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letters, opinions, editorials

c. Greg Leichner

“Rethinking the P. R. C.,” cover art, by Jeff Drew, www.jeffdrewpictures.com

Reform the PRC

—Think New Mexico

New Mexico's Public Regulation Commission (PRC) touches the lives of every New Mexican who pays a gas, electric, or water bill, or buys home, auto, or health insurance, yet the agency has been in an almost constant state of turmoil since it was created in the late 1990s as a merger of the former State Corporation Commission and Public Utility Commission.

The PRC suffers from two fundamental problems. First, it has a broader jurisdiction than any state utility regulatory agency in the nation. The PRC is responsible not only for regulating the rates and service of electric, gas, water, and wastewater utilities, as well as telecommunications, but also for appointing the Superintendent of Insurance, who approves rates and policies of health, life, property, auto, and title insurance; controlling the market entry and rates of buses, shuttles, taxis, ambulances, and moving companies; registering for-profit and not-for-profit corporations and LLCs; regulating the safety of oil, gas, and hazardous liquid pipelines; regulating underground excavations that may affect buried pipes or cables; ensuring the safety of railroad crossings; and appointing the State Fire Marshal.

The second problem is that the only qualifications required for PRC commissioners are that they must be (1) at least 18 years old, (2) residents of New Mexico for at least a year, and (3) not convicted felons. As a result, New Mexico's PRC commissioners have tended to be less qualified than their peers in other states. For example, while only 11 percent of utility commissioners nationwide have less than a college degree, a full 44 percent of New Mexico's PRC commissioners had not completed college when they were elected.

To address these problems, Think New Mexico recommends making two fundamental reforms to the PRC. First, we recommend refocusing the PRC on its core duties of regulating utilities and telecommunications by:

  • Creating a separate Department of Insurance
  • Transferring the State Fire Marshal to the Department of Homeland Security & Emergency Management
  • Consolidating corporate reporting in the Office of the Secretary of State
  • Eliminating duplicative regulation of railroads by the PRC and DOT
  • Moving ambulance regulation to the Department of Health
  • Deregulating market entry and rates of motor carriers and ending duplicative regulation of motor carrier safety and insurance by the PRC and DPS.

Second, we recommend increasing the qualifications of PRC commissioners by requiring candidates to have either a four-year college degree or five years of relevant professional experience. This proposal achieves the goal of strengthening commissioner qualifications while being as inclusive as possible, since there are many New Mexicans who have not had the opportunity to graduate from college but who have worked hard to gain the skills and expertise needed to succeed at the challenging and highly technical job of PRC commissioner.

Think New Mexico will be championing legislation during the upcoming legislative session to place these reforms on the 2012 ballot for New Mexico voters to consider. Sign up for our email alerts and join our Facebook and Twitter pages to stay informed and get involved on this issue. For further information, visit thinknewmexico.org.


A brief history of Intel bonds in Sandoval County

—Barbara Rockwell

Many people think of Intel as the ‘crown jewel’ of New Mexico’s economy. Its apologists would argue that Intel provides a lot of jobs, but these jobs have come at a great price for the people of Sandoval County.

The first industrial revenue bond (IRB) for $2 billion was issued in 1993. It was a hot night in August, and the hearing in the County Commission meeting room was over in forty minutes. The bond issue would be purchased by an Intel subsidiary, thus saving Intel almost a half-billion in taxes. Not allowed to speak that night was Eric Schmieder, an economist who analyzed the bond deal for Southwest Organizing Project. He complained the next day in a letter to Commission Chair Joe Lang that “the vote to approve the Intel package was rushed and negligent…with no benefit analysis on the County’s part!” Schmieder noted that the County was committed to property tax abatement for thirty years that would cost the County $300 million. The second tax subsidy was the avoidance of the New Mexico Gross Receipts Tax, a break amounting to another $50 million from this one bond issue, which brought up another point from Schmieder: “The 30-year lease requires Sandoval County to issue bonds whenever it needs more funds, sort of a Bond Charge Card, with further, clear provisions in the lease for Intel to sue to assure County compliance with the terms.” The bond also gave a tax credit of one million dollars for job training.

