House passes food stamp supplement unanimously

By Matthew Reichbach

The House of Representatives passed a bill unanimously that would take advantage of federal funds to shore up food stamp benefits as well as putting the rest of the federal stimulus funds towards Medicaid before the money reverts back to the federal government. The bill would provide $450,000 in funding for food stamp additions for elderly and disabled New Mexicans.

Rep. Dennis Roch (R-Tucumcari) said that his legislation, HB 18, needed to pass soon because the money would revert back to the federal government at the end of September.

“This cannot wait until January,” Roch told the House Appropriations and Finance Committee earlier Friday. “It absolutely cannot.”

The non-controversial bill cleared two committees before the House passed the legislation on Friday.

In addition to making sure that over $6 million in Medicaid funding does not revert to the federal government, the supplement makes sure that elderly and disabled New Mexicans receive at least $25 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funding, even if the amount of federal funding dips down to $16.

This will fund the program through the next three quarters.

Some of the money in the fund could be general funds that were in there to match with the federal funds before it reverted back to the federal government, Roch said on the House floor.

House Majority Leader Ken Martinez (D-Grants) expressed concern over using one-time money, in this case federal stimulus funds, to cover a recurring expense.

Gov. Susana Martinez used federal stimulus funds to keep the program going in June. Otherwise, the program was set to end by July 1.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where it must pass before Martinez can sign the legislation.

Odds and Ends

The House and Senate also both passed Public Education Committee redistricting legislation. The committee has the power over approving charter schools.

New Study: Food hardship afflicts more than one in four NM households with children

By Matthew Reichbach

Nearly thirty percent of New Mexico households with children said there was a time over the last year where they could not afford food according to a report (pdf) by the Food Research and Action Center, or FRAC.

The study found that the 28.3 percent of households with children in New Mexico experienced food hardship. This ranked 12th out of 50 states and Washington D.C. from 2009-2010.

The food hardship rate was 28.2 percent for household with children in the Albuquerque Metropolitan Statistical Area.

Both numbers far outstripped the amount of households without children who said at some point from between 2009 and 2010 that they could not afford to feed their households.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty used the report as a reason to criticize the New Mexico Human Services Department for cuts to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty wrote in a statement:

[The Human Services Department] has made a series of cuts to programs for low-income children and their families. HSD said the cuts were necessary because it did not have enough money. However, HSD recently admitted to the Legislative Finance Committee that it did not spend $10 million in funds it had available to pay for these programs in FY2011. Usually children participating in the TANF program receive $100 in August for school clothing. This year, when families are struggling more than ever to make ends meet, they are receiving half that amount. Over 30,000 children will be affected by the cut despite the fact that HSD has the $1.5 million needed to provide this help.

“The new data reaffirm what we’re seeing in our communities – that far too many people continue to struggle with hunger in these challenging economic times,” said Patricia Anders, a staff attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “It demonstrates, as if any further evidence were needed, that this is not the time to make our safety net weaker.”

In May, New Mexico was one of four states and the District of Columbia that cut TANF funds according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

At the time, the CBPP said, “New Mexico cut TANF benefits by 15 percent effective January 1, 2011, reducing benefits for a family of three by $67 a month, from $447 to $380.”

“The food hardship rate in New Mexico for households with children is far too high, demonstrating a significant need for increasing family access to federal food assistance services,” said Meghann Dallin, manager of the New Mexico No Kid Hungry Campaign, a project of the New Mexico Collaboration to End Hunger, in a statement released today.

Washington D.C. had the highest rate of food hardship among households with children at 37.4 percent. North Dakota had the lowest percentage of food hardship among households with children at 15.3 percent.

New Mexico’s rate is not atypical among states in the region. Arizona came in at 29 percent, Texas at 27.9 percent, Oklahoma at 27.6 percent, Colorado at 23.4 percent and Utah at 23 percent.

Breaking down the food hardship numbers for households with children by congressional district shows the 1st CD scored the worst with 27.2 percent, followed by the 2nd CD at 25.5 percent. The 3rd Congressional District has the lowest rate at 24.6 percent. None rank among the top 100 in the national, though all are in the top half.

The report found that six of the 45 congressional districts with the worst rates were in Texas, two in Arizona and one in Okahoma.

Martinez to fund food stamp extension with stimulus funds

Gov. Susana Martinez announced Monday that she was reversing a plan that would have slashed a food stamp extension that aids low income, elderly and disabled residents. The cuts were not in the budget that the Legislature passed and Martinez signed.

Martinez announced that the extension would be funded by the use of discretionary stimulus funds from the federal government. The funds will extend the program through September.

Martinez blamed the state legislature for the funds not being extended.

