Tag Archives: politics

Udall keeps filibuster reform drumbeat going

Udall keeps filibuster reform drumbeat going

Sen. Tom Udall continues to advance his cause of changing the Senate rules to reduce the role of the filibuster and the ability of a minority of senators to delay legislation from being voted on — in some cases indefinitely — in the Senate.

“The institution is broken,” Udall said on a conference call with reporters. “It’s broken, it needs help.”

This echoes an argument that Udall made earlier this week on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show.

“A filibuster used to be something that was extraordinarily rare,” Udall told Maddow Tuesday night. “You know in LBJ’s days, back in the 1954 to 1961 period, he only had to cut — and this is six years — cut one filibuster off in that period. This year, Harry Reid had to cut off 84.”

Udall’s solution to gridlock in the Senate is through what he calls the Constitutional Option. He cites Article 1, Section 5 of the U.S. Constitution, specifically the portion which says, “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings.”

Three previous times, the Senate has used its right to change rules on the first day of a new Congress, according to Udall. However, using the Constitutional Option is just one step along the process of reforming the Senate, he warns.

When the vice president cuts off debate and moves to adopt rules by majority vote on the first day of Congress, something not seen since the 1970s, at least 51 Senators must agree on a rules package. There are some popular changes, according to Udall, including support for eliminating secret holds and making all secret holds transparent.

Some Senate experts say it doesn’t necessarily have to be on the first day of the new Congress, but Udall is pushing for it to happen then.

Other ideas include eliminating the filibuster and just requiring 51 votes to end debate.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., also spoke to reporters about the Constitutional Option and the need to change Senate procedures. “The Senate is broken, continuous debate and some other changes would help a great deal,” Merkley said, echoing a theme by Udall.

Udall noted that while the Senate “had some big achievements, there is no doubt,” he said examples of the Senate failing to pass other important bills easily came to mind. “Not a single appropriations bill made it to the floor,” Udall told reporters.

Udall said that he isn’t trying to make the Senate another version of the House, where he served for a decade before running for Senate.

“I think all of you have observed that we’ve done no appropriations this year,” Merkley told reporters. “It’s very much damaging our advise and consent function.”

“I think it’s a very important one when we’re trying to come together in the proposal that will make the institution work better.”

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Beware the hidden cost of an early tax refund

Beware the hidden cost of an early tax refund

We live in a society of instant gratification — cell phones and other mobile devices offer instant access to new music, movies, and other entertainment. It’s not a stretch to extend this idea to our financial affairs; ATMs offer 24-hour access to your money, and more and more transactions take place over the Internet.

This time of year, many families are looking forward to their tax refunds. That combined with the headache of sorting through tax documents and finding what credits you’re eligible for (especially with the new stimulus credits coming), we all feel that the money is somewhat of a reward.

But families, especially working families, must be aware of the dragon lurking in the darkness. His name is RAL.

RALs, or refund anticipation loans, are short-term, high-interest loans made by tax preparers that allow the taxpayer to receive their anticipated refund instantly.

There is little regulation of RALs, and they are increasingly being offered by the same predatory lenders like payday loan companies. Tax preparers and lenders have no restriction on the amount they can charge for a RAL, which means that working families can end up paying a high-interest rate for a loan as short as a few days.

In fact, the preparer doesn’t even have to tell the tax filer that they’re getting a loan — just that they can receive their refund right away. The RAL can eat up a significant chunk of a family’s refund.

But it’s their money, right, so what does it matter?

Actually, much of it is public money that comes from other taxpayers. Many low-income working families receive a variety of tax credits.

The federal earned income tax credit (EITC) is one such refund. Last year, New Mexico’s working families received more than $370 million from the EITC. New Mexico’s working families tax credit (WFTC) refunds another 10 percent of the EITC amount. Both credits were designed to help lift working families out of poverty, and provide financial assistance to families and children in need.

But this money can end up going to an unintended source — the tax preparer.

In 2005, almost 200,000 New Mexico tax filers received an EITC, and one-quarter of these filers got a RAL. According to H&R Block’s Web site, a RAL for about $1,000 refund costs $140 — or, more than 10 percent; more than what is refunded by the WFTC.