Intel was back in 1995, this time with another application for an $8 billion IRB from Sandoval County, breaking the record of its previous $2 billion bond, the largest in the history of America. How ironic that one of the poorest counties in the country, Sandoval County, would grant IRBs to one of the wealthiest corporations in the world. This bond issue received all the same tax breaks as the first one, amounting to $480 million. This time around, some Santa Fe lawmakers questioned the deal, thinking the tax breaks had gotten out of hand. Their concern was that the $480 million in tax breaks over thirty years would deprive Rio Rancho of the tax base it should get from Intel to build schools, roads, and other infrastructure. Intel argues that New Mexico was competing against countries that completely subsidize their high-tech companies. Nevertheless, no doubt feeling the pressure, Intel responded by giving $28.5 million for the construction of a new high school in Rio Rancho. The offer was worth about one one-hundredth of the real value of the Intel obligation, and Intel knew it. Some state lawmakers still thought it was a “real bad deal.” The Wall Street Journal quoted these lawmakers in a front-page article that ran under the headline: “Growing Pains—Rio Rancho Wooed Industry and Got It, Plus Financial Woes.” The Sandoval County Commission held what was supposed to be three public hearings on the bond issue in mid-August. They shut it down after the first meeting, standing-room only, at the Courthouse. Presentation was done by First Albany Corp, a New York-based firm that was there to demonstrate the cost-benefit analysis of the bond. Their dog and pony show was ludicrous with slides full of spelling and math errors that even us local yokels could see right through. According to their figures, the State of New Mexico would gain about $165 million over ten years from the bond. However, even factoring in the one thousand jobs and the $30 million ‘donation’ for the high school, Sandoval County would lose $27 million in taxes over the same ten-year period. Intel was the one who would really make out with $455 million more in tax breaks over the next ten years, in addition to the $114 million to $250 million (depending on whose figures you used) in tax breaks from the first bond. Locals asked impertinent questions like “why does it take $455 million to generate 1,000 new jobs? That’s $455,000 per job!” a priest from Bernalillo, Father Bill, asked why this rich corporation was getting big tax breaks when his parishioners were struggling to survive. One viejo called the high school gift a “bribe.”

The $8 billion IRB went through in September. Economists from UNM had written to Sandoval County “It is our professional opinion that the First Albany report is so seriously flawed that it cannot provide a reasonable basis for decision-making.”

In July 2004, a study came out from the NM Bureau of Business and Economic Research that showed the 1995 IRB cost Sandoval County $15 million in 2002 alone. That comes out to $225 million over the fifteen-year life of the $8 billion bond, almost ten times the $27 million net loss originally predicted.

The very next month, the Sandoval County Commission announced a $16 billion IRB for Intel, the largest ever (again) in US history. The deal was made behind closed doors in violation of the State’s Open Meetings Act with Daymon Ely as the County’s chief negotiator. The IRB was replete with all the usual tax breaks, estimated at $2 billion. Intel agreed to pay $95 million in “supplemental lease payments” during the first fifteen years of the thirty-year life of the bonds. Ely wanted to use $16 million of that amount to purchase a locomotive and cars for what would become the RailRunner. Ely claimed to be “unaware” of the financial impact that the tax breaks would have on Sandoval County, only that his pet project for the state would benefit. 

Now it is 2011, and Intel Rio Rancho, for the first time in its thirty year history in New Mexico, will pay property taxes of $728,165 on property assessed at $38.2 million. They still don’t pay one thin dime in any other tax, including gross receipts—one we all pay. It will be interesting to see if Intel continues with its ‘charitable’ donations, the largesse it has showered on libraries, youth centers, and other community causes over the years. In 1997, the mayor of Belen, Costa Rica, visited Corrales and told us that Intel moved into his town with all the usual tax breaks from the federal government, but Belen imposed its own municipal tax. Intel took the city to court and lost. Intel responded by stopping all donations to local charitable causes. Mayor Alvarado said, “I have concluded that the principle reason Intel is so opposed to paying taxes is that they want to donate to specific projects that earn them good will. They want the appearance of being very generous, but without the obligation.”

One wonders, will that be Intel’s response in Sandoval County now that it has to pony up some property tax?

Barbara Rockwell is the author of “Boiling Frogs: Intel vs. the Village,” a fully-documented report on the environmental struggle between Corrales citizens and Intel. Available at Placitas Community Library.


[re: Placitas Volunteer Fire Brigade photo and article corrections

Wayne Jones’s wonderful historic photo of the founding members of the first Placitas Volunteer Fire Brigade which ran in the November 2011 Signpost was printed with a caption that said it was taken in 1972. Actually, it was taken a year later in 1973. The names of the people in that photo are currently being compiled. If you would like to see some of the names, stop into the Placitas Community Library or attend the Placitas Fire Brigade Reunion at 2:00 p.m. on December 3 at the Placitas Community Library for a panel discussion and photography exhibit.

Also, Bob Gajkowski’s article “Placitas History Project displays old photographs” that was published beneath the photo reported that a fire in 1962 that killed a man became the catalyst for the formation of the Placitas Volunteer Fire Brigade. The catalyst fire actually occurred in 1972.  —Ed.]


re: my iPod, my enemy

Dear Friends Back East,

I recently joined the ranks of those who move about wearing little earpieces plugged into their heads, expressions of “no occupancy” on their faces, lips moving soundlessly, and resembling the living dead with rhythm. Yes, I’ve purchased an Apple iPod portable media player, now storing virtually every song I’ve ever cared about (except for “I’m a Little Teapot”) allowing me to listen privately to my favorite pieces whenever I wish.