“Not only did our executive budget recommend an additional $10 million in Medicaid funding, but we aimed to fully fund the supplemental food stamp program for the next fiscal year as well,” Martinez said in a statement. “Though the Legislature chose to advance different priorities, I’m glad that we will be able to extend the food stamp program through September and discuss ways for it to be funded in the future.”

The money from the federal government must be spent by September or the money is taken away. Martinez previously eliminated $2.6 million in federal funding that she did not believe would be spent in time. That was money allocated by former Gov. Bill Richardson and will go towards, along with the food stamp extension, gas for state police.

The extension will continue the program where the minimum amount of food stamp benefits for elderly and disabled residents is $25 per month. The federal minimum is $16 per month, so the state covers the $9 extra per month in New Mexico.

Martinez also said that her line-item vetoes of the budget have cleared enough money to fund the program with state funds going forward. However, some of her line item vetoes are the subject of a lawsuit that seems destined for a date with the state Supreme Court. In one case, Martinez line item vetoed a single digit, turning a $150,000 appropriation to the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority into a $50,000 appropriation. Lawmakers contend this oversteps her constitutional authority as governor.

Martinez has not had much luck with the state’s high court, losing three rulings including one on slashing regulations and another on her decisions involving the state labor board. The state ruled unanimously that Martinez exceeded her authority in removing two members of the Public Employee Labor Relations Board.

Public employee unions have been the target of Republican governors throughout the nation, most notably in Wisconsin and Ohio.

Martinez hinted that the issue of funding this program could come during the special session for redistricting that will be held in the fall. Martinez has already said that the controversial issue of letting those in the country illegal get drivers licenses will be on the call for the special session.

Youth Shine at Community Pride Day!

A Clearly Guest Post by Anthony Fleg

Albuquerque – In the heart of the International District, one-hundred and fifty people gathered for “Community Pride Day: Our Food, Our Community” Wednesday evening at Van Buren Middle School.

Though many community leaders and elected officials were in attendance, it was an evening for them to listen, an evening to celebrate youth as they presented the projects they have worked on through the Citizen Schools afterschool program at Van Buren.

One group worked on understanding the stories and meaning behind the foods we eat. Kathy Rojo, a 6th grader at Van Buren, presented to the crowd on the importance of understanding new cultures through food. “We are trying new things, learning about all of the foods eaten here in the International District,” she said proudly. Her group provided and served a potluck for the celebration.

Laura Musumi, the teacher for the class and a staff member at Citizen Schools, said that her idea for this class started with a love of food. “We have so much diversity in this community, and we tried to show how you can find common ground with others through something as simple as food.”

A second group worked on community outreach, and after walking the neighborhood, decided that they would do something about the conspicuous piles of large trash items (e.g. furniture).

“Tonight, we are asking everyone here to join us in launching the Clean Community Campaign,” said Van Buren student Michael Rodriquez. The Campaign asks citizens to pledge that they will work hard to keep the community clean, including a promise not to pile trash in public spaces.

And if that wasn’t enough, the youth also created an “Inner Beauty Pageant,” with collages reflecting their unique talents and showing off their families.

One of the Citizen Schools teachers, Joanne Landry, explained, “There is so much inner hatred, so we wanted to create an opportunity for the youth to see their inner beauty…for some, I think this was the first time that they saw themselves in this way.”

Citizen Schools is a national organization that provides free afterschool programs for students in Title I schools, schools where many of the families live at or below the poverty line. Many of the teachers are volunteers from the community who have a desire to share a specific skill with students.

Joanne Landry, who also serves as a minister at the Interfaith Bible Church and as president of the Trumball Neighborhood Association (both of which served as co-sponsors for the event) says that the community outreach class was a way for her to share her passion for public service with the youth.

Alayna Bowman, serving as a teacher liaison for Citizen Schools, was all smiles as she helped the youth clean up after the event.

“The teamwork and leadership we saw here tonight was something special,” she beamed, noting that she and her staff are already looking for more volunteers to teach this spring’s classes.

Maybe the evening was summed up best by City Councilman Rey Garduno’s comment, amidst the chatter of excited students preparing their presentations and families meeting one another.

“The noise of inclusiveness…you can see it, you can feel it here tonight,” he said.

“Dr. No” Should Say No To Regressive Taxation

Would taking the controversial and contested food tax out of the House omnibus bill doom the tentative budget deal currently under way – and force legislators to have to meet for a second special session?

That’s what Sen. Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith told the New Mexico Independent today as legislators met for their third day of the special budget-only session.

Smith told the news site that if the food tax is taken out of the House bill or amended in any way, it could torpedo the legislature’s chances of approving a budget during this special session.

