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A Perfect Political Storm?

Democrats' dreams come true in New Mexico races.


The past month's whirlwind of political activity — all the dominos (to mix a metaphor) falling in the wake of US Sen. Pete Domenici's decision not to seek re-election — so far looks like the proverbial "perfect storm" for Democrats' hopes to dominate New Mexico's Congressional delegation. This summer, anticipating 2008 races against the still-formidable "Saint Pete," the ever-scrappy Rep. Heather Wilson and incumbent Rep. Steve Pearce with his usual haul of oil and gas industry cash, Democrats faced long odds against picking up even one seat. That all changed with Domenici's retirement and the resulting release of pent-up political ambition statewide.

Not in their wildest dreams did Democrats imagine all three GOP-held seats might suddenly be up for grabs. But with Domenici stepping aside and Wilson and Pearce battling to replace him, the state's political landscape changed almost overnight. If Democrats manage to avoid a similar fratricidal free-for-all, Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez should have a strong chance against the Wilson-Pearce winner for the Senate seat. Wilson's occasional independent streak and bursts of sensible moderation (as on the recent SCHIP children's health insurance vote, discussed below) might make her the stronger GOP candidate in November. But Pearce's uncritical loyalty to the sinking Bush ship could sway the dedicated Republicans most likely to turn out in a primary. Our early, top-of-the-head handicapping is Chavez over Pearce in the general election.

Of the two suddenly open House seats, Wilson's Democratic-leaning First District is the likeliest to shift sides of the aisle. Our own Second District looks to be the toughest for Democrats to flip, despite the absence of Pearce on the ballot. Although facing an underfunded, lesser-known challenger in Al Kissling in 2006, Pearce's 20-point, nearly 30,000-vote victory reflected not only his popularity but strong GOP sentiments in places like Chaves, Eddy, Lea and Otero counties.

Still, it's worth noting that Kissling carried fast-growing Doña Ana County, which Pearce narrowly won two years before. If you look at 2006 votes for Sen. Jeff Bingaman as potential 2008 Democratic votes, just substituting Bingaman's margin in this Southwest corner of the district for Kissling's brings Pearce's seat arguably within reach — a 54-46 GOP edge. Keep in mind, too, that Pearce's 2006 victory percentage actually shrank slightly over 2004 despite the fact that he out-fundraised Kissling by nearly eight-fold.

But New Mexico voters would do well to remember that politics isn't a game. Our representatives' votes have far-reaching consequences. Consider the tragic post-9/11 vote to authorize the Iraq invasion, or the more recent narrow SCHIP defeat. Think of the confirmation of Supreme Court justices who have tilted the nation's interpretation of the Constitution.

Just looking at environmental issues, in the Senate, we'll be replacing Domenici, whose latest rating by the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) was a mere 14 percent (compared to Bingaman's 100 percent). Our choices will include Wilson (17 percent) and Pearce (rated at zero by the LCV). How we vote ultimately determines how our representatives vote.

Constituent service and bringing home pork-barrel funding are all well and good. But ultimately it's those votes in Washington, DC, that make this a representative democracy. New Mexicans will have an unusual opportunity in 2008 to shape those votes, without the fog of incumbency.


Sinking SCHIP

Rep. Steve Pearce takes on sick poor kids.


Especially now that he's running for the US Senate, Rep. Steve Pearce had better hope there's no Bailey Jones in New Mexico. Bailey Jones, for those who don't follow politics in our neighbor to the east, is a then-three-year-old in Teague, Texas, who was one of 147,000 children cut from a federal-state child health care program in that state. Chet Edwards, now a Democratic congressman, rode that issue to Washington in 2004, narrowly defeating a GOP state legislator who had sponsored the program cuts. Edwards' heart-wrenching TV ads featured little Bailey and Bailey's mom, who asked, "Doesn't my child deserve medical care?"

