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Economy Local Government Notable News Spaceport Tax and Budget Taxes Top Issues

Sir Richard Branson Should Pay His Own Way Into Space Instead Of Robbing New Mexicans

The following appeared on July 21, 2021 in The Federalist:

The world is in awe that billionaire Sir Richard Branson has finally accomplished his 17-year goal of achieving spaceflight. On July 11, 2021, Virgin Galactic’s spaceship Unity reached 53.5 miles above the Earth with a crew including Branson. They spent a few minutes in zero gravity and returned safely to the runway of Spaceport America near the small town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Congratulations!

The international scene is abuzz with this latest and undeniably impressive addition to Branson’s resume: but at what cost? Branson launched his flight from Spaceport America, a project initially conceived as early as 1992 when the Southwest Space Task Force was formed to develop and advance New Mexico’s space industry. The project received seed funding through a taxpayer-approved initiative in April 2007 when voters in Doña Ana County approved the spaceport tax.

Almost every year since, supporters of Spaceport America have announced the “upcoming launch” from their facility or the need for additional tax dollars to expand the Spaceport and its capabilities. To bolster their claims for additional tax money, Spaceport America commissioned a study by the consulting firm Moss Adams of Albuquerque. The study made headlines with the implausible claim that Spaceport America began producing net benefits for New Mexico as early as 2013.

In March 2020, the Rio Grande Foundation tallied up the total costs to taxpayers, determining that New Mexicans have borne a total project cost of $275 million, while revenues approach only $54.3 million for the state over the last 12 years. The vast majority of taxpayer-funded spending related to capital projects and nearly $10 million in operational expenditures. In fact, new information shows New Mexico shelled out an additional $1.5 million in advertising expenses related to the Virgin Galactic flight.

Branson is already a billionaire. Why are New Mexico’s politicians lining the pockets of these already wealthy and successful entrepreneurs through taxpayer-funded, industry-specific subsidies? The impact of corporate welfare disproportionately affects the economically disadvantaged, especially in impoverished communities like Doña Ana County and New Mexico as a whole.

In 2019, the state suffered from one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the corresponding economic lockdown of the past 15 months has certainly exacerbated our financial woes.

In fact, New Mexico trails the southwest in employment recovery. A recent report by WalletHub highlights the state’s 620 percent increase in unemployment claims, referring to the change in the number of initial unemployment insurance claims in the week of July 5, 2021 compared to the week of July 8, 2019. How can a state in this state afford to help send a billionaire to space?

Sir Richard Branson is now an astronaut. But from my perspective as a New Mexican and taxpayer, he sure seems like a wild-west robber baron, holding up taxpayer stagecoaches of the poorest state in the country to fulfill his personal vendetta of beating fellow billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk in the billionaire space race. He’s “Six-Gun” Branson, 21st-century robber baron, a stark reminder of our 19th-century industrial past.

In the end, his mission was accomplished. But Six-Gun Branson has only proven that he can launch his spacecraft from any airport with sufficient runway length. I’d hazard a guess that soon he’ll be riding off into the sunset while my fellow New Mexicans are left holding the $275 million bag.

Patrick Brenner is the vice president of the Rio Grande Foundation, New Mexico’s free-market research institute and think tank. An advocate for open government, he leads the foundation’s government transparency and accountability efforts.

Photo Hardo Muller / Flickr
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Notable News Open Government Top Issues

Thankfully, Anthony Fauci didn’t delete his emails like Gov. Lujan Grisham

This article first appeared in The Center Square on June 4th, 2021.

Anthony Fauci’s emails have been released, and they tell an interesting tale about the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. One particular email stood out to me from Fauci to Sylvia Burwell discussing masks.

Within the body of the email, Fauci asserts that the use of masks in a public setting is generally to prevent infected individuals from spreading a virus. More specifically, he writes that the “typical mask you buy in the drug store is not really effective in keeping out virus, which is small enough to pass through the material.” This email was sent on February 5, 2020.

