State Fair’s Casino Deal Raises Pay-to-Play Concerns (VIDEO)

Neighborhood and community groups are still in a state of shock over last week’s unscheduled vote by the State Fair Commission to approve a 25-year lease arrangement calling for construction of a new $20 million casino smack in the middle of Albuquerque. But it’s what Governor Susana Martinez wanted and so that’s that.

Somehow it seems that a slightly modified equation has simply produced an all-too-familiar result:

New Governor+Old Campaign Donor = Pay-to-Play 2.0

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here! What’s really important is, “What does Sarah Kennedy have to say about all this, huh?” Watch and learn:

Block pleads guilty to felonies, will resign

By Matthew Reichbach

Embattled Public Regulations Commissioner Jerome Block, Jr. pleaded guilty to multiple felonies yesterday. As part of Block’s plea agreement, he will resign from the PRC within ten days and never run for elected office again.

Block pleaded guilty to fraudulent use of a credit card and identity theft. He also pleaded no contest to embezzlement charges for stealing a car.

Block used a state gas card to rack up thousands of dollars worth of charges, sometimes using the card several times in one day. He also failed to return a 2006 Honda Accord after a test drive. The car was later found by police with several items linking Block to the car.

In addition to these charges, Block also pleaded guilty to three felony charges for violating campaign finance law and embezzlement related to campaign funds from his 2008 PRC run. Block won a five-way Democratic primary then sailed to general election victory over a Green Party candidate, setting the stage for one of the most scandal-filled short terms in office for any New Mexico elected official.

In all, Block pleaded guilty to six felonies.

The guilty pleas and Block’s resignation will save the taxpayers money. The state House of Representatives was already working towards impeachment proceedings against Block. During the special session, a subcommittee of the House Rules and Order of Business Committee hired former Assistant United States Attorney Robert Gorence to aid in the impeachment proceedings.

Rather than go through the impeachment proceedings, and probable trial by the state Senate, Block will resign.

State Attorney General Gary King praised the action today in a press release.

“Another important step was taken today in the prosecution of government corruption in New Mexico,” King said. “I congratulate my Government Accountability Division staffers for their good work and dedication in pursuing this matter.”

Politicians from both parties had been calling on Block to step down for weeks.

Tax Expenditure Budget: Does Governor’s executive order do the job?

By Matthew Reichbach

Senator Tim Keller

Clearly New Mexico spoke with Sen. Tim Keller, D-Albuquerque, about tax expenditure budgets. A tax expenditure budget would review all of the tax breaks that the state gives to different portions of the population — which adds up to around a billion dollars annually. The annual state budget is $5.4 billion.

A bill in the 2011 session sponsored by Keller that would require a tax expenditure budget, or a review of all tax loopholes and carveouts, passed both chambers of the New Mexico Legislature without opposition this year. The bill was then vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez. A similar bill, sponsored by former state Rep. Brian Moore, R-Clayton, was vetoed by then-Gov. Bill Richardson in 2007.

Earlier this month, Martinez issued an executive order where she ordered a review of the tax expenditures.

Martinez said in a statement when ordering the review, “A thorough account of the state’s tax system will give us a better idea of what works, what doesn’t, and what we need to change in order to encourage greater job creation and economic growth through our tax structure.”

Keller, however, said in an interview with Clearly New Mexico that the bill that Martinez vetoed would have been preferable to Martinez’s approach for three reasons.

One is that Martinez’s executive order is not as comprehensive as the bill Keller would have passed, so Martinez can “pick and choose which [tax breaks] to investigate and report on.”

Another is that Keller’s bill would have had the Legislature and the Tax and Revenue Department work together on the tax expenditure budget. Martinez’s executive order will only have the Tax and Revenue Department, which is part of the executive branch, carry out the tax expenditure budget.

“And the third difference, which is probably the most important, is that it’s not a law,” Kellers aid. “So that at any given time she can decide not to do it and there is no accountability if she doesn’t do it.”

