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Elections are in the air in Rio Rancho

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Yet another election is approaching with the usual round of informational get-togethers and a planned forum.

The Aug. 20 special election will ask voters whether they approve reducing the higher education gross receipts tax from a quarter-cent to one-eighth of a cent. Rio Rancho voters approved the tax in 2008 for a 20-year life-space for a four-year higher education institution. It has helped cover construction costs for the UNM West campus that opened in 2010.

A “yes” vote would greenlight reducing the tax, a “no” vote would keep it unchanged.

If a majority of voters say yes, councilors who support reducing the tax have said they want to establish a new one-eighth-of-a-cent tax to generate revenue for public safety, meaning police and firefighters. If established, the new tax would take effect Jan. 1, 2014.

It’s not clear how that revenue would be apportioned, or whether the new tax would have a specified lifespan, as the current higher education tax has, or be in place indefinitely.

City residents will have an opportunity to ask questions at an election forum organized by the Rio Rancho Observer at 7 p.m. on Aug. 1 at Rio Rancho High School’s Performing Arts Center.

City Councilors Chuck Wilkins and Mark Scott will represent the Committee for a Safe Rio Rancho, which is campaigning to reduce the tax. Former UNM regent Don Chalmers and Terry McDermott will represent the Committee for Higher Education, which is asking voters to leave the tax unchanged.

Wilkins and Scott agreed to participate in the forum after members of the Committee for a Safe Rio Rancho declined. Committee leader Kerry Adams said the committee is run by people who have full time jobs who are already giving a lot of time to the campaign and didn’t have time to prepare for the forum.

“I think they have the best people (Wilkins and Scott) up there. They are a better fit than anyone on our committee,” Adams said.

Wilkins has held several informational meetings outlining the tax issue. He has also been reminding folks that the special election will be the first time voters will be required to produce photo identification. Voters passed the requirement at the municipal election last year.

District 5 Councilor Tim Crum plans to hold a similar informational meeting for his constituents at 7:15 p.m. on Aug. 6 at the Cabezon Community Center.

Tea Party

Another election, the city’s municipal election is still months away, but the Rio Rancho Tea Party is planning to be involved, according to its president Darren Sowell.

In the 2012 municipal election, the Rio Rancho Tea Party endorsed winning candidates Wilkins, Scott and Lonnie Clayton.

Unlike the not-for-profit Albuquerque Tea Party, which has been awaiting Internal Revenue Service approval for the 501 (c) 4 tax exempt status for more than three years, according to its president Rick Harbaugh, the Rio Rancho Tea Party applied for and received a business license from the city. The business license lists its name as “RRTP” and the application shows the business as “conducting workshop/meeting.”

The Rio Rancho Tea Party never applied for tax exempt status, party member Todd Hathorne said.

“There was a very conscious decision to focus on being able to do as much as we could in terms of influencing the political realm,” he said.

The tax exempt status carries various restrictions on how much political activity is permitted.

“Compared to the benefit of not having the restrictions politically, the group chose to be an LLC,” Hathorne said. “With an LLC they can endorse, they can speak politically, if they so desire – their public positions are not subject to IRS scrutiny.”

The Rio Rancho Tea Party has also joined the Rio Rancho Regional Chamber of Commerce and representatives have participated in some of the chamber’s informal networking activities, said Paul Barabe, the chamber’s vice president for member services.

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