Sherry Robinson 2020


© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   6/22/20
End of an era: Senate Finance chairman defends his last budget
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            There are two schools of thought in forging a budget, especially in a down economy. One would maintain spending to get money circulating. The other would put more money aside, in case things get worse.
            Legislators tried to cut it down the middle, said outgoing Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming.
            “This is a very, very strange year,” Smith said Saturday on the Senate floor. “In the 12 years I’ve chaired the committee, 10 of the 12 years we’ve been looking for money.”
            At the end of this year’s regular session, in February, lawmakers approved a $7.6 billion budget. “I was very apprehensive about what we were doing,” he said. And that was when oil was still strong and coronavirus was a news item from China.
            On March 8, he watched oil futures collapse and encouraged the governor to veto one spending bill and line-item veto portions of two others. “It was not enough,” he said.
            In the next few weeks, as the virus made landfall, his own guesstimates and official estimates of the revenue shortfall surpassed $2 billion. “Cuts were going to be drastic,” he said.
            However, New Mexico had a hefty 25% reserve and would receive $750 million in federal stimulus funding. The feds restricted how they could spend stimulus money, but lawmakers kept hearing that there would be flexibility, Smith said. Most governors believed that they would be allowed to use the money to offset state revenues depressed by the virus. If that’s not the case, New Mexico will use its 25% reserve, he said.
            For now the state will rely on reserves, stimulus, and cuts for the next six months. In the regular session, legislators can readjust, if necessary.
            Smith said he was “a little disappointed” to be bombarded by emails asking him to spare this program or that agency. Although he thought initially that the cuts might not be too bad, he soon learned otherwise.
          “New Mexico, we’re not all right. We are not all right,” he said.
            Until airlines are flying again and fuel use increases, we won’t recover. “It looks like a prolonged downturn,” Smith said. While economists have debated whether we’d see a V-shaped or U-shaped recovery, it will probably be an L-shape.
            “We have a statewide problem, and it’s extremely serious,” Smith said.
            The Senate then approved HB 1, a budget solvency bill, by a 30-12 vote. It reduces the budget from by $600 million. By comparison, the governor would have reduced the budget by $457 million.
            HB 1 increases spending 1.5%, not 7.6%; gives educators and state employees making less than $50,000 a year a 1% pay raise, not 4%; funds the governor’s Opportunity Scholarship $5 million, not $17 million; and reduces agency spending by 4%. The bill has $165 million to help local governments with coronavirus impacts.
            A second solvency bill, SB 5, would save about $141 million by cancelling capital outlay and road projects.
            In remarks on the floor during debate honoring seven departing senators, including Smith himself, he talked about challenging the establishment during his first run for office in 1988. He risked his own livelihood as an appraiser to spur banking reform and changes began before he was sworn in.
          “Never in my life did I think I’d be here 32 years,” he said.
          While senators and Roundhouse watchers, including me, can’t imagine the place without the steadying hand of Dr. No (as his detractors called him), the white-haired Smith said he expected the change.
          He noted the bright young minds in state government and advised: “Be smart enough to listen to them. They will get us over the rough spots of the future.”


© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       6/15/20
New laws needed to help police the police
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            Against a backdrop of protests and public discussion of racism and police reforms, the Legislature this week will hear bills on June 18 aimed at policing the police.
            The special session’s main task is to fix the state’s budget, clobbered by the coronavirus. But after George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police and publicity about similar deaths here, law enforcement is on everybody’s mind.
            At the least, we can expect a ban on chokeholds to pass.
            Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, has been a force for criminal justice reform in recent legislative sessions, and now he wants to eliminate qualified immunity and amend what he sees as an outdated law.
          Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine established in a 1967 U. S. Supreme Court case. It protects government officials from civil liability for actions they take in doing their jobs.
          The doctrine is so strong that it protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law,” according to a 2018 Yale Law Journal article. New Mexico civil rights attorney Laura Schauer Ives told New Mexico Political Report that qualified immunity has become a major obstacle to holding police accountable.
          A federal court must determine if an officer violated a “clearly established” constitutional right, defined as a right that a reasonable person would know. Civil rights lawyers say the standard is so vague that the many cases involving qualified immunity don’t establish case law, and cases are often thrown out.
           A national Reuters investigation found that between 2005 and 2018, judges found unlawful police conduct in more than three dozen civil suits stemming from police violence but threw them out for lack of “clearly established” precedents.
          New Mexico’s laws are so narrow that plaintiffs can’t expect to succeed in a lawsuit for constitutional violations, so they have to go to federal court. The federal Justice in Policing Act now before Congress tackles qualified immunity, but Maestas thinks we need a state law that allows New Mexicans to bring civil rights cases before state judges. His proposed law would allow citizens to sue law enforcement officers who violate agency use-of-force protocols.