Keller also noted that it would not be binding to when a new governor enters office, which will happen in either 2015 or 2019.

“So we’re looking at this taking place for a couple of years then going away,” Keller said.

Keller said he would likely not introduce the bill again. However, he warned that if the report to look at all of the effects tax deductions, exemptions and credits is not sufficient, “a [veto] override is always a consideration.”

Veto overrides are uncommon in New Mexico, though the Senate voted to override a veto of Gov. Richardson’s in the 2010 session. The attempt failed in the House.

At the time, The New Mexico Independent reported, “According to the Legislative Council Service, the Senate’s override vote was the first time that body had ever voted to override Richardson on legislation. The House of Representatives did it once, in 2004.”

Two-thirds of both chambers must vote to override a veto for the override to become valid.

So what will Keller look for to see if the report is sufficient?

“It’s got to be as comprehensive as possible,” Keller said. “There are 109 of these different carveouts, or loopholes, so we want to look at all of them and not play favorites.”

Another key part of a successful report would be to track the benefits of each of the tax breaks, for example, jobs created or looking at which segment of the population that is helped.

Finally, he says the report should “recommend actions” and make judgments on whether the programs “are worth the taxpayers’ money.” For example, he believes the report should list whether the program deserves to have more money put in it, kept the same, reduced or even eliminated.

Keller believes it is important to find out which of these tax breaks are actually useful to the state. “Over time they, in aggregate, become a huge amount of money that the state doesn’t collect in taxes.”

Without such a report, it wouldn’t be clear the effects of these tax breaks on the economy and the state will not be able to see which tax breaks are valuable to the state’s economy.

For earlier Clearly NM coverage of the tax expenditure budget:

Gov. Can Still Sign Tax Expenditure Bill For Maximum Transparency and Taxpayer Accountability – April 8, 2011


Major Transparency and Accountability Measures Head to the Governor’s Desk
– March 18, 2011

Getting Corped: Their Legislature at Work – Feb. 16, 2011

Why Gov. Martinez Should Support a Tax Expenditure Budget – January 24, 2011

Time to track state tax expenditures – April 21, 2009

 

ACLU files suit against SOS Duran over secretive investigation

By Matthew Reichbach

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico filed suit against Secretary of State Dianna Duran and Duran’s records custodian Christiana Sanchez over the rejection of Inspection of Public Records Act requests from media outlets and other groups.

The IPRA requests came in relation to the Secretary of State’s claims that 37 foreign nationals illegally voted in New Mexico elections and an investigation where Duran’s office turned over 64,000 names to the New Mexico Department of Public Safety.

The ACLU of New Mexico says that turning the records over to the DPS were “in an effort to shield the data that she had collected from disclosure pursuant to IPRA.”

Duran was grilled by legislators last week over the secretive investigation into the voter rolls which Duran repeatedly said is not to find voter fraud but to ensure the accuracy of voter rolls.

Duran rejected the IPRA requests from a number of media outlets and groups including the ACLU of New Mexico in both cases. Duran used “executive privilege” to deny the requests.

“These sorts of hit-and-run allegations are reckless and irresponsible,” said ACLU-NM Executive Director Peter Simonson in a statement. “Without offering any proof, the Secretary of State has undermined the public’s confidence in our elections system while hiding the evidence for her claims behind the cloak of executive privilege.”

Director of the New Mexico Bureau of Elections Bobbi Shearer said in March, “There’s evidence that they’re in the foreign national database, that their name and date of birth matches, and their social security number in our data is not valid, and that they did cast votes.”

The next day, the ACLU filed an IPRA request where the group requested “All records pertaining to possible voter fraud and/or any irregularities noted in the master list of registered voters in New Mexico involving foreign nationals.”

The Secretary of State’s office claimed the records that were obtained from the Motor Vehicles Division were exempt from IPRA requests because of the Drivers Protection Privacy Act and the New Mexico Driver Protection Privacy Act.

