Thursday, February 24, 2011

For Pete's Sake: Transparency requires courage

by Peter St. Cyr

As the debate in Santa Fe, and across the state, heats up over revoking driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, Governor Susana Martinez, who made the issue a first-year priority for her administration, is taking her appeal directly to the public with one-minute radio ads paid for with money left over from her 2010 campaign.

Using the bully pulpit

It's really not unusual for executives, like presidents, governors, and even mayors to use their bully pulpits to rally the public in support of their proposals. In fact, presidents often take to the national air waves and urge voters to call their senators and representatives -- especially before close votes. They even jump on Air Force One and jet to cities and appeal directly to their constituents. You and I have seen them employ this strategy after almost every State of the Union speech.

President Theodore Roosevelt, who coined the phrase, understood the Oval Office is a terrific platform to advocate an agenda. Every president since has come into our living rooms and spoken to us directly.

Now, Gov. Martinez is using the airwaves, her website, and news conferences to move her public policy proposals. But, she's getting mixed reactions to those tactics.

On Saturday, shortly after the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee tabled three measures dealing with immigrant licenses, the governor's staff sent out a news release which referenced a 2010 public opinion poll. It showed 72 percent of the state's voters are opposed to licenses for non-citizens.

Martinez also had staffers attend the HCPAC hearing and video tape the proceedings. Now, she’s posted those recording on her website. Surely, if the hearings were webcast, and archived, in the first place this would not have been necessary.

Going further, Martinez then launched the radio ad campaign and paid for it with leftover campaign money. While some bloggers and political analysts have criticized her for spending donated money on the ads the law clearly states it can be used for re-election activities. And frankly, getting her agenda passed, with the help of voters calling their lawmakers, seems like a good re-election strategy to us.

Appealing directly to the public

Clearly, elected officials use the media to deliver highly targeted messages to reporters (like me) who show up for their news conferences. They know it's a direct route to the public and the best way to urge support of their proposals.

Just today we received notice that Martinez would be holding a lunch hour news conference to ask the public to support her legislation, which will implement stricter penalties on public officials who are convicted of corruption. She's even invited a group of legislators backing her anti-corruption initiative.

We have to allow executives to push their agenda and appeal to the public directly.

We’re certain that Martinez has consulted attorneys and feels comfortable using money from her 2010 campaign to fund the radio ad broadcasts, and even more comfortable posting videos of legislative hearings on her website.

But, it appears committee chairs and legislators are worried that these videos will be used "against" them in future elections.

On Wednesday, the NM Senate voted 35-3 in favor of new rules (SR4) that require members of the public -- and media -- to request permission from each committee chair and ranking minority member before they photograph, videotape or otherwise record hearings. Certainly, judges have had that option for years, but it appears to us that C-SPAN has been broadcasting federal committee meetings and floor sessions for years.

But lawmakers worry those video tapes will be edited and that they will be taken out of context. The simple solution would be to start webcasting everything beginning now.

Keep in mind, these are public officials, conducting public meetings, in a public building, and as a fan of open government, it's way past time to utilize the technology that’s available. Everyone should have direct and remote access to government.

Spinning the message

After listening to the radio ads above we checked with local law enforcement officers and a few prosecutors. They said Martinez' ads are somewhat misleading.

Prosecutors said they were never able to confirm that the 2009 Denny's robbery-homicide suspects were actual members of the violent Mara Salvatrucha Gang (MS13), which was originally reported after one of the suspects was shown with the number 13 shaved into his haircut. But police quickly backed off of the gang connection after learning the men bragged about being members of the deadly gang simply to intimidate residents in their neighborhood.

Still, Martinez' award-winning ad man and 'top advisor' Jay McCleskey isn't completely wrong. He never directly mentions MS13 in his ad -- instead he writes "a gang from El Salvador", which could technically be true.

The group (being three or more people) was clearly a criminal organization, organized and operating for criminal purposes. By most common definitions, that is a gang. Since the state does not define a gang, that definition is usually sufficient for law enforcement to classify a group as a gang. At the end of the day, all three suspect's were in the country illegally and had state driver's licenses.

For Pete’s Sake

Legislators should be have strong principles before they head to Santa Fe. Once there, they need to listen to both sides of an issue, ask questions, and then courageously stand by their votes.
If they lose re-election based on their voting records so be it. At least we will remember them for the principled leadership.

Of course, government transparency is a two-way street. And one question remains unanswered.
Will the governor, who already has a much better track record complying with Inspection of Public Records' requests, allows legislators, or the public, to record her own cabinet meetings and executive briefings?

It's time for the sun to shine on government across New Mexico.

Now, I'll get off my own blog "bully" pulpit, open my notebook and record the stories that interest you. Let's hope we'll have unlimited access to government of the people.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Video Post: Balderas prepares U.S. Senate bid

While there's no timetable to formally announce a bid for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by five-term U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico State Auditor Hector Balderas, 37, appears closer to making the commitment -- and soon.

