AmericaSpeaks: The Debrief

By Tracy Dingmann

This weekend, Albuquerque was one of 19 cities to host the latest incarnation of AmericaSpeaks, an interactive national town hall meeting focusing on real talk about America’s budget and economy.

Thousands of participants gathered at meetings all over the country or joined the conversation online. The organizers of the event had said they wanted to include as many diverse groups as possible to “reflect the authentic views of a large, informed, and representative group of Americans.”

In promotional materials, the organizers said:

“The discussion will not be manipulated by any side or point of view, and will give the American public a real chance to find common ground.”

Organizers say ideas raised at the town hall will be passed along to actual policymakers, including Congressional leaders and the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

The Demographics

So who showed up, and what happened?

Continue reading

State Permit Is All That’s Needed Now

By Tracy Dingmann

The decades-long legal battle over is effectively over – and now uranium mining in Indian Country is just a couple of state permits away from happening.

Last week the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made a crucial ruling in a landmark case that clears the way for Hydro Resources to seek permit renewals from the New Mexico Environment Department for mining on land the company owns near Churchrock.

Specifically, the court ruled that the 160-acre parcel of land was NOT on what’s considered Indian land, meaning that the company must get permission from the state Environment Department – not the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The state had already approved permits for the company to mine there back in 1989 – but the process was stopped by lawsuits filed by the Navajo Nation, which said the parcel of land in question was on Indian land and therefore under federal jurisdiction.

The Najavo Nation and other involved parties said they opposed it because of the possibility that the in situ leaching method of mining the company plans to employ to extract uranium could contaminate precious groundwater for thousands of people.

The Navajo Nation banned uranium mining of all kinds in 2005. Contamination from decades-old abandoned mines and uranium tailings are still a huge problem there and are believed to be the cause of many health problems among people living there.

As of Thursday, Hydro Resources Inc. had not yet applied for any permit renewal, New Mexico Environment Department spokeswoman Marissa Stone Bardino said in a phone interview.

If and when the company’s permitting request does come in, the department anticipates that those in the community who oppose the company’s plan to mine the land will ask for a public hearing on it, Bardino said.

Eric Jantz, an attorney with the Environmental Law Center, which represents Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining and other parties involved in the lawsuit, said his clients have talked about the ruling but haven’t decided what to do about it yet.
New Mexico Environmental Law Center

Jantz said he expects one of the many parties who opposes uranium mining will likely ask for hearing if and when a permit is requested and the scope of the request is known.

Stay tuned to Clearly New Mexico for updates.

Health Insurer Accountability: Now More than Ever

New Mexicans understand the need for effective governmental oversight of the health insurance industry – especially given the ongoing controversy over the 21.3% premium rate increase granted by state regulators to Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Mexico (BCBSNM) that would impact 40,000 of its customers. First the rate hike was granted by the state’s Insurance Superintendent; now it has apparently has been suspended – at least temporarily. Blue Cross Blue Shield has promised litigation if suspension is allowed to stand.

The ire of already aggrieved policy holders was stoked further when independent review of the original decision concluded that the state Insurance Division had not received sufficient documentation from BCBSNM to justify the rate calculation.

And this appears not to have been an isolated incident. According to the New Mexico Independent, the state Insurance Division has approved rate increases for Blue Cross Blue Shield individual health insurance policies every year since 2004.

It is little consolation to learn that other states have encountered similar difficulties regulating these insurance industry behemoths that typically dominate huge market share in their particular regions.  This is a systemic failure, because state regulatory agencies are not given the necessary oversight and thus are not empowered to properly police the Blue Crosses and Blue Shields of the world.

Continue reading

A Much-Needed Conversation About America’s Economic Future

By Tracy Dingmann

There has been much talk about America’s economic future, but few chances for so-called regular folks to weigh in on what they think about it.

The regular folk will get their chance Saturday when the national initiative known as “AmericaSpeaks: Our Budget, Our Economy,” comes to Albuquerque as one of 20 cities to host and participate in an interactive National Town Meeting on America’s budget and economy.

