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Columns

  • Campaign questions you don't hear about

    During the political season, while you’re listening to what candidates want to tell you, there’s another form of communication that most of us don’t see. It happens every election season. Maybe it should be more public.
    Organizations of every political stripe send questionnaires to candidates for office, asking for their positions on issues of special interest to those organizations.
    Some questionnaires are designed to educate the candidates about the organization’s issues. That’s a legitimate reason for a questionnaire. Organizations may use the candidates’ responses to make decisions about campaign contributions, endorsements and other forms of support.
    Some questionnaires go further in attempting to pin candidates down to specific positions. The candidate is asked to make a commitment, in writing, to a position that the voters at large never learn about, because the organization has promised it won’t make the answers public. This should concern us.
    Candidates are free to choose which questionnaires they will answer. They can (and do) ignore the questionnaires from organizations they disagree with.
    Over the years I have had a chance to write a few questions and help candidates answer a few questions. Writing the questions is more fun.

  • You can only follow the money if you can see it

    If you’re trying to buy an election or throw an election, you’re in high clover. If you’re a concerned citizen or a reporter trying to find out who is buying elections, you’re in the weeds.
    That was just one thought I had last week, sitting in a roomful of New Mexico journalists at a seminar titled, appropriately, “Follow The Money.”
    Campaign finance is now so murky that it took a day for two smart people from the National Institute on Money in State Politics just to show us the websites we can use to tease out campaign donations. Seminar organizers were the Society of Professional Journalists and New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.
    Even with these tools, the big numbers and their donors still can’t be identified.
    The Citizens United case in 2010 spawned a raft of organizations with lofty names that can accept donations in any amount without revealing the donor, as long as they abide by a few flimsy rules.
    You have the familiar 501(c)3, which is most nonprofits. The 501(c)4 is a social welfare organization that supposedly promotes the common good for a community.
    The 501(c)5 is a labor organization operating for the betterment of working conditions. The 501(c)6 is a business group, like the chamber of commerce.

  • Better to build roads for today than to subsidize Tesla for tomorrow

     Tesla Motors Inc. (teslamotors.com) is brilliant. The electric car manufacturer company says it will build a huge battery factory, a “gigafactory.” (Gotta love that word, “gigafactory.” Wonder where it came from?)
    Tesla has simultaneously and publicly dangled the deal before five states — New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Nevada and California.
    State economic developers have responded like kittens faced with a piece of yarn. The yarn comment, though a tad snarky, merely says that developers, who get paid to chase deals, are doing their jobs.
    I admit to not paying huge attention to the Tesla proposal. This column focuses on the deep structural troubles affecting the entire state economy.
    A report a few days ago, taken with last week’s column, adjusted that perspective. In what follows, for the sake of argument, assume an either/or situation, one choice or the other.
    Tesla has finally said what it wants from the host state, basically10 percent off the top, according to an Aug. 3 Albuquerque Journal story. For a $5 billion project, that’s $500 million delivered via tax abatements, building infrastructure, job training funds, whatever, all for a gamble, a new, heavily subsidized technology.

  • Horses prone to heatstroke

    Our cats and dogs aren’t the only animals that need special attention during the unbearable summer temperatures. Horses and other large animals get hot, too.
    Though they may not express it in the same way as our domestic pets, heatstroke is still common among large animals, and prevention is the best cure.
    “The important things to consider during summer heat for animals are similar as for humans,” said Dr. Leslie Easterwood, assistant clinical professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM). “It is best to provide clean, fresh water at a rate higher than they would be losing due to sweat.”
    The progression from dehydration to heat exhaustion and ultimately heat stroke can occur rapidly.
    Providing your large animals with access to plenty of water and shade is the most important way to keep their body temperatures under control. Just as with humans and other animals, the higher the temperature or activity level, the more water is required to cool the body.

  • Artists can get a chance to hone business skills

    Etsy, the leading online craft marketplace, established its Craft Entrepreneurship Program last year to make it easier for artists, craftspeople and other microentrepreneurs — especially those in underserved communities — to sell their products and services directly to consumers.
    That program is coming to New Mexico in September, thanks to a partnership with WESST, a private nonprofit economic development organization that provides business training, consulting and loans to small businesses in New Mexico.
    The Craft Entrepreneurship Program is a five-week series of classes in which artistically talented, low-income adults learn the basics of business so they can set up online venues that enable them to reach new markets.
    Classes will be taught by successful online craft sellers who coach and support participants through every aspect of setting up their online shops alongside WESST trainers who work with small businesses every day.
    Using Etsy as a learning lab, teachers share best practices on topics that impact new sellers most — including time management, branding, pricing, shipping and photography — to help them earn supplemental income through their craft business.
    To minimize startup costs, students will be able to list 20 items for sale on Etsy.com at no cost.