          Shawn Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, opposes the idea. Getting rid of qualified immunity would open officers to lawsuits and make recruiting more difficult. Officers would have to be paid more so they could buy liability insurance, he told the Albuquerque Journal.
          A UCLA law professor who studied 1,183 cases urged the U. S. Supreme Court in 2018 to end qualified immunity. It doesn’t shield officers from financial liability, she concluded, and the many weaknesses in the doctrine “may send the message that officers can disregard the law without consequence.” In an earlier study, she found that government paid 99.98% of damages stemming from police misconduct; officers didn’t have to contribute to settlements and judgments even when they were fired and criminally prosecuted.
          Maestas also wants to change the Peace Officer’s Employer-Employee Relations Act, a state law that protects law enforcement officers who are under internal investigation. That law hasn’t changed since it was adopted in the early 1990s.
          He would scrap provisions in the law requiring officers to be informed about who’s leading an investigation and limit what can be added to officers’ personnel files without their knowledge and consent.
          The governor has said she supports bills that address excessive force, but any bill she approves for the special session must have broad support so it doesn’t bog down lawmakers in lengthy debate. The Republicans have already signaled that bills like these should wait until the regular session in January.
           These are debates that won’t be wrapped up this week. This year legislators moved a crime bill package. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see a policing reform package in the next session.

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES              6/8/20
Black Lives Matter inspires Native American communities
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
             There’s a movie scene that replays in my head. White policemen outside a restaurant are about to give the black female protagonist a hard time. They look up and a crowd of the restaurant’s black patrons are standing at the window, cell phone cameras in hand. The officers leave.
            The phone camera has become a powerful tool and weapon in the hands of people bearing witness. Once you’ve seen the video of a white officer, one hand casually in his pocket and his knee in George Floyd’s neck, you can’t unsee it. To me, the image ranks along with others so searing that they stay in the public conscience long after the event. Think of the fireman running from the ruins of the Oklahoma courthouse with a mortally injured toddler in his arms or the child burned by napalm running down a road in Vietnam.
            I love movies as entertainment and escape, but also because they take viewers into somebody else’s life for an uninterrupted two hours. Television tries but doesn’t come close to the power of movies to help us see and understand.
            In the 2018 movie, “The Hate U Give,” teenaged Starr Carter witnesses the police kill her childhood friend and then struggles with conscience and fear over whether to testify in court.
            The movie opens with her father sitting at the kitchen table delivering careful instructions to his three children about what to do when they’re pulled over by police.
            Lots of us have worried about a teenager leaving the house for the evening, and we’ve sent them off with the usual “be careful,” but I’m betting few white parents have told them exactly what to do and where to place their hands during a police stop.
             In New Mexico, we can’t just point the finger at other states. We have problems here too. It’s measured by the big awards cities and counties pay as a result of citizen lawsuits for excess force by both police and jail guards.
            Also close to home, Native Americans see Black Lives Matter as their fight too. They’ve marched in protests in cities and on reservations all over the country in spite of the vulnerability to the virus that they share with black people.
            In Farmington, peaceful protesters carried the signs we’ve seen elsewhere, “Black Lives Matter,” plus a few we haven’t: “I can’t breathe” written in Navajo. Some carried flags of the Navajo Nation and the American Indian Movement. Sam’s Club, Target, and Wal-Mart all closed early, but they didn’t need to worry. San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari and Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe attended the protest in support. Both had posted their opposition to the police actions in Minneapolis.
          Gallup’s protests were also peaceful, although jittery merchants closed downtown stores and some posted gun-carrying guards outside.
          Nationally, Native Americans have been prominent at each protest. Indian-Country Today reported marches from tiny Unalakleet, Alaska, to the Pine Ridge reservation. In Minneapolis, a group of women in jingle dresses performed a healing dance at the intersection where Floyd was killed.
           At each protest, the Native people state their solidarity with Black Lives Matter. They’ve had their own George Floyd episodes – Zachary Bear Heels in Nebraska, Anderson Antelope in Wyoming, and Rodney Lynch in Gallup, to name just three.
          My purpose here isn’t an indictment of law enforcement. We know that most officers take seriously their oath to serve and protect. They save lives and sometimes lose their own. But we have a sickness in the culture of policing that reflects the sickness in society.

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   6/1/20
Careless speech, old slogan come freighted with hateful message
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
          Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin made national headlines for saying, “The only good Democrat is a dead one.” And while Griffin took a stab at walking it back as the remark drew widespread condemnation, the Democrats are now raising money on it.
          In politics, there’s a silver lining in everything.
          Griffin, founder of Cowboys for Trump, won’t moderate his speech, but as election rhetoric heats up, the rest of us could use a little reminder of where such expressions come from.
          Anybody who’s lived in this part of the country should have heard this historic statement: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
          This slur is attributed to Gen. Philip Sheridan in 1869, although Sheridan insisted repeatedly that he never said it. The comment sticks to him, even today, because he was a known hothead and Indian hater. He could have said it.
           A scholar traced the statement to Montana Congressman James Cavanaugh, who said on the House floor in 1868, “I have never in my life seen a good Indian… except when I have seen a dead Indian.”
          The context was the Indian Wars of the later 1800s, when the army mopped up operations in the Civil War and turned its attention to driving tribes from their homelands to make way for white settlers. Cavanaugh’s sentiment was widely shared, and it follows that his words would be simplified into the shorter, snappier version embraced by troops whose job it was to kill Indians.
          So even though the motto is still around in different forms – the only good insect, snake, coyote, or whatever – the meaning is clear.
          Griffin’s actual quote was: “I’ve come to a place where I’ve come to a conclusion where the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.”
          At a rally May 17 in Truth or Consequences, Griffin, a Republican, was objecting to the Democratic governor’s orders that try to contain the coronavirus. 
          Possibly sensing that he’d crossed a line, he said he meant dead Democrats in “the political sense.”
          The New Mexico Young Republicans condemned the remarks, saying, “We value the personal and political worth of all New Mexicans and to make such an outrageous statement is contrary to the pro-life Republican Party platform.”
          The state Republican Party said on social media that “any statements, whether in jest or serious, about harming another individual are just plain wrong.”
          A week later, Griffin spoke to the online news outlet The Daily Beast.
          “I could’ve chosen a different verbiage, you know. I guess I need to be more careful when I choose the words that I speak,” he said. “But you know, it’s just so hypocritical of the left how they’re blowing this up, like I’m some hate-speech murderer.”
          He’s correct that he needs to be more careful in what he says, especially as a county commissioner. Words carry weight. They also carry baggage. In this case, 152 years worth of baggage.
          Everybody in Indian Country and anybody who’s watched a Western has heard the slur many times and knows where it came from. The timing for it to reappear couldn’t be worse. Because of the virus’s deadly spread among Native people, they’ve locked themselves down and self-isolated. 
          Griffin never apologized. Instead, he repeated the offending slogan and said that some Democrats, like the governors of Virginia and Michigan, might be guilty of treason and need punishing. “You get to pick your poison: you either go before a firing squad, or you get the end of the rope,” Griffin said.
          Actually, nobody in this country can be executed for treason. And treason is defined as giving aid and comfort to an enemy. Like Russia.
          Asked about the prospect of violence by anti-lockdown protesters, he said, “I’ll tell you what, partner, as far as I’m concerned, there’s not an option that’s not on the table.” 

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    5/25/20
State needs legislators with expertise in business and finance
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            When you vote in the primary election, here’s something to keep in mind: Our economy is in tatters, and it’ll take years to recover. We need people in Santa Fe who understand business, job creation, and the economy.
            In this campaign, much has been made of a handful veteran Democratic senators, mostly men, challenged by progressive female newcomers. The debates turn on a small number of issues, and the language used is deceptive.
            The veterans are Senate President Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces, Senate Finance Chairman John Arthur Smith of Deming, George Muñoz of Gallup, Clemente Sanchez of Grants, and Gabriel Ramos of Silver City.
            The word often thrown around is “conservative.” In this political climate, progressives see anyone outside their tent as conservative.
          I’ve been writing about Papen, Smith, Muñoz and Sanchez for nine-plus years and assure you they’re moderates. We need our moderates – they’re the ones who know how to compromise.
            Smith especially has been lambasted as a conservative for not approving every hare-brained spending scheme that comes before him. He, like a long line of budget gate keepers before him, is cautious, and he’s known to bottle up bills he doesn’t like in his committee. But, except for a few digressions, he’s reliably Democratic. The same can be said for the others.
            But, oh, those digressions! One was HB 51 in 2019, a hot-button women’s issue backed by the governor. It would have repealed an old abortion ban made unenforceable by the watershed Roe v. Wade decision, but with changes in the Supreme Court, Roe may be at risk, hence the attempt to fix it in New Mexico.
            Eight Democratic senators joined Republicans to defeat the bill, including Muñoz, Papen, Ramos, Sanchez, and Smith.  
            That vote prompted newcomers to run against four of the eight. Carrie Hamblen, a National Public Radio morning host, took on Senate President Mary Kay Papen. (Papen has said she supports Roe but opposed HB 51 because it covered late-term abortions.) Neomi Martinez-Parra, a long-time Lordsburg educator, is challenging Smith. Pam Cordova, a retired Belen educator, is running against Sanchez. Noreen Kelly, a sexual assault and violence counselor, is running against Muñoz.
            In recent coverage, Ramos gets lumped in with the other four, but as an appointee with just two years of service, he’s not a heavy hitter like the others. And his opponent, educator and school psychologist Siah Correa Hemphill, is running on a broad array of issues, including education, affordable healthcare, needs of rural communities, and support for small businesses.
