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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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Heinrich coming for your gas heater, stove

The following appeared in the Albuquerque Journal on July 21, 2021. While the newspaper cannot include hyperlinks to the data used in the piece we have added those links here:

Natural gas is a clean and affordable fuel they use to cook, heat their water, and provide warmth in the winter. Millions of Americans appreciate its benefits, even if they don’t think about them.

Just because you don’t think about natural gas doesn’t mean radical environmentalists (including New Mexico’s senior US Senator Martin Heinrich) aren’t. Heinrich recently wrote in the New York Times that “working to electrify our vehicles, homes and businesses is a critical part of achieving economywide net-zero emissions.”

He’s pushing legislation in Congress and for funding in the “infrastructure” bill for “electrification” – which is really another way of saying phasing out or banning your natural gas stove, oven, and furnace and requiring you to use electric heat and stoves.

Sacramento recently became the 46th US city to begin “phasing out natural gas in new buildings.” It’s not just happening in California. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Seattle, Denver and New York have all either enacted or proposed measures to ban or discourage the use of the fossil fuel in new homes and buildings.”

Just a decade or so ago the Sierra Club and other environmental groups supported natural gas as a cleaner-burning alternative to coal. Now, Senator Heinrich – counter to the economic interests of the state he represents (New Mexico is a major natural gas producer) and against the expressed preferences of consumers who use such appliances – is pushing to eliminate natural gas.

The push for a natural gas ban is premised on the idea that we should replace fossil fuels with wind and solar technologies that put us on a path to “net-zero emissions.” Of course, we’re not just talking about replacing all existing electricity generation; just 10% of current electricity production comes from wind, solar, and geothermal combined. Experts say “electrification” would increase US electricity consumption by 40 percent.

To say the least, Sen. Heinrich’s “electrification” scheme will require astonishing amounts of new electricity generation (at great economic cost) not to mention batteries to ensure reliability and new transmission lines to distribute it. We’ll be the ones paying for all that new redundant generation.

It’s an even bigger problem considering the reliability and demand issues already facing the Western United States this summer and utilities’ (including PNM’s) difficulty bringing new “renewables” online.  

And then there are consumer preferences for natural gas, which for some reason get casually ignored. You will have to search far and wide to find an electric stove in your favorite restaurant. That’s because natural gas is superior to electricity for cooking on both food quality and price.  Banning natural gas in restaurants means you would be waiting longer for your favorite meal while also paying more.

Any serious push for “electrification” of our economy will require massive government subsidies (thus Heinrich’s push in the current “infrastructure” bill), with electricity reliability already an issue the reliability of natural gas can be a literal lifesaver.

We all want clean, affordable, and reliable energy. Natural gas provides all three. And while the US has been steadily-reducing CO2 emissions for over a decade, China now emits more CO2 than the rest of the developed world combined(that includes the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia). Sen. Heinrich’s forced-shift to all-electric in the US will be costly and won’t achieve the environmental gains he seeks.

The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.

 

 

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Las Cruces Sun-News column: New Mexico’s COVID-19 response failed on important metrics

This article appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News on June 27, 2021. With COVID and the Gov.’s COVID policies at last receding, the race is on to determine how effective or ineffective our Gov.’s lockdown policies really were. Our analysis is below:

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Santa Fe’s fake “Guaranteed Minimum Income” experiment

According to the Albuquerque Journal, The City of Santa Fe is among about 25 U.S. cities that will be experimenting with universal basic income as part of a pilot program funded through the Mayors for a Guaranteed Income project.

The concept of a “Universal Basic Income” (UBI) that replaces traditional, top-down welfare programs with a government-provided “basic income” has been around for decades and even received support from free market adherents like Milton Friedman and Charles Murray.