Pearce's shrill warnings about "socialized medicine" will ring pretty hollow in the face of such a challenge to his vote this fall against the renewal and expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). The measure passed the House, 265 to 159, with the support of 45 House Republicans including New Mexico Rep. Heather Wilson — Pearce's primary opponent in the Senate scramble. That margin wasn't enough, however, to override President Bush's veto. The Senate did pass the SCHIP bill by a veto-proof margin, thanks in part to GOP Sen. Pete Domenici's support. Both New Mexico Democrats, Rep. Tom Udall and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, voted for the proposal, which enjoyed strong bipartisan support and was co-authored by a Republican, Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley. The original SCHIP program itself was largely a Republican initiative, steered through a GOP Congress in 1997 by Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch.

The vetoed SCHIP renewal bill would have provided health insurance to more than 10 million low-income children whose families don't qualify for Medicare. That represented an extension of the program to some 3.4 million more children, at a cost of $35 million over five years on top of the current $25 billion. President Bush wanted only a $5 billion expansion, which the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said would eventually mean cutting 1 million children from SCHIP.

"I chose to co-sponsor a bill that would reauthorize the SCHIP program and do so in a fiscally responsible way," Pearce countered in a statement. "But a fiscally responsible approach to the nation's resources is apparently unwelcome by the majority. It is a tragedy."

The real tragedy, of course, is that Pearce's purported interest in "fiscal responsibility" doesn't extend to the soaring costs of the Iraq war. The latest $200 billion requested by the president — and backed by Pearce — for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan dwarfs the $6 million annual funding difference between the bipartisan SCHIP bill and Bush's alternative. Just 41 days of US spending in Iraq would provide health care coverage for all 10 million low-income children for a full year.

"We already have trillions in unfunded debt that we are asking future generations to pay," Pearce went on, neglecting to mention the huge share of that debt attributable to the Iraq misadventure he's repeatedly voted to fund. "Today the majority leadership in Congress has irresponsibly added billions more to that debt under the guise of helping children."

In fact, Democrats proposed funding the SCHIP expansion largely with a hike in the federal cigarette tax. Not only would that have not "irresponsibly added billions more" to the national debt; it would have helped combat America's public health enemy number-one.

Pearce also parroted the president in claiming that the vetoed legislation "makes those with incomes as high as $80,000 eligible for the program and is open for fraudulent abuse by illegal aliens." His GOP colleague, Sen. Grassley, flatly calls the $80,000 claim "factually inaccurate." In fact, 70 percent of the children covered by the SCHIP bill would come from families with incomes less than $41,300, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute. The bill Pearce opposed prohibited states from aiding families making more than three times the federal poverty level, or about $60,000. And the legislation specifically stipulated that federal money could not be used to fund health benefits for illegal immigrants.

The real rationale for both Pearce and the president's opposition sounds more like the rantings of the John Birch Society back in the 1960s, warning against Medicare. Pearce fulminated, "The bill vastly expands the program far beyond its original intent. This is the single largest step toward socialized medicine since HillaryCare."

Not content with dragging in Hillary Clinton's failed health-care plan when she was first lady — an utterly irrelevant comparison employed only as a rhetorical smear tactic — our New Mexico congressman went on to imagine, "There will be an explosion of people pushed into this program which, unfortunately, contains no mechanisms to control costs. That means the next step will be government price controls and then rationing medical care."

Yet another reality check is needed here. While SCHIP is government-financed, it is not government-run. Private insurers administer the program. The doctors and nurses who deliver the care work for private health-care entities. There's no suggestion of price controls, much less rationing care. The only "rationing" of care will come in the wake of Bush's veto, when two-thirds of those 10 million children will have no health insurance at all and the rest will suffer coverage gaps, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

No wonder the nonpartisan advocacy organization New Mexico Voices for Children responded to Bush's veto by stating, "We are extremely disappointed that the president would put the profits of private insurance companies above the health of uninsured American children. Both this program and the bill to reauthorize it have broad bipartisan support and are favored by the majority of Americans. Clearly, what most Americans get — and what President Bush doesn't get — is that our children need to be a much higher priority."

The organization praised the state's congressional delegates from both sides of the aisle who backed SCHIP, while urging Pearce — the lone New Mexico vote against SCHIP — "to take another look at his commitment to New Mexico's children."


