© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES          10-30-17
Workers’ comp is healthy but not helping the state’s economy
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
An employee of a small Mom and Pop business came to work drunk and dropped a 2,000 pound chunk of marble on his foot.
His employers found out he was entitled to workers’ comp benefits just as if he had not been drunk. Sometime later, Mom got a notice from the insurance company that the business’s premiums were increasing.
Mom’s son was a brand new, just-elected state senator. That is how Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, became an advocate and sponsor of workers’ comp legislation to correct the imbalances that have crept into the law in recent years, mostly through decisions by the state’s higher courts.
Candelaria told his story recently at a meeting sponsored by New Mexico’s Association of Commerce and Industry (ACI).
“Everybody says we need to do something about the economy, but we have lacked the political courage to do what is needed,” Candelaria said. “Legal reform needs to be at the core of any economic development agenda for New Mexico.” We have a problem, he said, not primarily in the legislature but in the courts.
Other speakers echoed a similar theme: Though New Mexico’s workers’ comp system is doing reasonably well when viewed in isolation, it is one element of a combative legal climate that discourages employers from locating here. Danny Jarrett, an attorney and current chairman of ACI, said his office routinely fields inquiries from businesses in which this issue is raised.
The law itself says the purpose of workers’ comp is to provide the “quick and efficient delivery of medical and indemnity benefits to injured workers at a reasonable cost to employers” and that it is based on a “mutual renunciation of common-law rights and defenses by employers and employees alike.”
Functionally, speaker Jack Milarch of Builders Trust reminded the audience, for most cases, workers’ comp is designed to provide temporary, short-term benefits, incorporating financial incentives for injured workers to return to work and for employers to rehire them. Workers’ comp benefits are deliberately less than the worker’s pre-injury wage because if workers could make the same money staying home as going back to work, they would have no incentive to go back to work.
In that sense, workers’ comp is contradictory to what most people understand the legal system to be -- a system in which an injured person tries to get maximum money from the person or organization responsible for the injury.
New Mexico is currently ranked number 32 of the 50 states for its legal environment, said Quinn Lopez, general counsel of New Mexico Mutual, the state’s largest workers’ comp insurer. That poor ranking is keeping businesses from wanting to locate here, he said.
Lopez said, and other speakers echoed, trial attorneys from Texas are coming across the state border, especially between El Paso and Las Cruces, attempting to find new legal arguments to move cases out of workers’ comp and into the more lucrative personal injury system. Apparently, he said, it is relatively easy for out-of-state attorneys to qualify for New Mexico law licenses.
State Insurance Superintendent John Franchini noted that the oil and gas industry, a critical piece of New Mexico’s economy, is coming back from recession but jobs in that industry will continue to decline, largely because of technology. As an example, he said remote online monitoring of oil wells has replaced large numbers of workers.
According to Franchini, the state is doing very well on providing safe workplaces and preventing injuries. New Mexico is about to have a 16 percent average decrease in insurance premiums. That is a huge decrease and ought to be enormously positive news for economic development, but nobody is optimistic.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES         10-16-17
The gun behind the counter
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
At a Circle K convenience store, the clerk shot a suspected armed robber.
We expect to read the opposite story. Convenience stores can be dangerous places, especially for the people who work in them.
This happened a few weeks ago in Albuquerque in mid-afternoon. The suspect was wounded and is expected to recover; the clerk was not charged with any crime.
What was that clerk doing packing a gun?
The incident brought to mind a court case from 20 years ago in which Circle K clerk Paul Sedillo followed a shoplifter into the parking lot and was shot and killed. The Eldridge case (named for the mother of Sedillo’s daughter) raised the question of whether Circle K might be civilly liable outside of workers’ compensation, whether the company was so greatly “at fault” that it might violate the “no fault” principle basic to the workers’ comp philosophy. It was a hot issue in the workers’ comp legal community, but the case was settled out of court so the question was not resolved.
Conventional wisdom is that employees should never be instructed to pursue armed robbers or shoplifters. Let them take the money and go. I heard that message in dozens of safety seminars and passed it on to small business owners in my own seminars.
Carlos Martinez, the employer’s attorney in that case, recalled that Sedillo went into the parking lot only to get the shoplifter’s license number.
Randi McGinn was the attorney for Eldridge and Sedillo’s daughter. She represented workers in several other convenience store cases, including another death case. When clerk Elizabeth Garcia was killed at a store in Hobbs, that triggered a round of activism and led to New Mexico adopting what McGinn told me are the strictest convenience store safety rules in the country.
The rules were adopted in 2005 by the state’s Occupational Health and Safety Bureau. Stores open during graveyard shift are required to have two clerks, a clerk and a security guard, or a bullet resistant enclosure for the clerk. The rules also require all-day continuous video surveillance and other features.
New Mexico gun laws do not contain any special provision for employees, regarding whether they may or may not carry firearms at work. The same laws and restrictions that apply to the public (too big a subject to discuss here) apply to employees.
The law is silent on whether employers can prohibit employees from bringing guns to work. According to the business and legal resources website ehs-support.com, employers remain free to prohibit guns within the workplace, but, as in some other states, there’s an exception for the parking lot. Employees have the right to keep a gun locked in their own cars in the parking lot (there are exceptions, and this is not legal advice).
I do not travel during graveyard shift hours, but I’m very grateful to stores that stay open all night and the brave clerks who staff them. To me they are unsung heroes. Those stores, with their bright lights and hot coffee, are a haven for lonely late-night travelers and may very well save lives by helping drivers stay awake and take a break.
If we have to pay a little more for that coffee or microwave burrito to help provide for their safety, I’m for it. I hope there are methods less risky than guns.
A few days after the recent incident, I stopped at another Circle K. I asked the clerk if he knew of any company policy regarding clerks having guns. He said he thought there was one but he had never seen it in writing. Then he told me, smiling, he had one behind the counter and would not hesitate to use it. A nearby customer said, “Good for you.”
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES           10-2-17
Churches sacrifice to offer sanctuary
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
It is possible that the future of immigrant deportation may depend on how many churches have showers in their buildings.
That’s one factor communities of faith are invited to consider when they evaluate whether to offer sanctuary to an immigrant threatened with immediate deportation.
But it’s not critical, according to Marian Bock. An immigrant threatened with deportation will gratefully accept whatever amenities you have, she said, including sponge baths in the sink.
Bock is a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and serves on their sanctuary task force. She spoke recently, together with Justin Remer-Thamert, executive director of the New Mexico Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice, at an Albuquerque church where members were beginning a discussion of whether to become a sanctuary church.
The Friends Meeting House in Albuquerque became a sanctuary in March for Honduran immigrant Emma Membreno-Sorto, a 25-year U.S. resident, married to an American, who has been under an active deportation order. She had applied for political asylum years ago but the paperwork was never completed.
The protected immigrant, who is called a guest, never leaves the property and might not even go outside. If she leaves the building even for a minute, she is vulnerable to being picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The community must provide meals and whatever else the guest may need. Doctors may volunteer to make house calls. The guest cannot leave the premises to work and may not be able to contribute financially.
One volunteer must stay with the guest at all times, including overnight. This is so that, if ICE shows up, the volunteer serves as witness to whatever happens.
This requires scheduling volunteers for four shifts a day.  More volunteers are needed for other tasks. Volunteers don’t have to be members of the congregation but must have received training. The coalition offers that training.
Volunteers must be U.S. citizens – a protection for them so that they are not subject to immigration issues if they get crosswise with ICE. But there is no guarantee that volunteers will be free from other prosecution.
The sanctuary status of churches is not federal law but is based on a memorandum issued by ICE in 2011. The memo identifies “sensitive locations” where ICE officials will generally not arrest anybody unless they have a warrant from a judge. Those locations include churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of faith, schools, hospitals, the site of a religious activity such as a funeral or wedding, and public demonstrations.
However, Remer-Thamert cautioned, ICE could make exceptions to its own rules and has a reputation for coming in the middle of the night. The memorandum is not a law. What keeps the guest safe in a church, he explained, is not the memorandum but the public relations backlash when agents invade a church.
An online document called The Sanctuary Toolkit explains:
“Generally, people enter sanctuary because they have received a final order of deportation but believe that they have a legitimate case that either has not been thoroughly presented or appropriately argued before an immigration judge… Often there are extenuating circumstances that could or should have been raised in their defense ….”
Membreno-Sorto is one of two immigrants known to be in sanctuary in New Mexico. The other, whose case has also been publicized, is Kadhim Albumohammed, an Iraqi who has lived in the United States for more than 20 years and who previously assisted the U.S. military in Iraq. He is in sanctuary at another Albuquerque church.
Some advocates regard the “sensitive locations” memo as virtually an invitation to churches to act as protectors to immigrants in this situation.
Legislation has been introduced in Congress to give legal status to the sensitive locations guideline. New Mexico Senators Heinrich and Udall and representatives Lujan and Lujan-Grisham are co-sponsors.
But Congress doesn’t seem to be engaging seriously about comprehensive immigration reform.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES            9-18-17
Celebrate the sunshine and New Mexico’s low disaster risk
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
In my garage is an old suitcase packed with old clothes. It’s to grab in an emergency.
There’s a sturdy canvas bag tucked away in a suitable place, where a couple of checkbooks are kept and a backup computer hard drive is stored.
Because I live in central New Mexico, I probably will never need those things. New Mexico is a pretty good place to avoid natural disasters. 
            The state is ranked fortieth out of 50 states for the number of disaster declarations and 33rd of 50 for relative riskiness by the company Core Logic, based on an analysis of storm damage.
But, this week as we appreciate the sunshine and our dry feet, let’s be relaxed but not complacent. The recent hurricanes remind us that disasters can happen anytime and anywhere. What could happen here? What can we prepare for, individually or collectively?
The state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has a detailed document called the Hazard Mitigation Plan.
The plan says the most significant hazards facing New Mexico are fires at the wild land-urban interface, high wind, thunderstorms including lightning and hail, flood, and drought. Drought is a cause of disaster but generally not an emergency, unless it sparks fires.
We know about fire and that if you live near a forest you might have to evacuate on very short notice. We know about flooding and that generally floods are limited to areas near waterways.
            New Mexico is also subject to dam failures, earthquakes, tornadoes, landslides, high wind and even the possibility of a volcano becoming active, but nothing on the scale of the devastation in southeast Texas or Florida.
Dam failures, overspills and other breaches have happened. According to the hazard mitigation plan, there are 594 dams in the state, public and private. Of the 300 dams that come under the jurisdiction of the State Engineer’s Dam Safety Bureau, 151 are classified as high hazard potential, 60 as significant hazard potential, and 89 as low. Of the high-hazard dams, 115 have been identified as deficient. There has been no recorded loss of life.
If  you live below a dam, you may want to learn about your own hazard exposure.
A dam failure could be triggered by another event, such as flooding or an earthquake. Central New Mexico has earthquake activity, and apparently numerous earthquakes have occurred under my feet without my knowledge. The greatest risk, says the plan document, is between Albuquerque and Socorro.
The report says Los Alamos lies near several major boundary faults of the Rio Grande rift. Just as the nuclear material stored at Los Alamos was threatened by the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000, it’s a concern in an earthquake and a reason why New Mexicans should prioritize finding a long-term storage solution. The report says there have been at least eight earthquakes felt by residents of Los Alamos since World War II. Whatever gets loose in Los Alamos could run into the Rio Grande, affecting communities downstream.
In an earthquake, water and gas lines could rupture. Power lines could fall. Any of these things can start a fire.
Not all disasters are made by nature, as we were reminded by the Gold King mine disaster in 2015.
We can’t know what’s going to happen, but we can each do our little bit to think about it and prepare. If you have an old suitcase and room in your garage, you might throw a few clothes in it and set it aside.
However, our relatively low exposure is an advantage.
The U. S. Geological Survey predicts an 18 percent chance of a large earthquake near Socorro in the next hundred years. Taken together with the other statistics, that could be an economic development opportunity we might want to brag about.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES        9-4-17
Consumers want more information about what’s in their food
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            There’s a recent trend in food advertising, have you noticed? It is not about what is in the food; it’s about what’s not in the food.
            Much TV food advertising emphasizes what the product is “free” of. No antibiotics, artificial colors, artificial flavors. Not genetically modified, not packaged with BPA. No high fructose corn syrup. Gluten-free.
          It’s even happening with dog food. Food that is not especially good for humans is even worse for our dogs, and the dog food makers are starting to catch up.
          This is for food purchased at the grocery store. The trend doesn’t apply to advertising for fast-food restaurants, which still tempt us with how many layers of grease and salt they can pack into every item, or to pizza, which has become its own food group.
            Nevertheless, it’s a big change. And the theme is echoed in the packaging.
            Labels on some foods repeat the message of no artificial this or that. One brand of chicken even boasts that its products are made from natural chicken, as if the alternative were artificial chicken.

            All those advertisers are echoing back to consumers something powerful about what concerns us. We are worried about all the artificial and chemical-laden ingredients in our food, especially food we serve our children.
            Which makes it all the more notable that New Mexico couldn’t pass a GMO labeling bill.
This bill was Senate Bill 18 of the 2013 regular session, sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat, now Senate Majority Leader. It required labeling for all food and commercial feed containing genetically modified materials. The bill was killed by a procedural vote on the Senate floor.
SB18 was one of several bills studied in an in-depth report by Common Cause New Mexico, a nonprofit organization that advocates for ethics and openness in government.
Labeling would have provided consumers, who are also citizens and taxpayers, with information and choice.
If it had been enacted into law, the bill would have inconvenienced a number of special-interest industry groups related to agriculture. The Common Cause report analyzed campaign contributions from those groups compared to how senators voted.
It’s a complicated analysis because it considers a number of factors. For example, the lobbyists who represent the agriculture industry also have other clients. So a campaign contribution from any of those lobbyists did not directly correlate with this particular bill.
However, the report did manage to analyze the sources of those campaign contributions and found that the 23 senators who voted to kill the bill received an average of $4,341 in campaign contributions from the agriculture industry. This is nearly four and one-half times as much as the $970 average of contributions to the 17 senators who supported the bill.
In 2013 I would have said New Mexico should not take the lead in passing a GMO labeling bill. We are a small market and the effect could be that some food producers who don’t want to do GMO labeling might simply avoid shipping their products here, limiting our choices.
I have changed my mind since noticing all this advertising, which demonstrates that New Mexico consumers do want more information about what’s in their food, that it’s not an esoteric issue limited to health-food snobs. But it seems we can’t pass a law in the public interest because political money outweighs the will of the voters.
A law to require labeling of genetically modified food had been tried the previous year in California as a voter initiative, where it was defeated after the industry spent a reported $46 million to kill it.
In New Mexico, we haven’t tried this again. Until we do something about campaign finance, what the citizens want isn’t what gets legislation passed.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES          8-21-17
Dental care charity is not enough
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
If you need dental care and live far from the nearest dentist or can’t afford the cost, you might plan a trip to Albuquerque on Sept. 22-23. That weekend will be the occasion of the sixth annual Mission of Mercy, called New Mexico’s largest charitable event. An estimated 150 volunteer dentists will set up a temporary clinic in the Convention Center and provide services free of charge on a first-come first-served basis.
 There have been five such events since 2010, held in different cities. To date, New Mexico MOM has served more than 6,900 patients and has provided $4.9 million in donated dental care.
But New Mexico is still woefully short of access to dental care. Reports show 32 of New Mexico’s 33 counties do not have adequate access. A 2017 report from the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services states only about one-third of New Mexicans are adequately served, and an estimated 138 dentists are needed to bring the state up to standard.
So, in this writer’s opinion, the generosity of this charitable event does not compensate for the Legislature’s failure once again to pass a dental therapy bill.
Observers agree the problem is geographic, with rural communities having the least access.
A 2016 report of the legislative Indian Affairs Committee indicates dental access is worse for Native Americans than other populations, reflected both in their dental health and their general health. Colin Baillio of Health Action New Mexico testified there is twice as much untreated dental disease in tribal communities as in the general population.
Since dental problems contribute to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other health problems, Baillio said improved dental care would reduce the cost of treating these diseases. Health care reformers, please take note.
The 2017 dental therapy bill, HB 264, passed the House by a vote of 60-5, but died in a Senate committee without a recorded vote. Similar bills had been introduced at least three times in recent years. This year’s bill was sponsored by Rep. Dennis Roch, R- Logan, and Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D- Albuquerque.
The issue has not changed substantially since I wrote about it in 2013 and 2015.
Dental therapists are mid-level providers qualified to work under the supervision of a dentist who is not on the premises. The work they are authorized to do is limited and would be detailed in the statute.
The New Mexico Dental Association proposes (on its website) that New Mexico needs to make progress on starting our own dental school. This recommendation comes in the midst of growing concern that New Mexico needs to reduce, not increase, our number of colleges and campuses, because we can’t fund them all adequately.
The NMDA responds to the well documented need for dental services and the success of dental therapy programs elsewhere by saying it needs more study. With all due respect, it should be studied with a pilot program, not procrastination.
Meanwhile, sincere thanks for the Mission of Mercy.

Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES            8-7-17
No need, no excuse for voting commission
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
Thank goodness, New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver has refused to send New Mexico voter data to the president’s so-called Election Integrity Commission.
There is no excuse for this commission. Evidence, including the resumes of its members, supports the suspicion that it was set up not to ensure election integrity but to implement voter suppression, possibly by purging large numbers of minority voters from the rolls.
And it’s dangerous. A big centralized database is a huge target for hackers, Russian or anyone else. The 50 decentralized state databases are a protection.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, and several other organizations have filed federal lawsuits opposing this commission. The NAACP stated the commission “was formed with the intent to discriminate against voters of color in violation of the Constitution.”
About 30 states participate in a multistate organization called Interstate Crosscheck, which reportedly reviewed member states’ databases in 2016. This organization is headed by Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State and vice chair of the president’s commission. New Mexico belongs to a competing organization called The Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), whose stated mission includes increasing access to voter registration for all eligible citizens.
Investigative reports claim Interstate Crosscheck systematically purged minority voters in 2016, using similarity of voters’ names as a pretext for claiming they were registered twice. Interstate Crosscheck should be required to make its findings public, especially all names that were purged in 2016, to see its results and whether it was finding genuine duplications or targeting classes of voters to be illegally purged.
In the early days of the United States, in most states only white male property owners could vote. Voting rights for non-property owners, women and racial minorities have been won over time with huge political upheavals, including the civil rights movement, along the way.
            Reports claim Native Americans still have limited ballot access. They were originally not allowed to vote because they were not deemed citizens. After federal law was changed in 1924, states decided individually who could vote. It took more than 40 years for all 50 states to allow Native Americans to vote. In New Mexico, according to an account from the state historian, the state Constitution originally said they couldn’t vote because they weren’t taxed. A court decision changed that in 1948.
Last year, Indian Country Today Media Network reported that Native American and Alaska Natives flagged voting-related problems in 17 states. Recent voter ID laws in some states reportedly have made it more difficult for Native Americans to register and vote.
It is sad that this has become a partisan issue. Some Republicans, including Oliver’s 2016 opponent, have made the myth of massive voter fraud virtually an article of faith. The large-scale fraud the president alleges would have required a multistate organization to persuade a few million people to commit a crime from which they would derive no personal benefit. This is not only absurd, it could not have happened without being publicly exposed. Yet the story persists.
In 2012, New Mexico scored an embarrassing national headline when an Albuquerque man registered his dog to vote. He said he did it to prove how lax our voter laws are. Later it was revealed his wife was on the staff of Republican Heather Wilson, who was running for U.S. Senate.
The New Mexico Republican Party says on its website, “We support that every eligible citizen should have the right to vote.” It goes on to state the need for protection against fraudulent voting. But New Mexico already has established that it cannot identify more than a couple of fraudulent votes, after former Republican secretary of state Dianna Duran hunted for them in 2011. We don’t need protection from fraudulent voting because there is virtually none.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     7-24-17
Party platforms, however vague, offer a checklist of values
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
What does it mean to be a Democrat in New Mexico?
That may be a more pressing question than usual because New Mexico has open positions for several major offices in the 2018 election: governor, two of our three seats in Congress and, we learned recently, state land commissioner. Is there a common vision or set of principles shared by all Democratic candidates? As citizens and voters, what can we count on?
            So I decided to go to the closest thing to an official source, the current platform of the New Mexico Democratic Party.
It turns out there isn’t one. The most recent attempt to draft a state platform, in Hillary-vs-Bernie 2016, ended in a stalemate. The 2016 document is identified as a draft and therefore not official. There is, however, a 2014 platform. Both documents are on the website.
Here’s a brief review. I will do a similar review of the most recent Republican platform in the near future.
The 2014 New Mexico Democratic platform calls to mind the famous quote by Will Rogers: “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” You can see the heated arguments and fist pounding that must have occurred, reflected in both the content and the inconsistent writing style. You can also see a great deal of idealism and quite a few goals that are worth pursuing.
The 2014 platform covers 20 areas, each with several bullet points: agriculture, arts, civil rights, “Earth first,” economy, education, elections, energy, government, healthcare, immigration, international relations, labor, lands, media, Native Americans, public safety, taxation, veterans, and water.
In addition to New Mexico-specific issues there are national and international issues, including opposition to NAFTA, support for certain international treaties, and securing the future of Social Security by raising the income cap.
Readers will not be surprised that the platform endorses many ways to spend public money, comments little on how to obtain that money, and includes predictable platitudes about economic development.
It contains a few charming illogical terms like “mandatory whenever possible.”
On a few points, it appears someone at the table was a serious subject matter expert, such as in a detailed proposal to increase the staff of the state’s Oil Conservation Division. Someone understood that issue in depth. 
The platform takes direct aim at the state Public Education Department by proposing that future secretaries be appointed by a public education commission instead of the governor. Also under Education, the platform supports the study of civics, teaching the U.S. Constitution, and proficiency in second languages, all admirable goals, but it does not mention reading, which is a well identified problem in New Mexico.
The draft 2016 platform is shorter and easier to read, covering the same general topics with less detail.
Platforms are sometimes regarded as the unappreciated stepchild of the state political convention. Platform committees toil in obscurity, and their work is often not taken seriously. But if you’re thinking your party needs a robust set of values to commit to, this platform is a good place to look.
If you’re a Democrat, you might want to look at these documents as a checklist for issues you will consider in evaluating candidates next year. Whether you agree or disagree with the positions taken, you can appreciate that both the 2014 platform and the 2016 draft provide a comprehensive list of issues that you might care about.
The 2018 election campaign is already well underway, at least for the higher offices. We’re seeing frantic emails from candidates telling us they desperately need our money today to meet some artificially created deadline. These party platforms may offer a way for you to increase your influence as a citizen by talking to candidates and asking them to commit to meaningful answers. It’s not too soon.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      7-10-17
I have to inspect WHAT?
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
An insurance agent called me to ask about a letter one of her business clients had received from my former employer, the Workers' Compensation Administration. The client was upset and confused. The letter was about safety inspections.
I recognized the story immediately: they’re doing the affidavit thing again. Sure enough: the letter advises the business that it is required by New Mexico law to have a safety inspection and that an affidavit must be submitted to the WCA verifying that the inspection was done, under penalty of perjury.
The workers’ comp law says all employers whose annual insurance premium exceeds a certain amount must have a safety inspection every year. The 1990 law required this for employers with a premium of $5,000 or more. That’s been amended to $15,000. The requirement also applies to self-insured employers.
I’m all in favor of safety inspections. I wrote the booklet instructing employers how to conduct such an inspection. Half of the booklet is still on the agency’s website, with minor revisions.
But I have protested the affidavit regulation time after time. When I worked there, I argued against it repeatedly and sometimes won. Last year I submitted an official public comment to my former colleagues.
Back in 1992, somebody said we need to enforce the inspection law. We have to make them tell us they’ve done the inspection by sending us an affidavit. I said that’s ridiculous. Business owners will regard this affidavit as a pain in the neck and we will be turning half the businesses in New Mexico into liars.
The same somebody said, in that case we should make them do it under penalty of perjury. Then we will turn half the businesses in New Mexico into perjurers, I said. This is the kind of stuff that makes businesses hate government.
I said we should do what OSHA does: write a sensible rule that requires employers to keep their own records and to show the record to us if we ask for it.
Back then I prevailed, but the affidavit issue has popped up repeatedly. Some regulatory people can’t resist the heavy hand. The current version of the regulation was adopted last fall.
So the agency is sending out letters telling some businesses they have to have the inspection and send in the affidavit.
Safety inspections are a good practice for most businesses. If your business is big enough to have a $15,000 premium, you probably can get a safety professional to do your inspection courtesy of your insurance company. Or you can call the WCA and a safety consultant will do it for free.
If you’re a small business, you can go to the WCA website, click on the link for safety inspections, find the procedure, and do it yourself. The first step is to research your own industry standards so you will have specific information on what you need to inspect.
The concept, however, does not work for everybody. One example is any business that does all its work on other people’s premises and has no control over those premises, such as home health care services.
Under the new rule, so far 3,328 locations statewide are verifying they do annual safety inspections, according to Diana Sandoval, WCA public information officer. WCA staff safety professionals have conducted more than 155 inspections this year. Sandoval says nobody has been fined.
The statute also applies to state and local government agencies, so I’m wondering whether they’ve contacted their fellow departments. You can imagine how a letter like this would be received by – say -- the Department of Corrections, where I have no doubt safety is a very high priority. Fill out a WHAT? You gotta be kidding, somebody will say.
Exactly what all those businesses might be saying.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES        6-26-17
What if we diluted executive power nationally, just as New Mexico does?
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
We New Mexicans don’t trust our politicians. That’s built in to our history and the structure of our government.
Some years ago I started wondering why we elect not just a governor but several independent statewide officials: attorney general, state treasurer, state auditor, secretary of state, land commissioner. Those constitutionally established officeholders are not answerable to the governor. Most of them have been that way since statehood.
My guess is we do not trust anybody enough to hand over all the power for running the state.  
There are advantages and disadvantages to this system. One disadvantage is our “long ballot.” Voters have a number of offices to consider and some of us vote without making enough of an effort to learn about them.
Former treasurers Michael Montoya and Robert Vigil (Vigil was auditor before he was treasurer) went to prison for mishandling public funds after receiving kickbacks from investment advisors. What did we know about them before we elected them?
We also elect the five-member Public Regulation Commission. The PRC is a recent creation, having replaced (by constitutional amendment) both the elected State Corporation Commission and the appointed Public Utilities Commission.
The PRC is interesting because it reflects attitudes of the last 20 years. Many New Mexicans are dissatisfied with the PRC because it deals with highly technical issues and yet the law as we approved it did not require its members to be especially qualified (qualification requirements have since been added). So why did we choose this approach for a commission that sets utility rates when we could have had a commission appointed by the governor?
One reason, in my opinion, is that we don’t want to give our governors that much authority. Members of a commission appointed by any governor could be pressured by the governor and fired by the governor. We preferred to have the authority spread out.
We spread the authority even further when we passed another constitutional amendment, moving the insurance superintendent’s office out from under the PRC.
The superintendent is also independent, appointed by an elaborately structured body called the insurance nominating commission, which is required to be bipartisan and to represent both the insurance industry and consumers.
We went the other way once in recent history. We were frustrated with our education system under the elected State Board of Education and demanded greater accountability from the governor.  So we went along with Gov. Bill Richardson and amended the state Constitution to move governance of education into a cabinet agency headed by a governor-appointed secretary.
How we have loved the results of that! So much so, as we say goodbye to just-resigned secretary Hanna Skandera, that legislation was introduced last year to undo the whole scheme and go back to the old state board (the bill never came close to passage).
New Mexico is not alone in having several independent statewide positions. The website Ballotpedia tells us 35 states elect their secretary of state; 43 states elect their attorney general; 36 elect their treasurer.
It could be argued that this widespread dilution of responsibility may be a weakness and could be partially responsible for our state’s current economic woes.
Here is another thought.
I sometimes think the presidency of the United States is too big a job for any one person. The president and vice president are the only people elected at the national level. Though the vice president can’t be fired by the president, he has almost no independent powers. The entire executive branch reports to one person.
Watching the recent spectacle in Washington, I have wondered how things might be different if, at the national level, we had a separately elected attorney general who did not answer to the president.
It’s completely unrealistic to think such a thing could happen. I’m just asking.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                              6-12-17
Real impacts of budget cuts
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
New Mexico Secretary of Agriculture Jeff Witte, on a TV interview show recently, mentioned the state’s veterinary diagnostic laboratory. He was particularly proud that it is located adjacent to important facilities of the state Department of Health so that there is useful interaction between the departments.
In a budget crisis, would you want to cut this program? I wouldn’t.
I had never heard of the veterinary diagnostic lab and never thought about whether New Mexico has one or not. Now that I am aware of it, I can appreciate how such a laboratory contributes to preventing disease in New Mexico farm animals, pets and wildlife. I felt the same way in 1993 when I learned that New Mexico solved the mystery of the deadly hantavirus within several weeks because state employees had been out in the wilds counting deer mice (see triplespacedagain.com July 2011).
These programs are among essential government functions that should be preserved even in a budget crisis. Those services run from school buses to prison guards. They include a division that works to reduce forest fires and one that protects investors from fraud. 
            There’s another set of functions that are not essential to health or safety but that support our economy, such as tourism advertising, history and culture programs, the film industry incentive and economic development programs. Nobody dies if we close a museum, but it hurts the state’s economy. As you may recall, last year we had a radical cut in staffing for state historic sites. How much more of that should we tolerate?
So, if we don’t have enough money to pay for all this, what should we do?
During the regular legislative session and in the weeks following, when we were all waiting to see what the governor would veto, I saw articles and letters to the editor pleading the case of one program or another. Don’t cut the funding for this one, they all said.
I did not see a single article advocating specific budget cuts.  Nobody is jumping up to volunteer information on what’s a waste of taxpayer money.
Most every program in government was created for what seemed at the time to be a good and compelling reason -- just like that laboratory that you had probably never heard of.
If, in times of tight budgets, the state reduces funding for a program, we don’t get greater efficiency. We get less of whatever service the program is intended to perform. Having fewer teachers in the classroom, for example, doesn’t incentivize them to teach more efficiently. To claim otherwise is wishful thinking.
Friends in the construction industry complained to me a few years ago that the number of state inspectors had been reduced. That saves the state money, but it forces contractors to wait longer for an inspection before proceeding with a project. And let’s remember, we have inspectors because long experience has shown that having inspectors is better than the dangerous effects of shoddy construction that would probably result without them. 
Agencies like to use something called vacancy savings. That means that when a job is unfilled because someone left, the agency simply doesn’t fill the position. This is much less painful than having to fire or furlough employees. But it leaves to chance the decision about which services get cut. If we have fewer technicians in that laboratory, it will take longer to resolve diagnostic questions that could save lives.
New Mexico is stuck for the coming fiscal year with an austerity budget that is not going to benefit any of us or help pull us out of the fiscal doldrums. The governor’s vetoes of a few reasonable tax proposals, such as the Internet sales tax, are not what we needed in this state.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       5-29-17
A modest proposal for the inconvenient elderly: Let them die
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
The way to save Medicare, some TV pundit said recently, is to cut Medicaid. Lots of people will die before they reach Medicare age.
It was said only about half in jest.
If low-income people can’t afford health care, some will get sick, and the sick will get sicker. When they reach 65, their health care under Medicare will be more expensive. But some will die and save the program the cost of their care.
Medicaid itself will also save money because Medicaid, not Medicare, pays for nursing homes for low-income elderly. Two thirds of Medicaid spending nationally is reportedly spent on low-income patients who are elderly or disabled or both.
Future funding for Medicaid hangs in the balance if Congress passes the proposed replacement for the Affordable Care Act or the proposed Trump budget. The healthcare law would cap federal contributions to Medicaid and the state would have to make up the rest of the cost. As you know, New Mexico is already in the midst of a budget crisis.
New Mexico total Medicaid spending is more than $5 billion a year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. It’s roughly $4 billion federal, less than $1 billion from the state. Much of the spending is on the elderly in nursing homes.
According to an October 2016 report by the Legislative Finance Committee, New Mexico has 74 nursing homes certified by the national Center for Medicare Services (CMS) with a total of 7,130 nursing home beds as of June 2016. If those facilities can’t afford to stay open, some of them will close.
The LFC report raises concerns about the quality of care in nursing homes, using a number of standard measures. Not surprisingly, the report also says costs are increasing and Medicaid is not keeping up. (The full report is on the LFC web site.)
The frail elderly are also targeted in other portions of the recently released Trump budget proposal. Meals on Wheels is one that’s been mentioned.
According to Meals on Wheels of America, almost 41,000 New Mexico seniors annually receive meals. At last count, 9,543 were homebound seniors – the same seniors who are saving Medicaid a lot of money by staying out of nursing homes. Almost 3 million meals were served in total, including both home delivery and group settings such as senior centers. The total cost was about $20 million, of which $3.3 million was federal funds.
Meals on Wheels points out that the home visits by its volunteer deliverers are, for many isolated seniors, the only human contact they have all day. The volunteers (who even pay for their own gas) not only deliver a meal but also check on the welfare of those seniors, including making sure they have not fallen. Falls among the elderly are getting increasing notice as a source of injury, hospitalization, death and costs. Meals on Wheels of America claims the home visits help to decrease the rate of falls, which nationally cost $34 billion a year. I surmise those costs would involve medical care and therefore be shifted to both Medicare and Medicaid.
Without programs like this, some of those elderly folks will die, reducing the cost of both their Medicare and Social Security.
President Trump promised seniors he would not cut Medicare or Social Security. Those programs are a big part of the federal budget and therefore the federal deficit and the extremely scary national debt, which nobody is talking about and which will continue to increase as this administration increases the defense budget and cuts taxes for people who don’t need the money. So how do you get to a balanced budget?
If you can’t cut the entitlement to Medicare or Social Security, cut the number of people who receive them.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES         5-15-17
The economic value of foreign students
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
A charming young man from South America, whom I met at a party, was a graduate student in engineering at UNM. He said he wanted to stay in New Mexico and start a business. He was exactly the kind of person New Mexico should welcome.
He told me foreign students are among the few who pay full tuition at our cash-strapped universities. Though some get help from scholarships, the full rate is the same as for other non-New Mexico residents: $22,000 a year. New Mexico resident students pay $7,000 a year.
International students attending New Mexico colleges and universities contribute $91.2 million a year to our state’s economy, according to the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs. That includes their living expenses as well as tuition and fees.
Foreign students are serious business in many states. The universities love them, not just for the money but also for the cultural diversity they bring. People who understand their value, such as Danielle Gilliam of the UNM Global Education Office, think we should be marketing more intensely.
So consider the effect of the governor’s veto of the entire higher education budget at the end of the regular legislative session.
New Mexicans understand this veto was a gambit in a high-stakes game of chicken between the governor and the legislative leadership.
But if I were a college freshman in, say, Bangladesh, trying to decide where to continue my education in the United States, I wouldn’t understand that at all. I would say, holy blank-blank, better not go to New Mexico!
The veto came on the heels of the March version of the presidential travel ban that has made visitors from many countries, not just those named in the ban, feel unwelcome in the United States.
Though the ban is currently not in force, due to restraining orders from federal courts, a cautionary message to international students remains posted on the website of the Global Education Office of UNM. Issued in March after the second executive order, the message advises international students to be careful about traveling out of the United States because they might have a hard time getting back in.
UNM’s website reports it hosted 1,339 international students in 2014, both graduate and undergraduate, up from 916 in 2010. These students, the report says, come from 97 countries. The top six countries are China, India, Brazil, Iran, and South Korea.
Iran is the only one of these countries named in the presidential travel ban. There were 67 students from Iran at UNM in 2014. The other countries specified in the ban are Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen. At the time of the report, UNM had two students from Sudan and one each from Libya, Syria and Yemen.
These students spent roughly $15 million on tuition in that year. For 63 percent, most of their financial support came from sources other than UNM; 37 percent received more than half their funding from UNM.
A 2016 report from the Institute for International Education shows 1,386 international students at NMSU in Las Cruces; 196 at New Mexico Tech in Socorro; and 118 each at Highlands and Western New Mexico universities. Highlands boasts students from 30 countries and a much lower tuition rate for nonresident and international students.
New Mexico is ranked 42 in number of international students. Colorado is ranked 25, with 10,800 students and a positive economic impact of almost $352 million. Gilliam points to Colorado as an example New Mexico should be following.
Not this year, I fear.
The expected special legislative session has been called. Higher education funding probably will be restored. But the damage to New Mexico’s reputation is done. Let’s hope the governor does not use the special session to make it any worse.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 5-1-17
Love the horses but let them starve
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
Of all the demonstrations of Americans’ political hypocrisy, what we’ve done about the slaughter of horses is right up there.
We can thank our governor for a recent example, though she is hardly alone.
Like other public figures, the governor shed crocodile tears a few years ago during the controversy over the possible opening of a horse slaughterhouse in Roswell. That controversy helped spark a change in federal policy that effectively banned horse slaughter in the United States.
This year, she pocket vetoed a simple bill that would have saved a few horses. A pocket veto means she simply ignored the bill until the deadline passed.
The bill, HB 390, said when the state livestock board has custody of a stray horse, licensed rescue organizations should get a chance to buy the horse at a modest fee before the horse is offered at auction. This would allow the rescue to get the horse at a low price rather than having to bid against other unknown buyers, possibly including “killer buyers” who would take the horse to Mexico and sell it for slaughter. The bill passed both houses handily.
Sometimes, as explained by Debbie Coburn of Four Corners Equine Rescue, the killer buyer wins the bid; to save the horse, the rescue buys it from the killer buyer at a much higher price. The rescues all operate on a shoestring with limited resources, so this limits their ability to save more horses.
A legislative analysis said the impact of the bill might be reduced income to the livestock board, since auctions generate money to the board.
            However, horses saved by rescues are a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the massive numbers of homeless underfed horses.
            New Mexico has nine equine rescues, all private except a small one for inmates at the Springer Correctional Center. While their work is admirable, collectively they save only a few hundred horses each year.
            Meanwhile, in Mexico, slaughter and the sale of horsemeat is a thriving business.  Several estimates agree that about 120,000 U.S. horses a year are slaughtered.
Travel writer Tara A. Spears writes from Mexico that worldwide, 4.7 million horses are slaughtered each year (not all from United States) and exported to countries where horsemeat is a gourmet food and brings more than twice as much money as beef. With a bitter tone, she writes, “It’s a classic case of if you don’t want to get your hands dirty, hire the Mexicans to do it.”
Readers may remember that during the controversy over the Roswell slaughterhouse, Gov. Bill Richardson and movie star Robert Redford teamed up to support outlawing horse slaughter in the United States. I checked recently with the staffs of Richardson and Redford to find out what they have done since then to promote the welfare of wild and abandoned horses. I got polite replies but no answers. In other words, nothing.
Meanwhile, wild horses continue to sicken and die of hunger and thirst while overgrazing and damaging the land. A 2013 news report by KOAT estimated between 60,000 and 75,000 feral horses just on the Navajo nation. When a roundup up was done in 2013, many of the horses were visibly sick and underfed.
I have found no information to indicate that any of that has changed. Coburn agrees: It hasn’t. 
            If you’d like to do a little something for horses, you can donate to a rescue. And if you have a refund on next year’s state income taxes you can contribute a portion of it to the state’s Horse Shelter Rescue Fund. The money goes through the livestock board to the licensed horse shelters. You check a box on the PIT D form. It’s one of 13 options for donating a portion of your tax refund. Last year this fund provided about $30,000 to the rescues -- helpful but paltry.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       4-17-17
Workers’ comp bill aims to reset the balance
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
The workers’ compensation system is full of temptations for people to behave badly. In response, many provisions of the law are attempts to create incentives so that people will behave constructively.
That is the simplest possible summary of the amendment passed (and signed, not vetoed) this year. The bill, SB 155, was sponsored by Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, and was endorsed by the Workers Compensation Advisory Council.
The amendment moves the system back a few steps toward a principle previously established in our state’s law: It is best for everybody when injured workers return to work.
Under this amendment, if you are an employee temporarily disabled by a work-related injury, and your employer offers you a job that accommodates your temporary disability, you have to take the job or you won’t get disability (called temporary total) benefits. If you are working under these conditions and you get fired for good cause, your disability benefits will not be restored.
The law recognizes that some employers play dirty tricks with bogus or unreasonable job offers, or rehire an injured worker and then make up excuses for firing, to get out of paying benefits. (The benefits are paid by the employer’s insurance company, but insurance premiums will increase.) So the amendment says if the employer and worker disagree about reasonableness, they can take the dispute to the workers’ comp court. Employers caught playing dirty tricks can be fined.
Return to work is critical to the workers’ comp system. It’s been proven over and over that injured workers who return to work, even if they don’t want to, generally do better in both the short and long term than workers who stay home collecting checks. Workers who stay home too long tend to become depressed, isolated, and subject to all kinds of social ills that their families and society end up paying for.
SB 155 was a response to two decisions of the New Mexico Court of Appeals.
In one case the worker was rehired during her disability period, with accommodations for her injury, and was fired for cause. In the other, the worker was offered a job by his former employer but turned it down because he wanted to retire. In both cases, the court said disability benefits had to be restored.
These two cases are among a series of Court of Appeals decisions that have been moving the workers’ comp system away from the incentives I mentioned earlier. Those incentives were built into the law in 1990, under a major reform that was a historic cooperative agreement between business and labor.
There’s a story behind the story, expressed in another bill this year, SB 122, which got nowhere. That bill, also sponsored by Candelaria, proposed the radical idea of creating an appellate division – an alternative Court of Appeals – inside the Workers’ Compensation Administration.
SB 122 was a cry of frustration from many of the participants in the workers’ comp system.
The Court of Appeals has not quite grasped the idea that workers’ comp is inherently different from tort liability law. On one hand, injured workers have rights like any other litigants. On the other hand, the purpose of workers’ comp is, in most cases, to provide benefits as a temporary bridge to returning injured workers to work. So employers are given financial incentives to provide jobs with accommodations, and workers are given financial incentives to take the jobs.
But a lawyer’s task is to get his client whatever the law entitles him to. An injured worker who hires a lawyer is more likely to be hoping for cash benefits than a chance to go back to work.
There is an inherent tension between the design of the system and the right to litigate. That’s why the 1990 reform also had incentives to reduce litigation, not to make litigation easier. But almost everyone has forgotten that part.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       4-3-17
Losing my head from a computer invasion
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
When the horrible thing appeared on my computer screen, I was stunned. First I froze. Then I forgot everything I know about computer safety.
I know enough not to have done what I did. I thought I was prepared for something like this. I have virus software on my computer and trusted professionals I can call.
The technical experts who helped me later told me the predators are getting more sophisticated. They can get past your virus software, and the traps are designed to make you lose your head.
“Don’t beat yourself up too much,” one of them said.
I am writing about this instead of my usual public policy topics, hoping some readers will benefit from my experience and will be better prepared than I was.
I put a search question into Google, clicked on what it showed me (something about senior citizen programs for what should have been my next column) and up popped this horrible thing.
In the background was an apparent pornography site. I saw the corners of photos of women in lewd postures and a few nasty words. In front, blocking most of this, was a white box saying the porn site had a virus and my computer had been locked by Microsoft for my protection. To save my computer I must call Microsoft at an 800 number in the box.
“Do not shut off your computer,” it warned me. The notice in the box looked, well, official.
If I had lost everything on that computer I would have been okay because it was all backed up. I would just lose a few days’ work. I forgot that.
I called the 800 number – the first thing you should never do. The woman who answered spoke clearly but with a foreign accent, and the connection was as clear as a bell. She assured me I was talking to Microsoft. She was very reassuring.
I was on the phone with her for almost an hour. I was even crazy enough to let her try to install a program that would give her access to my computer. Again, I know better. The gross offensiveness of the pornography in the background was making me crazy.
Fortunately, the program she sent did not install after several attempts. My trusted computer consultant told me later it was probably blocked by software he had installed.
Instead of fixing this virus, she started telling me about other security problems on my computer. I became more and more suspicious. At last she told me that to do everything that was needed, I would have to pay $400 for the five-year plan or $500 for the lifetime plan.
I came to my senses.
I asked her to wait, went into another room and used another telephone to call my trusted tech people. They said just get off the phone, shut down your computer and we can fix it.
So, a few reminders:
Back up your whole computer frequently and your new data even more frequently, on a separate hard drive or other offline device.
If you are not technically knowledgeable, find someone who is, either a friend or a professional, who can help you in a jam. If you don’t know anyone, you might check at your local senior center.
If something awful pops up on your screen, shut down your computer and disconnect from the Internet immediately. The most effective way is to hold down the on-off button.
If you had called the number provided expecting free technical advice and they ask you for money, hang up.
Never give out a credit card number, your Social Security number or other vital personal information. Never give access to your computer to anyone you don’t already know and trust.
Never call a phone number that has popped up on your screen. Never. It won’t be Microsoft.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES        3-20-17
Healthcare change asks hard questions about cost and services
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
“In America, we don’t leave people bleeding in the doorway of the emergency room.”  I wrote that line for a presentation I used to give, some 25 years ago, about medical care in workers’ compensation.
There had been a time when some American hospitals did exactly that. Even in emergencies, patients had to produce an insurance card before they would be treated. A federal law was enacted in 1986 prohibiting hospitals from turning away patients in emergencies.
The system has been been battling ever since over who pays. The hospital? The taxpayers? The patient with no money? The Affordable Care Act offers one solution by requiring everybody to be insured and providing subsidies.
The “individual mandate” is one thing many Americans detest about the ACA. So, among the features of the new proposed healthcare law it took Congressional Republicans only six years to draft, the individual mandate is to be repealed. Young healthy people who think they don’t need insurance won’t have to buy it.
But young healthy people can get sick or injured. What does the proposed law anticipate when a young healthy uninsured person shows up with broken bones from a motorcycle accident? Who will pay the bill? Or will we go back to letting him bleed? That has to be one of our questions.
We’re going to have to ask many such questions, especially questions important to New Mexico. Such as how financially struggling New Mexico is supposed to continue paying Medicaid costs if the federal match is cut in 2020.
One urgent question is how many more reductions New Mexico doctors will tolerate before they all leave.
            There aren’t enough doctors nationally because the federal government limits how many residents it will pay to train (see triplespacedagain.com, March 2014). Medicare sets different fee schedules for states based on a cost-of-living formula, with New Mexico at the lower end. So we are always competing with other states for health care professionals and coming up short.
A new buzzword we hear is “access to health care,” which is supposed to refer to the choice of insurance plans, but access to insurance is meaningless if there are not enough providers.
The ACA attempts to ensure that payment to providers will be adequate by capping insurance company profits, requiring that 80 percent of premiums be spent on medical costs. If a new law eliminates that rule, insurance companies will be free to become the next generation of payday lenders, charging whatever premiums they like and saving money by cutting payments to providers. As I have previously written, as long as insurance company profits are built in, the only way to reduce the cost of health care is to reduce the service provided.
The closest thing to a magical fix would be getting New Mexicans to adopt healthier habits, which might cut down our explosive rates of diabetes and other chronic conditions, but I won’t waste your time pretending that’s realistic.
Pontificating about personal responsibility won’t change the fate of New Mexico’s small towns, where access to health services is already tenuous. The simple stark reality is that contemporary healthcare is a complex and highly technical business that costs more than most people can afford, and we do not have national consensus on how to solve that problem. Proponents of the new bill say it will promote “competition,” but what specifically will competition achieve in the delivery of health care? It’s either a pipe dream or a reduction in services.
Mark Lautman, economic consultant to the state’s Job Council, has warned New Mexico is facing an “economic death spiral” if we don’t turn our economy around. If we lose access to healthcare throughout the state, we could be speeding up that death spiral, not just for individuals but for whole communities.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       3-6-17     
Some administrative savings work better than others
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
If I were planning to run for the Legislature, my list of priorities would look a little different from those you usually see. Instead of reciting the usual passionate platitudes about education and economic development, I would talk about saving taxpayer money while improving the performance of government agencies by means of methodical administrative reforms.
Don’t worry, I’m not running, but I have been repeatedly frustrated that I’ve never seen a single campaign promise along these lines. Every now and then when a candidate has knocked on my door, literature in hand, I’ve invited the candidate in and talked about this. It doesn’t do any good. Administrative reform is tedious and unglamorous, is poorly understood by the public, and most of the time it doesn’t produce any bragging rights.
It should especially be a focus of attention for governors and candidates for governor. Just now, with the state’s desperate need to save money, the governor is trying some things that may or may not produce results.
Gov. Susana Martinez announced a few weeks ago that she was considering consolidating departments, but the idea disappeared down a black hole pretty quickly. That is probably because of the pummeling her staff must have taken from irate constituents the minute this thought was expressed.
Superficially, consolidation of small agencies appears to be worth considering. The state has too many departments, and they are wildly disproportionate in size and scope. For example, the Economic Development Department has a budget of less than $10 million, fewer than 100 employees, and one office in Santa Fe plus a couple of special divisions such as the Spaceport Authority. By contrast, the Health Department has a few thousand employees, dozens of specialized services, offices and clinics in every part of the state, and a budget in the range of half a billion dollars.
But putting Economic Development and Tourism back together again, as was suggested, won’t save much money. Almost 30 years ago, one very small department was separated into two even smaller departments because the tourism industry people did not think they were getting enough respect.
            Now the governor has announced she is planning to save money by taking all human resources functions out of the agencies and consolidating them in the State Personnel Office.
The human resources office is where employees get help with their human problems and where managers get support for dealing with problem employees.
The administration might benefit from standardizing some procedures, but getting rid of departmental human resources offices will not add efficiency. It will most likely slow things down and waste taxpayer resources by making employees less productive. To offer one simple example, what’s it going to take under this new scheme for an employee with a sick child to get approved for a few days of family and medical leave?
Just as underfunding the judiciary (another issue in the current budget debate) may save short-term money but will likely lead to legal delays and complications and their associated costs, underfunding personnel offices will lead to costs that aren’t easy to measure.
            Administrative savings are worth looking for, but they take time and require attention to detail. A few thoughts:
            Look not at agencies but at functions. Find little bureaus tasked with jobs that may be obsolete or unnecessary, or two bureaus in two different agencies that do the same thing and perhaps could be combined.
Look at properties all over the state, whether owned or leased by the state, not necessarily to get rid of anything but to see whether sharing could produce savings. Agency field offices that are co-located might be able to share everything from restrooms to copy machines and may offer improved convenience for the public.
This kind of analysis won’t help solve a short-term budget crisis. In fact, it’s probably a bit late for the current administration. But it’s something I hope to see on the campaign priority lists of our next candidates for governor.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                  2-20-16
Watching the governor’s vetoes
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            When Bill Richardson started flirting with a plan to run for president, some of his actions as governor looked suspiciously as if he were using New Mexico to advance his political ambitions.
            It’s hard to avoid the same suspicion about Gov. Susana Martinez. She’s taken a number of actions over her two terms that have seemed to be more about piling up sound bites for somebody else’s policy checklist than what’s best for the state.
Now she’s officially a lame duck. It may be hard for her to run for any higher office, not because of any lack of competency or accomplishments but because of the infamous Christmas party incident of 2015. (If you don’t remember this, please Google “Susana Martinez pizza.”)
But she still could have political ambitions in a less obvious direction. We can watch to see how this plays out in the bills she chooses to sign or veto.
It’s widely understood that New Mexico’s tax system could use a major overhaul. In order to do that, policymakers must be able to engage in give-and-take, which means some taxes may go down and others may go up. Gov. Martinez’s inflexibility on raising any taxes has looked like she wants to preserve her anti-tax bragging rights, not like she wants to solve the problem.
In the midst of this year’s unprecedented fiscal crisis, the session would be a good time for the governor to let go of her absolute position against raising any taxes. There are several tax bills that would not only increase revenue but would also make the tax system fairer.
One proposal (SB 264) would tax internet sales, to which I can only say, it’s about time. At minimum, brick-and-mortar stores employ New Mexico workers. Most pay some New Mexico taxes, even if they are out-of-state owned. We do ourselves no favors by not taxing internet sales.
Similarly there is a proposal (HB 266) to tax “short-term rentals” such as airbnb, which now compete unequally with hotels that pay lodgers’ tax.
Both of these tax proposals help to level the playing field for New Mexico business.  There are technical problems with implementing any tax program, but on balance, these proposals seem to serve the constituencies we should be caring about. So if they make it through both houses, let’s watch to see what the governor does.
I’m even more interested in the hemp bill.
Hemp got a bad rap many decades ago because it’s a cousin of marijuana, but it’s also a plant of many industrial uses from rope to clothing to face cream, and it grows easily on marginal soil without a lot of water – an ideal plant for parts of New Mexico and one that could replace crops that consume more water.
There are several hemp related bills this year, notably SB 6. It would allow hemp cultivation only for research and development purposes, in conformance with recent changes in federal law. Martinez vetoed similar legislation in 2015 with a veto message that could charitably be called silly. (See my article, posted May 2015, on www.triplespacedagain.com.)
SB6 sailed through the Senate with a 37-2 vote and may have passed the House by the time you read this. There is no reasonable justification to veto this legislation. So if the governor does veto it, we may wonder for whose benefit she’s planning to update her resume.
I sometimes recall Bruce King with great nostalgia. Whether you agreed with Gov. King or not, you knew that his ambitions extended no further than the governor’s mansion, and that as soon as his term was up he would be going back to the ranch. You didn’t have to play guessing games about his motives. We’ll probably never see such a governor again.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com


© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES        2-6-17
In final decisions, we’re kinder to our dogs and cats
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
I came home from dinner one evening and found my dog lying on the kitchen floor. She couldn’t get up. After I helped her up, she couldn’t walk.
My dog was old. Her back legs had been weakening for months. She couldn’t see or hear much, was experiencing dementia, and was showing clear evidence of pain.
I had been preparing myself for the difficult decision I would have to make some day. Did I say difficult? Heart wrenching.
Our pets are so lucky. When they are too sick or too infirm and their lives are mostly suffering, we can arrange for them to die peacefully, painlessly and almost instantly, with the help of a compassionate veterinarian and some drugs. It’s been said this is the most loving thing we can do for our beloved pets.
So I’ll point out a truth you might have heard a hundred times. In this most crucial matter, we can be kinder to our dogs and cats than we are allowed to be to our own families. New Mexico law does not allow us to help each other to die in peace.
The issue is in the Legislature this year in House Bill 171, sponsored by Reps. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, and Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces. The bill permits a qualified healthcare provider to assist a person to obtain aid-in-dying medication as long as the person has capacity to make the decision himself or herself, has a terminal illness, has made the request voluntarily and is physically able to self-administer the medication. It provides civil and criminal immunity for the health care provider and other caregivers who may be involved.
There’s a long definition for the word “capacity” to clarify that it means the ability to understand the nature and consequences of the decision.
I have never understood why anybody thinks the law should force dying people to suffer.
Some opponents argue the religious case that only God can give and take away life, but that should not be forced on others who believe differently. Opponents also argue that the power to end a life can be abused by, for example, greedy family members anxious to get their hands on grandma’s money.
The other side of that coin is a whole range of abuses under our current system. Among other things, we have heard about dying patients stuck in hospitals, receiving excessive, unnecessary, and invasive tests or treatments that will probably not lengthen their lives and will make the quality of their last days significantly worse.
New Mexico’s current law, which prohibits physician aid in dying, was challenged a few years ago in a court case, which concluded last June when the state Supreme Court reaffirmed the status quo. As I read the Supreme Court ruling, the justices don’t want to make this decision and think it belongs in the legislature.
Medical aid in dying is now legal in Oregon, Washington, Vermont, California, Montana and, most recently, Colorado, which approved it by means of a voter initiative last year.
According to University of New Mexico law professor Rob Schwartz, who helped write this bill, the use of aid in dying has been studied in these states, especially Oregon, where it’s been legal the longest. It has universally been found to work as intended, that is, used only by small numbers of terminally ill individuals. And, said Schwartz, it’s been found that just knowing they have access to this medication has been a source of comfort to those individuals.
Most of us, I think, hope to live a full and healthy life to the last day and die peacefully in our own beds. But if it doesn’t work out that way, we ought to be able to choose to die as painlessly as our dogs. It’s as simple as that.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES        1-23-17
Making elections and election districts fairer would serve voters
 By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
We’re going to have legislation this year to propose an independent redistricting commission for New Mexico. It’s an issue worth serious consideration.
As of this writing, no bill has been introduced, but we are assured by a group called New Mexico Open Primaries  (nmopenprimaries.org) that a bill is in the works. This group has made redistricting its top legislative issue this year. 
Redistricting has to happen every 10 years, following the U.S. Census, so that legislative, congressional, and other districts represent equal numbers of citizens. Since populations move, district boundaries must be moved to reflect these changes.
Redistricting is done by the legislature in most states, including New Mexico, but there is a growing movement in support of independent commissions, with the intention of having districts drawn that serve the public interest rather than the convenience of incumbent legislators or the party in power.
Legislators, especially those in the majority party, have an almost irresistible temptation to draw district boundaries that make their own reelection as easy as possible. And the majority party has an incentive to weaken the minority party by packing minority voters into a few districts, so that those voters will not inconvenience the majority party legislators in other districts. As it’s often said, under this system, legislators choose their voters rather than the voters choosing the legislators.
That is the formula for the contentious situation we have today. The public would be much better served with districts that are more competitive.
As the spouse of an incumbent senator, I had a ringside seat to the redistricting that followed the 1990 census. It was nasty. There were two special legislative sessions; the second was called because the courts threw out the first state Senate redistricting plan. (See the Legislative Council Services redistricting history, online at nmlegis.gov.)
Most of the decision making took place in caucus meetings behind closed doors, including quiet deal making that the public never saw.
I observed firsthand a few of the unwritten rules of the redistricting process.
Wherever feasible, carve up new legislative districts so that no two incumbent legislators end up in the same district and thus are forced to run against each other.
If it is unavoidable because of population shifts to put two incumbents in the same district, make it two members of a minority party, so you are bumping off one minority member.
Use geography to the advantage of the majority party. In rural districts, that involves such matters as roads and mountains. Make it easier for some candidates to get around the district than others.
I am still amused by the memory of a map of one Albuquerque district that was more or less square, except for a mysterious skinny finger reaching southward. It made no sense unless you knew that the very end of that finger was the home of a potential candidate that Democrats wanted to run against the incumbent Republican. That map was not adopted.
If we could really get an appointed redistricting committee that would be truly independent, and would redraw districts on the basis of such identified issues as geographical compactness and communities of interest, without regard to partisan bias, that would be a major step forward toward reducing extremism in our elections and restoring solution oriented public policy.
There are two major challenges in creating an independent redistricting commission. One is establishing a formula for selecting the commissioners that ensures they are really independent and unbiased or, this being New Mexico, only minimally biased.
The second challenge is getting the Legislature to vote for such a system. Every incumbent member of the Legislature was elected by being the winner in the current system. So why would they vote against it?
A change like this is not likely to be enacted on its first try through the legislature. Still, it’s worth the effort.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES         1-9-17
Real ID is a tough standard for some
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
New Mexico is finally complying with the federal standard for Real ID.
Real ID is the new form of driver’s license (or ID card for non-drivers) that will be required beginning in 2020 to board a plane and for other federal purposes. Real ID confirms that you are genuinely you to the satisfaction of the federal government. When you next renew your license, or no later than October 2020, to get a Real ID license, you will have to present several documents to the Motor Vehicle Department.
New Mexico’s Legislature delayed several years before adopting this standard. After studying the requirements, I see why. Pulling together the necessary documents will probably be easy for most homeowners. It will be hard for some low-income people, especially those who don’t have a stable address.
The details are on the MVD website at www.mvd.newmexico.gov/real-id-information.aspx.
You’ll have to present three types of documents: one with your Social Security number, one that identifies you by age, and two that establish proof of residence.
The first document could be a W-2 from an employer or a 1099 that shows your Social Security number – from your bank, for example. But many 1099s, to protect your security, show only the last four digits. You need one that shows the complete number, such your annual report from the Social Security Administration itself.
What if you’re not in the conventional economy? What if you do not have a bank account? Estimates say about 10 percent of New Mexicans don’t. What if you have been working at odd jobs or for employers who paid cash and kept no records? It could be tough.
The second document could be a passport or birth certificate. If you were born in any state in the US, and you don’t have a birth certificate, you can get a replacement from the vital records department of the state where you were born.
In New Mexico the current cost is $10. It takes six to 12 weeks, says the website, so you should make the request a few months ahead. And you have to provide a copy of another government-issued document, such as a driver’s license, with a picture ID.
The third category requires documents that establish your residency. No problem if you own your home in your name. But what if your home is in the name of another family member? What if you are living with a friend? What if you’re renting and do not have a written rental agreement? You might have a problem.
Fortunately, unless your current license is about to expire, you have time to gather the documents before your next renewal.
But what if you had to find all these documents in a single day or lose a basic right of citizenship?
This is a situation many thousands of Americans faced recently on the day they tried to vote. The Real ID requirements look similar to the voter ID requirements passed in a number of states (not New Mexico), though some states are more demanding. Many observers believe those requirements were enacted deliberately to prevent poor and minority people from voting. According to accounts from voting rights advocates, voters who didn’t know they would be challenged at the polls were forced to try to assemble some of these documents at the last minute before they could vote.
Real ID is NOT required to vote in New Mexico. But will most likely be used for many purposes beyond the original intention, whittling away at our privacy in ways we can’t yet anticipate. New Mexico law has created an alternative “Driving Authorization Card” for those without the necessary documents, but it seems inevitable that card will label the bearer as a second-class citizen (or not a citizen, period). One more obstacle to make life a little harder for poor people.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


