NM Supreme Court revisits textbook case

New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura, left, and Justice Charles Daniels, listen as attorney Eric Baxter, representing the New Mexico Association of Nonpublic Schools, during oral arguments in a case involving state money being used to buy textbooks for private schools. The arguments were presented in Santa Fe, Monday. (EDDIE MOORE/ALBUQUERQUE JOURNAL)

SANTA FE — The New Mexico Supreme Court revisited a years-long case Monday morning on whether private schools should get textbooks paid for with state money.

The justices are no strangers to the arguments as they had ruled the practice unconstitutional in 2015.

They upheld a case filed in 2012 by New Mexico parents Cathy Moses of Santa Fe and Paul Weinbaum of Las Cruces against the state’s Public Education Department seeking to stop tax supported textbooks and computer programs for private schools. Public funds for textbooks were cut off from 109 private schools in the state.

But last year the U.S. Supreme Court told the New Mexico Supreme Court to revisit the case. The opinion followed a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that the Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center in Missouri had the right to state funds for a playground renovation.

A decision from New Mexico’s highest court is expected by the end of the year.

Frank Susman, who represented Weinbaum and Moses, argued allowing private schools to utilize the state-approved textbooks and other instructional materials was unconstitutional.

“It’s not really subject to interpretation,” Susman said on the Instructional Material Law.

Susman argued that since private schools aren’t under absolute control of the state, including its curriculum and finances, then they aren’t privy to the textbooks provided by taxpayers.

The attorney noted there is a finite amount of funding available to public schools, which he said were underfunded to begin with. And he said to put money toward private schools would be a disservice to the public school system.

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Susan Hapka, representing the Public Education Department, disagreed, arguing the disservice lies in taking away textbooks from schools that already rely on them.

Right now, private schools using the textbooks have to foot the bill due to the New Mexico Supreme Court’s ruling in 2015.

Textbooks and computer programs at private, including some religious, schools cost an estimated $1 million a year.

Hapka said she believes the financial toll will eventually fall on the parents and students if schools have to make up the difference.

“New Mexico has a long history of loaning textbooks to schoolchildren,” she said.

Eric Baxter, representing the New Mexico Association of Nonpublic Schools, said the textbook lending program is 80 years old.

He also said rural areas rely more on private education and the textbooks provided by the state, adding it’s a much smaller burden for the state to provide textbooks than to provide an education for all of the kids in the private schools.

He said the lawsuit the state Supreme Court upheld relies on an “anti-Catholic” measures known as Blaine Amendments.

“That was originally designed to disadvantage New Mexico’s native Catholic citizens. Now, in New Mexico and across the country, Blaine Amendments have been used to keep religious organizations from participating in neutral, generally applicable government programs on the same terms as everyone else,” Baxter wrote in a statement.

In court, Baxter said the ultimate harm is that certain New Mexican citizens are barred from approaching the state for resources that other citizens can.

Garrett White, 17, left, and Nathaniel Mouttet, 18, both students from Mesilla Valley Christian School, were two of a small group of students from private schools attending a New Mexico Supreme Court hearing on state money being used to buy textbooks for private schools. They were represented by Eric Baxter, with the Becket law firm of Washington D.C. Oral arguments were given Monday. (EDDIE MOORE/ALBUQUERQUE JOURNAL)

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Santa Fe, N.M., Considers Small Cell as Answer to Coverage Woes

Though some are not happy about the proposal to let telecoms install small antennas in the public right of way, city officials believe the decision will spur more competition and better service to residents.

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(TNS) — SANTA FE, N.M. — Santa Fe’s often spotty wireless and cellphone service may be in for an upgrade.

A package of ordinance changes moving through the city council approval process is intended to open up rights of way to telecommunications providers and encourage more competition over rates among service providers.

Matt Brown, the city’s economic development director, said residents shouldn’t expect to see improved service right away, or even in the next six months, if the proposed ordinances are approved, as expected.

“But it’s a huge step forward in trying to solve the problems broadly,” he said.

Also, there’s a legal hurdle to clear. Anti-wireless activists who consider wireless signals a health detriment have gone to court to block the proposed city franchise agreements with cell service providers.

At the state level, new legislation signed into law by the governor this year requires cities and counties to regulate telecommunications equipment placed in public rights of way. The measure says the local governments are to establish rates, fees, regulations and requirements for placing “small cellular provider facilities on municipal or county infrastructure,” according to a synopsis for the Wireless Consumer Advanced Infrastructure Investment Act.

In addition, the act allows wireless providers to install small wireless facilities in public rights of way, including on utility poles, at a cost not to exceed $250. The law, intended to prevent exclusive agreements that would create a monopoly, goes into effect in September.

