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Holding Harmful

Grant County rams through a tax increase — seemingly, just because it could.

 

Apparently, democracy is just too much trouble for the Grant County Commission. You may recall how, a year ago, commissioners and other local officials pushed a ballot initiative that would have raised gross receipts taxes (GRT) by 1/4% to fund a $10 million wish list of "economic development" projects. Voters soundly rejected that boondoggle by a two-to-one margin.

Not ones to take "no" for an answer, especially from pesky voters, the commissioners abruptly passed their own GRT increase last month. Don't like a 1/4% increase, voters? Fine, the commission seemed to be saying, see how you like an even bigger, 3/8% increase! The town of Silver City opposed the tax hike (for excellent reasons we'll get to below), as did members of the public at the meeting. But commissioners seemed impatient with such input and chose to ignore it.

Where will the $1.6 million to $1.9 million raised annually by this increase go? Later in the meeting the commissioners quickly passed a "Notice of Intent" to dedicate the funds to a bond issue they intend to slam through this month. No details were provided, but commission chairman Brett Kasten told GilaCommunity.net after the meeting that funds would pay for:

  • Fixing the inside of the Business and Conference Center
  • A new electrical and HVAC system for the district court building
  • Finishing the front of the county administration building
  • A county detox center with continuum of care.

Individually, each of these may be worthy of funding. (We need to get over the notion, though, that the ex-WalMart on Hwy. 180, shared with Ace Hardware, is a "convention center." No one is going to hold a "convention" in a town with minimal air service, almost an hour off the interstate.) Exactly where this latest wish-list came from, however, is curious. Did it spring full-blown from the heads of the county commission? Or did they cook it up in private, in violation of the open-meetings law?

 

We've already railed against the regressive GRT — the last time local officials, apparently thinking tax dollars drop from the sky, tried to boost it. But this increase, paradoxically, will actually cost the county money from the state even as it hits citizens in the wallet regardless of ability to pay.

The county commission was taking advantage — if you can call it that—of poorly written legislation rushed through the state legislature in the closing hours of the 2013 session. That bill began a 15-year phase-out of the state's "hold harmless" payments meant to make up for the loss of gross receipts taxes on food and medicine, repealed during the Richardson administration. Grant County would ultimately lose $350,000 a year and Silver City would lose $1.7 million. The 2013 bill allowed counties and municipalities to raise GRT rates up to 3/8%, without a vote of residents, to offset these losses.

But Grant County falls below a 40,000-population threshold set in the bill; it could choose to keep the hold-harmless funding. As Kasten acknowledged after the meeting, the county did not have to raise taxes to make up for a pending loss of state funds. Now that commissioners have chosen to grab that 3/8%, however, that exemption from the phase-out vanishes. So county taxpayers lose $350,000 a year from the state while forking out $1.6 million or more from their own pockets.

With a population above the 10,000 threshold for municipalities, Silver City was already faced with losing its hold-harmless funds — and having to raise taxes to compensate. "Even after taking every action available to us, we'll still be short," warned Mayor Mike Morones. Worse, those inevitable tax increases will now come on top of the county's unnecessary tax grab.

As of Jan. 1, 2015, consumers in Silver City — where most of the county's stores and service providers are—will pay 7.75% on non-food or -medical purchases. If the town eventually phases in its own 3/8% hike, that will total 8.125%. That would be higher than the current rate of any municipality in New Mexico besides Santa Fe, Espanola, Ruidoso, Gallup, Red River and Taos. (Other places, of course, may raise their own rates to make up for the hold-harmless phase-out.) Most of those places have per-capita incomes well above Silver City's.

It would even be more expensive to shop in Silver City than in Tucson, currently at 8.1%. (And of course Arizona taxes only goods — like New Mexico, exempting food and medicine—and not services, unlike New Mexico.)

"We're making Grant County a better place," Kasten said in explaining the vote.

We think Morones, speaking for the town, was more on-target: "We wish there had been a little more public dialogue and debate."

 

 

 

The Children's Crusade

Why are Central American kids flocking to the American Southwest?

The ugliness of the protests against temporary housing of the influx of 57,000 migrant children — blocking buses in Murietta, Calif., and Oracle, Ariz., parading with assault weapons and "Don't Tread on Me" banners in Vassar, Mich.—almost makes one wonder why these youngsters would want to come to a country like this. Almost as ugly has been the instant politicizing of this humanitarian crisis. Of course, Republicans say it's all Obama's fault; next they'll be blaming the president for this summer's encore of the "polar vortex." When the GOP isn't criticizing Obama for failing to act, they're calling him a "dictator" for taking executive action.

No one is happy about the ocean of displaced humanity suddenly lapping at America's southern border. To be clear, however, that influx has nothing to do with the nation's supposedly porous border or the lack of border security: As soon as these children reach the US, after crossing a thousand miles of Mexico, they throw themselves into the care of the first uniformed American they see. Short of invading Mexico and turning would-be migrant children back before they reach the border, this is not a problem "securing the border" can solve.

Nor is the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, enacted after the failed attempt to pass the DREAM Act for illegal immigrant children, to blame. The influx of Central American youth began in the fall of 2011, before the June 2012 announcement of DACA, and those arriving now aren't even eligible for DACA. According to the nonpartisan Vox.com website, two separate surveys of unaccompanied migrant children have confirmed that extremely few, if any, knew about DACA and none cited it as their reason for coming. Notably, other neighboring countries also saw a sevenfold increase in applications for asylum from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador last year versus 2009. So it's not just the "pull" of lax US policies that's causing the flight.

Rather, the immediate impetus for this surge seems to be a spike in drug-related gang violence in the children's home countries, coupled with a pent-up desire to be reunited with parents or other family already in the US. One study reported that 90% of the children coming from El Salvador had family in the US. Many of these parents have worked and saved for years to be able to pay human smugglers to bring their children north.

It's true that a quirk in a well-intentioned 2008 law against human trafficking — signed by President George W. Bush — has made it more difficult to deport migrants from Central America. (The law does not apply to children from Mexico or Canada.) But replacing that law's protections with brusque interrogations by already-overworked Border Patrol agents, as proposed in a bill by Texas Sen. John Cornyn, is anything but what the bill's title, the Humane Act, pretends.

 

As Winthrop Quigley recently pointed out in the Albuquerque Journal, the long-term seeds of the current crisis were sewn with US intervention in Central America beginning in the 1950s, fueled by anti-Communist hysteria and the greed of the United Fruit Co. The CIA organized a coup in Guatemala in 1956, trained Guatemalan military at Fort Benning, and later supported the scorched-earth policies of President Efrain Rios Montt. (Ronald Reagan called the Guatemalan leader "a man of great integrity" who was "totally dedicated to democracy." Rios Montt's regime was responsible for 200,000 deaths and he was convicted of genocide last year, though that was overturned on appeal.)

The story is much the same throughout Central America. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world. Rather than being gang members, as some protesters have charged, many of the migrants are escaping gangs that forcibly recruit teenagers.

Obviously, we can't simply open our borders to all comers. And a case can certainly be made for deporting the children who are now crowding our immigration facilities — particularly those without families in the US. But we need to treat this problem for what it is: a humanitarian crisis that is in part of our own making in countries still broken by our long-ago interventions.

"Don't Tread on Me," indeed. We spent much of the second half of the 20th century treading on these countries. Before we play politics with this human tragedy, maybe we need to learn a little history.

 

 

David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.

 

 

 

 

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