When the meeting convenes Saturday, thousands of Americans across the country will meet in person to participate in volunteer-organized community conversations. Others will be able to tune-in from home to watch live video coverage online, participate in the discussion, and share their own priorities in an online forum.

About AmericaSpeaks

To sign up or to find out more, go to this site and click on “Join The Discussion” on the right side of the page.

The AmericaSpeaks forum was made possible by the generous contributions of a group of private foundations with diverse interests and programs, including The Peter G. Peterson Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

In a nationwide effort, the group has worked hard to reflect the authentic views of a large, informed, and representative group of Americans. The discussion will not be manipulated by any side or point of view, and will give the American public a real chance to find common ground.

In New Mexico, The Center for Civic Policy is just one of a wide range of groups that has been asked to participate in the process. You can read an interview with policy director Amanda Manjarrez here.

A Constructive, Credible Chance To Have Your Voice Heard

Suggestions and ideas raised at the conference will not just go into the ether. After June 26, AmericaSpeaks will present the priorities that emerge from the national discussion to Congress and President Obama, as well as the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform and the Bi-Partisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force. Find out more about what happens after June 26.

Contributors To Our National Debt

In talking about the national debt, one thing occurs to us – It’s impossible to look at our national debt without considering the conditions and circumstances that led us to it.

The Bush tax cuts for rich individuals and corporations were financed by debt and were a large contributor to our current inflated national obligation. It’s time to reverse the tax cuts and loopholes and make the rich and large corporations pay their fair share.

Two unfunded and protracted wars have also been large contributors to our national deficit.

What To Do?

The nation’s top economists agree that getting people back to work is the necessary solution we need to ensure economic recovery and put America on the path to a sustainable economic future.

In the short term, we must allow – no, demand – that lawmakers use all the tools necessary to create jobs and protect the public and victims of the current recession.

Health care reform was a necessary step towards addressing our nations skyrocketing health care costs. The reforms passed this year are projected to reduce the deficit by $143 billion over the next 10 years.

Cutting unemployment benefits, education and Medicaid funding for states is the wrong thing to do. It will not only cut jobs but will unfairly attempt to balance our fiscal problems on backs of the middle class and the poor.

Join Us

Come join us in person or online Saturday for a productive and constructive national conversation!

Why We Need To Keep Higher Education Strong In New Mexico

By Tracy Dingmann

Critics of New Mexico’s government spending often point to the state’s higher education system as Exhibit A in their argument that state government spends too much and does not spend wisely. New Mexico has too many colleges and universities offering too many similar programs – and closing some schools and consolidating or scaling back programs at others could save taxpayers millions, they say.

In fact, higher education is a frequent target for those who like to complain that government spends too much. Nationally, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty made big news the other day when he came up with the (widely-panned) idea of replacing brick and mortar classrooms and teachers with “iCollege” courses that could be downloaded any time on a portable device such as an iPhone or iPad.

While it might make for an entertaining hypothetical discussion for some, there are several good reasons why eliminating or scaling back New Mexico’s higher education network would be a very bad idea for New Mexicans.

Higher Education Is A Common Target

First, let’s look at why so many critics of government tend to focus on higher education spending.

In New Mexico, a quick check of U.S. Census numbers from 2007 show it’s likely because that’s where the number of employees are highest.

According to the numbers, New Mexico had 11.5 state and local higher education employees per 1,000 population – ranking the state 2nd in that category among all states.
So why such a high number compared to other states? There are several reasons New Mexico is so committed to higher education and is compelled to provide more access to it than other states.

Continue reading

“Anchor Baby” Legislation Doesn’t Have A Chance

UNM Political Science Prof. Christine Sierra

By Tracy Dingmann

Anchor baby.

It’s a hateful term used to describe a child of undocumented immigrants who is born in the U.S. and thus an American citizen.