Of course, while there are “UBI” supporters on the political right, the idea is to REPLACE other government welfare programs with a “basic” income. Santa Fe’s plan fails right away on that point. In fact, the COVID pandemic has been a bit of an experiment with “real world” UBI. As millions of Americans lost work, government stepped in with “stimuli” and supplemental unemployment payments that have gotten many people used to the idea of government cutting you a check regardless of whether you work or not.

A second big flaw in this “experiment” is that the money will come from voluntary sources, not taxpayers. Funding will come from Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, a group called Mayors for a Guaranteed Income project, and the Santa Fe Community Foundation. Having “free” money pay for a new welfare program may SEEM like what the government is doing now, but we are seeing the cost via inflation. Donor-driven UBI as in Santa Fe is just a nice gesture by donors.

Finally, the third major inherent issue is that the money is being targeted to help 100 people under age 30 who have children and are attending Santa Fe Community College.

Targeting certain groups to receive $400-$500 a month is a nice idea, but it’s obviously NOT “universal.”

The problem with UBI is that when it gets through the political process, it will not resemble the theory supported by Friedman and Murray. Among other problems will wind up supplementing, not a replacing other welfare programs.

 

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RGF discusses hotel tax lien/lodgers tax w/ KOAT 7

Recently, RGF’s president was walking downtown and noticed the Hyatt Hotel downtown was completely closed to the public. Physical entry to the property was impossible and his phone calls were not returned.

Ultimately, it came to light thanks to an Albuquerque Journal article that the hotel was closed due to a lack of convention business AND that the City of Albuquerque had filed tax liens against several properties for lack of payment of lodgers taxes. The Rio Grande Foundation has expressed concerns in the recent past about lodgers taxesand agrees that reform is needed, BUT if the business is collecting the tax from its customers, they should be remitted.

Check out the story here and by clicking the image below:

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RGF’s latest at National Review: Stagnant New Mexico a Case Study in Why Economic Policies Matter

The following appeared at National Review on May 24, 2021.

The U.S. Census Bureau recently released population data showing how the population of America and its 50 states had shifted between 2010 and 2020. As has been the case for decades, Midwestern “Rust Belt” states overall lost representation, while fast-growing states in the Southwest gained seats (Texas added two and Colorado one). For the first time ever, California actually lost a congressional seat.

Yet overlooked by the national media in all of this was what can only be described as the impending creation of a population “donut hole” in the otherwise fast-growing Southwest — that is, my home state of New Mexico.

While Utah and Arizona didn’t add congressional seats as New Mexico’s other neighbors Colorado and Texas did, both states saw double-digit population growth for the decade. New Mexico’s population, on the other hand, grew at just 2.8 percent over that period. That puts the state on par with Vermont and just ahead of Maine, at 2.6 percent.

When neighboring Utah grows at 18.4 percent and Texas grows by 15.9 percent — and your own state’s population barely increases — there must be a problem. Hint: It’s not the weather. A variety of factors have been driving Americans to move from the Northeast to the Southwest, including the search of better weather. But New Mexico’s is unparalleled. It is sunnier than Florida and doesn’t have the oppressive 120-degree summer heat of Phoenix. And it really is a “dry” heat without the muggy humidity of Texas.

As if New Mexico’s minuscule 2.8 percent population growth was not pathetic enough, the details are even more troubling. Over the decade, New Mexico, a state with just over 2 million people, gained 103,506 people over the age of 65. Clearly, the state’s weather, inexpensive housing, and unique cultural offerings are attractive to a certain segment of retirees.

But over the same period, New Mexico lost 71,142 people 64 and younger, including 51,382 residents aged 24 and younger. This kind of population stagnation simply isn’t supposed to happen in the booming American Southwest. It is New Mexico’s slowest growth since statehood in 1912; and, to make matters worse yet, analysts believe that New Mexico could lose overall population when this data is collected again ten years from now.

Could New Mexico, with an ethnically diverse, rapidly aging, slow growing population, in some way serve as an early proxy for the nation as a whole? The United States population still grew by 7.4 percent over the last decade. How, then, did a state located right in the middle of the fastest-growing region of the country perform so poorly? More important, what can be done about it?