Heath Haussamen of NMPolitics.net wrote about Duran’s refusal to release any records, even those that were public records, like voter registration forms. Haussamen spoke to Sarah Welsh, the executive director of the open government group New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.

For starters, she said, it “doesn’t make any sense” to say that a law that makes MVD records confidential “somehow makes voter registrations confidential.”

“They’re public records,” Welsh said. “Under any other circumstances they would be public records.”

Welsh also said it’s concerning any time a government agency claims executive privilege because it’s “a nebulous” claim. She said the redactions in e-mails provided to the ACLU and me “don’t seem to fit under FOG’s view of executive privilege.” She also said it “stands in contrast to” the executive order Gov. Susana Martinez issued detailing how her administration would and would not use executive privilege.

The lawsuit also says that the idea for checking the voter rolls came from Colorado elections director Judd Choate. Choate e-mailed Duran’s office in March.

The e-mail from Mr. Choate stated that on March 8, 2011, the Colorado Secretary of State would hold a news conference to discuss legislation under consideration in the Colorado House that would allow the Colorado Department of State to spot check and investigate voter registrations for the possibility that non-citizens are 1) currently registered to vote, 2) are being accidentally registered to vote, or 3) are willfully seeking to register in violation of both state and potentially federal law. In addition, simultaneous with this press conference, the Colorado Department of State planned to issue a report outlining the research they had undertaken to determine if there were persons currently registered to vote who may not be U.S. citizens. Mr. Choate concluded by stating that “I wanted to warn you that this report will be issued in case it becomes a national story requiring that you address the issue relative to your state.”

“It is disappointing that our Secretary of State would go to such extraordinary lengths to hide important public records from New Mexicans,” said ACLU-NM Staff Attorney Alexandra Freedman Smith in a statement. “Governor Martinez promised that her administration would usher in a new era of openness and transparency in New Mexico government. It’s a shame that Diana Duran does not share the governor’s commitment.”

Upon entering office, Susana Martinez signed an executive order limited the use of executive privilege in her office. Duran is not part of Martinez’s office and is not subject to the executive order.

Interim Watch: Unemployment Insurance Fund (In)Solvency

By Charlotte Chinana

The Legislative Finance Committee met in Socorro Thursday to hear not only the latest projections for state revenues, but also the status of the unemployment insurance fund in the wake of Governor Martinez’s partial veto earlier this year of legislation that would have fixed the problem. A panel presentation on the subject pretty much says it all:  “Unemployment Insurance – Where are we headed in 2012? Insolvency, Federal Loans and Employer Contribution Increases.”

Celina Bussey, Cabinet Secretary for the Workforce Solutions Department (WSD), gave a detailed presentation about the unemployment outlook for New Mexico.

According to her office, as of May, the state’s average unemployment rate was 6.9%, and it has been steadily declining over a three-month period.

However, while the overall certified unemployment insurance claims have decreased during that period (from approximately 66,000 to 36,000), the state isn’t seeing a similar overall decline in initial claims being filed on a weekly basis. Moreover, there is a gap between people who are unemployed, and people who are unemployed and collecting unemployment benefits.

Secretary Bussey stated that, since the state trends tend to mirror federal trends – with a lag – there’s a concern that we might see an uptick in the unemployment rate in New Mexico.

Officials from WSD highlighted the fact that unemployment compensation payments have more than doubled by fiscal quarter since 2009, and that during peak periods (over the past two years) daily payments have hit the $1 million dollar mark. While the state had projected to pay out approximately $16 million in benefits for the 2011 fiscal year, the actual figure was closer to $17.2 million.

To address this shortfall, the state is looking into various scenarios, including increasing employer contributions, and taking out a loan from the U.S. Department of Labor). In addition, changes are to the reporting system are being contemplated to identify potential instances of overpayment, while ensuring that work search requirements are being met.

