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

© 2018 New Mexico News Services 2-12-18
Kids like Jeremiah need long-term care, not feel-good legislation
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            They’re called “throwaway kids.”
            This is a term I heard from juvenile probation officers, and I met these kids myself doing volunteer work. They are the kids who come in last for parents on drugs, on alcohol and for single moms or dads whose life is about partying or the latest boyfriend or girlfriend. These are the kids who don’t have anybody who cares about them. They don’t stand a chance.
            The latest sweet face to haunt us belongs to 13-year-old Jeremiah Valencia. He’s been in regular attendance at this year’s legislative session.
          What we know from news reports is that his father is a career criminal, and his junkie mother hooked up with a sadistic monster who allegedly tortured and killed the boy.
            Legislators are trying to mend situations like this by passing laws.
          HB 100 expands Baby Brianna’s law to make intentional child abuse leading to death punishable by life imprisonment regardless of the age of the child. Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, argued that “we need to do more to hold the most violent perpetrators accountable for taking the life of a child.”
          Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, used Jeremiah to justify a return of the death penalty.
          The first bill, at this writing, passed the House; the second died in committee.
          Stricter laws won’t make any difference to somebody acting in a drug-addled rage or a demented fit, but they make some people feel better.
          If we’re serious about helping these kids, we need to dig deeper. Two measures come to mind. One is House Minority Leader Nate Gentry’s three-strikes bill, and the other is the early childhood education bill.
          Gentry, R-Albuquerque, argued that after three convictions, the offender has demonstrated a pattern and should stay in jail. “The deterrent here is that they’re in jail,” he said.
          Gentry’s bill died on arguments that we already have a three-strikes bill that’s never been used in sentencing and that any such bill is watered down in plea bargains.
            The monster boyfriend had a long record of violent offenses. Would Gentry’s three-strikes bill have kept him in jail? If the laws we have aren’t working, what good is it to pile on new ones? Shouldn’t we be talking about judicial reform?
            The other bill, HJR 1, would peel off more money from the permanent fund for early childhood education and services. Everybody agrees on the need, but they don’t agree on the source of funding.
            There’s a bigger discussion we need to have. One refrain I’ve heard is, the family needs to step up. I’m happy that in somebody else’s world there is a family to step up. Too often, the family can’t or won’t step up or there is no family, so we expect cops, schools or social workers – the government – to bridge this gap.
            Look at the debates that dominated this session: Law enforcement, education, corrections, and the judicial system are underfunded and under-staffed. We don’t have enough foster parents or social workers.
          The thing I like about HJR 1 is the early childhood services people it would send into the community. Along with the help they could provide to young families, they would be another set of eyes. If we’ve learned anything in these wretched cases, it’s that we need more eyes.
          It’s not reasonable to expect cops, schools and social workers to fill in for families. Let’s just admit that drugs, alcohol and modern living have torn through our communities the way epidemics and wars once did. We need long-term solutions like state-sanctioned, nonprofit group homes or some other form of care. Even an orphanage would have been preferable for Jeremiah and his sister.
            The first step is acknowledging the extent of the problem. The second is deciding the throwaway kid is worth saving. The rest will follow.

Sherry Robinson photo

© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    2-12-18
NMSU Outlook Conference offers poverty reminder, ignores NAFTA
By Harold Morgan
New Mexico Progress
No words about NAFTA came from the big bank chief economist. The “oversight,” we’ll call it, by Eugenio Aleman of Wells Fargo was surprising and disappointing given that he was speaking in Las Cruces and offering his outlook for the U.S. economy.
The occasion was the annual economic conference by the New Mexico State University College of Business held Feb. 8 at the Las Cruces Convention Center.
Asked about the omission in a moderately impolite manner—“Not a word about NAFTA?”—Wells Fargo regional executives attending responded to the effect of, “Oops, we’ll have to fix that.”
Non-NAFTA aside, Aleman reassured his audience, “We are not going into a recession.”
Three broad factors are the “most important changes” nationally. First, the Consumer Confidence Index from the Conference Board is very high. Second, the trend for small business optimism has been generally straight up since the 2016 presidential election. The recent tax reform bill helps.
“Small businesses do not have to do anything to pay less taxes,” Aleman claimed. That’s not quite true, I can say as one absolutely dependent on my tax preparer. But certainly, small businesses do not go through the tax minimization shenanigans of large businesses.
Finally, mortgage rates have stabilized at around 4 percent. Higher rates mean inflation is expected and thus higher growth.
Some of this good stuff trickles down to New Mexico. Neither Aleman nor Jim Peach, NMSU economist who presented the New Mexico picture, put it quite that way. But the national economy exerts major influence here.
Peach said there is “lots of good news” for the state. The news is better than the past three years.
The recovery (such as it is, I add) is oil driven, he said, with some help from natural gas. What Peach called “the Santa Fe syndrome” is the “state Legislature (being) very happy when oil prices are high.”
Then reality appeared. “An oil price recovery does not fix the economy.” The overall recovery is weak.
Peach provided some news for column and blog ( readers. The past few months have shown continuing decline in mining sector wage jobs. These jobs are mostly oil and gas. Yet employment in Lea and Eddy counties, home to most of our oil and gas, was up nicely during 2017.  This apparent contradiction has been noted here.
Aside from the loss of a few coal jobs, Peach said, the explanation is statistical; federal job counters have changed the rules for some job categories, making year-over-year comparisons, meaning, we don’t know what is happening with mining jobs.
A job milestone is expected for 2018. New Mexico should surpass the pre-recessional wage job total. The good news is the surpassing. The other news is how long it has taken—11 years. Our 2017 job growth of 1.3 percent was ahead of just one neighbor.
“My goodness, we beat Oklahoma, Peach said.
“What this (improvement) is all about is oil and gas,” Peach said. As of Feb. 3, the state had 85 active drilling rigs, “a really good sign for New Mexico,” and nearly four times the February 2016 count of 22 rigs.
People are leaving. They go, the IRS says, to the expected places, in order: Texas, Arizona, Colorado, California, Florida. Seven counties have a smaller population that in 1930.
Peach closed with poverty, the elephant in our policy and economic room. In metro Las Cruces, 27.1 percent of the population was below the poverty level in 2016. It was 19.8 percent for the state. Child poverty is 30.1 percent statewide and 40.7 percent in Las Cruces.
He offered the numbers, as reminders I suppose, which is useful. Solutions or even approaches await another day.