Communities, was done by the Colorado-based First Nations Development Institute and the Center for Responsible Lending.

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Realizing Our Potential: Clean Energy Town Hall

greenJobSolarPanel

I was lucky to have been involved in organizing last Saturday’s Clean Energy and the Economy Town Hall.  It gave me the opportunity to work with great organizations like Sierra Club, Conservation Voters NM, Greenpeace, NM Interfaith Power and Light, National Wildlife Federation and a few others.

A major goal of the town hall was to engage a wide range of elected officials (city councilors, legislators, and county commissioners) with the community around the subject of building a new economy in New Mexico centered on clean energy.

Since my group, New Mexico Youth Organized, has been working on a green jobs initiative since last year, I held a workshop at the town hall entitled, “The Potential for Green Jobs in NM.”  This subject seemed to resonate throughout the town hall, so I want to share some of my info in the hope that it may prove helpful to others working on similar initiatives.

Green Jobs in New Mexico

I define green jobs as “family supporting, career-track jobs that directly contribute to preserving or enhancing environmental quality.”  Many may not know that New Mexico is poised to be a leader in green jobs training. Not only do we have the great wind training programs at Mesalands Community College, but San Juan College already has a working solar panel installation program as well.  Other local community colleges (College of Santa Fe, CNM, UNM) are expanding their curriculum to include green job training programs.

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More thoughts on Charter Task Force

Sitting through a two-hour meeting is not usually my idea of fun. But I have to say that attending the highly-charged City Charter Revision Task Force meeting on April 23 was pretty fascinating.

Charter Task Force meetings are usually sparsely attended, but this one was packed. In the audience were representatives of at least a dozen non-profit organizations who showed up to speak in opposition to a proposed amendment that would severely affect their public education and advocacy work by forcing them to register as measure finance committees – the city’s equivalent of political committees.

The move at the city level was similar to a failed effort during the recent state legislative session that sought to force nonprofits to register as political committees.

Both city and state measures are widely considered to be retaliation against several nonprofits, including the Center for Civic Policy, for communications sent out last year to educate the public about the voting records of elected officials.  Some of the elected officials later lost their reelection bids.

So much was said, starting with the long line of advocates who spoke passionately about how the proposed amendment would negatively affect their organization’s mission and bottom line, not to mention limit their own free speech.

Then came a report from the city attorneys, who said the amendment was redundant and unnecessary.

Finally, the charter task force members got to speak.  Developer Chuck Gara said he spearheaded the amendment in the name of election transparency, not as an attack on non-profits.

A visibly frustrated Gara said he had called on the city attorneys several times to write an amendment that would allow him to keep “a couple of bad apples” from ruining “the whole bushel.” At the same time, Gara said, he had no desire to censor nonprofits or hamper their missions.

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