If the drug-store masks are ineffective, why were they forced on the general population for over a year? Did masks help contain the spread of COVID-19 at all? What else do we not know?

But I’m not here to argue about the efficacy of masks and Fauci’s handling of the pandemic. I’m here to emphasize the importance of why we are able to have this discussion today: open government and transparency.

Without access to these documents, the country might not have ever known to ask these questions. This is significant as we can analyze the events in early 2020 in a new light. Most importantly, we can hold individuals accountable if they recommended policies that were known not to be effective.

Here in New Mexico, we have a different ongoing dilemma, one that is also rooted in transparency. Thanks to the initial efforts of Searchlight New Mexico, the additional whistleblowers that have come forward since the initial Searchlight report, and some well-timed public records requests submitted by yours truly, we know that Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and her administration are still actively depriving the people of New Mexico access to public documents through permanent and automatic deletion.

In January of this year, a directive from the governor’s office was implemented by the New Mexico Department of Information Technology: delete all messages after 24 hours. This directive came before the governor’s press secretary acknowledged the use of a creative new term: “transitory.”

The deleted messages were broadly considered “transitory” in nature, a definition that has already been debunked in the context of transparency and is not a qualified exception under the Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA), New Mexico’s government transparency law.

“Transitory” messages have been unofficially described as “employee banter, routine check-ins between workers and other insignificant exchanges.” The rub is that they’re all public documents and subject to inspection requests, regardless of whatever “transitory” qualification they try to apply.

Fauci could have used the same term to describe his seemingly innocuous email to Burwell about masks. What if Fauci had deleted that email because it was “just transitory”?

All this and the responses from Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office that there are “no records responsive to your request” underlines a seriously dangerous trend and contemptuous attitude within the Governor’s administration. The widespread and systematic “paper shredder” policy is nothing short of criminal.

New Mexico’s Attorney General agrees: “public bodies acquiring information should keep in mind that the records they keep generally are subject to public inspection.”

The governor’s press secretary Nora Sackett said that the governor takes transparency and open government “very seriously.” If that’s true, then Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration and all New Mexico state agencies should shed their cloaks of secrecy and immediately stop the destruction of public documents.

This is a clear assault on the people’s ability to keep a watchful eye on their elected government and should be alarming to everyone, especially those who care for our democracy.

And remember, democracy dies in darkness.

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Notable News Open Government Tipping Point Top Issues

CYFD’s “transitory” copout: the latest attempt to deny, defame, and delay

This article first appeared in The Center Square on May 24th, 2021.

As the far-left solidifies its stranglehold on all branches of New Mexico’s state government, more than ever we need an aggressive media and informed constituency to demand accountability in a system proven to produce abuses without. These abuses have never been more readily apparent than in the aftermath of a recent Searchlight New Mexico investigation.

In May 2021, the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department fired two high-level employees. Their terminations came after the two employees raised concerns about the agency’s recent shift to the use of encryption and the automated destruction of public records.

The department recently transitioned to the secure text messaging app Signal to discuss a wide range of official business, including the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the care of children in state custody. Officials asserted that they relied on Signal primarily for “transitory communications”. But what is “transitory” in the context of the Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA), the state’s public records law?

CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock defines transitory communications as “employee banter, routine check-ins between workers and other insignificant exchanges not subject to public records laws”.

However, the New Mexico Attorney General’s IPRA guide addresses exceptions generally: “Because of the presumption in favor of the right to inspect, public bodies acquiring information should keep in mind that the records they keep generally are subject to public inspection.”

Wait: I’m confused. IPRA itself makes no explicit mention of the term “transitory”. In fact, IPRA only mentions a few and very specific exceptions under select qualified circumstances where a record is not to be disclosed. These exceptions include matters that fall under attorney-client privilege, certain personnel records, health records, and “protected personal identifier information” such as social security numbers and birth dates, as well as a few others.

These are reasonable exemptions to protect certain information of citizens. What does this mean? It means that no government agency will turn over your social security number to a requester. If a record contains a social security number, the number is redacted. This protects the privacy of citizens.