Besides spooking legislators, Smith’s threat brings about a worst–case scenario that strikes fear into the hearts of New Mexicans who just want to see a budget deal cut.

But how credible is it…and why is Smith insisting on levying a food tax on New Mexicans while steadfastly refusing to consider closing the tax loophole that allows out-of-state corporations to avoid paying their fair share?

It is no secret that Smith strongly supports reinstating the food tax, which would impose a gross receipts tax on all food items.  He introduced the bill calling for it in this session as well as during the last regular session.

But the food tax is problematic for so many reasons – not the least being that studies show that poor and working families spend a larger percentage of their income on food, and thus would be disproportionately affected by the tax.

Because of their disproportionate effect on the poor, food taxes fall into the category of so-called “regressive” taxes.

In fact, with the food tax and a proposed increase in the overall gross receipts (sales) tax, the entire omnibus bill put forth by legislators places a unduly regressive burden on New Mexico’s lower-income families.

Check out what the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy had to say about New Mexico’s omnibus bill here.

Smith, who is calling all of the shots in the Senate during this session as head of the powerful Finance Committee, refuses to consider the significant amount of revenue that could be raised by instituting more “progressive” taxes, or ones that require those who earn more to pay their fair share.

Take combined reporting, which would require large companies who do business in New Mexico to pay taxes on income they make in New Mexico. Can you believe the state’s tax code currently allows those companies to avoid doing just that?

According to Sen. Peter Wirth, who introduced a combined reporting bill in the regular session and again in the current special session, implementing the measure could painlessly generate millions of dollars for the state coffers.

Don’t be fooled by Smith’s threats. It’s still not too late for legislators to throw out the food tax and adopt more progressive methods of taxation to benefit all New Mexicans.

Tortilla Tax Tabled

SB 10, the so-called tortilla tax proposed by Democratic Sen. Bernadette Sanchez, was unanimously tabled today in a key House committee – but not before Sanchez said she considered exempting tortillas from the controversial tax.

Sanchez’s proposal to tax all food items not included on the list used by the state’s Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC) had been widely criticized by a broad array of groups, many of whom testified at today’s House Business and Industry Committee.

Advocates for the poor said the tax was “punitive” and would unfairly impact the poor.  Retailers said it would be too difficult and bad for their business to impose the tax. Advocates for those who live in rural areas noted that the non-taxed foods were often not even available in their areas. Advocates for a fair tax system said the legislature has many other ways to raise taxes without disproportionately affecting the poor.

Before hearing from the many who opposed it, Sanchez tried to explain the reasoning behind the bill, saying she had worked with state tax officials to craft the plan and saying it was meant to encourage healthy eating.

She said that after hearing the uproar over the tax, she had briefly considered exempting tortillas from her proposal.

In the end, members of the committee declined any comment on the bill, voting instead to table it.

That doesn’t mean the bill is dead – it could pop up again in the waning days of the session as part of another revenue plan.

The legislature has a number of revenue options available that could raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the state, including making the rich pay their fair share and implementing combined reporting, which would make out-of-state businesses pay taxes on income made in New Mexico.

The session ends Thursday at noon.

The Food Tax: It’s The Only One They Like

Senator John Arthur Smith

A new proposal to levy a deeply-flawed food tax on New Mexicans received no public input today upon its introduction in a key Senate committee.

Senate Bill 10, sponsored by Sen. Bernadette Sanchez, (D-Alb), would reapply the state gross receipts tax on many food items, including white bread, flour tortillas and pasta and macaroni made with white flour, as well as potatoes, canned soup, butter, honey, yogurt and nuts.

Only foods defined by the NM Women, Infants and Children program, including fresh or frozen meat, poultry or fish “with no additional ingredients or only minimal additional ingredients” would continue to be exempt from the gross receipts tax.

Since it surfaced yesterday, the food tax proposal has been met with anger by advocates for the poor and working families of New Mexico.

Today, Allen Sanchez, of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Churches, gave away 12,000 tortillas at the Roundhouse to dramatize how important and ubiquitous the simple flour tortilla is to New Mexico families.

Democratic activist and blogger Barb Wold weighed in today on the unfairness and folly of the tax as well.

The fact that legislators in the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. John Arthur Smith, (D-Hidalgo) allowed no comment on the controversial measure today, citing a “packed agenda,” puts this ill-conceived act over the top.

Will the legislators come to their senses by the time the session ends Thursday at noon?

Look, we all know New Mexico needs to raise revenues. But there are lots of other infinitely more fair ways to balance the budget. For example, we should be making out-of-state corporations and the rich pay their fair share.

Taxing New Mexico families who eat lots of tortillas is a wrong step in a regressive direction.

