Columns appear here a week after they're sent to newspaper subscribers.

© 2018 New Mexico News Services 7-9-18
Reforming state’s liquor laws means reinventing the wheel
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Three years ago, Vic’s Bar in Española sold its liquor license to the corporate owner of Chili’s Bar and Grill for use in Santa Fe. The sale price was $340,000.  Española’s mayor was pleased. Española has too many liquor licenses, he said, and liquor is the source of too many of the city’s problems. Sentiments are similar in Gallup.
            That one transaction embodies all the problems of New Mexico’s arcane system of liquor laws, and illustrates the hurdles legislators face in reforming the system. The legislative Economic and Rural Development Committee signaled recently that it will be looking at liquor laws and liquor licenses with an eye toward reviving downtowns in smaller communities.
            The state’s system of liquor licenses hasn’t been overhauled since 1981, and the success of New Mexico boutique breweries and distilleries presents an opportunity. But legislators will find that reform is a real cactus patch, and they face the same issues that complicated reform before.
            By the 1980s, the quota system limiting the number of liquor licenses issued by the state had caused them to skyrocket in value, pricing small businesses out of the action and discouraging commercial development in some places. But getting rid of the quota system meant values of licenses would crater, and their owners were opposed.
            In 1981 Gov. Bruce King signed a new law that capped licenses at one for every 2,000 people but imposed the same quota for the state as a whole, which meant licenses could be transferred between counties. This opened the door to concentrating licenses in the bigger cities. The act created beer and wine licenses not subject to quota. And after 10 years the state would own all licenses; license holders would be compensated with a tax credit up to $30,000 a year. King later signed making the licenses private again.
            “It was the only really unethical thing I ever saw him do,” wrote former state Liquor Director Jim Baca.
            Today liquor licenses are too pricey for restaurants and other small businesses, which becomes an obstacle to commercial development in some places. Liquor license holders are still touchy about the value of their licenses. And the quota system is still the root of all evils.
            The Economic and Rural Development Committee wants to make full dispenser licenses, concentrated in the largest cities, more accessible in the hinterland and generally ease regulations that hamper our home-grown brewers, wineries and distilleries. But worries about alcohol abuse and DWI factor into any increase of licenses.
            In 2013 a bill would have allowed rural restaurants (those not in Bernalillo, Doña Ana, Sandoval and Santa Fe) to receive nontransferable, yearly liquor licenses that couldn’t be used for package sales. The state Regulation and Licensing Department said it would be a driver of rural economic development.
            The New Mexico Restaurant Association was divided. Licenses in rural areas are scarce, executive director Carol Wight told me, but among her members “we have people who have benefitted by having the only license in a county. For the state to issue more licenses would devalue the licenses they own.”
            The bill died in committee.
            Over the last eight years, bills with an economic stimulation flavor aimed at the liquor industry usually fail. Two succeeded. One allows the transfer of liquor licenses from communities where the dispenser isn’t viable. The other lets small brewers and winegrowers have an interest in a restaurant or a dispenser’s license. It was intended to encourage microbreweries to expand into packaging and wholesale.
          So, yes, let’s raise a glass to change and hope legislators can get it right this time.


Sherry Robinson photo

Refugee children, New Mexico children
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
The federal government can ship a child back to the child’s home country, where the child’s life is in imminent danger. But if you want to take that child into your home, government won’t let you – to protect the child.
People want to do something for the children caught in the immigration crisis. But you can’t simply drive up to a border station and offer to take a child until the child’s parent is through the immigration process.
The children are in federal, not state, custody. Undocumented minors become part of the federal foster care system run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Separated children have been sent to group facilities that have federal contracts. None are in New Mexico.
If the state were in charge, you would have to qualify as a foster parent. This process takes several months, including background checks and home visits. The first legitimate concern is to make sure prospective foster parents are not pedophiles or traffickers.
Our state’s system is not adequate for the number of New Mexico children needing foster care. There are about 1,300 foster parents in the state, and well over 2,000 children in foster care. In 2017, 152 foster homes had more than the recommended maximum of six children because there were no other available homes. 
As if this were not confusing enough, a new change in federal law may reshape our entire foster care system, which is largely paid for by federal matching funds and therefore regulated by federal standards. As described by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the law “effectively blows up the nation’s troubled foster care system.”
The law, called the Family First Prevention Services Act, was tucked inside the 2018 Budget Act passed in February.
It is based on the principle that children in difficult homes usually fare best if they stay with their parents. Instead of removing children from their homes, it proposes to pay for programs that put families on treatment plans to help resolve the parents’ issues – drug addiction, domestic abuse, or whatever.
The federal Health and Human Services Department is currently asking for public comment on figuring out how to implement this law. New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department may have to make major changes to our system, but not until the feds figure out the rules.
You may have noticed the irony. Keeping families together is the opposite of the border policy that separated all those children. Gee, government departments are contradicting each other’s policies. What a surprise. 
And the State Department has just issued its annual Trafficking in Persons report, which claims that worldwide, children removed from their families and placed in institutions are at greater risk of being trafficked. Again, the irony is noticed.
For those poor immigrant children that we don’t seem to be able to help, I would like to say you could send them blankets or teddy bears, but I don’t think so. Just send donations to advocacy organizations you know and trust.
New Mexico may have more influence over the conditions of adult detainees, because two adult prisons here house immigrant detainees.
The legislative interim Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee is planning to look into the private prison companies operating in New Mexico that incarcerate detainees. The committee will be asking about the state’s right to inspect and whether these companies plan to build more facilities in New Mexico. A hearing is scheduled for July 16 at the Roundhouse. Stay tuned.
While we’re spending untold taxpayer dollars to keep people locked up, helpless and unproductive, the president of the New Mexico Chile Association told me there aren’t enough workers to pick the crop. “There is a very real possibility that some crops that require hand harvest will not get harvested,” chile farmer Rick Ledbetter said.
If you feel like you’re halfway down the rabbit hole, so do I.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through