First, to begin to appreciate the extent of New Mexico’s problems, we must understand its lack of economic freedom. According to the Fraser Institute’s annual “Economic Freedom of North America” report, New Mexico is in the bottom quartile of U.S. states when it comes to the ability of its residents to keep their hard-earned money and face reasonable economic regulations.

All of New Mexico’s fast-growing neighbors are ranked higher. To be sure, this is notable but unsurprising: High levels of economic freedom are strongly associated with increased population growth.

New Mexico’s path to becoming the “sick man of the American Southwest” is complicated. Unlike California, another state with great weather and physical beauty, but terrible public policies, New Mexico has never been the “it” place to be. For its many flaws, California remains the country’s largest state in population, with dozens of the world’s most-recognizable companies headquartered there.

New Mexico has chosen a different path. Not only do we have no Fortune 500 companies headquartered here, but the state possesses only a few publicly traded corporate headquarters. Instead, since the end of World War II, New Mexico’s economy has been based on a combination of massive federal spending and a robust oil and gas industry.

Whereas California has numerous tech companies and their well-off employees to pay the state’s ever-increasing tax burdens, New Mexico remains among the poorest states in the nation. Of course, it shouldn’t be, but like California, bad public policy holds the land of enchantment back.

By any measuring stick, New Mexico is heavily dependent on federal spending. (According to WalletHub, it is more so than any other state.) Outside of Washington’s largesse, oil is New Mexico’s other major industry. Indeed, New Mexico is the third-biggest-oil-producing state in the nation. Depending on the year, it accounts for between 30 and 40 percent of the state’s budget.

One might expect that having two national nuclear labs — along with their highly educated and well-paid employees — would be a ticket to economic prosperity. Add, too, the billions of dollars in annual tax payments and the jobs and economic activity they bring, and it would seem to most outsiders that New Mexico should be the richest state in the region.

But it turns out that having sound, free-market public policies trumps massive federal “investment” and natural-resource wealth. New Mexico’s lack of economic freedom is a direct result of the state’s political leadership not wanting to do the hard work of adopting the free-market policies that would make New Mexico competitive with its neighbors.

It doesn’t have to be this way. With its excellent weather and numerous outdoor and cultural activities, New Mexico remains well-positioned for growth in the years ahead. The state’s fate ultimately lies with the voters who have to decide to elect politicians to the legislature and governor’s mansion who are prepared to enact the free-market policies on which growth depends.

The same is true for New Mexico as it is for California and various other states. Until a concerted effort is made to make the state more attractive as a relocation destination for businesses, it will continue on the same unhappy trajectory. Shedding ourselves of our unseemly title will require dramatic leadership changes. The only outstanding question is whether we’re willing to make it.

PAUL GESSING is president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation

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New Mexico Special Election Could Further Reduce Pelosi’s House Majority

The following appeared at National Review on May 4, 2021.

national-review-logo | Jennifer C. Braceras

Nancy Pelosi’s majority in the House of Representatives continues to shrink. The recent swearing-in of Republican Julia Letlow of Louisiana has taken the House Democrats’ majority down to 218–212. This means that Pelosi has a mere two-vote governing majority with which to push the Biden administration’s big-government agenda.

The GOP will soon have another chance to reduce Pelosi’s margin for error when voters in New Mexico’s first congressional district (which includes Albuquerque and its environs) go to the polls to elect a replacement for Biden’s newly minted secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, a Democrat. Early voting begins today, while Election Day itself is June 1.

The district is classified by many in the national media as a “blue” district that should safely remain in Democratic hands, and as recently as November 2020, Haaland defeated Republican challenger Michelle Garcia Holmes by an overwhelming 58–42 percent margin. The seat was previously held by New Mexico’s current Democratic governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, and before that, now–senator Martin Heinrich, also a Democrat.