2016

© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                        12-26-16
Lessons to learn from our Johnson administration
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
In the early days of Gary Johnson’s governorship, I had occasion to be at the State Capitol talking with some of his new appointees.
“Oh,” one of them said to me, “so you work for the Department of Labor.” He looked pleased with himself.
“No,” I said. “I work for the Workers’ Compensation Administration.”
“Right,” he said, “Department of Labor.”
“No,” I said, but he didn’t believe me.
Several similar conversations happened with other appointees of the new administration.
A few weeks later, I saw taped to a wall in the Capitol an organization chart of state government, showing a dotted line between the Department of Labor and my agency. We had at one time been “administratively attached” to that department. But we had never been part of it.
The chart was several years out of date. This new gang of managers were relying on it as reference information to learn what they were now in charge of.
Johnson was then the new guy from the private sector who was going to run state government like a business. For most high-level positions, he avoided appointing anyone who had previous government experience. Even those who had spent their careers trying to reform government were, in his view, part of the problem.
You could say those people were Romneyed. That’s a new word I just made up.
During his first legislative session, Johnson declined the help of advisors, read all the bills himself and refused to sign any legislation he didn’t understand. In the budget, he famously line-item vetoed the funding for a critical one-of-a-kind forensic laboratory. Only after the budget was done and he found out the effects of that veto did he learn that he couldn’t undo it.
(Presidents do not have line-item veto power. They cannot selectively veto parts of a budget or any other bill.)
In those days I was championing the need for more training of lower-level employees in state government. Too many of my colleagues at the lower pay grades, I had come to believe, had received only minimal on-the-job training and did not understand the purpose or context of their work. I believed that lack of a broader view was a root cause of both inefficiency and the poor customer service so many New Mexicans complained of.
I talked about this with a legislator who was close to the administration. This legislator, a retired corporate executive, told me employees shouldn’t need training because they should have known how to do the job when they were hired. The nature of much of the work in government is very different from anything workers do in the private sector, but he didn’t want to hear about that.
We have a new national administration coming in that once again is going to run government like a business and, says the new President-elect, “drain the swamp,” although the question was raised in news reports this week as to whether that phrase is still operative.
We’re also hearing that, like Johnson, he relies on his own gut feeling rather than asking anybody. A number of his appointees come from the private sector; they will start off not knowing the structures of the organizations they’re supposed to run or the purposes those organizations are supposed to fulfill.
A recent post from Politico said:
“While Trump made his ‘drain the swamp’ pledge a major part of his campaign message in the final weeks of the presidential race, his transition team was, in its early days after the election, packed with lobbyists for the pharmaceutical, chemical, fossil fuel and tobacco industries.”
Like most citizens, I’d be pleased to see government made more efficient, more cost-effective, significantly less wasteful -- and, most important by far, more effective at meeting the appropriate needs of 21st-century America.
Among many concerns about this, I hope they are humble enough to make sure they are starting from a correct organization chart.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com


© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       12-12-16
Challenges to replacing Obamacare
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
Repeal and replace Obamacare. We’ve heard it a million times. It has been a rallying cry of Republicans in Congress ever since it was passed. 
            What is it about this law that makes it so hated?
            Probably not the provisions that say you can’t be denied coverage if you have a pre-existing medical condition and you can’t be kicked off your policy if you get sick. New Mexicans really need that protection. Almost 10 percent of New Mexico adults have diabetes and another 7 percent are pre-diabetic. Before Obamacare, under private insurance they would have had to undergo a waiting period before getting coverage for those conditions.
Probably not the provisions that say your lifetime benefit cannot be capped, so if you have a serious and expensive illness you can still be insured. After all, very sick people are the ones most in need of coverage.
Those provisions make the healthcare system more expensive. They help the people who consume more services than their premiums pay for.
The hated provisions are the individual mandate and employer mandate. The employer mandate requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide coverage to their employees. The individual mandate requires individuals not otherwise covered to buy their own coverage, which for some will be subsidized. We Americans don’t like mandates.
Letting healthy people choose not to buy insurance would be a bit like requiring only accident-prone drivers to buy auto insurance and then expecting the cost to be reasonable.
The insurance is expensive and continues to increase. It can be very costly for people who don’t qualify for subsidies. There are logical reasons why.
Healthcare itself is becoming more expensive, in part because people use more of it. If you are paying for it anyway through insurance, you tend to want to get your money’s worth by receiving some service.
As the science and technology of medical care have expanded, patients have come to expect longer lives and better outcomes. Not many years ago, cancer was a death sentence; options were limited. Now cancer cures are common, but they are expensive. Instead of limping along with your gimpy leg you can get a knee or hip replacement. You can get a bypass instead of dying of a heart attack.
We’re using many more pharmaceuticals, including drugs to counter the side effects of other drugs.
The New Mexico Retiree Health Care Authority reported recently that 75 percent of its members over age 65 took five or more prescription drugs last year. Congress has repeatedly refused to pass any legislation to control the cost of prescription medications. The pharmaceutical industry spends more on lobbying Congress than any other industry -- $240 million in 2015, according to opensecrets.org. A friend of mine told me recently her new medicine costs $95,000 a year.
Obamacare has very high administrative costs, which include both overhead and profit of the numerous private for-profit health plans. A portion of your insurance premium is paying dividends to stockholders.
By contrast, Medicare, administered by government, is extremely efficient, with administrative costs only about 2 percent.
There really are only two ways to make health insurance less expensive:  cut the administrative cost or reduce services. Uh-oh.
Theoretically, we consumers provide the incentive to companies to improve efficiency by choosing the health plan that costs the least while promising all the services we want. The problem is, as with any insurance, when you pay in advance, you don’t really know what you’re going to get when you need unexpected services.
The cost of pharmaceuticals is politically untouchable. Any more reduction in payment to doctors will worsen the severe shortage of doctors, especially here in New Mexico. Our small community hospitals are financially strained.
We have been waiting for six years to see the replacement part of the “repeal and replace” plan. We’re still waiting.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES         11/28/16
 Do we believe in free and fair elections?
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
New Mexico dodged a bullet in the recent election. We elected a Secretary of State who encourages voting instead of a candidate whose publicly stated goal is to suppress it.
Congratulations to us!
At a candidate debate in October, Republican nominee Nora Espinoza talked about only one issue: requiring voter ID. Her opponent, Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver, won by almost 100,000 votes.
Voter ID has been shown to be a code word for voter suppression – purposeful organized techniques to prevent legally qualified Americans from voting.
Some forms of voter suppression are now legal in America. Both legal and illegal forms of voter suppression were employed this year in several states. Pundits and scholars will argue whether voter suppression caused the election results or merely contributed, but there’s little doubt that many votes were never cast or never counted – as to how many, the pundits will argue about the numbers also.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act recognized that voting practices in some states actively discriminated against ethnic minorities and other target groups. The law required that voting procedures be conducted so as not to discriminate against those groups. In states with records of discriminatory practices, federal oversight was imposed.
A few years ago, over the objection of civil rights groups, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the oversight was no longer required. Several states with Republican legislative majorities have enacted laws creating obstacles to voting for targeted groups of citizens – 14 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. They were listed as Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.
In North Carolina, courts determined the state’s new law was so overtly discriminatory that it was overturned, but other states’ laws are still standing.
That is reprehensible but legal. What may not have been legal were such practices as closing polling places in minority neighborhoods, “purges” that removed registered voters’ names from the rolls based on phony criteria, and poll workers who demanded forms of identification that their own state law did not require.
This is clearly one-sided. In every case, these actions have been done by Republicans to limit ballot access to voters who are likely to vote Democrat.
But, with a few exceptions, it didn’t happen in New Mexico.
When I wrote in a recent column that you can’t rig a national election, I made a mistake. It was the same mistake journalists were making all over the country. Journalists as well as politicians took Donald Trump’s bait and rushed to defend our system against what we foresaw would be a post-election attack by him after losing. But we failed to raise the alarm about the purges and other activities going on quietly in state after state.
We’ve had some voter suppression attempts in New Mexico, including a flier mailed to voters this October threatening that “your neighbors will know” if you vote Democratic. It made national news.
In 2012, a video was made public, showing New Mexico Republican poll challengers being trained to give false or misleading information to voters about what ID was required.
Secretary Clinton won the popular vote and only lost the election because of the way votes are counted for the Electoral College. We don’t know whether the votes never cast or never counted would have made the difference.
We are now living in a country in which the majority does not rule, and some people seem to like it that way. So I will ask you, readers, is that what you want? Is that the kind of country you want to live in? If you believe in the traditional values of your party but you don’t support large-scale voter suppression as a value of your party, maybe you should send a letter to your party leadership.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      11/14/16             
It’s the health insurance season, and help is available
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
The national enrollment period for health insurance through the exchanges is taking place now, with a Jan. 31 deadline, and if you are confused I don’t blame you. But it may not be all that intimidating. Some practical information:
An exchange is where you go to get health insurance if you don’t have coverage through Medicare, Medicaid, or another plan such as an employer’s group plan. In New Mexico, the exchange is called “bewellnm.com.”
You can go to the website and click on a link to find help online, by phone or in person in your part of the state. Scroll down to the blue-green box that says “get started today” and click on “I need help with my application.” From there you can click on “Find a broker” or “Find a counselor.” Enter your zip code or your county and you will see a list of the people in your area.
Or skip the computer and phone 1-855-996-6449.
Either an insurance broker or an enrollment counselor has the knowledge to help you through the enrollment process. They are located throughout New Mexico.
The recommendations here are from a training program given by the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance and BeWellNM.)
If you already have coverage through the exchange (except for Presbyterian), you can do nothing and let it roll over for another year, but it’s recommended that you review your plan to see whether your needs or the plan’s provisions have changed.
or individual coverage, there are four options through the exchange: Blue Cross Blue Shield, Molina, Christus, or New Mexico Health Connections, which is a relatively new in-state nonprofit health insurer.
Each of these four offers a few plans. The major differences: Some plans will cost you less in premium, but you might have to pay more in deductibles and co-pays. If you are in good health and have few medical needs, the lowest premium might be your best option.
If you change plans, you might lose access to a particular doctor. If that is important to you, you can check before changing.
Presbyterian has dropped out of the exchange this year. If you already have coverage with Presbyterian through the exchange, and you don’t switch, you will be enrolled in another plan, but you can change later.
If you have Presbyterian coverage that isn’t through the exchange, this does not affect you.
Your cost could be going up, but so could your subsidy. A calculator on the website can tell you how much your subsidy might be.
When you are covered through the exchange, there is no lifetime maximum benefit. If you develop a serious illness that turns out to be costly, your access to benefits will never run out. Outside the exchange, it is possible for a plan to have a lifetime limit.
If, based on your income, you are eligible for Medicaid, the website will figure that out. You’ll be advised to get help enrolling in Medicaid. For Medicaid information, one place to check would be the nearest office of the Income Support Division of the state Human Services Department.
There is a special exchange program for Native Americans. They may continue to use the Indian Health Service and also get benefits through the exchange for services not available through IHS.
The election won’t affect the system in 2017, Insurance Superintendent John Franchini assures me.
The President-elect and both houses of Congress will be Republican, and have said they want to repeal the Affordable Care Act. However, even if they do, Franchini said approvals already in place will keep the system stable through 2017 and probably beyond.
No doubt it’s a clumsy system, but using the exchanges is no more difficult than selecting a Medicare supplement or private insurance. Whenever Congress gets around to it, the system will benefit from an overhaul, not a repeal.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES         10-31-16
Getting real about elections
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
You can’t rig a presidential election.
Of all the damage in this presidential election, perhaps the worst is Donald Trump’s allegation that the election is rigged.
Some things will probably go wrong. Bad things can happen, but they will most likely be localized and not systemic. Our unwritten national agreement is that we try to prevent them, but when they happen, we accept the results. The “peaceful transition of power” is not just a slogan. It’s what preserves our republic.
Our elections are so decentralized that it’s logistically unimaginable that anyone could pull off a successful national conspiracy. There are too many different processes, conducted in too many separate places. Any attempted conspiracy would be exposed long before it could be achieved. I don’t think I’m being naïve in saying that.
Our elections are run by thousands of county clerks, with officials and observers from both major parties. The machines are from different manufacturers and built without the capability to be networked, so they can’t be hacked. Most states, including New Mexico, use paper ballots in addition to machine counting.
New Mexico has 33 county clerks, elected in the last election cycle before anybody knew who the 2016 candidates would be. There are about 1,500 precincts in the state, each overseen by local election officials from both major parties.
New Mexico’s election safeguards were outlined for me by Daniel Ivey-Soto, a state senator, executive director of the New Mexico association of county clerks and an expert on election law and procedure. He described the multiple ways the ballot counts are verified, preserved and audited, with every step watched by bipartisan officials and open to the public. Once you’ve cast your ballot and it’s in official hands, it is as safe as safeguards can make it.
But, sure, things can go wrong, mostly before you cast that ballot.
New Mexico had unacceptably long lines in Sandoval County in both 2012 and 2014. When the lines are long, some voters can’t wait and leave without voting.
Long lines can be accidental, such as a technical problem with a machine, or deliberate. We’ve seen deliberately created long lines recently, according to federal court decisions, in a few states that had a pattern of not enough machines or poll workers in minority districts. Analysts say these disparities were made possible by a recent Supreme Court decision that weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Weather is a factor. The snowstorm that hit New Mexico’s northern counties on Election Day 1986 affected my life. I had a good job prospect if a particular candidate won. He didn’t. We didn’t have the option of voting early in those days.
Our Constitution doesn’t provide for do-overs due to weather or any other contingency. Recounts are possible, but do-overs are not. When the election is done, it’s done. In the 2000 election, when recounts occurred in Florida, one issue was the confusing shape of the ballot in certain counties. Many voters complained that they unintentionally voted for the wrong candidate. But it was done.
I know of one exception. In New York City, on September 11, 2001, a mayoral primary was scheduled. The terrorist attacks were a catastrophic interruption. It was a local election, and local officials rescheduled that primary.
This election season has aroused an alarming degree of divisiveness and suspicion in voters. As this tension feeds upon itself, we forget that our nation was built on compromise. It’s up to all of us to be Americans first and partisan second.  If you’re worried about election procedures, go to your local polling place and observe. It’s a free election and that’s your right.
I said observe, not heckle or interfere. Make yourself part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES        10-17-16
Overcoming the isolation of the elderly
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
A woman I know lives alone and, at age 60-plus, has a chronic health condition. Often she doesn’t feel well. She thinks she would not be good company, so she doesn’t reliably return the calls of people who are trying to be her friends. She’s isolated and depressed and has difficulty asking for help when she needs it. Eventually those friends may stop calling. Does that sound like anyone you know?
Social isolation of the elderly and those with disabilities is an epidemic of our time. It’s receiving increasing recognition in public policy and public health circles. Isolation makes many frail elderly individuals miserable. And they develop health problems that add costs to our health systems.
Most people who have homes want to stay in them as they age; the studies confirm what common sense would tell you. But they (make that “we”) are all at risk for the frailties of old age, including losing the ability to drive and other skills basic to living independently.
About 10 percent of New Mexicans are 70 or older, and the number is growing. About 30 percent of those 65 and older live in households with $20,000 or less in annual income. About the same percentage, according to statistics from the state Department of Health, do not engage in any recreational physical activity.
At the recent state Conference on Aging, several social service professionals talked about elders they know of, using terms like “dying of loneliness,” living alone without nearby family or community support.
One new approach that’s getting attention is called “villages.” It’s a slightly misleading term because it suggests a physical grouping. This concept doesn’t require that people live next door to each other, as long as they’re in the same neighborhood. It’s a mutual assistance organization.
The village concept was the topic of a talk by Aging and Long Term Services Secretary Myles Copeland at the conference.
A “village” is a self-governing self-help organization created by a group of older people for the purpose of enabling seniors and those with disabilities to stay in their homes. The village concept recognizes that those who are not independent in all respects have talents and abilities to contribute and that everyone can participate.
The form of the village is whatever the founders decide they want. If they decide to charge dues or hire employees, they can do so, and there are models available for them to follow. If they want to make their organization free and voluntary, they can do it that way. They can undertake programs like providing transportation, contracting with reliable handymen or other service providers, keeping neighbors connected and checked on, or whatever else they choose.  Unlike informal arrangements among friends, this approach can ensure that nobody is left out.
The concept is simple to understand. The implementation can be a huge undertaking, depending upon how ambitious the group tries to be. It’s as big as creating a business from scratch.
Villages can choose to join a national nonprofit called the Village to Village Network, which provides information and resources for new and prospective villages. The network’s website (www.vtvnetwork.org) lists several villages in New Mexico. Three are listed as “open,” meaning currently functioning, in Santa Fe, Corrales and Albuquerque. Listed as “in development” are villages in Las Vegas, Las Cruces, Santa Fe and Taos.
The 20th century created unprecedented levels of freedom and mobility. We have known all along that there’s been a price to pay for all that freedom, including the loss of support for elders left behind. Creating villages is one approach toward restoring the structure of community that most of us will need, now or in the future.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                           10-3-16
Laws should never be unamendable
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
Unamendable: a law that cannot be changed, no matter how problematic it has become. Think about that.
An “unamendable” provision of the New Mexico Constitution has finally been amended. This was the provision that required school board elections to be held at a separate time from all other elections. It has resulted in miserably low turnouts at school elections for decades.
The provision was written in a way that required impossible majorities to change it. So even though solid majorities have voted several times over the years to change this, it was not done until a few weeks ago, when the state Supreme Court found a legally adequate argument to acknowledge the will of the voters.
It will still take several steps, including new legislation, before the change can be implemented, so that school elections can be held together with municipal and other nonpartisan elections.
At the same time, however, the voters of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County have just temporarily dodged a bullet of unamendability: a proposed city ordinance to require all employers, with no exclusions, to provide sick leave.
Remember California Proposition 13 – perhaps the most famous voter initiative of our era? Passed in 1978, it severely limited increases in property taxes for existing property owners. Like other citizen initiatives, but unlike a law passed by the Legislature, Proposition 13 could only be changed by another voter initiative. It is still in effect and has caused many problems, among them, shifting the burden of higher taxes to new homeowners and new businesses.
We no longer live in the age of the New England town meeting, in which the citizens can vote on everything. Public policy issues are often complex. That’s why we have not only a legislature but a year-round nonpartisan legislative staff that can research issues and help legislators to understand what they’re doing.
In New Mexico, at the state level, a proposal can get on the ballot only if it first passes both houses of the Legislature. You may think that limits democracy. I think it has saved us from heaven only knows what.
But the city charter of Albuquerque allows voter initiatives. So issues can be placed on the ballot that the voters do not fully understand. And let’s be realistic; most voters will not inform themselves fully before election day.
The proposal on sick leave would have been on the general election ballot this November in Bernalillo County but was stopped by a court decision based on the length of the seven-page proposal. All seven pages will now be on the ballot at the municipal election next year.
I am in favor of sick leave, but not at the cost of driving small companies out of business. This proposed ordinance contains several inflexible technical requirements, including ones that would force employers to provide for the sick leave according to an inflexible formula, apparently written by the people who wrote the proposal.
And the last paragraph makes the ordinance unamendable, if it is approved by the voters next year. It says:
“This Chapter may be amended by the City Council without a vote of the people as regards the implementation or enforcement thereof, in order to achieve the purposes of this Chapter, but not in a manner that alters the effective date or lessens the substantive requirements of this Chapter or its scope of coverage.”
It will take another Supreme Court decision to figure out what that means. The employers of Albuquerque could possibly be stuck with this forever.
There has been talk around the Legislature about limiting the right of cities and other local government jurisdictions to enact separate ordinances relating to workplace or labor practices. After reading this proposed ordinance, I am very sympathetic to that position.
Nothing should be unamendable.
 Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                      9-19-16
 Help for elders might be a phone call away
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
          If you are elderly or have a disability, an extensive network of services may be available to you. Depending on where you live and what you need, you might have access to home–delivered meals, home repair, transportation, financial consulting, legal assistance, and numerous other services.
           Whatever you think you might need, it’s worth asking if there might be a service to help you.
          There are two places to ask: your local senior citizen center, and the state Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC), a bureau of the New Mexico Aging and Long–term Services Department (ALTSD).
          The resource center can be reached at 1-800-432-2080. Save this phone number. The email address is nm.adrc@state.nm.us. There is an online resource directory at www.nmresourcedirectory.org. 
          I discovered the resource center at the annual state Conference on Aging. Several agencies were represented, hoping to increase the public’s awareness of what they do. The resource center is a link to all of them.
          Services to the elderly in New Mexico are provided through a bureaucratic tangle of state and federal agencies and local nonprofits. Some programs for seniors are intertwined with programs for people with disabilities. Some involve other government programs, such as Medicaid and the Veterans Administration. Some are only for low-income clients; others have no income restrictions.
           If you need something, you should be able to ignore all that bureaucracy and get connected to a service that can help you.
            A few programs worth noting:
          For active seniors, the department’s website lists more than 200 senior citizen centers. A detailed list can be found at: www.nmaging.state.nm.us/senior-services.aspx.
          If you’re a senior who would like to help other seniors, you could volunteer for the senior companion program, providing companionship for a  homebound senior; or the ombudsman program to maintain supportive contact with elders in long-term care facilities.
            Adult Protective Services is the division that responds to reports of abuse against adults, whether by family members or others. It is for people over age 18 who cannot protect themselves, not just elders. The phone number is 1-866-654-3219, with 24-hour access.
          The Governor’s Commission on Disability (a separate department) serves individuals with any kind of disability. It can help with assistive technology and has low-interest loans to purchase adaptive devices or make home modifications.            Another loan program helps individuals purchase equipment to expand or create a home-based business. Call the Technology Assistance Program: 505-841-6646 in Albuquerque; www.tap.gcd.state.nm.us.
          The Brain Injury Advisory Council, part of the Commission on Disability, provides services for individuals with brain injuries and distributes bicycle helmets to children: 1-877-696-1470.
          The Securities Division of the Regulation and Licensing Department has an investor education program for community groups, to help elders avoid being victimized by fraud: 1-800-704-5533 or redflagsnm.com. 
          Legal Resources for the Elderly is a joint program of the Aging and Long-Term Services Department and the State Bar. Anyone age 55-plus may consult with an attorney on the phone free of charge. Referrals can sometimes be given to other volunteer attorneys who help at no cost with estate planning and other matters: 1-800-876-6657.
            The Alzheimer’s Association helps families affected by Alzheimer’s and dementia.  Reach the 24-hour statewide helpline at 1-800-272-3900 or www.alz.org/newmexico.
          Despite all this, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that resources are limited and funding doesn’t always get where it’s needed.
            Attached to the aging department is an 11-member volunteer Policy Advisory Committee. At the recent conference, the committee held a listening session, to hear concerns from elders and service providers. The most common concerns were about elders living alone in rural areas. Some of these elders are virtually abandoned, with no family, no transportation and no assistance.
          These problems are tough to solve institutionally. If you know someone in such circumstances, you might help by being a concerned neighbor and making a phone call to one of the services listed above.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com


© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES            9-5-16
Payday lending costs everybody
 By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
I am really tired of paying off loan sharks for other people’s debts. Aren’t you?
You’re wondering what I’m talking about? The social cost of predatory lending.
We’ve all heard about this, the payday loans and the car title loans, the astronomical interest rates and the low-income people who take these loans, probably not understanding they’re getting themselves into a tangle of ever-increasing borrowing and perhaps believing they have no choice.
We haven’t heard enough about how much this is costing us as taxpayers, as donors to charities and as residents of a state where poverty depresses the standard of living for all of us.
When a low income person spends $500 to pay off $100 loans, year after year, that affects you and me. When my taxes support that person’s access to Medicaid, I’m paying off the loan shark. When I write a check to Roadrunner Food Bank or put cans of tuna fish in a donation box, I’m paying off the loan shark again.
When that borrower’s children are living on hot dogs and corn chips, their poor health is a future cost I will pay for. When they keep moving from place to place because mom can’t afford the rent, that’s my investment in their education going down the drain because they’re too unstable to pay attention in school. When mom loses her job because she can’t afford a car to get to work, she switches from a taxpayer to a welfare recipient.
So if you don’t have any compassion for the borrowers, if you think they’re irresponsible and careless, from your own self-interested point of view their behavior doesn’t matter. You’d be better off if they had a few bucks in their pockets. Probably some of them would spend it on booze and cigarettes, but some would buy their children an apple, or a salad, or a book, or a home. 
On its website, loansharkattack.com, the New Mexico Fair Lending Coalition summarizes data from the state Regulation and Licensing Department, showing that in 2013, more than 164,000 loan customers paid an average interest rate of 340 percent. Former state Sen. Steve Fischmann, a cofounder and activist with the coalition, says the numbers are probably higher because the reporting is unreliable.
There is no excuse, considering the level of poverty in the state and what this is costing all of us, to allow this to continue. Oh, wait, sorry, I forgot. As I often repeat, New Mexico is the state that couldn’t pass fireworks legislation in a drought. The lending industry is generous with campaign contributions. Legislation to cap interest rates has been tried. If it is tried again, Fischmann thinks it couldn’t pass or would be vetoed.
The coalition is trying other approaches, Fischmann said. Top priority is to create a marketplace for affordable loans for low-income borrowers. For example, many borrowers are employed. The coalition is working with some employers of low-wage workers to link them to lenders who charge interest rates around 20 percent and arrange repayment through a payroll deduction. 
A memorial was passed this year through the state senate asking the State Personnel Office to evaluate this service for state employees. Fischmann said as many as 20 percent of New Mexico state employees use payday loans. (Parenthetically, now is not a time to argue for higher wages for government workers.)
This approach through employers, obviously, is no answer for those who don’t have a job.
The industry’s favorite argument is that it makes money available to people who would otherwise have no access to it and that those high interest rates are necessary so the lenders can stay in business.
I don’t believe that. It’s a moral outrage that New Mexico allows its weakest citizens to be victimized in this way. And beyond that, it’s a bad use of my money and my generosity. And yours.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                      8-22-16
Rooftop solar power challenges utility rate making
 By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
The story went like this: You could install solar panels that would generate electricity on your roof. When the sun was shining, you’d generate enough to power your house and then your meter would run backwards, and the power company would send you a check instead of a bill. How cool was that!
That works, and it’s called “distributed generation,” but the real world has complications. One complication is that the power generated while the sun shines is not stored. The utility still has to provide another source of power to turn the lights on at night.
Beyond that – no surprise – utilities don’t like having to buy back power. That’s not unreasonable. Utilities have a mandate to provide reliable power all the time and must build and maintain costly infrastructure to meet that requirement.
The more solar capacity you have on your house, the fewer hours you will buy. Therefore, the cost to deliver power to your house is more expensive per hour than for the typical household. To compensate, the utility does not pay you nearly as much for the power you sell as you pay for the hours you buy.
The price of power today to New Mexico homeowners is about 12 to13 cents per kilowatt hour, varying with each utility. What the utilities pay back also varies.
Utilities have tried to squeeze a little more profit out of solar-powered homes by adding surcharges. A national organization called Vote Solar challenges these surcharges on behalf of consumers. Recently in New Mexico, Vote Solar has intervened in several rate cases before the Public Regulation Commission. It’s represented here by former PRC Commissioner Jason Marks.
PNM tried to get distributed generation surcharges in 2011 and again in 2015. Each time, it gave up that request as part of a global rate case settlement. The 2015 proposal was $6 per kilowatt (not kilowatt hour), roughly $18 per month for a typical distributed generation customer. PNM’s original 2015 case was dismissed in spring 2015 for technical issues. When the case was refiled in the fall, PNM agreed with Vote Solar not to include a surcharge for distributed generation.
Southwest Public Service, which serves parts of southeastern New Mexico, had a surcharge of 1.8 cents per kwh and raised it in 2012 to 3.7 cents. They attempted to increase it again in 2016 to 4.8 cents but, according to Marks, Vote Solar intervened. Marks said Vote Solar prevented the increase and negotiated a change so the surcharge applies to fewer kilowatt hours.
El Paso Electric serves the Las Cruces area. Marks said El Paso Electric tried a different approach. EPE tried to segregate distributed generation customers into a separate rate class, which might enable EPE to charge more in the future. That was defeated after a Vote Solar intervention, based on PRC rules that prohibit discrimination between classes of customers.
Even though utilities’ advertising encourages efficient energy use, they make less money when consumers buy less power. This reality does not fit the model under which these “regulated monopolies” (or the cooperatives that serve the rural areas of New Mexico) were developed.
Rooftop solar make sense for a number of reasons. Central New Mexico experienced a massive power outage a few weeks ago. Homeowners who have rooftop solar could look forward to their refrigerators and home computers starting back up in the morning, no matter how long the outage might last.
The economics of distributed generation will continue to improve as the cost of installation goes down. In addition, decentralized power generation could be a significant benefit to national security, as the centralized grid system is a potential target for terrorist attack. The freedom to expand rooftop solar is something we should be welcoming, and let’s hope the utility companies figure out a way to make it work for them, too.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     8-8-16
 Court decision makes small farmers more like small businesses
     By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
          Is a small family farm a business, a hobby, a living museum or something else? 
          It's increasingly clear we can't have it both ways – business and quaint tradition. The recent state Supreme Court decision on workers' comp coverage for farms and ranches puts that in sharp relief.
          The court decided the special exemption for farmers and ranchers is unconstitutional. Agricultural employers are now required to buy insurance if they have three or more employees, just like other small businesses. (Construction is an exception, requiring all employers to have coverage.)
          One insurance professional commented to me that he is impatient at the way New Mexico has coddled family farmers. They are running businesses, he said. They should develop budgets like other businesses, make businesslike decisions about who is an employee and treat employees as the laws require.
          That’s what this court decision will force them to do, but we also may be losing a  valuable part of our traditional culture. The change will mean more formality and bureaucracy. Probably some family farms will be scared to hire anybody, even when they need help, and some farmers will decide farming is not worth the trouble. 
            The insurance premium will be high, because physical labor is inherently risky.  According to one estimate, the cost to insure a ranch hand is $12 to $18 per $100 of payroll.
            Most small farms and ranches will have to buy their initial coverage in the Assigned Risk Pool, where the premium is automatically higher than in regular commercial insurance. The pool is where businesses are forced to buy coverage if they are particularly high risk or have no risk history. The extra cost is an obstacle to success for any small business.
            The Workers' Compensation Administration has published a fact sheet which you can find at www.workerscomp.state.nm.us/pdf/faqs_agricultural.pdf. Most of the points are taken from the Supreme Court ruling or the statute.
            Since the ruling makes farmers more like other employers, we can speculate that the decisions about who needs to be covered may apply to all small businesses. I said "speculate," so don’t count on it, but if you run a very small business you might want to look at this fact sheet.
            The fact sheet says, for example, that neighbors who trade labor are volunteers and do not have to be covered as long as they don't pay each other. It also says unpaid family members do not have to be covered. Aha, but what does the word “pay “mean? “Pay” is not defined. In case you were wondering, “employee” is not defined, either.
            As I say with annoying frequency, in workers' comp there are many ways to count to three. Farmers will struggle with that, as other small businesses struggle. There are lots of uncertainties with no simple answers.
And there's more to workers' compensation than buying an insurance policy. You have to know what to do with the insurance.
The whole purpose of workers' comp is providing coverage when a worker gets injured. In addition to taking the worker to medical care (which most employers would do anyway), employers are supposed to know what to file, how to instruct the worker and other administrative matters.
When my job was to talk to small businesses about workers' comp, I used to ask them whether they knew where in the office their insurance policy was filed and whether they had ever opened the envelope to read the instructions. Many looked chagrined. I told them to go find it as soon as they left my seminar.
The mistakes employers make in the initial phase of a claim are a major reason too many workers' compensation claims result in litigation. The 1990 workers' compensation reform was supposed to minimize that, but the authors of the reform forgot to make the procedures simple enough for small businesses. Or small farmers.

Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                                   7-25-16
Focus legislation on one issue at a time
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
The U. S. Senate, as you probably know, left Washington for a lengthy summer recess without passing an appropriation for research on the Zika virus. Though most senators agreed on the funding, Democrats disagreed with provisions unrelated to this issue, which had been included in the bill by Republicans.
Among those provisions were restrictions on funding for birth control services from Planned Parenthood, weakened clean water laws governing pesticides and, as if the nation needs something else to motivate people to shoot each other, a provision that would have allowed the Confederate flag to be displayed at military cemeteries.
Let us not, for this moment, debate the Planned Parenthood issue, the pesticide issue or even the Confederate flag issue. Let's talk about process.
This process, sometimes called logrolling, is what happens when legislation is written so that in order to vote for one thing that a legislator is in favor of, the legislator has to vote for something he or she opposes.
In this case, according to the news reports, U. S. senators on both sides are now waiting for a few American babies to be born with tragic deformities so they can point fingers at each other. At least New Mexico, with its low humidity, is not a heavy mosquito state. 
I have written before about the "single subject" provision of our state constitution, which is shared by 41 other states (see triplespacedagain.com, October 2013).  This provision says simply that a law must be about one subject and the subject must be stated clearly in the title of the bill. Given that New Mexico legislators have not been above pulling nasty tricks on each other, the imagination runs wild when I think of what this provision has saved us from.
As I mentioned previously, the single subject rule was invented 2000 years ago in the Roman Senate.
I bring it up now because so many Americans, exasperated and fed up, are in a mood to demand serious reforms.
Forcing this restriction upon Congress would require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That would be fine with me but unrealistic, so I don't advocate it. However, our members are now here at home on their long recess. This may be a perfect time to exhort them to stop pulling these tricks and clean up their legislation, one bill at a time. 
If you agree with this, I invite you to put it on your wish list and share the thought with whichever member of Congress you see in your district.
From time to time we have movements to "throw the rascals out" or to enact term limits, to get rid of corruption. I don't believe either of these approaches would make much difference, because the problem is in the system, not the individuals.
Good people run for office, usually beginning at lower levels like the state legislature. They lose focus as they find themselves in a system that rewards them with fame and the illusion of power but forces them to play the game. The current game is party polarization,  trying to make the other side look bad rather than reaching compromises that will get anything done.    
If lawmakers think they can make more of a contribution by staying in office than by stepping aside for a newcomer, they are probably right, because seniority, experience and relationships all matter.
These days we are bursting at the seams with anger and frustration, and our politicians have been shocked into listening. So let’s ask them point blank to stop this particular kind of nonsense. For starters, let’s get a bill that funds research into a dangerous virus and does nothing else. And save the argument about Confederate flags for another day.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                                   7/11/16
Early voting may involve a long drive
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
          The map of New Mexico is a vivid reminder of what starkly different worlds we New Mexicans live in – one tight clump in the center of the state and enormous open spaces dotted with small towns.
          The map, in this case, was provided by the Secretary of State’s office, showing the polling sites for early voting and Election Day voting for the recent primary.  It is online at polling.sks.com. Save this link for the general election.
          We can’t tell from the data how much early voting influenced our recent primary election.  What we can tell is how much the early voting option was utilized.
          The numbers indicate that early voting was much more heavily used in Bernalillo County and other metro areas than in our sparsely populated rural counties. 
          The early voting period this year was May 21 to June 4.  By law, each county was required to make early voting available at the county clerk’s office.  Counties could also set up additional early voting sites.
          Several rural counties used only the clerk’s office.  Others had an additional location at a fire station or other public building. Most tribes had a site location at a tribal community center, but not all.  Voters from little Picuris Pueblo would have to go to the Peñasco community center.
            McKinley County had three sites; San Juan had five. Most eastern counties had only one site each.  Lea County had five; Chaves (which includes Roswell) had three; Eddy had two.  So for many New Mexico voters, early voting involved a long drive.
            For this analysis, I’m not looking at who won but at the pattern of who voted and when.   (I did not analyze absentee voting, which shows far lower numbers.)
            The total number of Democratic voters who voted in the presidential primary was 216,075.  Of those, 78,817 voted early; 13,734 absentee; and 123,524 voted on Election Day.
            That total is more than twice the number of voters in the Republican presidential primary – not surprising, since that race was decided in early May, before our early voting started.  A total of 104,627 votes were cast: 36,091 voted early; 8732 absentee; and 59,804 on Election Day.
            The urban-rural difference was easiest to see by looking at the three Congressional districts.   In compact urban District 1, Democratic incumbent Michelle Lujan Grisham received almost the same number of votes from early voters as on Election Day – 31,371 early; 32,380 Election Day.  Ben Ray Lujan, whose District 3 is more-or-less the northern half of the state, had almost twice as many votes on Election Day as early;  25,139 early; 48,000 Election Day.  Republican Steve Pearce in District 2 had more than twice as many votes on Election Day:  10,860 early; 23,417 Election Day.
            Legislature races let us see the voting patterns at a more local level.  In most cases, the general rule held that in urban districts, the early voting and Election Day numbers were almost equal, and in rural districts, about twice as many voters turned up on Election Day as in the three prior weeks.
            There were wide variations in that pattern, but it’s clear that distance matters and Election Day – with many more polling locations available – is still the popular choice for a majority of New Mexico voters.  (The complete results are on the website at sos.state.nm.us.) 
            More than half of the state House races and almost half of the Senate races will be uncontested in November.  It remains to be seen whether this year’s weird presidential race will draw record numbers of voters or discourage many from turning out.  However, it’s clear that voting on Election Day is still a community activity, a chance for neighbors to say hello and visit even if they grumble about standing on line.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       6-27-16
The cultural challenge of gender identity
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            The kid was obviously talented. He was athletic and graceful. He could sing, dance, memorize lines, and occasionally did a cartwheel across the room for fun.
            We were in an amateur show produced by a local community organization. Most cast members were adults. The kid held his own, did fine, brimmed with confidence. 
            This kid is going to be a big success in life, I thought.
            A few weeks into rehearsals, his grandmother pulled me aside. He is biologically female, she told me. It was a lot to absorb, to say the least. The grandmother was not confiding in me because of any special relationship. She told me, I thought, because others already knew. It was not a secret.
            This child knew who he was from age three, the grandma explained. He had a girl’s name and was treated like a girl. For his third birthday his family bought him a tutu. He refused to wear it and told them he was a boy, and that was that. 
            This was the most accepting family a child could have hoped for. “We told him, ‘We didn’t know, we didn’t understand,’” the grandma told me. They changed what had to be changed, including his name, and never tried to change his mind.  
            He was not the first transgender person I’ve met. I have been acquainted with a few others. The revelation has always been a shock. I’ve had to compose myself, avoid asking inappropriate questions, and remind myself that this person has probably experienced a lifetime of obstacles and rejection and doesn’t need any more tactlessness from me.
            It’s a great relief that New Mexico has not turned the transgender bathroom issue into a political football as a few other states have. Good for us, New Mexico.
            The schools in Santa Fe and Albuquerque have adopted tolerant policies regarding use of restrooms and locker rooms by transgender students, allowing them to use whichever restroom fits with their chosen gender identity (though Albuquerque had a hubbub before the policy was adopted). Most importantly, these school districts have taken a stand against bullying and discrimination against transgender students.
            The issue can be handled without a formal policy, as the Rio Rancho schools are doing, simply working with students case by case. This may be a useful model for smaller school districts that may encounter transgender students only rarely.
            Gender identity issues don’t care about demographics. Looking at the stories of the Orlando shooting victims, I was reminded that gay people come from every kind of background and every ethnic group. The same is true for transgender. Wherever you live, the next gay or transgender child could show up in your neighborhood or your family. 
          Most kids with gender identity issues are nowhere near as fortunate as the boy I described. A national study entitled “Injustice at Every Turn” found that most gender-nonconforming individuals have suffered lifelong discrimination and harassment, beginning in school. Most of them live in poverty because no one will employ them, and an astonishing 41 percent have attempted suicide.
            In Albuquerque, a shelter called Casa Q (www.casaq.org) provides living options for teens with gender identity issues, some of whom were homeless because they were kicked out by their parents.
            The very idea that a person can be not completely male or female but somewhere in between is troubling to many of us. It takes getting used to, and some folks will never accept it. Transgender people have probably been among us forever but hid their identity just as gay people did. Now they are out of the closet.
            New Mexico has prided itself on being the land where many cultures live together in peace and harmony. Let’s hope we can add this other set of cultural variations with a minimum of trauma.   
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

 © 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                                   6-13-16
Save pollinators by avoiding pesticides for home use
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            One day last summer, I found a dead bee in my driveway. A few weeks later, I found another one. Since this had not happened before, I wondered whether I was inadvertently responsible.
            It might have been the fertilizer-pesticide combination product I was using on my rosebushes. It contained imidacloprid, one of a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids or neonics. Imidacloprid is said to be the most widely used pesticide in the world. I’m not using it any more.
            Nationwide, bees are dying in record numbers from a condition called Colony Collapse Disorder, a term that suggests nobody knows what’s causing it. Environmental groups such as EnvironmentNewMexico.org claim neonics are a major culprit. They say these chemicals are 6,000 times more toxic to bees than DDT. According to a study from Pennsylvania State University, neonicotinoids used at current levels don’t kill bees suddenly from a single exposure. The danger is repeated exposure over a long period of time. 
          The neonicotinoid family includes acetamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, nitenpyram, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam. The European Union has banned some of them.  In September 2015, a federal court banned another neonic called sulfoxaflor, finding that the Environmental Protection Agency had relied on “flawed and limited” data in approving it.
          Bees are necessary to human food production, so this is an environmental threat we can’t afford to ignore.
            New Mexico is home to numerous backyard beekeepers – there isn’t an official number – and six commercial apiaries, according the state Department of Agriculture, which licenses the commercial operations. 
            The state’s beekeepers’ association (nmbeekeepers.org) has more than 1,000 people on its mailing list. The Albuquerque association, ABQ Beeks, has more than 1,200 members and holds monthly meetings where 60 to 100 people typically show up. There are also beekeepers’ groups in northern and southern New Mexico, and a plethora of conferences, websites and newsletters.
            The measured economic value of commercial beekeeping, according to the agriculture department, was $908,000 from sales of honey in 2014 and about $350,000 in 2015-2016 for shipping bees to California for pollination. There are no figures for sales of honey at farmers’ markets from backyard operations. The commercial value of pollinating crops in New Mexico is recognized but not measured. Bee pollination is essential, the department says, to apples, pumpkins and melons.
            According to spokesperson Katie Goetz, the department advocates neither for nor against pesticide use but does monitor and enforce existing laws. “Our job in the realm of pesticides is to ensure that if/when a pesticide product is used, it’s used in accordance with the law,” she said.
            The agency implements the Driftwatch program, which allows beekeepers to register their locations as sensitive areas on a map, so pesticide applicators can avoid them. New Mexico State University is doing research on plants that support pollinators at its center in Los Lunas.
            The 2016 legislature enacted Senate Memorial 103, which, among other provisions, encourages state agencies to select bee-friendly plants in their landscaping. The memorial forgot to mention – but I hope landscapers realize – that those plants should not be treated with products that kill the bees.
            The Albuquerque group is asking the city to adopt a Bee City designation, which would involve developing an integrated health-conscious pest management program.
            Growing flowers that attract bees while inadvertently loading the flowers with poisonous pesticides is a little like using tainted meat to poison the neighbor’s dog. Now that you know, you probably won’t want to do it. 
            You can do something for bees by planting a few of the flowers and shrubs that feed them and avoiding the pesticides that kill them; nmbeekeepers.org has links to helpful information, including lists of plants. You might start by reading the labels on the fertilizer and pesticide products you own and getting rid of some of them.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      
5-30-16                            
Turning the presidential campaign into a pie-throwing contest
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            Gary Johnson is saying something worth listening to. It’s about the conduct of the presidential election.
            New Mexico’s former governor is running for president again as the candidate of the Libertarian Party. He probably will be the only third-party candidate on the ballot in all 50 states. I am not a fan of Johnson or his political philosophy, but he’s absolutely right about the process.
            He tried to run as a Republican but was not given a chance to appear on Republican debate stages because he was not high enough in the polls. As he has said, the only way to get higher in the polls is to get enough exposure on TV. Debates are one critically important way to do that. The other way is through all the interviews Johnson didn’t get.
          Last fall and into the spring, when Republican candidates were interviewed, they were usually asked to comment on Donald Trump, and were not given a chance to talk about their own views on national policy. It was disgraceful.
          Senator Bernie Sanders didn’t get much exposure, either, you recall.
          Way back before the public was invited, a few network executives apparently decided which candidates were going to get coverage and which would be ignored.
            I watched some Republican debates starting when there were 17 candidates. The networks colluded with the Republican National Committee on a format that insulted half the candidates. They were split into two groups, with those polling lower assigned to what commentators disparagingly called the “kids’ table.” I thought there should have been a random selection so each debate had a mix of the best known and lesser known candidates.
            The second-tier debates were interesting, substantive and respectful, but they did not change the fortunes of those candidates. And the networks, which have the choice of what to cover and how to cover it, have chosen, day after day, month after month, to cover the campaign for the highest office in the world as a pie-throwing contest.  
            We the people own the airwaves where the broadcast signals fly and the city streets where the cables are laid. The networks are licensed and franchised by public officials, locally and nationally, on our behalf.
            The major networks are all owned by six or seven enormous conglomerates (Disney, Comcast, Time-Warner, etc.), most of which have deep financial interests in industries besides the news business. Nothing stops them from covering the presidential campaign for profit rather than public service. Maybe something should.
            I had to laugh when I saw news coverage recently in which Facebook was accused of anti-conservative bias in its trending posts. I don’t know if that’s true and I don’t care. Facebook is a private company, not a public utility. If the networks can give Donald Trump 80 minutes of coverage for every minute they give Senator Sanders (as analysis has shown), who are they to throw stones at Facebook?
          There used to be something called the Fairness Doctrine, a rule of the Federal Communications Commission requiring broadcasters to devote time to controversial issues and to air opposing views on those issues. The doctrine was effectively revoked in 1987 after being weakened by a series of court challenges. It was less than perfect, but it helped force the networks to serve the public interest rather than their own. And the broadcast networks used to be independent companies devoted to nothing but their TV shows.
            A serious question: what is the meaning of the First Amendment and “freedom of the press” in an era when the “news” is dictated and dominated by a few enormous corporations that set the agenda for the rest of us? Can the First Amendment survive this – and should it?
            As a journalist, I’m supposed to be a flag-waver for free speech, but these days I am not sure what that means.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                                   
5-16-16
An old question – employee or contractor – gets more complicated
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            A commentator on a TV news show recently talked about new developments involving the ride company Uber. The commentator remarked that Uber has made sure to set up its procedures so drivers are independent contractors, not employees.
            The dilemma over independent contractors versus employees is nothing new. It’s just expanding and affecting more of us with changes in the way Americans do business.
            This was cited as a major trend at a national conference of workers' compensation professionals. The International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC), meeting in April in Santa Fe, noted how new businesses like Uber are blurring the lines between employment and self-employment. This could lead, some participants said, to significant changes in how workers are protected, if they are protected at all.
            Workers' compensation is provided by almost all employers to employees. Employees injured at work are entitled to medical care with no deductibles or co-pays and, if unable to work due to the injury, cash benefits as a partial wage replacement. 
            Workers’ comp is part of the social safety net mandated for employed workers. This includes the right to get paid for their time, including extra pay for overtime. The safety net also includes unemployment insurance for workers who get laid off, employer contributions to the worker’s Social Security, and other benefits.
            Self-employed people don’t get any of those protections. If you’re self-employed and get injured, or if you’re a consultant and your contract doesn’t renew, you’re on your own. 
            But if you’re the business owner starting a new business with limited capital, you have incentives to set it up so the people who work with you are independent contractors like Uber drivers. Being an employer may be more responsibility than you can handle.
            Self-employment is common in New Mexico. According to the New Mexico Economic Development Department, in 2013 there were about 119,195 nonemployer businesses in New Mexico, and roughly 43,737 employer establishments. 
            All those self-employed people are not protected.
            In workers' compensation, two big questions determine whether an injury is covered or not. First, is the person an employee? Second, when the accident occurs, is this person at work or not at work? In real life, the answers are not necessarily simple.
            If you work in a factory and get a paycheck, you’re an employee. You’re at work when you’re inside the building. When you step out the door (or drive out of the parking lot), you’re not. 
But what if your boss asks you to stop at the post office on your way home? Are you covered if there’s an accident? What if you’re working at home and dividing your time between writing a report and doing your laundry? Those gray areas are one reason cases get litigated.
            What if your “employer” makes you sign a contract saying you’re an independent contractor? That actually has a simple answer (in the past my job was to explain this to new business owners, who didn’t believe me). The contract is meaningless and unenforceable.  Whether you are an employee or a contractor depends on several conditions, such as whether you control your own time. The IRS has a set of guidelines. The workers' compensation system does not necessarily follow them. That’s another reason cases get litigated.
Participants at the IAIABC meeting suggested we might start hearing again about sweeping changes to the old protections, to provide equal coverage regardless of employment status. This concept was once called 24-hour coverage. We don’t have it because after years of national debate, nobody could figure out how to make it work or who pays for it.
And the argument about Uber will continue. 
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