Tax filers may be so enticed by the instant gratification of a quick refund that they may not carefully consider the financial consequences. Some don’t realize that they can get their full refund if they are willing to wait a few days.

Many also do not realize that free tax preparation is available to low-income families, and, when returns are filed electronically, they can get their refund in as little as a week. Direct deposit can make the wait even shorter.

Simply put, the practice of RALs damaging the abilities to work families to improve their economic status.

The legislation was introduced in the recently concluded legislative session that would have required that tax preparers disclose that what they are offering is a loan, and what the interest rates will be. Unfortunately, that bill went nowhere.

Predatory lending practices are nothing new, but in economic times such as this, we need to keep as many families afloat and out of poverty as we can.

Regulation of RALs through the full disclosure of fees, disclosure of how long the refund normally takes, and a limit on the amount a tax preparer or lender can charge, will help solve this problem.

But the problem can only really be solved if state lawmakers show more concern for the welfare of New Mexico’s low-income working families than the welfare of unscrupulous businesses.

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New Mexico Food Gap Task Force invades the ‘food desert’

New Mexico Food Gap Task Force invades the ‘food desert’

ALBUQUERQUE — The New Mexico Food Gap Task Force is expected to submit its first report to Gov. Bill Richardson today. The panel’s members want the state to pay for fresh fruits and veggies in schools, and to help rural communities gain access to fresh foods. But with state revenues plummeting, will they be able to wrangle the cash?

While food banks put bags of food directly into the hands of the hungry, the Food Gap Task Force, a group appointed last year by Gov. Richardson, is charged with a more complicated mission: finding creative ways to help poor, rural areas of the state gain better access to healthy and affordable food. The task force is trying to close the “food gap” between financially comfortable city folk and cash-strapped residents of far-flung communities.

The most familiar face on the task force is activist Pam Roy, who is also a co-director of Farm to Table, and the director of the New Mexico Food and Agriculture Policy Council. As the co-founder of the Southwest Marketing Network, she has worked for years to help local farmers market their products. With the help of task force co-chair Brian Moore, a state representative and small grocery store owner from Clayton, the group’s proposals have been making the rounds of the Legislature’s interim committees, where they have drawn some significant interest.

Buy Local

Getting more locally grown produce in schools has long been is one of Roy’s goals. Buying locally helps family farmers and puts fresh fruit and vegetables on the plates of some kids who don’t eat a lot of lettuce that’s not sitting on top of a hamburger patty. Seems like a win-win for kids and schools, right? But sometimes local food costs a little more, and sometimes red tape gets in the way.

“We’re requesting a $3.3 million investment into the school meal program to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables — New Mexico-grown when possible,” Roy says.

That “when possible” thing is important. School food activists have long fought over federal policies that made it hard for school districts to request locally grown foods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently made it clear that districts can request local products, but districts still struggle to come up with enough money for fresh fruits and vegetables, which are a lot more expensive than macaroni and cheese.

“Schools only get $2.57 [in reimbursement from the federal government] to provide a free lunch, and it costs them about $3.07 if they put a fresh fruit or vegetable option on the plate.”

Hence the $3.3 million.

Already there are 12 school districts in the state buying local foods, up from eight last year. Most buy apples, as well as pears, melons, tomatoes, salad greens, carrots and potatoes.

It’s no secret that New Mexico is in a budget crunch, but Roy is optimistic about the group’s chances in the next session. State Sen. Pete Campos and Reps. Rhonda King, Paul Bandy and Danice Picraux are among the bipartisan legislators whom Roy calls her “champions.”

Refrigerator Madness

Besides grocery money for schools, the task force wants to create a pilot program to invest in infrastructure in rural underserved communities. OK, it’s not as exciting as giving apples to hungry kids, but a small investment in reefers — commercial refrigerators, that is — could go a long way.

“One-third of our counties are considered what we call ‘food deserts,’” Roy says.