            A group called No Corporate Democrats is supporting the challengers. The name is naïve. Who do they think employs people?
            Let’s look at the four.
          Papen has been the Legislature’s strongest advocate for behavioral health issues, and she’s also advocated for immigration reform. A retired car dealer, she’s not unfriendly to business issues.
          Smith, a legislator 31 years, has drawn liberal fire for opposing the use of permanent funds for early childhood education. He also opposed legalizing marijuana. But he’s one of the most knowledgeable people in the Roundhouse on the subject of state finances.
          Muñoz is vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee. He has shouldered – twice – pension reform, an onerous but necessary duty. He pays close attention to the Navajo chapters and Zuni Pueblo in his district. And he’s one of very few business people in the Legislature.
          Clemente Sanchez is not only chairman of the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee, he muscled through a compromise minimum wage bill that balanced the needs of workers and business.
            Normally, I would cheer their four challengers and take issue with their anti-woman vote. Reform is healthy, but it costs money. This is not the time to throw out lawmakers with financial expertise.

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   5/18/20
Latest study shows masks, social distancing work
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            Business people I know want desperately to be open, but they also want to do the right thing. One plans to reopen her small-town café with a few scattered tables but worries that customers will give her a hard time for trying to distance diners from each other.
          Another wears a mask to protect himself and hopes customers will wear masks, but he doesn’t plan to enforce mask wearing in his shop. It’s his nature to be welcoming, and he can’t afford to run anybody off.
            The governor’s “slight reopening” requires wearing masks in public. Some object but most business people focus on what they need to do protect employees and welcome back the public.
            That, friends, is business as usual.
            In many years of covering business, I found business people quietly pragmatic. While a few on the right complained about Spanish speaking in public, big-box stores put up bilingual signs on each aisle. Banks and call centers began giving customers a choice of languages.
            When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) came along, businesses tried hard to comply, even though the changes were expensive. Since then, they’ve added modifications for everything from baby changing to customers with dogs. They’ve offered food choices to suit people with special diets, immigrant tastes, and the diet du jour.
            In the grand scheme, masks aren’t the worst thing they’ve faced. Being closed was.
            The public embrace of masks is mixed.
            Among crafters, it’s become a thing to make a mask for the governor that she wears and mentions during her updates. She thanks them profusely. A host of women and men out there are churning out cheerful and creative masks for their local hospitals or to send to the COVID-besieged Navajo Nation.
            The governor has capitalized on this creative wave with her “Mask Madness” contest, a light-hearted way of recognizing this work. (Submit a photo to cv.nmhealth.org/mask-madness through May 24.)
          Wearing a mask signals to the world that you care about the people you encounter.
          During a visit to Japan years ago, I noticed people on the street wearing surgical masks and asked the guide about it. Those people had colds, she said, and didn’t want to infect others. A Japanese friend once told me that her people have an acute sense of public behavior. So the idea of wearing a mask to protect others was embedded before anybody ever heard the word “coronavirus.”
          On a recent day in Japan, 21 people died of COVID-19. In the United States, 2,129 people died. By that day, a total of 577 people had died in Japan, and 76,032 had died here. The Japanese death rate is 2% of ours.
          Japan had no lockdown and many businesses remained open, but everyone is masked, and they observe social distancing as much as possible.
          A recent study by an international team of computer scientists concluded that if 80% of a closed population wore masks, infection rates would be one-twelfth the number of infections in a population without masks.
          When the governor mandated masks in public, she said: “These are not political statements. This is about mitigating risks. I know it’s not popular.”
          Air bags, seat belts, and car seats weren’t popular either, she noted.
          Former Congressman Steve Pearce, chairman of the state’s Republican Party, told the Albuquerque Journal he questioned the changing public advice about masks; first we didn’t need them and then we did. Fair enough. I wondered about that myself. The study I’ve cited, by an international team, was intended to resolve such questions.
          Dr. David Scrase, secretary of the Human Services Department, said your home-made mask won’t save you from the virus, but if you wear a mask and the person in line next to you wears a mask, it could save thousands of lives.
           I’ll take those numbers.


© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     5/11/20
Want to reopen? How strong is your hospital?
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            Looking at the positive COVID-19 numbers around the state, I have to sympathize with people in Lincoln, Sierra or San Miguel counties, which at this writing have 2, 1, and 6 cases, respectively. Lea and Eddy counties, with just 14 cases each, don’t sound awful.
            Why couldn’t those counties reopen?
            Before I answer that question, let me say, nobody is overjoyed to keep you at home, especially the governor, who can only see her grandchildren through a car window. Nobody wants to keep the economy paralyzed. I have two brothers out of work and friends and relatives working half-time. My step-mom just recovered from COVID-19. Nobody is unscathed.