 © 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                5-2-16                   
Surprise billings add pain to medical costs
Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            A woman in a small New Mexico community was pregnant and went into labor prematurely. She went to the right hospital – that is, the one covered by her health insurance plan. She gave birth to premature triplets. Specialists were called in. Two of the babies could not be saved.  
          Several months later, she and her husband were confronted with more than $3 million in medical bills. 
          Heather Widler of the state Office of the Superintendent of Insurance (OSI) explained what happened. The hospital had to call the specialists for this urgent situation. The specialists were not contracted with the health plan that covered this family. They were “out of network.”So they billed the patient directly.
          This kind of complication happens so often in the topsy-turvy world of today’s health insurance system that it has a name: surprise billing. 
          According to a Consumer Reports study cited by OSI, 30 percent of privately insured Americans have received a surprise medical bill. Consumers pay an estimated $1 billion annually in these unexpected billing charges.
          Most consumers don’t know what to do, said Widler, when billing issues like this arise.  Some pay the bill without asking any questions or raising the issue. Sometimes the paperwork is so confusing to consumers that they send a check when the notice they received was not even a bill.
          OSI wants you to know that help is available from OSI’s Managed Health Care Bureau.  You can call the bureau at 1-855-427-5674.
           In the case described above, OSI helped untangle the billing complications so the family owed only their contracted annual maximum.
            It’s also critical, said Widler, to work with the insurer, the hospital and the specialists so that no party ends up being a big loser. Our institutions cannot afford to absorb big losses, she said.
            OSI is the new state agency created when the former Department of Insurance was separated from the Public Regulation Commission by a constitutional amendment approved by the voters in 2012. Now that it is separated from the politically charged PRC, OSI is moving aggressively to develop a number of consumer protection initiatives., including this one.
          One concern is reaching the people who have the greatest need for assistance. OSI has held several public meetings around the state, but that’s not nearly enough to reach people who might be receiving surprise bills.
          (Disclosure: I am a volunteer member of the Insurance Fraud Policy Advisory Group, which works with OSI.)
          Here’s my request:  if you are a community leader, or if you are in the healthcare field and in contact with patients, keep this information in mind and share it with those who might need it.
          Nationally, the Affordable Care Act has reduced some of the strain of surprise billing by requiring that in an emergency, the bill from the hospital itself must be handled as if in-network, even if the patient went to the “wrong” hospital.
          A few states have passed legislation protecting consumers from surprise bills. Others are considering legislation. While OSI’s help can protect some consumers from some excessive bills, it does not have the authority to fix every problem. And we have to remember that our state is short of doctors and our rural hospitals are financially distressed, so we can’t simply force them to absorb these costs.
          This surprise billing issue is just one aspect of a much bigger problem: our irrational, confusing and overly expensive healthcare system. Whether you think the Affordable Care Act made the system better or worse,  our nation desperately needs to reach a consensus on how to fix it. Until then, New Mexico should follow the lead of other states and seriously consider a law to protect both the consumers and the providers.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

 © 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES           4-18-16
We need two in the cab
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
          In May 2015, an Amtrak passenger train derailed outside Philadelphia, killing eight people and injuring more than 200. The cause is still a mystery. The train was going too fast around a curve, but, according to recent news reports, federal investigators have not figured out why.
          Another accident occurred outside Philadelphia on April 3 of this year, killing two people and injuring more than 30.
           Two Amtrak routes run through New Mexico. The Southwest Chief runs between Los Angeles and Chicago, with stops in Raton, Las Vegas, Lamy (outside Santa Fe), Albuquerque and Gallup. The Sunset Limited runs between Los Angeles and New Orleans, stopping in Deming and Lordsburg. 
            The state is crossed by several freight routes. Freight trains can carry just about anything, including the most hazardous chemicals, with long lines of container cars moving faster than 100 miles an hour.
            Once in a while, a train derails with disastrous consequences. In 2013, a freight train carrying petroleum derailed in Quebec, leading to a fire that left 47 people dead. 
            So you might think it would be dangerous to allow a train to be operated by just one person, the engineer alone in the cab.
           That’s what I think, and I’m not alone. There’s even a Facebook page called Spouses and Families Against One Man Crews. 
            Legislation was introduced in Colorado this year to ban one-man crews for trains traveling through that state. The bill passed the House but not the Senate. According to the sponsor, Rep. Daneya Esgar (D, Pueblo), 25 states have introduced similar bills and three have enacted them.
          States have acted, Esgar said, because the Federal Railroad Administration had delayed adopting a rule requiring two-person crews. That rule has now been drafted and was released in March for public comment.
          After last year’s Philadelphia accident, we heard about a new technology called Positive Train Control (PTC) that can stop a train if the engineer loses control. That’s good, but safety systems are supposed to be redundant – that is, more than one backup method. The simplest old-fashioned backup plan is a second human being.  
            Commercial airliners have a pilot and copilot in addition to all the automation that can fly the plane if needed. Why not trains?
          Esgar wrote to me: “I can bet that every day, there is a freight train running through each of our districts. Some are carrying coal, chlorine or oil, some are carrying hazardous waste… through our towns, alongside houses, some even near schools. Having two sets of eyes on the train at all times, keeps Coloradoans safe from potentially hazardous or even fatal accidents in our state.” 
            In New Mexico, our only recent fatalities have been on the Railrunner, the commuter line between Belen and Santa Fe. These accidents have all involved people or automobiles on the tracks, too close to allow the train to stop in time. They represent a different safety issue.
            The engineer is alone in the cab on Railrunner trains, says spokesperson Augusta Meyers. They use a system of “alerter” buttons. At higher speeds, the engineer hears a beep every 25 seconds and has to push a button to show he’s alert. If he doesn’t, the train will slow itself down and stop. At slower speeds, the alerter beeps every two minutes.
            News reports say the commuter train that derailed in New York in 2013, killing four, did not have that system. The engineer fell asleep.
            The cost of one more crew member is trivial compared to the human and financial cost of a rail disaster. Beepers are not enough. Let’s have a second crew member in the cab of every train.
            To comment on the proposed federal rule, go to  https://www.regulations.gov and enter FRA-2014-0033 in the search box. The public comment period is open until May 16.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

 © 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                              4-4-16
Programs to cultivate new mindsets among public employees is great, when it works
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
             “The Entrepreneurial Mindset” is the latest great program to land in New Mexico.
            It’s not just for people who want to start businesses. It’s a way of thinking that enables any individual in any job to take personal responsibility for his or her work, applying initiative to the job and committing to be of service to others. It’s based on in-depth studies of hundreds of successful entrepreneurs.
            Through Central New Mexico Community College, the program has been taught to 100 employees of the city of Albuquerque. Mayor Richard Berry has committed to having at least 1,000 employees trained in it. It’s also offered to the public.
            The model was developed by Gary Schoeniger, CEO of the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative, who was here recently to train the facilitators who will teach the program to their colleagues from the city and other major local employers.
            If it works, hundreds of city employees will develop the entrepreneurial attitudes that let every person become an idea factory for process improvement and better service to the customers and taxpayers. 
            Quality New Mexico, around since 1991, is also still going strong. It’s about to have its annual conference (Isleta Resort, April 12-13), featuring keynote speaker Jim Collins, author of the bestselling book, “Good to Great.”  Awards will be given to organizations that have reached milestones on the “Quality Journey.” Among those listed for awards are several divisions of the New Mexico Department of Transportation, Taxation and Revenue Department, Department of Health and the Motor Vehicle Department. Maybe the next time you renew your license you will walk out glowing with pleasure at the customer service you received. 
            The Quality process is also an approach to align workers with organizational goals, engage people at every level of the organization and provide workers with satisfaction through knowing the value of their work. When successful, it leads to process improvements and satisfied customers.
            A key feature of the Quality process is that top management is open to receiving feedback and good ideas from all sources, including lower echelon employees.
            Except when it isn’t. 
            I’ve been through this. The agency I worked in participated in the Quality process for several years through three successive directors. 
            One director told me, in private, that he was going to run his agency the way he saw fit and was not going to listen to a bunch of stuff from the employees. We went through the motions of the Quality process anyway.
            The next director invited employees to submit recommendations in memo form, to be considered by himself and the management team. This so-called team was stacked with political appointees who were not inclined toward teamwork. Most of the memos were never responded to. We still got a few awards.
            These programs are great if they work. Government employees often are in routine jobs where they are told what to do by managers who learned how to manage by being told what to do. Some managers will be very uncomfortable when their formerly docile subordinates start acting like free spirits and having ideas of their own.
            In government, there is also a serious concern with what passes for accountability.  Government structures like to assure themselves and the taxpayers that matters are under control by applying productivity measurements, which can stifle initiative. For an initiative mindset to take hold, employees must have management support to experiment, take risks and occasionally fail.   
            Schoeniger says the ability to take initiative, be flexible and respond to challenging circumstances will be the hallmark of the 21st century workforce, including the public workforce. This may not be compatible with our long-standing habits of demanding accountability by the numbers. The City of Albuquerque may be the experiment that demonstrates to the rest of our state’s public entities whether we can handle such a change.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                               3-21-16
Finally, a new workers' comp drug and alcohol law  
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            Warning to everybody who goes to work: New Mexico finally has a workers' compensation drug and alcohol law that almost makes sense. If you are irresponsible enough to drink or use drugs at work, or before work, or you are an employer who allows that sort of behavior, it’s time to shape up.
            WORKERS: If you get injured at work, do not refuse to take a drug test. If the test shows you were drunk or stoned, your workers' compensation cash benefits will be reduced. If you refuse to take the test, you’ll get no money.
            EMPLOYERS:  If you do not have a drug-and-alcohol-free workplace policy, you need one. The law takes effect July 1, but don’t wait to do this. Model policies are available online, or contact your insurance carrier (contact information should be in a poster on your wall that you should have put there). You can also check with the New Mexico DWI Resource Center (dwiresourcecenter.org).
            If you already have such a policy, you will need to modify it to inform workers that their workers' comp benefits may be reduced if the worker was under the influence.  Give employees a memo describing the policy. Or ask them to sign the memo and return it to you; then keep it on file. And post the policy on your wall. If you don’t, and you have a claim involving a drunk or stoned worker, the worker’s attorney may challenge the claim and you will have messy litigation. 
            And comply with your own policy! If your workplace has a fridge full of beer, or you buy drinks for the gang at lunch, you won’t win the claim.
            INSURANCE AGENTS: Get off your duff, provide a service for your clients and help them to establish a drug-and-alcohol-free workplace policy including the new requirements. 
            The new law says that if the employer has a policy declaring a drug-and-alcohol-free workplace, with all the legal buzzwords, and after an accident the worker is drug-tested and found to have been drunk or stoned, indemnity benefits may be reduced in proportion to the degree the worker’s condition contributed to the accident – from 10 to 90 percent.  The worker still gets full medical coverage. If the worker was killed, surviving family members get full benefits.
            The bill (Senate Bill 214, sponsored by Jacob Candelaria, D- Albuquerque) is written so that every claim involving the drug and alcohol issue will have to be either litigated before a workers' compensation judge or negotiated. This is a far less than perfect solution because it adds litigation and argument, but it was the best available compromise.
          A Senate committee added an amendment that makes the law harder on employers. It says the reduction in benefits cannot be taken if the employer knew about the worker’s intoxicated condition and had an opportunity to intervene but didn’t.
          This makes employers responsible if they don’t stop a worker from working drunk or stoned. It puts the burden on employers to have competent supervisors or whatever else they can do. We’ll have to wait until a few cases get to the appellate courts – and they surely will – to see what this means in practice.
            SB 214 – without the amendment – resulted from a few years of negotiation and compromise, conducted mostly with exemplary good faith, by the Workers' Compensation Advisory Council. The business and labor sides of the council worked diligently to draft a law that was fair to all parties. Letting workers keep full medical benefits and letting survivors of deceased workers keep all the indemnity benefits were essential to the compromise.
            Let’s hope this change helps to convince New Mexico workers that it’s a bad idea to go to work under the influence of anything stronger than coffee.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


Merilee Dannemann

© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                                    3-7-16
Counting to 3: Work comp and the smallest businesses
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            The workers' compensation coverage requirement in New Mexico has always been a mess. Finally somebody is paying attention to it. 
            A state Court of Appeals decision last year yanked away the exemption that protected farmers and ranchers for decades from concerning themselves with this convoluted language.  After the decision, the Workers' Compensation Administration told them they would have to start buying workers' comp insurance.  The state Supreme Court has temporarily stayed the requirement, pending its review of the case. But now, in case the Supreme Court doesn’t bail them out, they are grappling with it (paragraphs 52-1-6 and 52-1-7 of the statutes).     
            Most businesses with three or more employees are required to buy coverage, and that ends the discussion for them. (Construction is the exception, requiring all employers to have coverage, regardless of the number of employees.)
            But for very small businesses, the question of what constitutes “three” is a serious matter.  (My slogan: There are many ways to count to three.) So is the question of what constitutes an employee. These issues are not simple.
            Farmers and ranchers are looking to change these paragraphs. If you operate a very small business, or are employed by one, any changes will affect you. 
            Two failed bills, SB 244 and HM 108, were merely statements of the complaint of farmers and ranchers in an attempt to justify the old exemption.
            The interesting bill, which also went nowhere, was SB 283, sponsored by Sen. Ted Barela, R-Estancia. It was a first attempt – clumsy, in my opinion – to amend the definitions that affect very small businesses. 
            Here are a few of the issues.
            One concern is family members. Should a business owner be required to count his spouse, kids, parents or other close family members as employees, if they work in the business? Maybe, maybe not. In most family businesses, we’d assume an injured family member will be taken care of by other means. But not always.   
Should the exemption extend to cousins? The bigger the circle of exemption, the more it’s open to legal challenge if there’s an argument about who’s related to whom. Cousins can get divorced, for example – causing a legal dispute over whether a particular person is still related.
            Workers' compensation is not isolated in dealing with family exemptions, although the workers' compensation community tends to forget this. Another area of law, unemployment insurance, has its own set of rules. Using unemployment law as a model may or may not be the best choice, but it surely would reduce confusion for some small family businesses if the two sets of rules were similar. It’s worth looking at.
            “Executive employees” are another issue. The workers' comp law says executive employees (corporate officers, partners and the like) may exempt themselves from coverage, saving premium dollars, but they must be counted to determine whether the company has three or more employees.
Some very small companies have three or more executive employees and nobody else.   The executives can exempt themselves. That business is required to purchase a so-called null policy, which costs real money but does not protect anybody. Is that absurd? Maybe. 
Here’s a particularly crazy definition: The workers' comp law defines a “sole proprietor” differently from the way that term is commonly understood. Normal usage says sole proprietorship is a business owned by a single person with no corporations or partnerships. Our workers' compensation law says sole proprietors own all the assets of a business and employ no one but themselves. Some legal nitpickers have said that means sole proprietors employ themselves and are therefore required to count themselves as employees. Can we fix this, please?
I told you: In workers' compensation there are many ways to count to three.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                                2-22-16
Love dogs the right way
 By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
          Almost everybody loves dogs, especially puppies. Some people make a lot of money from that love.
          Somebody invented a technique for raising huge sums of money: Produce a tearjerker TV commercial showing sad-eyed emaciated dogs behind barbed wire. Then, instead of asking for a check, ask for a regular monthly donation, so the organization will have access to your credit card number and your e-mail address.
            If you watch TV, you can’t miss these ads.
            Every time I see one, in the seconds before I grab the remote and change channels, I remind myself to donate to a local charity I know and trust. If you want to donate to the groups that advertise, you might want to check them out first.
            After living for centuries on table scraps, dogs have become a huge industry. According to the Pet Food Institute, sales of dog food rose from $7.9 billion in 2000 to $14.4 billion in 2014.
            But some people don’t care about dogs at all. Way too many dogs are abandoned, neglected or abused – sometimes for profit.
            Sport dog fighting is a felony in New Mexico. The same law that bans cockfighting – which was hard fought in New Mexico less than 10 years ago – also bans dog fighting with the identical provisions and penalties. But reportedly it still takes place; mutilated dogs, dead or brutally injured, are found from time to time. We hear of dogs disappearing from the backyards of loving owners, possibly kidnapped to be used as bait to train fighting dogs.
            We also hear that if you have a dog you can’t keep, or a litter of puppies, and offer to give them away free to strangers, the person who accepts your offer might also be planning to use them for fighting dog bait.
            The simple reality is there are more dogs than homes for them. According to Animal Protection New Mexico, 135,000 animals in New Mexico are in shelters.
            The public is responding by increasingly adopting shelter or rescue dogs instead of buying them. The big pet store chains have found that adoption is good business and offer donated space for adoptions. After all, an adopted dog eats just as much pet food as a dog bought from a store.
            So there’s no excuse for puppy mills. 
            Puppy mills are operations where mother dogs are bred repeatedly to produce puppies for sale. Conditions are often reported to be unsanitary and inhumane. The only reason they exist is that they make money. Some people want a particular breed of cute puppy and don’t ask enough questions.
          There are limits on how much time and resources law enforcement can devote to hunting down these breeders. The people of New Mexico should starve out this industry by making personal decisions to boycott the purchase of puppies – except from responsible breeders that you check out yourself.
            One rescue group (nmsiberianrescue.com) notes: “If you absolutely must have a puppy, please do not consider getting one from a pet store. No matter what the store tells you, these puppies come from puppy mills where they are mass produced with little or no medical care for the pups or their mother.”
            And every puppy bought from an irresponsible source means one less shelter dog getting a home. 
            The humane treatment of animals is one measure of our civilization, and New Mexico has a blotted record. The state allows trapping, it tolerates the blood sport of coyote hunting contests, it supports the ban on horse slaughter but hasn’t found a better way to prevent wild or abandoned horses dying of hunger, thirst or cold. 
            But we’re making progress with dogs.   We can continue to improve only if we can keep up with the numbers.


© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES  1-25-16
Maybe New Mexico is finally ready for an ethics commission
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
           I used to joke that my late husband was the last honest man in the New Mexico Legislature.
          He was not the last, though. Most legislators do not take illicit money or otherwise profit from their public service.  I have known a few legislators who, after their service was over, out of the glare of publicity, quietly went bankrupt. Their years of honest volunteer service had cost them dearly.
            New Mexico’s past reputation was that there was lots of corruption but most of it was small-time.
            We were only slightly outraged when politicians did favors for their friends. If you won a local election as a county commissioner or a school board member, your reward was jobs for needy relatives. When the other guy won, his relatives might replace yours. In low-income counties with few good-paying jobs, this was a way to spread the wealth.
            When an influential legislator-lawyer represented clients before boards and commissions – perhaps using bullying power to influence a licensing decision - it didn’t even make the news.  When legislators vote on issues that affect their own professions, we barely notice. After all, we rationalize, our unpaid legislators have to make a living doing something other than legislating.
            But we have been troubled by the influence of special interests on legislation. As I say repeatedly, New Mexico is the state that couldn’t pass fireworks legislation in a drought – because of pressure from the fireworks industry. (How big an industry can that be?) We haven’t capped the interest rate on payday lending, which could still be highly profitable with a reasonable cap.  There’s a loophole in our title insurance law (the insurance that is supposed to protect your house) that exempts the insurer from liability for errors in researching your title.
            In recent years, we learned about two state treasurer scandals and the officials who profited from a courthouse project. New Mexico corruption hit the big time.
            In the Bill Richardson administration, New Mexico saw a new level of sophistication in what became known as pay-to-play, with complex schemes like turning the investment of our precious permanent funds over to cronies. Our current administration has also demonstrated a grander sort of audacity, such as the vicious attack that decimated our fragile behavioral health system for little plausible reason. The public may never find out who profited from that debacle.
            The Dianna Duran scandal is different. It was not a plot to undermine democracy or steal from the public treasury. It was a raid on her own campaign accounts to feed a gambling addiction. It’s not in the same category, but it’s still not acceptable.
            So maybe New Mexico is finally ready for an ethics commission. Among other things, the commission would be able to issue advisory opinions about ethics issues. As former state Sen. Phil Griego contemplates running again for his old seat, after resigning to sidestep a scandal, maybe an independent commission could advise him that would not be prudent – even if it has no power to stop him.
            The commission, according to Common Cause New Mexico, would also be authorized to clarify campaign reporting laws; initiate, investigate and adjudicate potential violations of campaign finance laws or reporting requirements for candidates; compel people to testify and turn over evidence; and protect both whistleblowers and those potentially accused falsely.
            There will be a serious push to create such a commission in the current legislative session. As the world becomes more complex, so do the issues placed before our public officials – and the potential benefits of impartial guidance on what’s okay and what’s not.
          This is worth a try.  I just wish my husband, former Sen. Ken Kamerman, were still around to be a member of it.

 © 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                                   1-11-16
Right to work versus right to get sick
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            In the back of the restaurant, out of sight of the patrons, an employee is trying to avoid sneezing on your dinner.
            He shouldn’t be there. He should be home in bed, but he can’t afford to stay home because his wages barely cover his expenses and his employer does not provide paid sick leave.  Working sick is one reality of the new American economy.
            The movement to require employers to provide sick leave has not taken hold in New Mexico so far. Legislation on this issue is not expected in the upcoming 2016 session. What is expected is another attempt to pass right-to-work.
            Right-to-work is the principle that a worker employed in a unionized company or organization should not be required to join a union or pay union dues in order to keep his or her job. Supporters say the lack of right-to-work is holding New Mexico back because businesses won’t come to a non-right-to-work state. Opponents say that’s based on outdated information.
            There’s even a dispute about whether right-to-work is intended to damage or weaken unions. Right-to-work advocates say it isn’t. That’s nonsense. Intended or not, it will damage them.
            A friend who favors right-to-work says unions are not really needed any more because the important rights of workers are safeguarded by laws. Labor unions were needed in the past, she says, but all the reforms that organized labor fought for are now enforced by government agencies.
            But laws can be changed. There are powerful business interests that would like nothing better than to roll back those protections.
            Organized labor gave us policies we take for granted today: the 40-hour week, overtime pay, the minimum wage, limits on child labor, and workplace safety standards. Young working people may not even know the history; their forebears bled and died for these things.
            But when we look at the state of labor today, we see that those principles are in jeopardy from directions that were not anticipated, like the reduction in hours imposed by some companies so that workers will not qualify for the benefits full-time employees receive.
            Labor unions were in their heyday in a prior generation, and no doubt some took advantage, making exorbitant demands of employers and padding the pockets of their own leaders. It seemed then that labor may have been too powerful, sometimes at the expense of small business, sometimes burdening consumers. There was a legitimate argument for cutting some of their power.
            That has been done. Arguably, it’s gone too far. Big corporations in service industries that employ moderately skilled workers, like retail and restaurants, can set low wage levels and keep the extra profits.
          Low-wage workers may qualify for public assistance, so we are in effect subsidizing the employers with the worst employment practices out of our taxes and adding to the national debt. Superficially, it can be made to appear as if low-wage workers are taking advantage of public assistance programs – but it’s not hard to calculate that big business really benefits.
            If organized labor does not have the strength or money to continue defending the existing rights of workers, those rights are in jeopardy. If the right-to-work bill comes back this year, remember that. 
            I share the concerns of small businesses about how they would be affected by new mandates like a higher minimum wage or mandatory sick leave for workers. On the other hand, in the USA, every adult who works full-time should be able to survive on the wages of one job, and should have a way to stay home when sick so he doesn’t have to sneeze on your dinner. 
          New Mexico is still a small business state. Let’s figure this out.


© 2015 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                                   
12-28-15
Homework Diner a solution for low-income schools
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            Let’s humiliate the schools a little more, says the state Public Education Department. That’s a great way to motivate and encourage students.
            While this is going on, there’s a bright spot.
            The humiliation: PED has released the “grades” of schools throughout the state, and the grades are a little lower than last year. This, says the department, is because of the standardized PARCC tests that were forced on school districts. Students didn’t do well on the unfamiliar tests, so the test results depressed the evaluations of the schools. All very logical, unless your motive is to give some encouragement to a state that is constantly being beaten up by low rankings.
            Here’s the bright spot.
            A school in Albuquerque came up with a program that empowers kids, brings parents into the education process, makes good use of school facilities, involves teachers and community volunteers in a friendly way, and supports learning, all at the same time. And it provides a free meal.
            The program is called Homework Diner. It started at Manzano Mesa Elementary School, located in a low-income neighborhood in Albuquerque. It has spread to several other schools.
            How it works: Close to dinner time, children come to the school cafeteria with parents and siblings. First they receive tutoring and help with homework from teachers and volunteers, with parents participating. This gives the parents a chance to learn how to help their children with homework. After the homework session, parents and children together get a freshly cooked nutritious dinner.
            Food is provided at low cost through Roadrunner Food Bank. Funding is from a combination of city government and private sources, so the families eat free. The dinner is prepared by students from the culinary arts program of Central New Mexico Community College, with help from volunteers.
            Early reports show this program to be a smashing success. It’s helped to raise the children’s performance in school, improved communication between parents and teachers, encouraged some parents to enter adult education programs, and brought families together. The free dinner – a luxury for overworked low-income parents – seems to have attracted parents who might not otherwise get involved in their children’s homework.
            Especially great is the fact this is a grassroots, volunteer-driven effort entirely outside the stultifying regulatory box.
          We’re in a time of rampant frustration with the public schools’ uninspired uniformity, the top-down bureaucratic structure, the narrow curriculum and the obsessive emphasis on testing and grades. This is so refreshingly different.
          Over recent decades, the education system has shifted from local autonomy to more and more centralization, beginning in New Mexico in the 1970s with state control of school funding and continuing with increases in both state and federal mandates. Certainly there were serious flaws in having school districts run entirely by local school boards, but we’re now seeing the fruit of all this centralization, and we’re not happy with the results.
          Homework Diner shows that the secret to breaking free can be simple: Do it after the regular school day, with volunteers and funding from whatever sources you can find. And feel free to vary the program to fit local preferences.
            Any school can do this. Roadrunner Food Bank distributes statewide. A national organization called Cities of Service has even written a step-by-step manual on how to create a Homework Diner program and identified the necessary resources. The manual, with contributions from Albuquerque city government, is online at citiesofservice.org.
            If I were a school principal trying to set up such a program, I would impose one condition on my planning:  I would take not one dime for this program from the PED or the regular budget, because eventually somebody from higher up would try to control it.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

 © 2015 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                                   12-14-15
 Despite heroic efforts by food banks, one in six New Mexicans goes hungry
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            High school kids come around dropping leaflets at my door asking me to donate a bag full of food. This time of year, there are food drives everywhere. Sometimes I give, sometimes I don’t.
            It makes more sense to give money. It’s less inspired but more practical. I was reminded of that recently by Wally Verdooren, Chief Development Officer at Roadrunner Food Bank.  Because of discounts and bulk purchasing, the food bank can provide five meals for $1. I can’t give a can of tuna fish for that amount.
            Don’t jump all over me. I don’t want to quash anyone’s enthusiasm. Many people are more motivated to give something tangible than to write a check. We want to encourage the teens, church groups and everybody else to do whatever works to help feed those in need.
            According to Roadrunner, more than 17 percent of New Mexicans are food insecure, meaning they can’t count on regular access to food. That’s one in six New Mexicans, or more than 360,000 people. It includes 28 percent of the state’s children, or 145,000.
           Roadrunner is New Mexico’s main nonprofit food assistance hub, working throughout the state with partner distribution organizations and more than 500 local agencies—food pantries, soup kitchens, after-school programs, and senior centers. Roadrunner works with these local partners by collecting and distributing 30 million pounds of food per year to people in need, at no cost to them. That’s more than 25 million meals a year, 70,000 people per week.
          Most of the food is donated or purchased at steep discounts from retailers and other commercial sources. If packaged food has passed its “best used by” date, it is generally still perfectly safe to eat, according to national food safety guidelines that Roadrunner follows. Retailers also contribute fresh produce that they won’t sell because it isn’t pretty enough. This food might otherwise be thrown away.
            “Food rescue” is the new political term for saving good food from the landfill. It’s becoming a major national initiative in response to a major national disgrace. According to Endhunger.org, an astonishing 31 percent of U.S.-produced food ends up in landfills while millions of Americans go hungry. The financial loss is $161 billion, plus another $1 billion in the cost of disposal. The rotting food generates enormous quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas.
          Much of the food donated to Roadrunner, including that nutritionally critical fresh produce, is rescued. 
            The food comes into Roadrunner’s cavernous Albuquerque warehouse and may be passed to local organizations or loaded on Roadrunner’s refrigerated trucks to distribution centers around the state, where distribution is often managed by volunteers.
            Roadrunner calculates New Mexico is still short by 63 million meals a year. So the group has redefined its mission: Move beyond feeding hungry people and end hunger in New Mexico – which naturally means ending poverty in New Mexico.
          It’s interesting to consider how contributing to food security could support economic development, a bottom-up approach that is different from the standard methods we New Mexicans talk about endlessly.
          Does food insecurity contribute to low learning levels, in both children and adults? We know it does. Does it contribute to costly health problems? Yes. Does it contribute to low productivity and the lack of job skills that is commonly cited as one of the factors holding New Mexico back? Maybe. Does it contribute to crime? Quite possibly. There is room for creativity in the way a food supplier might be able to approach these issues – and not only Roadrunner but other organizations that supply food in New Mexico.
           Nobody eats in the long run, someone once observed. Hunger is right now. Today, some people are enjoying the holiday, others are lonely and isolated, still others are cold and hungry. Give a can or write a check.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

 © 2015 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                                   11-30-15
Work comp news is good, sort of
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            From an economic development perspective, the news on workers' compensation is pretty good. But workers' compensation is never quite that simple.
            The National Council on Compensation Insurance, NCCI, presented its annual smorgasbord of statistics recently to a group of workers’ comp policy wonks. Costs are down, and rates in the voluntary market will go down in 2016.
            Like most statistical statements about workers' comp, the statement above is infuriatingly incomplete until explained. The reduction of 6.2 percent is not a cut in anybody’s insurance premium but rather a decrease in the loss costs upon which premiums are based. Insurance carriers will use this information in setting their premium rates. The voluntary market refers only to conventional insurance companies – not to the large segment of the market covered by individual or group self-insurance programs, or to the Assigned Risk Pool.
            This decrease in cost puts New Mexico among the better-performing states. New Mexico’s decrease is bigger than all neighboring states except Texas. This is a selling point for the ever-hopeful industrial recruiters who are forever trying to entice businesses to locate here.
            The Assigned Risk Pool or residual market is also doing okay by workers' comp standards. “ Okay” means nothing awful is happening.
          The pool is where a business gets coverage if no insurance company wants to write its policy voluntarily. In bad times, the pool is where small businesses go to die because they can’t afford the insurance. In good times, they might be in the pool for a couple of years but then will find less costly coverage in the voluntary market. The pool is also for businesses that do dangerous work and so are inherently high-risk. If you’re in the pool and you don’t run a skydiving company, your mission is to pester your insurance agent constantly to move you to the voluntary market as soon as possible.
          The cost reductions are happening because fewer claims are being filed. That is good news. It means fewer people are being hurt. But for those who do file claims, costs are going up, faster in New Mexico than the national average. Not so good.
          These increases are partly due to eccentric state appellate court decisions that increase both claim costs and litigation. There will be attempts to overrule a couple of those decisions by legislation in 2016, if the Governor allows them to be considered in the 30-day session.
            The other source of cost increases is medical costs. While NCCI did not analyze the breakdown this year, previous reports have shown that prescription drug costs are increasing the largest cost driver, and addictive pain medications play a big role.
          So it’s not surprising that medical marijuana is getting more sympathetic consideration. Even staid NCCI notes marijuana might turn out to be cost-effective compared to addictive opioids. One of those appellate court decisions ordered insurers to pay for medical pot when prescribed, and the Workers' Compensation Administration has developed guidelines to help insurers figure out how to do this.
            These ups and downs occur in the context of a moving target – the economy and the shape of the workforce. Fewer claims could be the result of safer workplaces – good -- or fewer jobs in the high-risk industries like oil and gas – not good at all. Or – not mentioned or measured by NCCI – unknown effects of the Affordable Care Act, which may be offering workers an alternative source of medical care. 
            What’s happening is a race between the reduction in the number of claims and the increase in the cost per claim. Right now, the numbers are favorable, but the balance is always precarious. Policy makers shouldn’t use the cost reduction as an excuse to do nothing.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

  © 2015 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                                   11-23-15
Driver’s ed for seniors pays off in savings and safety
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            If you are 55 or older, you can save some money on your auto insurance by taking a driver safety class. New Mexico law (paragraph 59A-32-14 in the Insurance Code) provides that insurers must give you a discount if you take such a class, approved by the Traffic Safety Bureau of the state Transportation Department, and provide a certificate to your insurance company.  The statute does not specify the amount of the discount. The discount is good for three years.
            I recommend that you do this. You will learn useful things, you will be a safer driver, and you will not be bored. Take an in-person class rather than an online class, if you can find one. Check with a senior citizen center near you to find out if classes are offered. In some cities, AARP offers classes taught by trained volunteers. 
          You might find yourself in a lively conversation – as I have on several occasions.  A few examples:
            Some years ago, the instructor talked about the strength of the steel barriers that line hazardous places on New Mexico roads. I was fascinated. I occasionally drive on roads where one of those barriers is the only thing between me and a sheer drop. Since that class, I’m a little more confident that the barrier will save me if I’m driving at a reasonable speed.
            Do you know how to check your tires for age? Recent news stories tell us our tires might be older than we think, and that tires age even if they are lying in a warehouse or if we’re driving minimally. The date of manufacture is in a code on the sidewall of the tire. The instructor reminds us that in New Mexico, the sunshine and dry climate make tires wear faster. I just checked mine and they’re much older than the date I bought them. It may be time to replace them – and, next time, to demand tires manufactured less than two years prior to date of purchase.
            Do you know how to check yourself for age? The classes are helpful for techniques to compensate for issues like reduced ability to turn your head – and also for pointers on when it’s time to give up your keys and stop driving. New Mexico has eight-year driver’s licenses and no laws requiring us to stop driving when our health or vision makes us unsafe. I appreciate being reminded of why I need to be cautious – because other people are doing dangerous things like texting or driving while medicated. One reason to use your headlights in the daytime is other drivers with poor eyesight.
            Have you ever found yourself driving into the setting sun? You can get anti-glare coating on your glasses or a flip-up tinted attachment for your windshield visor. When I’m driving into that blinding sun with my life-saving visor attachment, I sometimes remember other drivers around me probably don’t have one. Yikes.
            Do you let your dog poke its head out the car window? In Albuquerque that is prohibited by a city ordinance, which says animals “must not be allowed access to a window opened wide enough for the animal to jump, fly or fall out.” Even if it’s not illegal where you live, it’s a bad idea. The dog’s eyes can be damaged by particles in the air.
            A tip about police officers: If you are pulled over by an officer out of uniform, or you’re otherwise unsure this is a real policeman, open your window just a crack, hand over your license and registration as requested, tell the officer you are reaching for your cell phone, and phone 911.
            The classes cover much more. Please take one. You’ll make the roads safer for yourself and the rest of us.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.