The state action came after the city council, last August, amended its own city code pertaining to the use of telecommunications equipment within public rights of way.

Now, five franchise agreements in the form of ordinance amendments are in the pipeline for possible city council approval this spring.

Four of them were recently approved unanimously by the council’s Public Utilities Committee. If all of them stay on track during the committee review process – and the proposals survive the pending legal challenge – a public hearing will be held before the city council May 9.

Benefits described

According to fiscal impact reports attached to the five proposals, opening public rights of way to telecommunication providers will benefit the community in several ways.

City staff says the franchise agreements will result in expanded cellular coverage throughout the city, increased redundancy of commercial telecommunications capabilities, better connectivity and quicker internet speeds. City residents may also benefit from lower retail prices that come from increased competition in the market.

Santa Fe residents and visitors alike have experienced unsteady cellphone service for about a year now. So much so that, in December, then-mayor Javier Gonzales declared an emergency – using authority granted to the mayor under the city’s riot control ordinance – because the unreliability of communications between police, fire and medical responders threatened public health and welfare. About a dozen temporary cell towers were, and still are, scattered around the city to improve reception.

A city spokesman said there are anecdotal reports that connectivity issues have improved markedly in recent weeks.

The change in state law and the city’s proposals won’t pertain to the big telecommunication towers, which are most often located on private land, said Brown. But residents may start noticing more smaller antenna and equipment placed on light poles.

“There will still be a Land Use review process for height and aesthetic limitations. This is being taken seriously,” he said.

Sean Moody, a former city government employee now under contract with the city as a consultant, said cellphone service problems within the city arose when Verizon and other carriers began offering unlimited data plans to customers. “What that did was cause usage to skyrocket and it overwhelmed their capabilities,” he said.

One thing companies like Verizon are doing to correct the problem is to reduce coverage ranges by becoming less reliant on the big cell towers people consider eyesores and increasing the number of smaller antennas.

“The strategy is to put in a lot of unobtrusive smaller towers to communicate with the big ones. We’re in the midst of seeing that change, and the city will do its best to make sure it’s as non-disruptive as possible,” Moody said.

Brown said local businesses won’t benefit much from increased internet speeds, except that they could make living in Santa Fe more appealing to prospective employees. These days, people expect their calls not to be dropped and their internet connections to work, especially inside the city limits.

“Our objective in economic development is to serve the entire community; it’s not limited to serving businesses,” he said.

The city Economic Development Department’s role, he said, is to create an environment that will attract businesses and allow them to grow. He mentioned the recent successes of Meow Wolf and Descartes Labs, which are bringing in talent from outside the state. To do that, what have become simple quality of life requirements, like the ability to reliably get online and make phone calls, need to be present.

“It’s quality of life for people who have been here, are contemplating moving here, and the quality of business performance” that’s important to them, Brown said.

Legal history

Dating back to the days of Ma Bell, Santa Fe has always been served by her offspring – U.S. West, Qwest and now CenturyLink, which became the “incumbent” owner of the telecommunications network in the region, including the spur that runs from the CenturyLink exchange building downtown on East Alameda all the way to Albuquerque.

In 2010, when the company was operating as Qwest, a dispute over fees the city charged on gross receipts taxes as a form of compensation for use of the public rights of way wound up in court. Qwest also questioned whether city charges were in violation of federal law.

The city stopped issuing franchise agreements while the legal dispute played out. With that case settled in 2015, the city is now taking steps to open rights of way to other providers.

Local companies vie for franchise agreements

Use of city rights of way central to the proposal… continue reading »

The proposals now under consideration at City Hall would grant franchises to Cyber Mesa, to which the city previously awarded a $1 million project to connect CenturyLink’s downtown exchange building to the Railyard; NMSURF, also a local company; Conterra Ultra Broadband, LLC, which has a broadband contract with Santa Fe Public Schools; Plateau Telecommunications, Inc., based in Clovis; and Broadband Network of New Mexico.

Broadband would pay a one-time fee for the franchise, then annual fees based on the number of poles and antennas that are installed.

The other four companies would pay the city a 2 percent franchise fee applied to gross charges. How much those fees will generate is unknown, according to city reports. But a March 23 memo from Brown suggests the city won’t make much from franchise fees.

“The new franchises will require no new capital or operating expenditures and will generate no net increase in franchise fee revenue,” the memo states, adding that “total franchise fee revenue will continue to decline as new competition lowers the retail rates on which most of the fees are based.”

Lawsuit challenge

Not everyone is happy about what’s happening.