            What I’ve learned in reporting on the virus and trying to understand its behavior is that nothing is quite what it seems. And the links between people and communities render us all dominoes standing in rows.
            First we didn’t have enough testing, so we didn’t know the extent of the virus. Now the state Health Department is testing aggressively, but we don’t know the results for days, so whatever number you’re looking at is old. The only certainty is that the numbers will increase.
            We’ve learned that some people testing positive don’t have symptoms. You can be Typhoid Mary, leaving a wake of contamination in your daily interactions and not even know it. Apparently, 44% of transmission occurs this way.
            The virus moves with people. When the mayor of Grants attempted to open his town, he risked attracting traffic and customers from neighboring McKinley County, where the case numbers have exploded. At the time, Cibola County had 39 cases. Last week it had 86 cases.
            As Texas, Arizona and Colorado reopen, and New Mexicans travel to shop or eat out, the case numbers will rise.
            So I hang on every word of the governor’s numbers guy, Dr. David Scrase, who is secretary of the Human Services Department. Scrase, bless him, is human and credible and works hard to make the data understandable.
            During last week’s briefing, Scrase explained that reopening New Mexico depends on four measures: The rate of spread, testing capacity, contact tracing (finding every person Typhoid Mary encountered), and statewide healthcare system capacity.
          The rate of spread started at 2.5, meaning that one person who tests positive infected 2.5 people. Last week, in northwestern New Mexico, the rate of spread was 1.31, the Albuquerque metro area was 1.24, the southeast was 1.16, the northeast was1.15, and the southwest was 1.23.
          The target is 1.15. Think about that number. Anything over 1 means the contagion still spreads. So the governor accepts a tradeoff – a certain level of disease – as we attempt to reopen. If she specified zero, it would be cause to complain because the economy would expire long before the virus.
          The fourth measure, New Mexico’s healthcare system, was never as robust as those in surrounding states, and now it’s being sorely tested. When somebody says “healthcare system,” what they really mean is ICU beds, and when they say ICU beds, they mean ICU beds in Albuquerque and other hubs.
          Consider what’s happened in the last couple of weeks.
          Who could have foreseen that cases would skyrocket on the Navajo Reservation? That caseload has overwhelmed local hospitals and swamped Albuquerque’s ICUs. We don’t have the capacity for cases to spiral caseloads anywhere else.
          So, when she was asked last week about renewing the original stay-home order, the governor didn’t hesitate to say, “I cannot overwhelm the healthcare system.” Credit the governor and her people with focus.
          This is the bottom line, not political clamor about “rights.” I wish we could say, if you want to expose yourself, go right ahead. But you drag others into your risky decision. 
​© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      5/4/20
The Modey show
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            Mayor Martin “Modey” Hicks made national news lately for defying both the coronavirus and the governor by ordering businesses in Grants to reopen.
            Down the road in Gallup, where cases have exploded, his counterpart begged the governor for a lockdown.
            Only in New Mexico.
            Hicks, whose flowing silver locks give him the look of a character in an Italian western, has annoyed and entertained the locals since becoming mayor in 2016. He’s popped up in news accounts regularly.
            In 2016, Hicks proposed a day off for Good Friday. When a city councilor pointed out that it violated the separation of church and state, Hicks asked, “Are you a Jew?” He then said the city had many Christian churches but no mosques, apparently unaware that a mosque is a Muslim house of worship.
            In an editorial, the Gallup Independent wrote, “We can’t help but shake our heads at Grants Mayor Martin ‘Modey’ Hicks and the things that come out of his mouth.”
            Also in 2016, a middle school principal called State Police saying Hicks was at the school threatening an administrator. She told 911 dispatch that Hicks said: “I’m comin’ after you. You’re gonna be out of here. You’re gonna be gone. Wait ’til my son gets back.”
          The school was locked down. Hicks said he didn’t threaten the man but promised to “sue his ass” over Facebook posts.
            Hicks has amped up city council meetings, which an official from the neighboring village of Milan called “the Modey show.” If anyone disagrees with him, he raises his voice, cuts them off, and drowns out their comments, according to news accounts.
            He quarreled with Milan over waste treatment billing, refusing mediation in favor of a lawsuit.
            Despite a controversial first term, Hicks was re-elected in 2018 because three challengers split the opposition vote, so Hicks won with 44 % of the vote.
            Hicks claims he’s a Democrat. But he hates the Forest Service and badmouths it at every opportunity. He endorsed Steve Pearce, now Republican Party chairman, for governor. On learning in January that the power plant in Cibola County would close, Hicks said, "The Democrats and the Green New Deal have done this to us, and the only way to fix it is to quit voting for Democrats, period.”
            He warned that the county had no prospects. “There ain’t nothing coming here. Why? Because we put the progressive socialists in Washington, D.C."
            So on April 27, when Hicks said “The governor is killing the state over a little bug,” it was just another Modeyism.
