Monday, April 13, 2009

Chu On This: US Energy Boss Does Not Calm Frayed Nerves; Labs' Budget Not Addressed During NM Visit, Plus: Solace In Solar For ABQ Economy? 

Secretary Chu
Mr. and Mrs. New Mexico, already watching their economy battered by the energy price crash, the real estate and stock market busts plus ever-rising unemployment, could take no comfort from the first NM visit by new Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. He offered no assurances that the backbone of the state's economy--Sandia and Los Alamos Labs--will go unscathed in the budget battle waiting to commence on Capitol Hill in only a few short months.

Chu sported a sunny, but ambiguous disposition during his Thursday and Friday visits to Los Alamos and Sandia, offering the headline that the core mission of the labs--maintaining the safety and reliability of the nation's nuclear stockpile--will remain job one for the giant facilities. However, as we used to say back in our newsroom days, "He buried the lead."

That lead is the intense argument at the top echelons of the US Government over funding of the national labs. Only a day before Chu arrived in New Mexico one of the first public shots over future funding was fired by Deputy US Secretary of State James Steinberg. He sent chills down NM's economic backbone when he mused out loud at a Boston conference about how money for Los Alamos and Sandia could be diverted to beefen up the arms control bureaucracy. It doesn't sound like a pipe dream, either. After all, our new President is calling for the eradication of all nuclear weapons, not building more of them for the national labs to safeguard.


Yes, Dr. Chu gave the new party line about "diversifying" the labs' mission into such things as global climate change so they could survive in this new world order, but even he seemed to sense the long shot odds of such new programs replacing a gutted weapons budget. From the AP:

Chu said his biggest fear is that the nation won't realize the importance of having the labs work on research outside nuclear weapons and security. Not doing other research, he said, would ignore "an incredible resource for the country.

You got that right, Mr. Secretary. There are plenty of senators and congressmen who could give a hoot about diversifying the labs. They want our loot after enviously watching for decades while it was stockpiled by then-Senator Pete Domenici. And don't forget the left-wing of the Democratic Party. They have some new found membership in the Congress and the Administration and have never been gun-ho over funding the labs.

Sandia's huge economic impact on the ABQ metro area seems more like a threat than a boast in this environment where the wheels seem to come off something with disconcerting regularity. The lab says on its Web site that it employed over 7,000 and had a $500 million payroll in 2008. The total budget is about $2.249 billion. (Sandia's budget was flat for fiscal year 2009). That gargantuan payroll--plus cash to contractors--is to Albuquerque what blood is to Dracula. If the worst occurs, it seems we won't get sucked dry all at once, but the slow bleed--like the one already underway at Los Alamos---appears to be on the table.

It is New Mexico's chief conundrum: How does its five member congressional delegation keep the nuclear weapons labs fully funded even as we reduce nuclear weapons?


After Dr. Chu's abstruse Duke City appearance, perhaps our Daily Trumpeter was justified in looking for some relief by blaring across its front pages the news that ABQ is in line for 225 solar energy jobs. This was touted as a sprouting of the "green" economy, but there may be a problem--the Greens may not be playing in the garden.

Not that they don't love solar jobs and all that cool stuff. But the Bernalillo County Commission, as part of its package of "incentives" to attract Solar Energy Ventures, promised it would float a $15 million revenue bond backed by "environmental gross-receipts" to build a water and sewer line to the facility to be located way out on the West Mesa. Who else would use that line? (Answer: More people.) Making the greens turn more green was the tidbit that a portion of the land that the solar panel manufacturer could occupy in the future could be land owned by developer SunCal. That's the dreaded arch foe of the greens who they see as the progenitor of more urban sprawl but whose supporters see as providing a responsible template for the future.

And who was a key player in attracting the new company?. How about outgoing Bernalillo County Commission Chairwoman Deanna Archuleta who has confirmed that she'll become the assistant secretary for land and science in the Obama Interior Department. She is also a manager for the the Wilderness Society.


Bill vetoes the bill to restrain the government double-dippers and they are off and running again in Rio Rancho. John Castilllo, who left the city of ABQ when Mayor Chavez said no more double-dipping starting at year's end, has landed a plum post with the city of Rio Rancho courtesy of City Manager James Jimenez, Mayor Tom Swisstack and a compliant city council. Castillo's pay? $102,000 a year. Pension? $5800 a month. The total? $171,600.

Santa Fe State Rep. Lucky Varela's bill would have made most government employees wait one year before they returned to work--not 90 days--and restricting them to making $30,000 a year or be forced to give up their pensions. Double-dipping may not be illegal, but critics say it is unethical because it violates the original intent of the retiree plan. Not only that. The double-dippers don't pay into PERA--the state employees retirement fund--making the state pay their contributions. But hey, let's party like it's 1999. Only it isn't. Richardson had a tin ear on this one as well as his eye on the 2010 election ballot--he isn't on it.


Former ABQ GOP State Rep. Rory Ogle put the needle in the liberals here Friday when he opined that the indictment of Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block over alleged misuse of the public financing he used for his 2008 election campaign demonstrates that public financing encourages corruption, not discourages it. Steven Allen of NM Common Cause
was quick to fire back:

...Public financing is the best way to eliminate the unfair influence—or appearance of such influence—that large campaign contributions can have on policy making. In Block’s case, it looks pretty clear that he tried to abuse the system. Last year, Common Cause urged the Secretary of State to investigate and punish him if the allegations turned out to be true. Appropriately, he was fined....The public financing law specifically states that if a person ‘willfully or knowingly violates’ the provisions of this law, they’re guilty of a fourth-degree felony and they ‘shall return to the fund all money distributed’ to them. (Sec. 1-19A-17). If Block did this, then the result of this case must be the return of the public funds he received from the state of New Mexico.”


Rep. Teague
Bill Gomez, the district director for Dem southern Congressman Harry Teague, is apparently the first high-profile casualty among the state's new congressional members. Insiders report Gomez of Las Cruces "was not a good fit" for Teague. The search is on for a replacement so get your resumes in.

This won't be the last of the staff shuffling. It will take time for the state's three brand new congressman to get a feel for what works for them. Turf battles between district directors and the DC chiefs of staff are not uncommon and staffers often stay on the Hill for only a year or two to bolster their resumes before heading to higher-paying private sector jobs. And don't forget the congressional wives. Don't get along with a Rep's better half? You may find her opinion of you is more important than that of the boss.

ABQ Dem US Rep. Heinrich gave a speech recently in which he commented on the history of clashes between district directors and their DC bosses:

Unlike many representatives, he decided to have more staff in his Albuquerque office than his D.C. office because he wanted people on the ground for constituent services. The 1st District might be the smallest congressional district (geographically) in the state, but it’s one of the larger districts (based on population) nationally. So, he has staff people assigned by geography and by issues.

“I’ve seen the corrosive impact some congresspeople fall into with the D.C. and local staff who rub each other the wrong way and who compete,” he said. “That’s bad for constituent services.”

Point taken. But a healthy competition that doesn't get out of hand can be helpful to one interest--the voters who put the congressmen in office.


We thought reader Greg Lennes of Las Cruces incorporated the titles of all of actor Val Kilmer's movies in his tongue-in-cheek analysis of Val's possible 2010 NM Guv run, but apparently not. From a Santa Fe reader:

Although a gifted actor, immortalizing a dead rock star is unlikely to prepare Kilmer for politicking his way through “The Doors” on the fourth floor of the Capitol. Perhaps, the erstwhile actor should spend more time under a “Willow” pondering his future in public office.

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