Anti-wireless activist Arthur Firstenberg, artist Monika Steinhoff and the Santa Fe Alliance for Public Health and Safety filed a federal lawsuit against the city in February. They are seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the telecommunications plans from advancing.

“We are suing to invalidate the ordinance under which the franchises are being adopted,” Firstenberg said, adding that he thinks the ordinances are illegal and violate due process. The city’s motion to dismiss the suit is awaiting a judge’s ruling.

Firstenberg said what the city is doing is part of a telecom industry-led effort sweeping the nation. “This is all about 5G, and it’s happening all over the country,” he said. “The industry is lobbying hard at the federal level, the state level and the city level.”

Some communities are pushing back, he said. But already 18 states, including New Mexico with its Wireless Consumer Advanced Infrastructure Investment Act, have adopted laws that will contribute to the proliferation of telecommunication antennas.

“There are going to be cell towers in front of your house mounted on existing utility poles. This will cause enormous environmental and health issues,” said Firstenberg, who suffers from electromagnetic hypersensitivity and brought a long-running lawsuit against a neighbor for her use of electronic devices like her computer and cellphone.

The industry’s objective is to provide faster bandwidth, which Firstenberg said would result in “many, many more antennas. Five-G will require an antenna at least every 200 yards everywhere.”

Firstenberg, a Cornell University-educated scientist who last year published the book “The Invisible Rainbow, a History of Electricity and Life,” said he is part of a network of people from all over the world trying to stop the expansion from happening, but “it’s gathering steam, the momentum for it is like a freight train.”

He and his group hope to stop the train in Santa Fe by coming out in force to the May 9 public hearing.

City Councilor Mike Harris, who is sponsoring each of the five city ordinance amendments, said he thinks the city is obligated to revise its laws.

“It’s my understanding that our municipality, our city, is responding to federal legislation, as well as state legislation,” he said.

The documents relating to each of the applicants for use of the rights of way say that not enacting the city changes “may expose the city to the possibility of legal claims under federal and state law.”

©2018 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Santa Fe picks publishing entrepreneur as next mayor

SANTA FE, N.M. — Entrepreneur and Santa Fe Mayor-elect Alan Webber said local government in the nation’s oldest state capital is at an important transition and must adapt to the pressures of being an “world-class” destination.

Santa Fe voters elected Webber, the founder of Fast Company Magazine, on Tuesday. He prevailed as a newcomer to political office in a five-way race against a local school board member and three men on the city council.

Webber will be the first to lead Santa Fe under a new strong-mayor system, with a nearly quadrupled salary of $110,000. He’ll have greater direct authority over the city manager, city attorney and clerk’s office.

He was supported by business interests, unions and prominent New Mexico politicians including a revered former district court judge and the Democratic mayor of Albuquerque. His campaign raised more than $315,000 — the most of any candidate.

“The idea of the strong mayor is we need to really adapt the structure of city government to the changing nature of the city’s growth and development,” Webber told the Associated Press. “The city is simultaneously a small community, very intimate, and also a world-class destination.”

While campaigning, Weber pointedly criticized the management of city finances.

Other challenges include finding tenants at an abandoned city-owned university campus and addressing cultural strife over an annual pageant of costumed Spanish conquistadors.

Tuesday marked Santa Fe’s first ranked choice election in which voters could rank each candidate from first to last on the ballot, in order of preference.

Webber gained a majority of votes after four elimination rounds.

In the first round, he led the field but fell short of a majority. So the last-place finisher was eliminated and voters’ second choices were applied to the remaining candidates. The process was repeated until Webber won a 66 percent majority.

The ranked choice voting method has spread to 12 progressive-leaning cities across the country, from San Francisco to Portland, Maine. In June, Maine will become the first state first to let voters rank candidates in a statewide primary election.

Maria Perez, director of the election reform group FairVote New Mexico, mounted a legal challenge that forced implementation of ranked voting in Santa Fe this year— a decade after it was approved by voters.

She said the method “requires that the winning candidate reaches out beyond his or her base.”

Incumbent Mayor Javier Gonzales, a prominent Democrat and the city’s first openly gay mayor, chose not to run for a second term. Last month he dropped out of the campaign for lieutenant governor. He has denied allegations of decades-old sexual assault, characterizing the allegations as slanderous and a part of political attacks by his critics.

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NM faces class-action suit on denial of ID cards

Former Santa Fe Mayor David Coss speaks during an immigration rally in the Rotunda at the State Capitol last year. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE — David Coss says he was turned away repeatedly when he applied for a driver’s authorization card, even though he had the proper documents.

Now he’s the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit that accuses the state Taxation and Revenue Department of illegally denying driver’s authorization and other ID cards to New Mexicans who can’t or don’t want to provide the more onerous documents required for a full driver’s license.