In a typical food desert, she explains, residents have to drive more than 10 miles to a grocery store, but in New Mexico it’s often more like 25 to 100 miles round trip. And when people have to drive a long way to get to a store, they’re less likely to buy food that spoils quickly — like fresh fruits and vegetables.

“We could go into a convenience store in Vaughn and say ‘Hey, we’ll help you put a cooler in here if you’ll put salads and oranges and apples in there.’ Then the only thing to buy in Vaughn isn’t a deep-fried burrito from Allsup’s. We could buy four or five coolers for $20,000,” Moore says.

When USDA invested in two large refrigeration units in northern New Mexico, it allowed schools to buy large quantities of apples, carrots and potatoes from local farmers, more than they could use immediately. In fact, the coolers’ supply of last season’s apples lasted into March of this year, Roy says.

Distribution Solution

Broadening the food distribution network is the last priority for the Food Gap Task Force. Many small towns in New Mexico don’t have grocery stores, and most of the small, rural stores that do exist are supplied by only one distributor, Affiliated Foods, which is based in Texas.

“The challenges of rural distribution are incredible. The stats are ugly. They pay $85 for what we pay $55 for, and they have to drive 35 miles to get it,” says Steve Warshawer, Enterprise Development Manager for La Montañita Coop, a member-owned family of grocery stores based in Albuquerque.

According to Roy, La Montañita has created an excellent example of an alternative distribution network with its regional foodshed project and Cooperative Distribution Center. To help New Mexico growers bring their products to market, the Coop’s trucks crisscross the state, picking up goods and delivering them to the Cooperative Distribution Center warehouse in Albuquerque. Although some of the products are sold through the Coop, many go to other grocery stores in the area.

A pilot program to strengthen the rural distribution system could help the Coop and other organizations pick up and deliver food to underserved communities.

“It could be a USDA commodity truck, a food bank truck or a Coop truck out on certain rounds, picking up and dropping off food. And a lot of these places don’t have retail stores, but most of them have a school, a community center, a convenience store, something like that where people could come to pick up food,” Warshawer says.

The details aren’t worked out, but that’s the point of a pilot project, he says.

“We’re trying to address rural food access and the rural economy … The goal is to ferret out which methods will achieve the desired result.”

Low Cash Flow

The problem, as usual, is money.

“A small investment by the state could go a long way,” Roy says. It could also spur private investment. The task force aims to execute these projects in partnership with the N.M. Department of Agriculture.

“We’ve had a lot of nonprofits like the McCune Charitable Foundation put money towards these issues and a partnership would be able to accept that money. That’s what we’re hoping for. We just need to get in there and do something,” Moore says.

But Sen. John Arthur Smith, the Democratic Chair of the Legislative Finance Committee, is not so sanguine. How realistic is the task force’s hope that its projects be funded fully, to the tune of nearly $4 million?

“If the public wants a tax increase then there will be the money for it,” Smith says.

“And If I’m still chair then we’ll listen to it on its merit. But the only place you can find additional money now is to take it from education or health care. And that’s not a pleasant option,” he says.

Now all eyes are on the calendar as legislators wait for the next state revenue estimate, due in two weeks. It is not expected to be good.

Despite the dour forecast, Moore is hopeful that the task force’s proposals will receive some funding.

“We really just want to show people what we could do. We want to be able to say, ‘OK, here’s what we did with $25,000: We were able to provide apples for all the kids in after-school programs in Taos for one semester,’ or ‘For $5,000 we put a cooler in a chapter house [on the Navajo Reservation] and we helped them make fresh fruits and vegetables available for chapter house members,” Moore says.

“We know this has to be incremental. You can’t do it all in one chunk.”

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Schwarzenegger to cohost border guvs conference in Santa Fe

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will co-host a Border Governors Conference on September 19-20 in Santa Fe. Leaders from Mexico and U.S. border states will discuss border security, economic development, and energy.

The meeting will be paid for by Govs. Richardson and Schwarzenegger, but mostly the money will come from private sponsors, according to a press release from Richardson’s office. It was originally scheduled to be held in Arizona, but Gov. Jan Brewer canceled the meeting after several officials said they would boycott because of Arizona’s controversial immigration law.

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