Continue reading

Legality of Actions Questioned: Duran grilled over voter file examination (UPDATED)

By Matthew Reichbach

Secretary of State Dianna Duran

Secretary of State Dianna Duran was grilled by lawmakers at an interim Courts, Corrections and Justice hearing Friday morning. The main topic of discussion was Duran’s decision to send tens of thousands of names that her office says are potentially fraudulent to the Department of Public Safety (DPS), or state police.

Duran repeatedly denied that she was looking for voter fraud throughout the hearing and said numerous times that she is merely trying to ensure “accuracy in the voter files.” Duran blamed the media for stoking the flames of people believing she is looking for voter fraud.

Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, questioned the legality of sending over 60,000 names on the voter file to the Department of Public Safety instead of referring it to the Attorney General or District Attorneys with jurisdiction in the area.

Chasey quoted section 1-2-1(3) of state election code which says the Secretary of State should “through the attorney general or the district attorney having jurisdiction, bring such actions as deemed necessary and proper for the enforcement of the provisions of the Election Code.”

Chasey also said, “It doesn’t appear to me that DPS should be allowed [under the law] to have social security numbers. That’s my issue on transparency and I don’t think that we want to invade people’s privacy.” Chasey cited 1-4-5(E) in the election code which says:

“It is unlawful for the qualified elector’s date of birth or any portion of the qualified elector’s social security number required on the certificate of registration to be copied, conveyed or used by anyone other than the person registering to vote, either before or after it is filed with the county clerk, and by elections administrators in their official capacity.”

Other legislators wondered why Duran did not send the information to county clerks. Duran said that it was a lot of information and that they are not yet at the step in the process where county clerks will be involved. “We are working closely with them,” Duran said, but added that the clerks will receive the information when the names have been categorized.

When asked, Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who oversees the elections in the state’s most populous county, whether it would have been overly burdensome if the Secretary of State’s office had come to her before sending the information to the DPS, Toulouse Oliver told Clearly New Mexico, “Absolutely not.” Continue reading

Groups to take Martinez administration to court over building code rollback

By Matthew Reichbach

The New Mexico Environmental Law Center announced Monday that a group including small businesses and energy efficiency groups are challenging the rollback of energy conservation building codes.

The action comes a month after the State Construction Industries Commission voted 7-1 to roll back the energy efficiency building codes.

Clearly New Mexico reported on the June 10 vote to roll back the energy efficiency building codes to the levels that they were at in 2009, the lowest possible to still receive funding from the Department of Energy.

“The Construction Industries Commission and the Construction Industries Division appear to have taken this action despite the absence of evidence supporting repeal of the energy conservation codes” said NMELC attorney and Executive Director Douglas Meiklejohn in a statement Monday. “We hope that the Court of Appeals will determine that decisions such as these must be supported by evidence in the record.”

One bone of contention is the process used to vote on the building codes.

Shrayas Jatkar of the Sierra Club New Mexico said in the public comment portion of the Construction Industries Commission meeting last month that there was a “stark difference” between the process used to roll back the building codes and the process that led to the building codes changes in December of 2010.

“It took 14 months to develop the code last time around and there were open meetings,” Jatkar told Clearly New Mexico in a short interview. The decision to roll back the energy efficiency building codes happened six months after Susana Martinez took office and replaced members of the commission.

The appeals were, according to a press release by NMELC, filed by NMELC “for Environment New Mexico, Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, Sundancer Creations Custom Builders, LLC, eSolved, Inc., and several individuals who supported the adoption of the codes promulgated in 2010.”

The codes would reduce energy use by about 20 percent.

Martinez’s administration said the codes were too costly for builders to implement and that would be passed on to property owners. The lawsuit says there is no evidence supporting the action that the Construction Industries Commission took.

“The Construction Industries Commission and the Construction Industries Division appear to have taken this action despite the absence of evidence supporting repeal of the energy conservation codes” said Douglas Meiklejohn, NMELC attorney and Executive Director, in a statement. “We hope that the Court of Appeals will determine that decisions such as these must be supported by evidence in the record.”