          Asked by the Cibola Citizen about legal repercussions, Hicks said: “Bring it on, baby. She is violating the Constitution of the United States of America, and if she writes me a ticket I am going to sue her... in federal court, where (Attorney General William) Barr can look at it.”
          Hicks told city employees to return to work, and he reopened the town’s golf course. After State Police issued a warning to the golf course director, Hicks said city police would order the State Police out of town.
          He told businesses that if State Police showed up, they should ask to see a warrant because State Police couldn’t close them without a warrant, which a judge would refuse to grant. One business, socked with a big fine, found out the state health order has the force of law. The state Supreme Court ordered Hicks to comply.
            The city manager refused to disobey a state order, Hicks fired her, and she sued. Said the lawsuit: “Hicks just wanted to open the golf course as a political stunt and to thumb his nose at the Governor.”
            There you have it, folks – the first two seasons of The Modey Show, America’s champion of reopening.


© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     4/27/20
Some good news, for a change: New beef processor in New Mexico
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            Here’s some news that’s good on several levels. High Plains Processing LLC plans to open a meat processing plant in Las Vegas by the end of the summer.
            The owners are Joanna and Chip Meston, who run the Fifteen Mile Ranch in Bennett, Colo., east of Denver. Joanna is a third-generation Coloradoan. Their F bar J brand was once used by her grandparents.
            The Mestons will invest $1.6 million to refurbish a vacant facility and add modern equipment, ventilation, waste collection, receiving, and refrigeration. They plan to begin operating before the end of summer and hire 20 employees over the next three years. Total annual payroll is projected to be $655,200.
            The company plans to sell to restaurant, hospitality, and retail consumer markets in Asia and the United States. The state will help with $100,000 in LEDA (Local Economic Development Act) funding for land, building and infrastructure improvements.
            Obviously, this is good economic development news. Pretty but poor Las Vegas is always looking for new jobs. And High Plains Processing is a value-added business, which means that converting cattle into a consumer product adds value that stays in New Mexico in the form of wages and taxes.
            The state’s primary form of agriculture is ranching, but most of our cattle – and the money they might generate – leave the state because we don’t have enough processors. We have some small processors, where a backyard stock raiser can take a single animal, but the state has just three USDA-certified meat processors, explains Michelle Frost Maynard, interim executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association.
            There’s USA Beef in Roswell, Naturally New Mexico Food Products in El Rito, and Western Way Custom Meat Processing in Moriarty. They all have limited capacity, and they’re backlogged, Maynard said. So cattle growers are delighted to see this new operation.
            “New Mexico has a widespread and healthy livestock industry,” said Chip Meston in a news release. “There are a lot of people who want to see this business succeed.”
            He said Las Vegas, with its ranches and location on I-25, an easy commute from Denver, is a good fit for the company.
            High Plains Processing is good news for a whole new reason that would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago.
            Coronavirus outbreaks in more than 30 meat processing plants nationwide have stricken at least 3,300 workers and killed at least 17, according to news reports. Three major meat producers – Tyson Foods, JBS USA, and Smithfield Foods – have closed 15 plants.
          It’s had repercussion up and down the supply chain – from stock raisers who can’t sell their animals to grocery stores trying to keep shelves stocked. Industry analysts say production is down by 25 percent.
          One of the operations closest to New Mexico was the JBS plant in Greeley, Colo. Its internal culture demanded employees to work whether or not they were well, said a Washington Post story. And they were still working in close quarters, without protective gear, long after federal guidelines advised social distancing and personal protection. Since about mid-April, JBS has improved sanitation, started checking employee temperatures, and required social distancing.
          The other plant close to New Mexico is a JBS Beef operation in Cactus, Texas, in the Panhandle, where Moore County has the highest infection rate in Texas.
          For Las Vegas, this is unlikely to be an issue. Johanna Meston is an anesthesiologist, which means she’ll bring her physician’s attitude with her. And the small size of High Plains Processing makes it easier to observe safeguards.
          USA Beef in Roswell, another family operation, also assures the public that it’s taking pains to keep employees and food products safe.
          Let’s pause for a moment to welcome High Plains Processing and cheer on companies like USA Beef for keeping us fed responsibly.

 ​© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    4/20/20
Leave your foxhole too soon and expect the worst
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            Days before the president offered guidelines to restart the economy, the New Mexico Business Coalition hatched its own plan, which it calls a “safe, sensible and incremental plan to get New Mexico back to work.”
            NMBC, a small right-leaning group, doesn’t say who came up with its plan or how. It has some blind spots you could drive an ambulance through.
          Meanwhile, the Association of Commerce and Industry, the state’s mainstream business organization, which has the standing to author a reopening plan, has focused on making sure its members are informed about federal and state programs. And it’s working with the governor.