Perhaps Rep. Pearce should spend a little more time studying the plight of those children back home in New Mexico. According to the Campaign for Children's Health Care, 15 percent of New Mexico children under age six have no health insurance; that figure rises to 12 percent for ages six to 12 and 20 percent for ages 13 to 18. Some 90 percent of New Mexico's uninsured children live in working families, and 80 percent live in households with incomes at or below the federal poverty level. Those New Mexico children are precisely the uninsured that SCHIP is designed to help.

How many children are we talking about, just in New Mexico? Overall, about one in six of the state's children has no health insurance. That's 87,000 children — enough to fill 1,582 school buses or form 9,667 Little League teams. An analysis by the Albuquerque Tribune calculated that the SCHIP bill Pearce helped kill would have covered 11,000 of those New Mexico kids.

Rep. Pearce had better hope that one of those kids isn't his own version of Bailey Jones. The ink was barely dry on Bush's veto before Doña Ana County Commissioner Bill McCamley, a Democrat vying to replace Pearce in Congress, issued a press release demonstrating the issue's potential political capital: "Steve Pearce doesn't get it. As a member of Congress, he can get the best health insurance money can buy, paid for by our tax dollars. But apparently he doesn't think 11,000 New Mexico kids deserve any."

Now that Pearce has decided to try stepping up to retiring Sen. Domenici's seat, his SCHIP vote will haunt him even more as he tries to peddle his lockstep Bushism to the rest of the state.

Providing health insurance to low-income children shouldn't have to be a political football. But irresponsible votes covered by a smokescreen of misstatements and scare tactics shouldn't come without consequences at the ballot box. Just ask Bailey Jones.


Derailing a Tax Proposal

If we're paying for the Spaceport, what's
wrong with a Rail Runner tax?


We confess to some puzzlement over Gov. Bill Richardson's quick kibosh of the notion to increase gross-receipts taxes in the counties served by the Rail Runner, to help cover the commuter train's costs when federal money runs out. Richardson's own transportation secretary, Rhonda Faught, had floated the idea that a one-eighth-cent tax levy in Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Sandoval and Valencia counties could cover the projected $20 million yearly operating cost after service extends to Santa Fe. About $8 million in federal funding, which now pays most of the current tab, will dry up in 2009.

But Richardson reacted to the proposal as though Faught had dropped a blazing bag of dog doo-doo on the front step of the governor's mansion. A spokesman for the governor, Gilbert Gallegos, released an icy statement: "The Rail Runner expansion will move forward as planned, and the governor expects to consider different options, other than a tax increase, to pay for its operations in the future."

We're puzzled, of course, because Richardson was so gung-ho about Doña Ana County's similar tax increase to help fund his Spaceport. (Otero and Sierra counties have been dragging their heels on their own Spaceport tax levies, however, perhaps figuring there's no rush as long as generous Doña Ana County voters are willing to pony up for a facility that is, after all, in Sierra County. Wisely, Do¤a Ana County commissioners recently postponed actually collecting the tax until their neighbors get with the program and a tax district is created to distribute the funds.)

Earlier this year, we asked then-head of the Spaceport Authority Rick Homans why southern New Mexicans were expected to pony up for the Spaceport while northerners got the Rail Runner for free. The answer was that northern New Mexicans are paying, by way of fares to ride the train. That explanation is of course disingenuous: You could just as well argue that customers on Virgin Galactic's space-tourism flights, after all, are paying — and, being multimillionaires, they can afford it more than a Las Cruces family buying toothpaste.

If southern New Mexico will enjoy bountiful economic benefits from building the Spaceport (an admittedly dubious proposition, as has been repeatedly pointed out in these pages), surely northerners benefit similarly — and should be expected to pay similarly — from the Rail Runner. At a minimum, Albuquerque-area drivers enjoy less-crowded highways as other commuters take the train instead. One poll even showed that voters in the three affected counties would be willing to support a small tax hike for the Rail Runner. But not the governor, despite his earlier support for a gross receipts tax increase — a regressive tax that disproportionately affects the poor — to blast millionaires into space.

Pundits have speculated that Richardson doesn't want anything to do with raising taxes while he's running for president. Perhaps. But we can't help thinking that this is yet another example of the 505 area code treating the folks now relegated to 575 as second-class citizens of New Mexico.


David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.


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