However, I’ve come to regret my purchase as my iPod has achieved a humiliating mastery over me. As I listen to it on my walks around Placitas, the totally engulfing sound allows the music to fill up my senses, rendering me heedless of all other things. I am dominated by rhythm, sound, tunes, tempos, melodies, and moods. It’s proven to be overly intense for my sensibilities.

On my first iPod walk, I was listening to Viennese waltzes when I found myself in the middle of the street, arms outstretched, facing backwards and confronting a hard-braking Chevy Tahoe. If his horn was blasting—and it probably was—I was unaware of it. Coming to a stop two feet from my person, the driver asked if I was okay; did I know who I was; did I know where I was; did I know much of anything? With apologies, I answered, “Yes sir,” and he went on his way with some eagerness. This experience was repeated a few minutes later involving a Toyota Prius. I thereby learned that I must never walk and listen to Viennese waltzes simultaneously.

On my next walk, I selected less spirited music, choosing a melancholy country western album of “she-done-me-wrong” songs. I avoided near-collisions, but a friend at my destination asked why I walked with such a slouch. He said I looked terrible—as if my wife ran off with my best friend, and I missed him; that I looked like a bug on the windshield of life; that I looked overlonely and underkissed. It was another case of iPod musical overload. And I don’t have the courage to describe what happened when I listened to “The Sound of Music” last week as I roamed the hills of Placitas except to say that my movements were reportedly unlike those of Julie Andrews.

Mighty Patrick, cat extraordinaire, has recognized that once I affix the earphones, there will be a complete absence of attention directed His way. Consequently, this morning He knocked my iPod to the floor and pushed it down a heating vent. I heard the ‘clunk’ and retrieved it. He glowered at me as if saying, “Boss, if I had opposable thumbs, that thing would be long gone.”

Suffice it to say, my friends, I have painfully learned that not only should I never run with scissors, neither should I ever walk with my iPod or use it in Patrick’s presence. Perhaps there’s a lesson here for you as you traverse the streets and sidewalks of the teeming east in search of pleasure. If you select an iPod, I suggest you first test drive it in the hallway with a friend.

—Your Friend, Herb


c. Greg Leichner

re: the way we were

Journal headline: Animal Control Officer pulls a knife on a Placitas speeder while showing him the salute on 165. Residents saluting the finger to people driving the speed limit at all on 165? Where are you people from?

More than sad, if you came here in 1987, is to watch Placitas implode from what it was in those ancient times, but here’s a glimpse: people waved to each other, neighbors knew one another and cared, and the Sheriff asked us to wave at his only patrol car because he was lonely.

It’s been five years, listening to nail guns pounding in the big developments, even on weekends, here in the west part of Placitas. It never ends because the people who put the developments in don’t live nearby. You folks living away from this area should count your blessings this Thanksgiving.

Placitas will never be the same, but you folks who come from somewhere else should think about why you want to make Placitas like the place you’ve run away from.

Please take responsibility for the changes you are bringing to community. Respect us.

—Chris Huber, Placitas Trails resident


Pearce’s agenda is anti-wildlife

—Scotty Johnson, Senior Outreach Representative, Defenders of Wildlife

For four decades, the Endangered Species Act has protected plants and animals on the brink of extinction. This act, passed by a bipartisan Congress, is the reason the icon of our nation, the bald eagle, did not become extinct decades ago. It’s why America boasts some of the most bountiful wildlife in the world and the reason sea otters, grizzly bears, gray wolves, jaguars, condors, and a host of other species still survive for the good of future generations.

The Endangered Species Act is also robustly popular with the public. A recent Harris poll found support across state and party lines, including: 87 percent who say it’s a successful safety net for species; 92 percent who believe decisions should be made by scientists, not politicians; and 90 percent, Republicans and Democrats alike, who agree the Act has helped hundreds of species recover from the brink of extinction.

This popularity may be the reason some in Congress—extremists like New Mexico’s Rep. Steve Pearce, for example—will employ the 2012 budget to weaken the act. It is a cunning, if not underhanded, plan. Rather than have an honest conversation with the public about how weakening the act increases extinction, they hold endangered species hostage to necessary government function.

Already Pearce has proposed budget provisions that would (unscientifically) block listing of two endangered species and defund the Mexican gray wolf program, even though it costs each taxpaying family less than one penny per year and is supported by seven out of ten New Mexicans.