Coss, a former mayor of Santa Fe, said employees at the Motor Vehicle Division improperly required him to provide a Social Security card, which he’d lost.

“Nothing I took to MVD was good enough,” Coss said in a news conference Monday. “I know I’m not the only New Mexican dealing with this nightmare.”

The Taxation and Revenue Department, in turn, described the lawsuit’s allegations as isolated examples and said that nearly 35,000 driver authorization cards have been issued since 2016.

“This is the latest in their long line of political stunts,” Benjamin Cloutier, a spokesman for the Taxation and Revenue Department, said in a written statement.

Coss is one of seven plaintiffs identified by name in the lawsuit, filed Monday in the state’s 1st Judicial District. Also named as plaintiffs are the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness and Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a group that advocates for immigrants’ rights.

They say Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration is improperly requiring too much documentation for people who want a driver’s authorization card or similar identification card — not a driver’s license that complies with the federal Real ID Act.

The suit also alleges the state has failed to notify people of their right to appeal if they are denied the driver’s authorization card or ID.

The litigation comes after Martinez and a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers agreed in 2016 to a compromise law creating a two-tiered licensing system for New Mexico drivers — one ID card that meets federal requirements, the other available to people with less documentation or living in the country illegally.

The second-tier option provides a driver’s authorization card or ID that cannot be used for federal purposes.

After winning election in 2010, Gov. Martinez repeatedly pushed to change a 2003 law that allowed people living in the country illegally to obtain a driver’s license. She had initially sought to repeal the law but later accepted the compromise legislation.

It was critical for public safety, Martinez said, to revise the 2003 law, which she and other opponents said made New Mexico a magnet for fraud.

“Our two-tiered compromise is a result of bipartisan legislation that ends the dangerous practice of giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and brings New Mexico into compliance with the Federal Real ID law,” Cloutier said Monday.

Supporters of the class-action suit said the 2016 compromise provided a way for homeless people, undocumented immigrants and others to obtain an ID they could use to work, rent a hotel room or open a bank account.

Denying access to those cards “really hits the most vulnerable in our community the hardest,” said Sovereign Hager, supervising attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

Gabriela Ibañez Guzmán, an attorney for Somos Un Pueblo Unido, said the group tried to work with the state to avoid litigation.

“Unfortunately, this administration from the very beginning failed to implement the law correctly,” said Marcela Díaz, executive director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido.

The lawsuit says the state Taxation and Revenue Department invented an extra requirement that isn’t outlined in state law — requiring applicants to “establish proof of identification number.” An “untold number” of people have been unlawfully denied the driver authorization cards and IDs, the suit says.

Coss said he wanted a driver’s authorization card, rather than a federally compliant driver’s license, because he believes the federal law is an overreach that infringes on people’s privacy rights, and he just wanted a card allowing him to drive.

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Utah Is A Fantastic Place For Mountain Biking

If you love mountain biking, Utah is well worth a visit. There are countless beautiful trails throughout the southern part of the state that are extremely fun to ride. From gentle trails that are appropriate for beginners all the way up to extremely steep slopes that are best for advanced riders, there is a little bit of something for everyone.

If you have never been to southern Utah, you may be surprised by just how beautiful it is. The area is home to multiple national parks including Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Zion, and Arches National Park. Everywhere you look, there is stunning scenery to take in. Most areas have large rock formations that can be incredibly fun to ride a mountain bike on.

Even if you choose a beginner level trail, the scenery surrounding most mountain biking trails in the state is absolutely breathtaking. If you have a chance to bring a camera along with you, you definitely should. You will no doubt want to stop at multiple points along the way to take photographs of some of the sites that you see.

The Moab area is particularly popular with mountain bikers. It is no wonder, either, when you look at all of the amazing trails that are packed into this small area. Most people recommend visiting in the fall if you want the ideal riding conditions. By about September or October, the temperatures have dropped enough to make it comfortable to ride outdoors. Additionally, the snow in the higher elevations has melted, meaning that all of the trails are accessible.

You can also ride in the springtime, although you may run into trail closures because of snow. The summer months can be quite hot during the day. However, you can still get in a good ride in the early morning hours or in the evening.

Whatever time of year you visit, you no doubt will be impressed with the many mountain biking opportunities that there are in Utah. This part of the country has some incredible scenery and stunning rock formations that are unlike anywhere else. If you are looking for a beautiful place to ride your bike, look no further.

Just be sure to plan ahead. Hotels can fill up quickly during the most popular times of the year. Book your room well in advance to ensure that you have a comfortable place to stay while you enjoy the trails.