And protecting the privacy of citizens in this way is a good thing. One of the greatest freedoms we have is the freedom from interference or intrusion, the right “to be let alone,” a formulation cited by Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren in 1890. Remember: transparency is for the government, privacy is for the citizens.

But CYFD employees are employed by a government agency. Do they have a right to privacy? In the conduct of their job, the law says no.

Obtaining public records from government agencies can be a difficult task. Sometimes the custodians are great people, they do their jobs well, and they make the request process easy. But other agencies put up roadblocks where litigation often becomes an unavoidable outcome

If it was already difficult to obtain certain records, what happens if the agency moves to a platform where text messages are encrypted and automatically deleted? That task is now impossible.

According to the law, these text messages constitute public records, regardless of how “transitory” they are in nature.

The New Mexico Attorney General’s IPRA guide offers insight to contradict the “transitory” qualification: “‘public records’ means all documents, […] regardless of physical form or characteristics, that are used, created, received, maintained or held by or on behalf of any public body and relate to public business, whether or not the records are required by law to be created or maintained”.

With CYFD setting a dangerous precedent, the governor’s office offered similar advice. “Every single text message that you send or receive likely qualifies as a ‘transitory record,’” the official guidance counsels. “We recommend that you delete all text messages which are ‘transitory records’ every ten days. You may delete them more often if you wish.”

This reminds me of George Orwell’s memory holes from his groundbreaking novel 1984:

“When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.”

Well, it’s 2021 and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the obligation to provide these records to requesters has not been absolved. Denying access to records, defaming those who stand up, and delaying a solution to the problem undermines the already troubled credibility of government institutions and their leaders.

Let us conclude with the most important question of all: why would records need to be destroyed if there wasn’t something to hide?

Patrick Brenner is the Vice President of the Rio Grande Foundation, New Mexico’s free-market research institute and think tank. He leads the Foundation’s open government and second amendment efforts.

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About Leadership Staff

Patrick M. Brenner, Director of Giving

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Local Government Notable News Open Government Top Issues

RGF Files Public Records Lawsuit Against City of Albuquerque

(Albuquerque, NM) – The voters of Albuquerque voted against Democracy Dollars in November of 2019, and the Rio Grande Foundation played a pivotal part in the defeat of the ballot measure. Furthermore, the Rio Grande Foundation won an ethics complaint against the Mayor for his use of the City’s website (CABQ.gov) in which he specifically called for voters to approve Democracy Dollars and other bond measures.

Almost six months later, the Foundation has filed suit over a lack of transparency and openness associated with Mayor Tim Keller’s decision to violate the law.

Specifically, the Rio Grande Foundation requested a reasonable collection of text messages and emails sent to and from specific City employees leading up to the posting of Mayor Keller’s pleas on the City’s website to vote “YES”.

According to the Rio Grande Foundation, the public records request was filed under New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records law and accepted by the City in December of 2019. After dutifully paying the invoice to receive the first portion of these records, the City of Albuquerque has failed to produce any records in response to the request from over five months ago.

Patrick Brenner, a Policy Analyst with the Foundation, filed the original request. Mr. Brenner has left no less than six voicemails and has sent dozens of emails and messages through the City’s open government portal imploring the City to fulfil its duty to provide public records.

On May 12, 2020, after exhausting all other avenues to obtain these public records, which includes receiving assistance from the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government when Director Melanie Majors sent a letter of complaint to no avail, the Rio Grande Foundation filed a legal complaint in District Court against the City.

In the lawsuit the Foundation alleges that Ethan Watson, City Clerk, and the Custodian of Records, Yvette Gurule, are creating artificial delays in order to delay production of these public records. Early in the process, the Foundation emphatically requested confirmation from Mr. Watson and Ms. Gurule that these documents were not being destroyed. To date, no such confirmation has been received.

The Foundation recognizes that the ongoing response to the Coronavirus pandemic may have caused delays later in the request process. However, the Coronavirus does not excuse any governmental body from its obligation to timely respond and provide public records requested in accordance with the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act.