Drawing the Line for Justice: Engaging Communities in their Democracy

Center for Civic Policy

Once every decade, the process of remapping political boundaries for Congress, state legislatures and local governments takes place. The lines are adjusted to ensure that each district has the same number of people and, as a result, that each person has an equal vote and equal representation, as required by the Constitution.

It’s a process fundamental to our democracy.

In New Mexico, as in a majority of states, the legislature has the responsibility of adopting redistricting plans that equalize the populations of the Congressional and Public Regulation Commission districts – as well as those of the State Senate and House.

The Governor has an essential role to play. For any of these plans to go into effect, she must sign them into law. And she has the power to veto the plans.

All too frequently, the courts become involved. For example, in 2001, then Governor Gary Johnson vetoed the legislature-passed plans for Congressional and State House districts. A lawsuit ensued, and the resulting plan used during the 2000s was handed down by a state district court.

The landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) has been the cause for more court action in defense of minority community representation.

New Mexico felt the power of the VRA in 1980s when the federal court in Sanchez v. King struck down redistricting plans and the infamous “votes cast formula” that the legislature was using in lieu of actual Census population data.

Another legislative do-over was necessitated in 1992, when the Department of Justice found that state senate redistricting plan had created state senate districts in southeastern New Mexico that potentially fragmented minority voting strength.

A Time for Civic Engagement

Because these are the elected bodies that determine the policies to address the issues facing both our nation and state, the matter of fair and democratic representation has never been more vital with the redistricting process. An open and transparent redistricting process helps communities secure meaningful representation.

This is why the Center for Civic Policy is actively engaged in the 2011 redistricting process.  Over the coming months, the Center will strive to meet the following objectives:

  • Provide data, tools and opportunities for historically underrepresented communities to have direct input into the specific plans under consideration during the redistricting process.
  • Promote an open and transparent redistricting process — one that helps to ensure that those who are elected actually represent and are accountable to those who elected them.
  • Encourage the involvement of nonprofits, as trusted assets in New Mexico’s diverse communities, in raising awareness about redistricting.

 

Check out the Clearly NM’s Redistricting Accountability Project (RAP) resource page for a links to  of redistricting data and information. It’s a work in progress, so stay tuned. It will be updated frequently.

Martinez loses another Supreme Court case

By Matthew Reichbach
On Wednesday, Governor Susana Martinez lost another case before the New Mexico Supreme Court. This one involved the state’s high court telling the Governor that vetoing a single digit from an appropriation, in this case slashing a $150,000 to $50,000, overstepped her authority as laid forth by the state Constitution.

The illegal veto would have slashed money appropriated to the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority. Two state Senators and two members of the state House of Representatives filed suit to invalidate the veto.

“Today’s ruling is a victory for our constitution and the people of New Mexico,” Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Silver City, said in a joint statement following the Supreme Court’s decision. “The principle of separation of powers is the cornerstone of our government. The balance of power is equally divided among the three branches of government and the court’s decision reaffirmed this by preserving the legislature’s exclusive appropriating authority.”

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously against Martinez’s veto.

Reps. Luciano “Lucky” Varela of Santa Fe and Henry “Kiki” Saavdera of Albuquerque were also party to the lawsuit and the four legislators split the cost of bringing the lawsuit.

“The Court has now given guidance that the only way for the governor to prevent these types of excessive spending measures is to veto the entire amount,” Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell said according to Reuters. “The governor is hopeful that the Legislature will work with her to prevent such vetoes from becoming necessary in the future.”

This isn’t the first setback in the Supreme Court by the Republican 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.

Martinez defended her vetoes by noting that governors had previously used similar line-item vetoes. These were 70 years ago and were not challenged at the time.

The Supreme Court did not make a decision on another lawsuit that Martinez is facing over one of her vetoes. The lawsuit contends that Martinez’s line-item veto of the portions of an unemployment insurance bill that raise revenue is illegal. The six lawmakers filing suit against Martinez argue that the bill does not appropriate money and therefore cannot be line-item vetoed.

The Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and the Association of Commerce and Industry both backed the bill that would stave off insolvency in the state’s unemployment fund. Already most states in the country have seen their unemployment funds go broke.

Duran claims 10 percent of all votes could be voter fraud

By Matthew Reichbach

Despite no provable cases of voter fraud in recent New Mexico electoral history, Secretary of State Dianna Duran is turning over 64,000 cases of what her office calls potential voter fraud to the State Department of Public Safety.

Experts, however, say there are more likely explanations. The experts the numbers are likely due to a “list management problem” or clerical errors.

People frequently use different variations of their first names, she (Santa Fe County chief deputy county clerk and former state elections director, Denise Lamb) said, such as “Tom” instead of “Thomas” or “Patty” instead of “Patricia.” People aren’t always quick to report changes of addresses to the MVD, Lamb said. Frequently people mistakenly transpose numbers in addresses or Social Security numbers, she said.

But perhaps the most common problem: “County clerks face the decline in legible handwriting,” Lamb said. All voter-registration forms are filled out by hand, Lamb said. “I’m surprised we get as much right as we do.”

University of New Mexico professor Lonna Atkenson wondered why Duran turned the information over to the State Department of Public Safety instead of to individual county clerks to identify the problems.

One reason may be that Duran has made it one of her main goals to prove voter fraud. During the 2011 legislative session, Duran testified that 37 foreign nationals illegally voted in elections out of 117 who had illegally registered. Duran was speaking during a hearing on voter ID, a topic that Republicans have favored in recent legislative sessions but has yet to gain any traction in the state legislature.

However, Duran refused to release documents pertaining to the claims to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and a number of media outlets that requested the information using the Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA).

ACLU-NM director Peter Simonson told Clearly New Mexico that the documents were so heavily redacted as to be essentially useless.

“The redactions were so heavy that they don’t allow us to make any determination,” Simonson said. “The Secretary of State said she redacted the information we requested based on two issues: one, executive privilege; and two, driver privacy protection laws.”

Heath Haussamen of NMPolitics.net outlined similar problems and wrote in a commentary piece, “I’ve identified several potential IPRA violations stemming from her office’s dealings with me.” These included saying that the documents were part of an active investigation and so could not be turned over for Haussamen’s IPRA request.

Santa Fe New Mexican political reporter Steve Terrell wrote about not receiving any documents as well. The Secretary of State’s office used similar, if not identical excuses, as it did when rejecting Haussamen’s IPRA request.

Duran’s news came the same day that an opinion piece in Politico by constitutional law and election law professor at Loyola Law School outlined “the real victims” of voted ID laws.

The facts, however, say different. Most of these recent laws demand current, government-issued photo ID with an expiration date. Yet 11 percent of voting-age citizens do not have this sort of ID, according to reliable studies. The estimated impact on actual voters ranges from 1 percent to 12 percent, depending on the state. Even using the most conservative figure, this amounts to more than 1.6 million voters nationwide.

Some are hurt more than others by this. Roughly 18 percent of seniors don’t have the right ID. Only 5 percent of Anglo voters but at least 10 percent of African-American voters and 11 percent of Latino voters don’t have the right ID.

Previous investigations into widespread voter fraud have come up empty with incidents being few and far between in the state.

In 2009, Lamb helped catch one case of a realtor attempting to get an absentee ballot for her deceased brother. The same year an unrelated case involved a former judge from El Paso attempting to declare himself a resident of Sunland Park so he could run for a position as a judge there.

Gov. Susana Martinez campaigned on something that she called voter fraud but which could be more accurately described as a case of incompetence by a county clerk rather than any attempt at voter fraud.

“In all the years I have been doing this, I have never caught somebody trying to vote for a deceased person. It’s a terrible joke people make, but it doesn’t really happen,” Lamb told the New Mexican at the time. “In this case, we caught the attempt on the day it happened.”