          While some demonstrate to “liberate” their county or state, Susan Clark, president of the U. S. Chamber, said Sunday on “Face the Nation,” “We can't get back to work until we get back to health.”
            NMBC takes issue with the closure of so-called nonessential businesses, which also meet needs, provide jobs, and pay taxes. They’re struggling to survive, and some will be unable to reopen. No argument there.
            Then the group suggests reopening businesses and outdoor recreational facilities at 20 percent occupancy, with masks and social distancing and increasing capacity after the virus peaks until everything is completely open by June 1.
           The president’s plan also calls for reopening in phases, with protections, social distancing, and limitations on capacity, each phase to progress as long as there’s no resurgence in the disease. Before reopening, a state would have to show a two-week decrease in cases.
            We all want to restart the economy, but timing is tricky. So many New Mexicans are abiding by the stay-at-home order that the expected surge date and peak have moved forward. Genuine healthcare experts and people with M. D. after their names – not politicians – now say the coronavirus won’t be short-lived. They talk in months and not weeks.
            In support of its plan, NMBC cites data from the University of Washington, which has lowered its projected death rates. But other experts, including our own, discount this data as far too low. NMBC claims the Washington model, “which analyzes data from every state as well as other countries, should be trusted and utilized in projecting what is likely to happen in New Mexico. It is neither necessary nor good practice to isolate modeling for New Mexico while always highlighting extreme worse case scenarios.”
            Really? Says who? NMBC cites no authorities.
          Dr. David Scrase, secretary of the Human Services Department, and his team of number crunchers created a model tailored to New Mexico. It factors in our vulnerabilities (older population, more underlying conditions, poverty, and so forth). The University of Washington doesn’t. The state’s numbers are higher and more credible, but inconvenient for NMBC’s argument.
          NMBC argued, “Because we have good data and greater testing capabilities, we know that New Mexico is doing well in handling the crisis.”
          That’s a curious argument. New Mexico is doing well SO FAR in handling the crisis. We have more testing than most states because the governor and her administration have pursued it relentlessly, but we need a lot more testing. If you’re keeping up with the news, you know that inadequate testing is an issue nationwide.
          Here’s the thing about testing. It tells experts and elected officials where the disease is and how many people are at risk. It draws a picture. If sufficient testing demonstrates that your county has few cases, no new cases, and low risk, then you can talk about reopening.
          NMBC claims to have the only plan for reopening, but in press briefings the governor has said her administration is working on a plan and that it’s harder than it looks.  
          The state’s orders are brutal, but ignoring them could trigger a second wave of the virus. Leave your foxhole too soon and you become a target.

 © 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   4/130/20
Waiting for the surge, we can count our blessings
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            We’re starring in our own sci-fi movie, writes a friend. Everyone has experienced that sense of displacement driving down empty streets past vacant stores and parking lots. We see only a few kids on bicycles and a dog walker.
          During my only visit with family, we exchanged air hugs and spoke briefly at a suitable distance. I wore a mask.
            I’m not going to call this the new normal. It’s not normal, but I understand the need. We’re three weeks into the governor’s stay-at-home order to protect us from each other and coronavirus.
            The medical people I talk to call this the calm before the storm. They’ve created more bed space, readied whatever equipment and supplies they can scrounge, and done more training. They’re scared but prepared for battle. Now they wait.
          By the time you read this, the storm may have broken. In Gallup and Farmington, the surge has begun, as patients stream in from the Navajo Nation.
            In this temporary calm, it’s not a bad time to take stock.
            The governor, her staff, and her cabinet get high marks for a quick and thorough response. For some of us, the harbinger of that effort is the daily news release from press secretary Nora Sackett, which we await with a mix of dread and curiosity. I’m sure Sackett never thought she would be the town crier, announcing the day’s sharply rising number of cases along with the number of deaths.
          But then the governor and her team entered office expecting to do great things on a rising tide of oil money, not preside over a combined health and economic disaster. They’ve scrambled to ramp up testing, chase supplies, badger the public to stay home, prod the feds for help, investigate and track cases, and steer extra money where it’s needed.
          “New Mexico’s expansion of its testing eligibility — which now allows testing for asymptomatic people who are exposed to COVID-19 or who live in group living facilities like nursing homes  — is a testament to how quickly the state was able to scale up its testing,” according to the online news site TMP.
          In many states, you can’t get a test even if you have COVID-19 symptoms. Until recently, only New York, Washington and Louisiana were doing more tests per capita than New Mexico, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation. A few states have caught up, but we’re still in the top 10 — “a remarkable achievement for a state where four-in-10 residents live under 200 percent of the federal poverty line,” said TMP.
          The writer didn’t mention that New Mexico is higher risk because of its older population and higher levels of kidney disease and diabetes.
          We may have the only governor who was once a health secretary.
            Maybe you wish she had done certain things differently, but I’d rather be here than in Arizona or Texas, where governors took their time responding.