Click here to see a copy of the lawsuit that was filed.

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Uncategorized

Taxpayer Protection Pledge

In an effort to protect taxpayers in the aftermath of the global Coronavirus pandemic, the Rio Grande Foundation sent a letter to candidates for legislative offices requesting they sign the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. The letter was sent as follows:

Dear New Mexicans,

As a member of the New Mexico Legislature or a candidate to hold that office, one of your primary goals is to help New Mexicans get back to work. This downturn has been driven partially by the economic shutdown associated with the Corona Virus, but also in part by steep decline in oil prices.

Whatever the cause of the downturn, New Mexico government plainly spent beyond its means in recent years and has plenty of spending to cut before tax hikes are even considered. While the economy remains largely shut down and the start of our economic recovery remains unknown, we do know that New Mexico’s economy faces a steep challenge that will not be assisted by tax hikes on businesses and other hard-working New Mexicans.

I want you to pledge to the people of New Mexico not to raise your NET taxes as a result of the current economic downturn. In practical terms, this means no tax hikes through the end of the 2021 New Mexico legislative session.

The candidates were asked to respond to the request and pledge to not increase taxes as a result of the economic downturn. For legislators and candidates interested in signing the pledge, kindly write to pledge@riograndefoundation.org and mention the Taxpayer Protection Pledge.

State Representative Candidates who have signed the pledge:

Dinah Glenda Vargas (R)

for State Representative District 10

Adrian Anthony Trujillo, Sr (R)

for State Representative District 11

Kayla Renee Marshall (R)

for State Representative District 13

Ranota Q Banks (L)

for State Representative District 15

Ali Ennenga (R)

for State Representative District 15

Antoinette Bernice Taft (R)

for State Representative District 16

Scott Goodman (L)

for State Representative District 17

Kimberly Ann Kaehr-Macmillan (R)

for State Representative District 17

Michael Eugene Hendricks (R)

for State Representative District 20

Paul Ryan Mckenney (L)

for State Representative District 21

Stefani Lord (R)

for State Representative District 22

Ellis C Mcmath (R)

for State Representative District 23

Robert S Godshall (R)

for State Representative District 27

Robert Jason Vaillancourt (L)

for State Representative District 28

Thomas Ray Stull (R)

for State Representative District 28

Adelious De Stith (R)

for State Representative District 29

Randall K Sobien (L)

for State Representative District 30

John L Jones (R)

for State Representative District 30

Steven Ray Penhall (L)

for State Representative District 31

J Scott Chandler (R)

for State Representative District 32

Isabella Solis (R)

for State Representative District 37

William Parrish Kinney (L)

for State Representative District 38

Rebecca L Dow (R)

for State Representative District 38

Luis M Terrazas (R)

for State Representative District 39

David E Hampton (R)

for State Representative District 43

Jeremy B Myers (L)

for State Representative District 44

Helen M Milenski (L)

for State Representative District 45

Jay C Groseclose (R)

for State Representative District 46

Gail “Missy” Armstrong (R)

for State Representative District 49

John Foreman (R)

for State Representative District 52

Ricky L Little (R)

for State Representative District 53

Cathrynn N Brown (R)

for State Representative District 55

Candy Spence Ezzell (R)

for State Representative District 58

Greg Nibert (R)

for State Representative District 59

Giovanni Coppola (R)

for State Representative District 68

Nathan M Dial (R)

for State Representative District 70

State Senate Candidates who have signed the pledge:

