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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  January 2011


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The More Things Change

Rep. Steve Pearce's lobbyist-in-chief.


As Sarah Palin might say, how's that nope-y, change-y thing workin' out for ya? Angry American voters who thought they were throwing the bums out in Congress, electing a cadre of anti-Washington revolutionaries who would say "nope" to big government and change the way government works, might want to keep an eye on the shuttle between K Street and Capitol Hill. Washington's infamous address for lobbyists turns out to be the go-to place to staff our new "mad as hell, not gonna take it anymore" Congress.

To date, according to The Hill politics newsletter, at least nine federally registered lobbyists have been hired as chiefs of staff to newly elected Republican House members and senators. That includes our own Rep. Steve Pearce, who will be returning to Washington with Todd Willens as his chief of staff. Willens has lobbied for Vitello Consulting, a boutique DC lobbying firm that describes itself as "a full-service government affairs consulting firm assisting clients whose concerns and interests intersect with the United States Congress, federal agencies and international regulatory organizations."

Other incoming GOP members of Congress have hired lobbyists for special interests including the Food Marketing Institute and the National Rifle Association. While not technically against any ethics rules, turning lobbyists into Congressional chiefs of staff does worry some nonpartisan Washington watchers.

"As we can see from many ethics cases, the chief of staff really sets the tone for what goes on in that office," Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, told The Hill. "That is probably the most critical hire." As chief of staff, McGehee went on, an ex-lobbyist "could do something to really help" former clients. "You have to be very careful not to do private bidding in public office."

We have no reason to believe that Willens is anything other than a paragon of ethics and public service. His new boss, however, left many Second District voters wondering just whom Steve Pearce was really representing — moneyed special interests or New Mexicans — in his previous stint in Congress. So hiring an ex-lobbyist as his first move doesn't fill us with confidence that we'll be seeing a new, improved Rep. Pearce.

More important, the lobbyist influx in Capitol Hill offices should disappoint anyone who thought November's election meant a revolution in the way Washington works. Instead of throwing out the bums, we've simply thrown open the door to a different bunch of bums — who have their hands out for government largesse and regulatory loosening. (Not that this should have surprised anyone who poked into the corporate interests footing the bill for what was supposed to be a grassroots electoral uprising.)

As The Hill put it, "The migration from K Street to Capitol Hill shows that at least some of the newly elected lawmakers are establishing strong ties to the Washington establishment, despite claims that the next Congress — and its class of Tea Party-affiliated outsiders — will shun the old ways of doing business."

So, mad-as-hell Steve Pearce supporters, how's that workin' out for ya?

 



Never Mind

Gov.-elect Susana Martinez' bait and switch.

 

Also in the "we told you so" category comes the revelation that Gov.-elect Susana Martinez has started breaking her campaign promises even before being sworn in. Faithful readers will recall that back in our October 2010 "reality check" on the governor's race, we warned, "Neither Martinez nor Denish has presented a plan to balance the budget that comes anywhere close to covering that gap. Instead, both candidates have pledged not to raise taxes or cut education spending. Given that education funds plus Medicaid spending total nearly 60% of the state budget, that sets up a mathematical impossibility regardless of who's elected."

We also quoted State Sen. John Arthur Smith of Deming, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, who predicted that either Martinez or Denish "will have to break 50% of their campaign promises" based on current budget projections.

Even Sen. Smith may be surprised, however, at the alacrity with which Martinez cast aside her budget promises to keep education and Medicaid funding sacrosanct. After months on the campaign trail successfully spouting what anyone who can add knew was fiscal nonsense, Martinez woke up to find herself governor of a state with a huge budget hole. Her response reminds us of Gilda Radner's Emily Litella character — who, when presented with the reality that everything she'd been ranting about was a mistake, suddenly would say, "Oh, well, that's very different. Never mind."

Martinez' justification for putting Medicaid and education (but not any cuts "to the classroom" or "core services") on the table after all is that the budget shortfall turned out to be bigger than expected. But the actual number remains a guessing game, and informed observers like Smith have warned all along that it could go higher. For Martinez to campaign on a fairy tale that 60% of the state budget could escape the ax was simply irresponsible — as is her abrupt U-turn once we fell for it. Voters are right to feel swindled.

The governor-elect also conceded that her core campaign promise on education funding, to shift $74 million from school bureaucracy to the classroom, might not work out exactly as hoped. While vowing not to cut classroom funding, Martinez was suddenly vague on the details of that $74 million in extra funding.

What about her promise on the stump not to raise taxes? Given Martinez' track record of putting your money where her mouth is, taxpayers might be wise to keep a wary hand on their wallets.

At least she's selling the state plane — a campaign promise that might recoup a one-time $5.5 million. You'll recall that back in October we pointed out that this would barely put a dent in the state's budgetary shortfall.

New Mexico voters who put their trust in Martinez can only hope that by the time she's sworn in, our next governor will have learned how to use a calculator — and how to talk straight to those she bamboozled in the 2010 election.



The Cutting-Room Floor

Who really benefits from state film subsidies?

 

One place Gov.-elect Martinez and the state legislature might start wielding the budgetary ax is New Mexico's 25% rebate to moviemakers on their expenses for filming in the state. In the latest budget year, that Hollywood subsidy cost the state an estimated $65 million.

A New Mexico State University study questioned the economic benefits of the film credits, but proponents point to a 2008 Ernst & Young study that found $1.50 in economic return to the Land of Enchantment for every dollar of assistance to filmmakers. Now a national report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concludes that the film credits granted by New Mexico and 42 other states are wasteful and ineffective. The benefits largely go to nonresident TV and film producers, according to the report, which specifically criticizes New Mexico's Ernst & Young study for "upward biases and ambiguities."

Martinez has already stated that she plans to order an immediate review of the film tax credit program. Good for her — and, since she's from Las Cruces, she might also bring some much-needed geographic diversity to the debate.

What none of these dueling studies points out is that whatever economic benefit the film credits produce, it's heavily weighted toward the northern part of the state. True, Las Cruces has seen some filming, and White Sands has portrayed various exotic deserts on screen. Grant County got a brief star turn a few years ago, subbing for a Minnesota mine in North Country. And Luna County got a hush-hush visit from the makers of the last Indiana Jones flick.

But those scattered examples hardly add up to our fair share of a $65 million annual bonanza ($76 million the previous budget year). Most of the big-budget action has been in Albuquerque (where several cable-TV series have filmed), Santa Fe and other points north. The truth is, the film subsidy is largely a subsidy for filming in parts of New Mexico that are already weathering the recession better than high-unemployment counties like Grant and Luna. (Unemployment in Grant County, for example, is half again as high as in Santa Fe County, and two points higher than in Bernalillo County.)

"It's highly unlikely that New Mexico's film subsidies paid for themselves in 2007," the new report concludes. "Consequently, to finance these subsidies, New Mexico has probably had to cut state services, offsetting at least part of the subsidies' boost to jobs, income and tax revenues to New Mexicans." Especially northern New Mexicans, it might have added.

Maybe it's time for someone to holler, "Cut!"



David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.

 

 



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