But Republicans have faced challenges in candidate recruitment in recent years in this congressional district. The last time they had a truly top-notch challenger was in 2010, when Jon Barela lost just 52–48 to Martin Heinrich, and in 2009 Heather Wilson, a Republican, held the seat, having done so for a decade. With this race being the sole topic of a special election and so much at stake in Washington, this could be a much more interesting contest than outsiders expect.

The candidates to replace Haaland could not be more different. While there is a serious independent contender and the Libertarians technically have major-party status, the Republican and Democrat contenders are state legislators with long histories of voting on important policy issues. Republican senator Mark Moores has been in the New Mexico Senate since 2013. In addition to his prior experience as a staffer for various Republican officeholders Moores played offensive line for the University of New Mexico Lobos.

Melanie Stansbury, on the other hand, was unknown in the state until she ran for the New Mexico house in 2018. Her prior political experience was in the Obama administration’s Office of Management and Budget.

The legislative track records of these two candidates are also drastically different. For starters, Stansbury strongly believes that New Mexicans should have their tax burdens increased rather dramatically.

In 2019, she voted for HB 6, which subsequently became law. Among other provisions, the bill increased taxes on auto sales, imposed taxes on Internet purchases, and increased New Mexico’s personal income tax. Ironically, this tax hike took New Mexico’s top personal income-tax rate from 4.9 percent (set by former Democratic governor Bill Richardson and the Democrat-controlled legislature) and brought it up to 5.9 percent. Moores voted against the tax hike, but it was subsequently signed into law by Governor Lujan Grisham, despite the state having a surplus in excess of $1 billion at the time.

In their most recent legislative session, the New Mexico legislature was back to raising taxes, and Stansbury was more than happy to go along. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and a state unemployment rate that remains among the worst in the nation, the combined forces of New Mexico’s resurgent oil and gas industry and the massive economic stimuli out of Washington again put the New Mexico budget comfortably in surplus territory.

Nonetheless, Stansbury and other Democrats in New Mexico’s legislature voted for and passed numerous tax hikes. HB 122, which failed after House approval, was subsequently folded into SB 317 and ultimately signed into law. Stansbury voted for the bills both times. The bills increase a tax imposed by the state on health-insurance premiums from 1 percent to 3.75 percent — a tax increase of 275 percent. Moores voted against the tax hike.

As if that were not enough to illustrate the stark difference between these candidates, Stansbury joined her Democratic colleagues in the New Mexico House to push even more egregious tax legislation in the form of HB 291. This bill which passed the House with Stansbury’s support would have again increased New Mexico’s personal income tax, this time to 6.5 percent, but (more problematically) would have revised the state’s personal income-tax structure to make the higher tax rates kick in at much lower income levels than under current law.

On top of this, the proposal Stansbury endorsed would have allowed property-tax assessments to increase by up to 10 percent annually if the property was not occupied by the owner. The current cap in New Mexico limits annual increases to the already-substantial rate of 3 percent per year. The measure was intended to target Texans with second homes in New Mexico, but it would have applied to apartment and condo dwellers as well.

Fortunately for New Mexicans, cooler heads prevailed in the (also Democrat-controlled) Senate Finance Committee, which eliminated the tax hikes from HB 291 before the bill passed into law.

These are just the tax hikes endorsed by Stansbury in her three short years in the New Mexico legislature. During her time in office, she has voted to ban local governments from enacting “Right to Work” laws on the local level, and she voted for New Mexico to abandon the Electoral College, saying instead that it should dedicate its five electoral votes to whatever candidate won the popular vote. The latter would have dramatically diminished what influence small-population New Mexico has in presidential races for no benefit aside from her ideology.

Stansbury is a true big-government radical. Her advocacy of big government in the New Mexico legislature places her to the left of Nancy Pelosi. At a time when every race matters in a closely divided U.S. House, conservatives cannot ignore this special election in a “blue” but winnable district.