Donate Your Thanksgiving Cooking Oil So Others Can Convert it to Fuel

Picture taken from Divinedinnerparty.com

Picture taken from Divinedinnerparty.com

I just had to highlight this great idea that my friends at the Bountifuel Energies Cooperative and Re505 have cooked up (pun intended).

In case you haven’t heard of them, Bountifuel Energies Coop is a worker-owned cooperative that turns waste cooking oil into bio-diesel, and Re505 is our local hub for e-waste recycling.  Both of these organizations are helping to take our city and state into the next level of recycling and reuse of materials that many of us usually throw-away.

And what’s great about this action is that they are offering a place for us to dispose of all the oil we used to cook with during Thanksgiving, and then are showing the opportunity that waste oil poses as an alternative fuel.  Not only is this service being offered free of charge, but they are also offering up raffle tickets to people who donate to win prizes to some awesome places around town.

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Sugary Drinks and Sodas are NOT An American Value

There’s a commercial out now that depicts a feisty American mom bemoaning the fact that “Washington” wants to tax fruit drinks and soda.

“They say it’s only pennies, but those pennies add up when you’re trying to feed a family,” says the mom, as she unloads bottles of soda from her car.

The 30-second spot is one of two in heavy rotation sponsored by Americans Against Food Taxes, a corporate food and beverage trade organization that opposes a proposed Senate Finance Committee plan to tax sugary sodas, juice drinks and flavored milks.

Proponents of the proposed 3 cent soda tax say it could generate $24 billion in four years to help pay for expanded health care insurance for Americans. The tax would not apply to diet soda or real juice.

With its angry faux-populism, the trade-group ad, along with another that scolds government for thinking about taxing Americans for “simple pleasures that we all enjoy, like juice drinks and soda,” fits right in with the angry chorus of people who say such a proposal is just more proof that the government is unfairly intruding into people’s private lives.

Let’s not lose the facts in all the shouting.

An overwhelming chorus of public health researchers agree that Americans’ increased consumption of sugary fruit drinks and sodas over the past 20 years has been the single largest driver of the debilitating epidemic of obesity currently affecting millions of us.

Obesity – and its related complications like diabetes and heart disease – is a public health issue – one that costs Americans billions of dollars every year in healthcare treatment and insurance claims.

Most notably, the esteemed New England Journal of Medicine, in the scholarly article “Ounces of Prevention – The Public Policy Case for Taxes on Sugared Beverages,” issued a clarion call for increased taxes.

The article, written by researchers Kelly D. Brownell and Thomas R. Frieden, lays out the devastating toll of increased soda consumption and presents compelling evidence that raising taxes on sodas will decrease consumption and cause people to seek healthier options.

Simply framing the soda tax debate as an issue of personal freedom and an increased food expense for families ignores the staggering cost that soda consumption has on our society – check out how New York Times economic columnist David Leonhardt breaks it down here.

So please, don’t be fooled by the faux-populism of those corporate-funded ads.

Sugary drinks and sodas are NOT an American value.

Food Safety: It’s about time

Salmonella_typhimuriumLost in the commotion over health care reform last week, the House passed a bill to give authority and resources to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to recall contaminated food products. All I have to say is IT’S ABOUT TIME!

Under our current system, the food producers who expose consumers to  contaminated products issue recalls on a voluntary basis. Their actual track record has been more than a little concerning as we constantly hear about new salmonella outbreaks in products like peanuts and tomatoes.

According to an Associated Press investigation of FDA records, between 2003 and 2006 the agency conducted 47 percent fewer safety inspections. FDA field offices had 12 percent fewer employees. Safety tests for food produced in the United States had gone down by three quarters in the previous year alone.

The bill that was passed also includes major preventative measures such as providing the FDA with authority to work with farmers to create systems for better tracking of food-borne illnesses, as well as authorizing the agency to impose penalties on those who violate the law.

Some agricultural interests, along with those on the political right who trot out the usual “bloated government” arguments, are opposed to the measure, claiming that it is “invasive.” I would argue that providing a proper system for accountability and oversight when it comes to the safety of our country’s food supply trumps their ideological concerns. It’s in everyone’s best interest.

Today, many of us take for granted that the food on our table is safe to eat. We expect that someone has done their job to ensure that food has met certain quality and safety standards.  The notion that each year 5,000 people in our country die needlessly from food born illnesses, while hundreds of thousands are hospitalized, is simply unacceptable.

The value of our nation’s food producers is beyond dispute. Nevertheless, establishing a set of proper safety rules for everyone who takes products to market is not unreasonable. While this thinking might offend some, I believe that issues like food safety, healthcare, or the environment, are just too important to leave to the honor system of the private sector’s “profit first” mentality.