And it’s being used a lot right now by folks in Arizona who are working on a bill to deny U.S. citizenship to children born here – children whose citizenship is protected by the U.S. Constitution.

The people who are pushing this notion are the same folks behind SB 1070, the Arizona law that has sparked widespread protest since Gov. Jan Brewer signed it back in April.

It doesn’t matter to these folks that states don’t have the right to decide who gets American citizenship. It doesn’t matter that what they want to do would violate the U.S. Constitution.

Continue reading

Judge Reduces Damage Award in Arturo Uribe Defamation Case

By Tracy Dingmann

A Las Cruces judge today reduced the punitive damages in the defamation suit against Helena organizer Arturo Uribe from $75,000 to $10,000.

Helena Chemical, which originally won a jury judgment of $75,000 in April, now has seven days to decide whether to accept the judgment or ask for a new trial.

“I feel that as we go on, what’s happening in the case speaks for itself,” Uribe said in a telephone interview today. Helena had originally sought $300,000 in punitive damages and $300,000 in actual damages against Uribe.

Helena had sued Uribe, of Mesquite, N.M. after the father and community organizer raised questions in the media and at community forums about whether operations at the Tennessee-based fertilizer company were to blame for health-related problems in the community. A number of people, including Uribe’s children, had come down with serious respiratory problems that Uribe and others suspected were caused by the plant that sits across the street from the Uribe family home.

“I welcome a new trial ,” Uribe said Tuesday. “Look what’s happened already – they went from a $600,000 suit against my wife and my attorney to having my wife and attorney dropped and most of the case dismissed. And now the judge reduced the punitive damage from $75,000 to $10,000.”

Uribe said he would like to see the case put to rest for good, for his sake and for the sake of his community.

“Do we pay $10,000 and have me and other people in the community have to keep wondering –“What can I say now, without getting sued?”

Uribe says that if Helena does not ask for a new trial, he will appeal the $10,000 judgment.

When It Comes To Election Information, Don’t Rely on the Media…Dig It Up Yourself

By Tracy Dingmann

You may or may not have caught the news, broken by a national media outlet just days before the Republican gubernatorial primary election.

On May 29, Jeffrey Kaye, a Los Angeles- based reporter for the Huffington Post, reported that Allen Weh, the self-styled “small businessman” running for New Mexico governor on a strong anti-immigrant platform, was doing an awful lot of business with the federal government.

Specifically, Kaye’s story, called “For Immigration Crackdown Proponent, Deportations Mean Business,” revealed that Weh’s charter aviation business, CSI Aviation, had contracted for $218 million dollars worth of business in the past five years with ICE- the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement – for flying deported undocumented immigrants from America back to their countries of origin, usually Latin America.

In an election that – no question – rose and fell on the immigration issue, isn’t that something reporters should have uncovered earlier?

Continue reading

The Latest In The Fight Against Uranium Mining In Indian Country

Nadine Padilla

By Tracy Dingmann

The Native American communities around Crownpoint and Churchrock have been living with the toxic legacy of abandoned uranium mines for more than 30 years.

And for the last fifteen years, the only thing keeping new uranium mines out of Indian Country have been the two historic lawsuits filed by Native Americans who sought to protect their land and groundwater from being contaminated by the mining process.

In March, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver issued a final ruling in one of the suits, deciding that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does in fact have the authority to issue permits for new four uranium mines on the Navajo reservation. Late last month, the court denied the Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining group’s petition for a rehearing by the full court.

“It was a big loss for our side,” said Nadine Padilla, a Dine organizer with the Multicultural Alliance for Safe Environments, one in a coalition of Native American and environmental groups that’s been fighting the new mines for years.

The Legacy of Contamination

The court’s recent decision is especially hard to stomach, given that Native people in the same area are still living with the effects of past uranium contamination, Padilla said.

At least one new mine, in Churchrock, is scheduled to be located right on top of an old contaminated site which is already emitting levels of airborne radioactivity higher than what the NRC’s own regulations consider to be safe.