  • Reporting agencies are always watching

    By now, you’ve probably heard about the Big Three credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, which monitor your financial history and issue credit reports and credit scores to potential lenders.
    But did you know that there are dozens of other specialty consumer reporting agencies that track your history for activities that may not appear on your regular credit reports – things like bounced checks, late utility payments, insurance claims and prescription orders?
    Most people never hear about these companies until they’re suddenly turned down for an apartment, checking account, insurance policy or even a job or promotion. But you need to know that potential landlords, banks, insurance companies and employers are very likely ordering specialty reports to help them assess the risk of doing business with you.
    That’s fine if you’ve got a squeaky-clean track record. But what if their files contain mistakes; or worse, what if someone has hijacked your identity and is poisoning your record with their own bad behavior?

  • State highways need $100 million, but finding money may be difficult

    Miles and miles of roads traverse New Mexico, 20,000 of them by the count of the state’s Department of Transportation.
    The count covers 10,000 miles of state highways, 981 miles of interstates, 3,424 miles of U.S. highways and 5,595 more of mere state “roads.” Those miles miss county roads, forest service roads and, surely much more.
    DOT says we have 33,000 “lane miles” of roads. Four-lane interstates provide 3,924 of those lane miles. U.S. 285 between Vaughn and Roswell and U.S. 550 between Bernalillo and Bloomfield, both also four lane, account for more lane miles.
    The state has around 109 miles of roads for each New Mexican, which makes sense with half our 2.2 million people scattered around the nation’s fifth largest state. The other half concentrates in the Albuquerque-Santa Fe north central urban area.
    The miles and miles require buckets and buckets of money—$862 million for the current budget year. The money is getting harder to find.
    Around 45 percent of DOT’s money, about $375 million, comes from the Federal Highway Administration. The biggest dollar source is the state road fund, which provides $385 million, or about 46 percent.

  • Raising bar for entry into college is crucial

    Every few years we debate raising entrance requirements to enter the state’s universities, and then nothing happens.
    Recently, NMSU regents voted to raise admissions standards from a 2.5 GPA to 2.75. UNM, which inched up from 2.25 to 2.5 in the last few years, is making noises about following suit.
    This would be good for everybody, but most importantly, it would be good for students.
    For years, our institutions of higher education have been victims of their own successful recruiting. “Register for college,” the sirens sing. “It’s your ticket to future success.”
    Not if you’re unprepared. Every year hundreds of young people who fared poorly in high school and slipped under the bar to enter college; they struggle with the material and drop out after a year or two – often with student loans attached like a ball and chain. How is this serving them on their future path?
    Numbers tell the story. According to NMSU, half its students entering with less than a 2.75 GPA will drop out the first year, and 85 percent won’t graduate in six years. The same discussion is going on all over the country because studies show that high school grades are the best indicator of college success.
    The real wonder is that this has gone on so long. It reflects denial up and down the line.

  • Pollution upsets the apple carts

    Social media are notorious for upsetting political apple carts. Pollution had the same power a century earlier and shows it still today.
    Pollution has special ways to sneak past borders, leave tracks and scramble politics in its path. History is rich in entanglements of people with pollution, companies and governments.
    A prime example occurred in the 1800s near Copperhill, Tennessee, which abuts the Georgia state line. Your guess is right about copper in those Tennessee hills: The ore was mined and the first smelter in the district was built in 1854.
    By 1861, smelter emissions of sulfur dioxide (“SO2”) were killing off vegetation for miles around and spreading damage wider. Landowners filed a lawsuit in 1904, but Tennessee courts ruled the counties gained more value from the copper than they lost in damage.
    The tangles spread. In 1906, the United States Supreme Court heard Georgia’s claim that Tennessee Copper Company was taking away Georgia’s sovereign rights of control over its land and air. The Court found for Georgia but denied the injunction that was sought, because by then TCC was building a plant to capture the SO2.

  • The ins and outs of 529 college savings plans

    For many people, their biggest expenses in life are funding retirement, buying a home and paying for their children’s college education — or a portion of it, anyway. Setting aside money for these and other financial goals is difficult, especially when you’re trying to save for them all simultaneously and from a young age.
    One of the more popular college savings vehicles is the 529 College Savings Plan. Every state and Washington, D.C. offers at least one 529 plan option, although most offer several. Key features include:
    • You make contributions using after-tax dollars; their investment earnings grow tax-free.
    • Withdrawals aren’t taxed if they’re used to pay for qualified higher-education expenses (e.g., tuition, room and board, fees, books, supplies and equipment).
    • If you withdraw the money for non-qualified expenses, you’ll have to pay income tax and a 10 percent penalty tax on the earnings portion of the withdrawal — plus possible state penalties, depending on where you live.
    • Many states that have a state income tax give accountholders a full or partial tax deduction for contributions made to their own state’s plan. Three states (Indiana, Utah and Vermont) also offer tax credits for contributions.