This is the twelfth entry in “It’s the Economy, Stupid” a 15-part series analyzing the local economic news in five swing states.
The hot air balloon is free, teens are still having babies – but not as many; and divergent plans emerge for historic sites. Those stories and more call the Land of Enchantment home this week, and it is their corresponding hullabaloo that commands the attention of this entry.
Thankfully no one was injured when a hot air balloon was trapped in power lines above an Albuquerque golf course, on Wednesday. Charged with electricity, those lines could very well have been transporting electrons generated by photovoltaic cells. The Albuquerque Journal discussed a study by the Solar Energy Industries Association, which praised New Mexico as the fourth-highest producer of solar electricity in the country. It measured solar system installations across residences, businesses, and utilities.
The fourth-place ranking for 2011 improves on a seventh-place ranking for 2010, and puts the state above its four swing state peers. For their parts, Colorado and Pennsylvania were constant and fifth and sixth, while Florida and Ohio fell to 17th and 18th, respectively. New Mexico was noted for producing the most solar energy per capita. Such production, the article notes, could be linked to the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard for utilities – no such national standard exists. Utilities are required to purchase at least 15% of their energy from renewable sources by 2015 and 20% by 2020. Solar is to account for no less than 20% of the renewable energy portfolio.
While the state may be celebrating its stellar solar ranking, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention noted this week that New Mexico had the second-highest rate of teen pregnancy in the country, in 2010. Its rate of 5.3% among women aged 15 to 19 is far above the national average of 3.4%. This ranking comes even as the state’s rate declined from 6.5% in 2000. Of the remaining swing states, only Ohio had a rate about the national average – albeit only slightly, at 3.42%. The remaining three were below the average with Colorado at 3.34%, Florida at 3.2%, and Pennsylvania at 2.7%. The CDC estimates that teen pregnancies cost taxpayers $11 billion per year in additional health care costs, foster care, incarceration, and lost tax revenue.
Health education likely plays a key role in reducing teen pregnancies, and it is health education about nutrition that is the focus of a new center in Silver City. Two years after receiving a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, The Commons Center for Food Security and Sustainability had its groundbreaking ceremony this week, as reported by the Las Cruces Sun News. The $475,000 grant was awarded to create the all-in-one emergency food distribution and nutrition education center. Presumably the investment in nutrition education will limit higher health expenses later due to chronic diseases such as adult-onset diabetes.
Even as one city spends on nutrition, the Las Cruces city council is considering purchasing the municipality’s fallow country club. The 110-acre Las Cruces Country Club was first opened in 1927, but closed its gates last November. Fears of the downtown site falling into disrepair likely spurred the discussion, but its estimated $9 million price tag is said to be out of reach for the city. Upkeep of the greens would consume considerable water resources too. Control of that resource can be contentious, but 280 miles away in Santa Fe a historic water-rights settlement would join county and Native American users into a $200 million regional water system. After State and Federal support the estimated cost to the city comes in less than the golf course, at $7.4 million.
Starting with a seven, but ending with fewer zeroes is a historic development grant awarded to the town of Taos. The $70,000 grant from the self-described grassroots, New Mexico Main Street Program is for the Taos Arts and Culture District. The Main Streets Program has been awarding development dollars since 1985, with $9.3 million distributed in 2011 for 167 building rehabilitation projects. The Program currently supports 23 main street projects and 6 state-authorized arts and cultural districts.
To the chagrin of the New Mexico state government, protection of historic sites is a characteristic shared by the local Taos and Santa Fe governments. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican the city’s Historic Design Review Board expressed skepticism at a plan to demolish four casitas across from the Capitol for the construction of a $25 million state office building. The small homes were built in the early 1930’s and are protected under a 2009 law that requires state construction plans to conform to municipal ordinances. The homes are not all that impressive – at least when using Google Street View.
A more transformative state initiative comes in the field of public education. The U.S. Department of Education announced on Monday that five states – including New Mexico and Colorado, which missed out on the 2011 phase of Race to the Top grant funding, are eligible to revise their applications for the $133 million made available in the 2012 fund. The funds come from $4.35 billion grant program that was included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – otherwise known as the infamous stimulus bill. It rewards states for innovative plans to boost public education. New Mexico’s original application requested $25 million to track data on early childhood programs, set standards for preschools, and develop programs for the lowest-performing areas. The state is eligible for up to 50% of those funds in this latest competition.
Pennsylvania “City schools to cut back on special ed” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 11th
Pittsburgh Public Schools will cut 78 special education positions in an effort to close a looming budget gap. Three-quarters of those laid-off will be teachers, and so class sizes are expected increase to cope with the losses. The lay-offs are part of a $5 million cut, which represents 5% of the 107.6% million that the city pays for special education each year.
Florida “Gasoline prices may be peaking, but $4 a gallon still hurts” Orlando Sentinel, April 10th
A local businessman is used to personify the cost of rising gas prices, with the individual having to devote up to $70 each week to fill-up his car. Still, the article notes that even as the price in Orlando recently peaked at $4.01, it has begun to fall to a new average of $3.94. That is still above the national average of $3.92, and is little consolidation to those who have seen prices rise by 50 cents over the last four months. There are prospects for a further price decline, with the Chinese economy slowing, a possible recession ongoing throughout Europe, and the willingness of Iran to enter into talks about its nuclear program.
Colorado “Commuters rejoice: I-25 widening to Monument gets OK” Colorado Springs Gazette, April 11th
The Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments approved a plan to spend $17.5 million to widen a commuter-laden stretch of interstate 25. The decision comes as the Colorado Department of Transportation decided to fund the majority of the $66 million project, last October. The article notes that the contract is likely to be awarded next fall, so frustrated commuters will have to wait some time before they see any relief. Still, the action on infrastructure development is a welcome development given this country’s recent, poor ratings.
Ohio “Sales tax numbers offer glimpse of future optimism across the region” The Plain Dealer, April 11th
Residents of Northeastern Ohio appear to have embraced the economic recovery. The article cites data from the Ohio Department of Taxation which has sales tax revenues up for at least 17 of the last 22 months across the counties of the region, relative to the same months the year before. Two counties saw the growth across all 22 months. With consumer spending representing two-thirds of GDP, the steady increase indicates that this recovery may be sustainable.
“Hot Air Balloon” image provided courtesy of Marcosleal via Wikimedia Commons