In the bigger picture, Pearce and others will also use the budget process to gut funding for the government agencies that steward endangered species programs. House Republicans are proposing, for example, a 21 percent budget cut to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This is one of the most drastic cuts to any federal agency and will cause the outright closure of 128 national wildlife refuges. Similar axing is slated for other agencies that protect wildlife on our public lands, like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

With town hall rhetoric igniting flames like a burning oil rig, Pearce argues these cuts are necessary to reduce big government and to kick-start the economy. If Pearce really wanted to reduce federal spending, he should do something—anything—to eliminate the upward of $41 billion that oil and gas companies receive annually in subsidies and tax giveaways. But then, some of his biggest campaign donations come from Big Oil.

Moreover, if he wants to kick-start the economy, cutting wildlife programs is a fool’s first step. Wildlife and outdoor recreation are powerful economic engines. Wildlife-related recreation is a $122 billion a year industry, and the total contribution from outdoor recreation (including hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, hiking, camping, skiing, boating, and bicycling) is over $730 billion a year. This generates 6.4 million jobs and $88 billion in federal and state tax revenues. Activities on forest lands total $9.5 billion in annual retail sales, support 189,400 jobs and provide $1.01 billion in annual federal tax revenues. Wildlife refuges support 45 million visitors, generate $1.7 billion in revenue and create 27,000 private-sector jobs in local economies.

Soon Congress will start budget talks, and radical House Republicans like Pearce will use the fiscal 2012 appropriations process to advance their extinction agenda, deceptively holding our wildlife and the rural economies hostage to necessary government functioning.

We need New Mexico’s delegation to stand up to Pearce’s attacks. And, given the radical anti-environmentalism plaguing the House, it will be especially important that Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall champion a “clean” budget bill that ensures adequate stewardship of New Mexico’s public lands and wildlife.


Scams and the elderly

New Mexico Attorney General Gary King's office now offers an educational publication aimed at assisting New Mexicans identify scam artists targeting the aging population of our State. The Elderly Scams pamphlet is available on the AG's web site at http://nmag.gov/pdf/ELDER%20SCAMS%20TRI.pdf and at all outreach events.

One of the latest scams to come into the AG's office follows here as reported by an AGO investigator:

A ninety-year-old distinguished lady got a telephone call from her supposed grandson in Mexico asking for money. The supposed grandson told grandma that another man wanted to give her instructions about getting the money to her, but told not to tell other family members. Grandma wired $5,000 to Mexico and subsequently wired yet another $2,500. The victim of the Grandparents Scam resides in Socorro, New Mexico, and, although the Socorro Sheriff's Office is investigating, the money will most likely never be recovered.

Communications@nmag.gov received the following email from a daughter in Texas who is deeply concerned her elderly mother, who resides in New Mexico, is a scam victim. The daughter's concern is valid. Her mother is indeed a victim:

In July, my mother (83 years old) began receiving solicitation phone calls (two to three times per day) from a company in Arizona. When I asked them to remove her from their call list, the salesman became verbally abusive and proceeded to tell me that I had no business answering my mother's phone, nor could I make that type of request on her behalf. (I keep her number on the National Do Not Call List and have P.O.A.) I feel certain that this company (TV Travel LLC out of Glendale, Arizona) bullied my mother into purchasing their sales package after I returned home. She has asked me to investigate this matter for her, because the company has drafted over $800 from her checking account over the past two months and although she has verbally agreed to this offer, she has never formally agreed to the terms or the payments being drafted from her account. Is there any recourse that I can take on her behalf?

Red flags which carry concern in this email include

  • Scammer has the elderly mother's home phone number; an online reverse look up could identify her home address.
  • Bank account information is in the hands of the scammer; con artist can now draft funds at any time.
  • If the scammer has been "verbally abusive" to the daughter, chances are good the same has been done to the mother.

What can be done to protect the elderly mother from further victimization?

  • Close bank accounts.
  • Review all credit reports.
  • Change phone number.
  • Alert local law enforcement at first sign of danger.

Scam Prevention Assistance Offered by the AG's Office

New Mexico Attorney General Gary King's Consumer Protection Division offers a number of publications aimed at educating consumers, including: Don't get Burned: Your Guide to Scams, Foreclosure Scams and How to Avoid Them, My Right to Cancel, Car Repair Guide, Avoiding Home Improvement Fraud, and Fair Debt Collection.

Simple Ways to Protect Yourself from Scammers

  1. Do not wire money to anyone unless you are absolutely sure it is someone you know and trust. Once wired funds are picked up, there is very little law enforcement can do to retrieve the money.
  2. Unless you made the contact, do not give out your personal information.
  3. Do not send a check, cash, or money order to anyone insisting upfront immediate payment before a service is rendered and never give out your account information.
  4. When selling anything online, beware of anyone who wants to overpay and asks you to reimburse the difference.
   

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