 

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City of Albuquerque among “businesses” that can’t find workers

The Rio Grande Foundation and New Mexico Business Coalition are among the organizations that have raised the alarm about “enhanced” unemployment benefits and how they are a big factor making it less attractive for workers to find employment than to remain out of the work force.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller recently said that the City would “hold jobs for people until their unemployment runs out.”

Watch the story Channel 7 KOAT TV did on the issue below.

 

 

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City of Las Cruces should reject bag ban

The following appeared in the Las Cruces Sun News on Sunday, April 25, 2021

The City Council of Las Cruces is considering a ban on plastic bags, specifically those bags which are thinner than 2.25 millimeters thick. Restaurants may or may not be exempted from the statute, but banning plastic bags is not a viable solution to our solid waste challenges.

In fact, nearly all cities around the country and State of New Mexico including Albuquerque put their bag bans on hold for the duration of the COVID 19 pandemic. Albuquerque’s ban remains in place with no return date set.

Furthermore, while curbing the use of thin bags may seem like a reasonable policy, stores simply replace thin bags with thicker plastic bags as was done in Albuquerque. That shift led Albuquerque City councilor Pat Davis to say that he wanted to amend the City’s bag ban to also get rid of plastic bags that are thicker than 2.25 thousandths of an inch. The thicker bags were exempted from the law for the simple reason they are considered “reusable,” but Davis called the provision a “loophole.”

This discussion was going on in early March of 2020 which thankfully means it was never adopted. And, while the Centers for Disease Control has said that surface transmission of COVID 19 is extremely rare, that does not mean that banning plastic bags is a good thing for public health.

A 2018 report from Loma Linda University used data from an experiment in which researchers purposely “contaminated” a reusable bag with a harmless form of a virus. A single shopper then went through a typical grocery store, and the research team tracked the spread of the virus.

Quoting directly from the executive summary of the report, “The data show that MS2 (virus) spread to all surfaces touched by the shopper; the highest concentration occurred on the shopper’s hands, the checkout stand, and the clerk’s hands.”

Additionally in 2012 epidemiologists from the Oregon Public Health Division and Oregon Health & Science University published a peer reviewed article in the Journal of Infections Disease that documented a reusable grocery bag was the point source in an actual virus outbreak in the Pacific Northwest.

For years, people have simply believed that people will wash their bags. But Loma Linda researchers found only 3% of bags get washed. That rate may be better post-COVID than it was before, but there is also a diminished environmental benefit to reusable bags – especially in our desert environment – if they have to be washed regularly.

Instead of the City of Las Cruces micromanaging consumers’ use of plastic bags, I recommend that residents concerned with plastic pollution recycle or reuse their plastic bags instead. Plastic bag recycling programs with bins outside of local big box stores seem to have been one of the many casualties of the pandemic. Hopefully these programs return soon.

Until then, the bags make great trash can liners and can be used to pick up pet waste. I take along a bag or two on my walks and use them to clean up the neighborhood by picking up trash or aluminum cans along the way.

This final point really highlights the need for individual responsibility. Plastic bags are what you make of them. Government mandates can’t make us “green,” rather it is our responsibility to be good stewards of the environment around us. There will always be “loopholes” in laws such as the thickness of the plastic bags handed out at stores. For good reasons restaurants also need plastic bags and other utensils.

If you don’t want or need a bag, you are the customer and can refuse them or bring your own reusable bags. Don’t force your views on those of us who are responsible and repurpose these bags for useful, even “green” purposes.

The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.

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Media uses RGF information to ask MLG health advisor tough questions on “the science”

The Rio Grande Foundation recently gained access to the transcript of a deposition on the Gov.’s decision making process relating to COVID 19 and found “the science” to be lacking. Channel 4 KOB TV’s Patrick Hayes used this information to ask the Gov.’s health advisor David Scrase some questions during the press conference this week. As you can see from the story, Scrase doesn’t exactly answer the question about “the science.”

You can see the full story below: