Rio Grande Foundation

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Rio Grande Foundation
Rio Grande Foundation logo.png
Motto Liberty, Opportunity, Prosperity
Formation 2000
Founders Hal Stratton and Harry Messenheimer
Type Public Policy Think Tank
Paul Gessing
Revenue: $275,575
Expenses: $220,734
(FYE December 2014)[1]

The Rio Grande Foundation is a non-partisan economic policy think tank in Albuquerque, New Mexico affiliated with the U.S. nationwide State Policy Network. It was founded in 2000 by Hal Stratton, a former state representative and Attorney General of New Mexico, and Harry Messenheimer, an economist then at George Mason University. Paul Gessing became president in 2006.[2]

The Foundation's stated mission is "to increase liberty and prosperity for all of New Mexico's citizens" by "informing New Mexicans of the importance of individual freedom, limited government, and economic opportunity". As a 501(c)(3) it does not engage in direct political activity or support specific candidates or parties.

The Foundation maintains a website and a blog called Errors of Enchantment, and regularly contributes opinion pieces to local newspapers, as well as publishing studies related to state economic policy. The Foundation's president, Paul Gessing, has been featured on local talk shows and radio programs to discuss economic issues.

Policy goals[edit]

The Rio Grande Foundation researches issues of government policy educates the public on many government reform measures. Some areas of government reform the Foundation advocates are limited taxation and reduced government spending,[3][4] education reform through school choice by means of tax credits or school vouchers,[5][6][7] and the preservation of liberties protected by the United States Constitution and the Constitution of New Mexico, such as supporting the rights of property owners against wanton government seizure[8] (see Takings Clause, Fifth Amendment).


Government transparency[edit]

The Wall Street Journal ran an article on January 19, 2009, outlining several allegations of state corruption in New Mexico and pointing to the state's lack of comprehensive ethics laws as a possible cause.[9] On January 29, The Wall Street Journal published a letter by Rio Grande Foundation president Paul Gessing, suggesting that government transparency would improve New Mexico's political situation. Gessing pointed out that the legislature had failed to follow through with any of the proposed ethics reforms of recent years. He suggested that the legislature begin Webcasting its sessions to give citizens the opportunity to monitor their government's actions.[10]

During the 2009 legislative session, State Representative Janice Arnold-Jones made arrangements to Webcast legislative committee meetings herself.[11] The meetings were Webcast on[12]

The New Mexico Watchdog was initially funded by the Rio Grande Foundation, and subsequently became affiliated with the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

Opposition to new cabinet-level positions[edit]

The Rio Grande Foundation has voiced opposition to the proposed creation of two new cabinet-level positions by the New Mexico legislature in its 2009 regular session.

House Bill 146 called for the creation of a Department of Motor Vehicles with a cabinet-level secretary. The new department would have had some capability to regulate commerce. It would have had the authority to seize privately owned vehicles used for commerce in cases where the owner owed taxes to the state. The bill would have also made it easier to seize vehicles used for interstate commerce than it would for vehicles used only within state lines. It was sponsored by Rep. Patricia A. Lundstrom.[13]

Senate Bill 21 called for the creation of a Hispanic Affairs Department with a cabinet-level secretary. It was sponsored by Sen. Michael S. Sanchez.[14]

Rio Grande Foundation president Paul Gessing criticized the proposed creation of new departments and cabinet-level positions during a period of economic recession. In an interview with the Santa Fe New Mexican, Gessing said, "the last thing we need is to hire more highly-paid cabinet-level state bureaucrats."[15]

Opposition to Albuquerque streetcar[edit]

On November 6, 2006, members of the Albuquerque City Council voted to extend the Transportation Infrastructure Tax until 2020. The tax was initially set to expire in 2009. Half of the funds levied through the extended tax were intended to be diverted to a streetcar project, which was supported by several councilors as well as Mayor Martin Chavez. The cost of the first phase of the project was estimated at $270 million.[16]

The Rio Grande Foundation helped organize a group of concerned citizens called Stop Wasting Albuquerque's Taxes (SWAT). Members of SWAT felt that the existing city bus system met transportation needs and that a streetcar project would be a severe waste of taxpayers' money. SWAT also questioned whether the streetcar project would boost the property values of citizens connected with the city government, at the expense of the city's populace. Mayor Martin Chavez called SWAT an "illegal group" because it didn't register with the city government.[16]

On November 19, 2006, the Rio Grande Foundation and SWAT held a rally to voice opposition to the streetcar project.[17] City Transit Director Greg Payne attended the rally, but refused to defend the streetcar project.[16]

Opposition to Rail Runner[edit]

The Foundation has been consistently opposed to the New Mexico Rail Runner Express on fiscal grounds.[18][19][20] Transportation policy expert and frequent critic of light rail Randal O'Toole spoke on the subject of public transit at a 2010 event sponsored by the Rio Grande Foundation.[21] In a 2011 report, the Foundation noted that early projected costs were far below its actual costs and suggesting that the subsidies it receives could produce many more passenger-miles if spent on other transportation projects; for these and other reasons including low daily ridership (an estimated 3,700 as of the second quarter of 2013[22]), the report advocated the termination of the Rail Runner line.[23]

Protection against eminent domain[edit]

On March 7, 2006, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson vetoed House Bill 746, a measure intended to limit the seizure of private property through eminent domain.[24] He became the nation's first governor to veto legislation intended to protect property owners after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. New London (2005) that a government could transfer land from one private owner to another to further economic development.

House Bill 746 specified that the state could not transfer property between private parties within five years of its initial seizure. By vetoing this bill, Governor Richardson was upholding the provisions of New Mexico's 1979 Metropolitan Redevelopment Code, which allowed for the seizure of private property for economic development. After his veto, the Governor appointed a task force to recommend solutions to the eminent domain provision in the Metropolitan Redevelopment Code.

Rio Grande Foundation President Paul Gessing published opinion pieces on the Heartland Institute's website and in the Albuquerque Journal, condemning Governor Richardson's veto of House Bill 746.[8][24]

Subsequently, the Governor's task force found that there was need for reform in the state's eminent domain law.[25] On April 3, 2007, both houses of the state legislature passed laws to remove the eminent domain provision from the Metropolitan Redevelopment Code.[26][27]

Education reform[edit]

In keeping with its general free-market approach, the Rio Grande Foundation advocates school choice.[28] It participated in National School Choice Week January 27–February 2, 2014, hosting the Albuquerque event of a nationwide tour on January 26.[29] It also advocates incremental reforms that it considers improvements, such as the K-12 reforms implemented in Florida in 1999, voucher systems,[30] or virtual schooling.[31] Gessing articulated the Foundation's vision in an interview on Las Cruces Public Television in 2012.[32]

At the post-secondary level, the Foundation has written frequently about perceived shortcomings in New Mexico's Lottery Scholarship Program.[33] In a 2014 report, it detailed some of these shortcomings and made policy recommendations to restore the fund's capacity for self-financing and ensure that the scholarship money was being used effectively.[34] In 2014 it opposed New Mexico Senate Bill 347, which temporarily diverted General Fund revenues into the Lottery Scholarship fund and which ultimately passed.[35]

In 2012 the Foundation published a report grading the transparency of New Mexico's 16 institutes of higher education.[36] The Foundation published a report in December 2013 detailing and commenting on executive pay at New Mexico's two-year colleges.[37] The report described the various salaries and benefits received by the presidents of these institutions, advocating a more uniform approach at the state level.

Film subsidies[edit]

The Rio Grande Foundation has been critical of New Mexico's film tax credit program. Gessing argues that despite the visible gains of the policy, it places a greater tax burden on the rest of the state's taxpayers and it not a net gain.[38] It co-hosted a debate with the Motion Picture Association of New Mexico on January 1, 2011,[39] and was critical of a 2009 report rating the subsidy policy favorably.[40][41] Before the 2011 New Mexico Legislative Session the Foundation proposed a cap of $30 million on the industry credit; the credit was ultimately capped at $50 million.

Freedom Index[edit]

The Rio Grande Foundation’s website hosts its Freedom Index, a legislative tracking tool that allows visitors to see the Foundation’s numerical ratings and written analyses of selected bills in the New Mexico Legislature.[42] Legislators are not scored directly but receive scores based on their votes on bills that have been rated. The Freedom Index began in 2013.


On May 1, 2008, the Rio Grande Foundation teamed with the New Mexico Prosperity Project to host a public luncheon with John Stossel at the Albuquerque Marriott Pyramid.[43] Stossel spoke to the attendees concerning excessive government regulation of business and excessive government spending.

The Foundation hosted Cato Institute transportation policy expert Randal O'Toole on May 6, 2010, at the Albuquerque Museum.[44] O'Toole discussed transportation history and policy in the United States.

Tim Keller of the Institute for Justice spoke on "Friedman Legacy Day," July 31, 2013.[45]

On March 14, 2014, the Rio Grande Foundation hosted Heritage Foundation senior economist Stephen Moore.[46] Moore spoke about economic growth.

Matt Kibbe, the president and former CEO of FreedomWorks, spoke on May 12, 2014, about his book Don't Hurt People and Don't Take Their Stuff: A Libertarian Manifesto.[47]


  1. ^ "Quickview data". GuideStar.  See also "Charity Rating". Charity Navigator. 
  2. ^ Rio Grande Foundation accomplishments
  3. ^ Taxpayer Protection Act
  4. ^ SB513: Taxpayer Protection Act
  5. ^ Children are the losers as education productivity lags overall economy
  6. ^ Education Tax Credits and How they May Work in New Mexico
  7. ^ SB462: Certain Scholarship Donations Tax Credit
  8. ^ a b Condemnation Bill Veto Is Shocking
  9. ^ New Mexico's Political Wild West
  10. ^ Land of Enchantment's Culture Hurts Transparency
  11. ^ Roundhouse resists entering 21st century
  12. ^ Webcasts
  13. ^ HB146: Dept. of Motor Vehicles Act
  14. ^ SB21: Hispanic Affairs Department Act
  15. ^ Proposed agency add-ons hit sore spot
  16. ^ a b c Streetcar Plans Derailed by Taxpayer Revolt
  17. ^ Free Market, Free Thinking
  18. ^ "Another Fine Mess in the Making: New Mexico's Proposed Commuter Rail System," Jan. 14, 2006
  19. ^ "Red Ink Express: Rising Losses and Low Ridership Show Rail Runner is an Increasingly Bad Deal for Taxpayers," Aug. 22, 2009
  20. ^ "Passenger Rail not Worth Big Subsidies it Requires," Dec. 2, 2013
  21. ^ Randal O'Toole at Albuquerque Museum
  22. ^ American Public Transportation Association Transit Ridership Report, Aug. 15, 2003
  23. ^ "Ten Reasons to Shut the Rail Runner Down Now," Aug. 16, 2011
  24. ^ a b Richardson First Governor to Veto Eminent Domain Protection
  25. ^ More states limit eminent domain; fed action likely
  26. ^ SB401: Repeal Certain Eminent Domain Statutes
  27. ^ HB393: Repeal Certain Eminent Domain Statutes
  28. ^ "Paul Gessing discusses 'School Choice Week' in New Mexico"
  29. ^ National School Choice Week
  30. ^ Florida's K-12 Lesson for New Mexico
  31. ^ Virtual Schooling event video
  32. ^ Gessing interview, 2012
  33. ^ "Lottery Scholarship Program should not pay full costs," Jan. 21, 2014
  34. ^ "Let’s Really Reform New Mexico’s Lottery Scholarships," Jan. 9, 2014
  35. ^ SB 347: Lottery Tuition Scholarship Fund Solvency, 2014
  36. ^ "How Transparent Are New Mexico’s Institutes of Higher Education?", June 4, 2012
  37. ^ "Who's the Best Compensated of them All?", Dec. 9, 2013
  38. ^ "Our Take on the Film Industry's Subsidies," Jan. 1, 2011
  39. ^ "Lights, camera...argue!", Jan. 1, 2011
  40. ^ "A Modern Spaghetti Western: Shooting Holes in the Ernst & Young Study of Film Industry Subsidies," Apr. 26, 2009
  41. ^ "Film Industry Study Has Many Holes," Apr. 10, 2009
  42. ^ Freedom Index
  43. ^ ABC-TV Commentator John Stossel to Speak in Albuquerque
  44. ^ O'Toole at Albuquerque Museum
  45. ^ Tim Keller of the Institute for Justice discusses economic freedom and Milton Friedman's legacy
  46. ^ Stephen Moore presentation
  47. ^ Matt Kibbe presentation

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 35°08′11″N 106°42′08″W / 35.1364°N 106.7022°W / 35.1364; -106.7022