Today, during an informal afternoon coffee interview with us, Balderas said New Mexicans are looking for the next generation of leaders to head to Washington, D.C., and he's hoping his record of fiscal discipline and work on government accountability issues, both inside the auditor's office and in the NM House of Representatives, will appeal to those voters.

An exciting time

On Saturday, inside the Roundhouse, Balderas confirmed with us that he has been consulting with his family, a team of his political advisers, and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee about the 2012 race and is close to making a decision about jumping into the race.

“I'm strongly considering entering the United States Senate race from New Mexico,” Balderas told us on Saturday.

In a time of fiscal crisis, Balderas said voters want strong leadership on issues of accountability and government reform. He said he has a record of both, including exposing statewide corruption, and uncovering a massive embezzlement in Jemez Springs in 2009.

Balderas told us he would take those same principals with him to Washington.

" I think that there has to be fiscal reform. Right now you see President Barack Obama and the legislature at the federal level grappling with this issue,” Balderas told off camera on Saturday.
"The choices and investments we make now will effect generations to come, so I will make fiscal accountability one of my top priorities.”

He also wants to make education reform another key campaign issue.

“I wouldn't be where I am today without educational opportunities,” Balderas said.

Passing the political torch

Balderas said he’s been getting favorable feedback and the buzz seems to be increasing, but Balderas said Democrats have to be concerned about holding on to Bingaman’s seat.

“New Mexicans at every kitchen or coffee table need to think about what direction do they want to go. It is a real opportunity to chose a different type of leader in New Mexico,” Balderas told me in Santa Fe before the video interview.

Republican contenders could include Lt. Gov. John Sanchez, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, former Rep. Heather Wilson, and former Gov. Gary Johnson. Two relatively unknowns have already launched their republican bids for the seat.

Democrat pundits have focused on Heinrich, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, former Gov. Bill Richardson, State Treasurer James B. Lewis, and former Albuquerque Mayor Marty Chavez, along with Balderas.

If elected, Balderas would join two other Hispanics in the Senate. Florida is represented by Republican Mark Rubio, who was elected last year. New Jersey Sen. Robert Menedez, a Democrat, was appointed in 2005 by then Gov. Jon Corzine and elected outright in 2006 to a full six-year term.

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Heinrich: Cuts to Pell Grants threaten next generation workers

by Peter St. Cyr

Corrected: Wednesday at 7:45a Wednesday

Before dawn last Saturday morning, objecting to the Republicans' proposed spending bill, U.S. Rep. Martin Heinrich urged members to restore Pell grant funding to current levels. His Motion to Recommit, or MTR, unfortunately failed.

Recognizing the huge federal deficit, Heinrich said Congress must approach the country's challenges with responsibility and prudence.

"Americans need jobs," Heinrich said. "Republicans have ignored this problem and now they're making it worse."

Focused on preparing the next generation of workers, Heinrich spent his short time at the podium and warned members that arbitrary short-term cuts to programs like Pell grants will harm the country.

Educating students for a sustainable future

Heinrich, who announced a day later that he's considering launching a bid to replace U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, told house members how the cuts will affect students like New Mexico war vet Specialist John Carabillo. He's currently enrolled in an associates program and studying information technology.

"These cuts are a choice that come at the expense of middle class Americans. And cuts to education weakens the country," Heinrich said.

After graduation, Carabillo, hopes to find an IT job at Kirtland Air Force Base.

The cuts approved by republicans, Heinrich believes will threaten Carabillo's opportunities and could force him to delay his education, take fewer classes, or take out expensive loans.

At 4:30 in the morning, Heinrich mustered the energy to tell his colleague that his MTR would be paid for by cutting salaries and expenses at the Department of Education, which takes it back to fiscal year 2008 levels.

Under the House Republicans’ bill, funding for Federal Pell Grant scholarships in New Mexico would be cut by $39 million in fiscal year 2011 from current levels, which would significantly reduce or eliminate federal financial aid for almost 10,307 low-income college students and slice $845 off of the current maximum award.

"This motion to recommit would be a down payment to Carabillo's future," Heinrich told a packed chamber. "My amendment to restore these scholarships will not add a penny to the deficit." Heinrich says the money for Pell grants can be found by making cuts to Education Department salaries.

We've asked Heinrich's staff to crunch some more numbers. We'd like to know how the Republicans' spending bill will impact New Mexico in other areas, like transportation, university research, lab spending, child head start and health programs, construction, and other areas.

We'll let you know. You can read how budget cuts are going to impact California in this LA Times article. You can expect similar consequences in New Mexico.

Correction: In the original post we wrote the a MTR was a Motion to Restore. In fact, it a Motion to Recommit.

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