Unfortunately, the 10th Circuit ruled that the NRC does not have to consider old emissions when considering the impact of new mines. In the above case, it is estimated that the cumulative effect from the old contamination and the new mine will leave nearby communities exposed to radiation levels anywhere from 9 to 15 times higher than NRC regulations allow, Padilla said.

“This decision is a slap in the face to communities that are still living with contamination left after companies left town and refused to clean their mess, leaving hundreds of abandoned mines and radioactive waste,” said Padilla. “This devastating legacy of continues to haunt our communities, resulting in sky-high rates of various cancers, kidney disease, autoimmune disease, birth defects, and miscarriages.”

Water Contamination

Padilla’s coalition believes the four proposed mines – two of which are less than half a mile away from Crownpoint’s municipal water wells – would purposefully and irreversibly contaminate the sole source of water for about 15,000 people in the Navajo communities of Churchrock and Crownpoint.

That’s because the proposed mines by Hydro-Resources, Inc. (HRI) would use a method of mining known as in-situ leach (ISL), which injects chemicals into aquifers to mobilize uranium and pump it out of the ground.

The main chemical used in in situ mining is lixiviant, which is left behind in the groundwater after the extraction.

According to Padilla, research has shown that no ISL mine in the country has ever been successfully restored to its pre-mining condition.

After last month’s ruling, the groups who brought the suit had to decide whether they would continue to fight, said Padilla. The only thing left to do was to petition the U.S. Supreme Court – and the suit’s backers decided not to do that, she said.

“The Supreme Court has a history of dealing very badly with any Indian issues,” said Padilla. “It has voted against us in (the majority of)  the cases that we’ve ever brought, regarding anything – land, water energy – we’ve just always gotten an unfavorable response.”

If it happens, new mining can’t start until after the disposition of the other long-term suit. Known as the “Indian Country” suit, it was filed 15 years ago to force the courts to decide whether all of the mines are on what’s considered Indian land.

The mines are on a complicated network of Indian trust lands, allotted land and other land, and the court needs to decided whether state or federal government has the authority to issue the mining permits, Padilla said.

That decision could happen at any time.

A Constant Presence

In the meantime, the Texas-based Hydro-Resources Inc. keeps a constant corporate presence in New Mexico, maintaining an office in Crownpoint and attending meetings and court hearings on the mining matter.

Staffers have also been seen handing out frozen turkeys at the Navajo chapter houses at holiday time and passing out back-to-school backpacks to Navajo kids, Padilla said.

“They are trying to confuse people about what the real issue is, which is protecting the groundwater for all of our communities,” she said.

How to Win a Drug War: It’s a Good Thing Mexican Drug Cartels Aren’t the British Empire

The Mexican drug cartels are armed and dangerous.  And their business model is thriving.  They sell massive amounts of product in the U.S. – and U.S. arms dealers sell literally tons of weapons to the cartels. (Mexican President Calderon brought this fact to the attention of our Congress:  Of the 75,000 assault weapons seized by Mexican authorities during the last three years, over 80% came from the U.S.)

Indeed, the violence of the drug war is escalating – in Mexico.  Ciudad Juárez is the homicide capital of the western hemisphere. Yet, very little of this violence is spilling across the border according to the latest FBI crime stats.

Christopher Dickey in Newsweek on the FBI stats:

The FBI numbers show that in the midst of the supposed crime wave, many other cities in the Southwest have had declines in crime similar to Phoenix. El Paso, Texas, just across the Rio Grande from a ferocious drug war in Juarez, where some 5,000 people have been murdered in recent years, saw almost no change in its own crime rate and remains one of the safest cities in the country, with only 12 murders last year. San Antonio saw violent crime drop from 9,699 incidents to 7,844; murders from 116 to 99. Compare that with a city like Detroit, which is a little bigger than El Paso and much smaller than San Antonio—and not exactly a magnet for job-seeking immigrants. Its murder rate went up from 323 in 2008 to 361 in 2009.

Continue reading