William E Sharer (R)

for State Senator District 1

John Stahlman Clark (R)

for State Senator District 9

Candace Thompson Gould (R)

for State Senator District 10

Michaela M Chavez (R)

for State Senator District 13

Mary Kay Ingham (R)

for State Senator District 14

Bill Tallman (D)

for State Senator District 18

Ryan Alexandra Chavez (R)

for State Senator District 18

John Douglas Mc Divitt (L)

for State Senator District 19

Gregg William Schmedes (R)

for State Senator District 19

John C Morton (R)

for State Senator District 20

Mark David Moores (R)

for State Senator District 21

James S. Williams (R)

for State Senator District 28

Gregory A Baca (R)

for State Senator District 29

Joshua A Sanchez (R)

for State Senator District 30

Crystal R Diamond (R)

for State Senator District 35

Kimberly A Skaggs (R)

for State Senator District 36

Joseph C Tiano (R)

for State Senator District 39

David M Gallegos (R)

for State Senator District 41
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Constitution and Criminal Justice Local Government Open Government Top Issues

Rio Grande Foundation sues City of Albuquerque for Open Meetings Act Violations

(Albuquerque, NM) – On Friday, March 13, 2020, the City Council of the City of Albuquerque announced that it would be holding a closed meeting the following Monday, March 16, 2020. At that meeting which occurred this past Monday, the Council amended its Emergency Powers Ordinance which has been on the books for several decades.

The Emergency Powers Ordinance contains numerous controversial provisions which, under New Mexico’s Open Meetings Act, residents of Albuquerque have a right to participate in with their members of the City Council.

The language of the Open Meetings Act is very simple. It states in part that, “…all meetings of any committee or policy-making body of the legislature held for the purpose of discussing public business or for the purpose of taking any action within the authority of or the delegated authority of the committee or body are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times.”

The Rio Grande Foundation asserts in the lawsuit which has been filed in New Mexico district court that the City has violated the New Mexico Open Meetings Act by holding a City Council meeting March 16, 2020 without proper notice and without conducting such according to the provisions of the Open Meetings Act therein violating the Due Process owing to the citizens of Albuquerque.

Furthermore, the decades-old Emergency Powers Ordinance to which several amendments were made is itself unconstitutional. The Ordinance gave the Mayor power to restrict sales of firearms and ammunition. These provisions which were not amended on Monday violate New Mexico’s Constitution, which states:

“No law shall abridge the right of the citizen to keep and bear arms for security and defense, for lawful hunting and recreational use and for other lawful purposes, but nothing herein shall be held to permit the carrying of concealed weapons. No municipality or county shall regulate, in any way, an incident of the right to keep and bear arms.”

Said Rio Grande Foundation President Paul Gessing, “The Rio Grande Foundation understands that we are in a crisis situation right now, but laws like the Open Meetings Act and our State and Federal protections on the right to self defense were intended for crises.”

The Foundation’s lawsuit states that both the Open Meetings Act and the long-existing firearms restrictions violate New Mexico Law and should be considered void.

Click Here to View the Complaint as Filed

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Audio

Paul’s July 18, 2018 Interview on KSVP Radio

On this week’s interview, Paul discusses:

  • Eddy County adopts Right to Work. What can they expect? Sierra and Roosevelt counties are considering Right to Work as well. What’s going on with them? Does Gov. Martinez support Right to Work? What is the State of New Mexico doing in the wake of the Janus decision at the US Supreme Court?
  • The issue of private prisons has suddenly become unpopular due to the furor over President Trump’s immigration policies. Is that fair?
  • Is New Mexico on its way to becoming like California?



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Audio

Paul’s July 11, 2018 Interview on KSVP Radio

On this week’s interview, Paul discusses:

  • The refinancing of the New Mexico Rail Runner Express train. Is this good or bad? Why did they do it?
  • Right to Work crushes it in terms of jobs in June.
  • San Juan County introduces Right to Work, but a great deal is happening on that issue.
  • RGF launches “Fact of the Day” project on free trade. Paul and Tim have a robust discussion of free trade and why tariffs could have an especially negative impact on New Mexico.



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Audio

Paul’s July 5, 2018 Interview on KSVP Radio

On this week’s interview, Paul discusses:

  • The brain drain is sapping New Mexico of its youngest, smartest people.
  • New Mexico’s unemployment rate has dropped hugely under the Trump Administration.
  • That said, if Trump continues with the trade war, it could have significant, negative impacts on New Mexico.



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