            What I find particularly heartening is the burst of generosity, creativity, and resourcefulness, from scientists, artists, and ordinary people – the techies using 3D printers to make protective face shields, the folks out there stitching face masks, the good neighbors.
            Business has stepped up. PNM, Xcel, and New Mexico Gas Company suspended disconnections. Chevron donated to Permian Basin nonprofits. Comcast created hotspots, offered certain services free, and increased streaming speed. Presbyterian and Blue Cross Blue Shield make testing free. Western Sky Community Care’s call-center phones help the state Health Department answer questions. Wells Fargo suspended residential property foreclosure sales, evictions and auto repos. And Sacred Wind, a rural telecom company, pledged to keep customers connected until May 16.
            Yes, it’s hard and will get harder, but these are the kinds of things that will help us through.

            © 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       4/6/20
Computer models of virus impact: Scary, scarier, and scariest
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            We’re embarked on an experiment that will measure the response of states, cities and counties to the coronavirus pandemic. The results will be measured in hospitalizations and deaths.
            Some states – New Mexico is one – responded early and vigorously. Others responded slowly and took half measures. We know from a study using cell phone data that New Mexico counties have shown a mixed response to staying home.
          When this is all over, we’ll know who won this deadly race.
          Numbers are already staring us in the face from predictive models. Mathematicians and epidemiologists are publishing data that governments are using to prepare for the coming surge.
          The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicted that even with social distancing, 513 New Mexicans will die in coming months. At its peak, 16 people will die each day, and the state will need 238 ICU beds, about twice what it has now. It also said 81,114 people would die in the United States.
          The study had a few problems. For one thing, researchers relied on data from China, and we now know that China vastly underreported its deaths. And for various technical reasons, the predicted death toll is far too low.
          Next, the COVID-19 team at Imperial College in Great Britain concluded that isolating those who test positive and their household members, along with social distancing might reduce peak healthcare demand by two-thirds and deaths by half. Even so, more than a million would die and demand on ICUs would be eight times their capacity.
          Do nothing, and peak demand on the ICU will be 30 times capacity, 81% of the population will be infected, and 2.2 million Americans will die.
          A third study, recommended by a reader, compared the San Francisco Bay Area with New York City. On March 16 six California counties became the nation’s first to shelter in place. When New York Mayor Bill de Blasio suggested doing the same, Gov. Andrew Cuomo dismissed it as a dumb idea. Five days later Cuomo gave the order.
          Graphs on the Daily Kos (an online news organization) website show case numbers in the Bay Area barely changed, as New York City’s skyrocketed.
          New Mexico’s Medical Advisory Team studied five models and came up with its own, which Human Services Department Secretary David Scrase presented on April 3 during a remote press conference.
          With the current level of intervention (school closures, social distancing, most non-essential businesses closed, and some social gathering), Scrase said, 3,498 people will be hospitalized, 2,175 will need ICUs, 1,629 will need ventilators, and 3,066 will die. If New Mexicans do a better job of complying with the governor’s order to stay home, those numbers decline, but even then 2,142 will die.
          Do nothing, and 15,311 will be hospitalized, 9,164 will need the ICU, 6,872 will need ventilators, and 4,704 will die.
          The state has 126 ICU beds; they can be stretched to 265. There are 265 ventilators.
          New Mexico’s surge will be the third week of April through the first week of May, although in Gallup and Farmington it will start earlier and in other places will start later.
          These are mathematical models and not crystal balls. There are still unknowns, and the researchers continue to adjust their numbers. But if they’re even half right, we could be in for great suffering.
          On the up side, here’s a number you can take to heart. New Mexico’s doubling rate (the number of days it takes for cases to double) has slowed from two days to nearly four days. That means staying at home is working.
          When people whine about the closures, the stay-at-home orders, the “government overreach,” I can’t help but remember something my mother, who grew up poor in the Depression, used to say: Better safe than sorry.

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    3/30/20
Virus will hit small hospitals and clinics much harder
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
             Looking at COVID-19 readiness, the focus is on the big urban hospitals. We need to think more about our rural hospitals.
            Even in normal times, rural healthcare is stretched thin. They’re not only short of medical professionals, they treat older, sicker people. When small hospitals get serious cases that are beyond their means to treat, they send the patient to Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Santa Fe, Lubbock, El Paso – wherever they can. Pre-virus, the big hospitals are often maxed out, leaving smaller hospitals scrambling to place the patient.
            Load coronavirus into this model, and it means small local hospitals will be trying to treat patients they would normally hand off. That’s just one of many reasons for the emphasis on bed space and the governor’s orders to stay home.
            In the last week, some small hospitals have taken extraordinary steps.
            Dr. Marshall Baca Jr., medical director of Artesia General Hospital’s Emergency Department, wrote a public letter advising that case numbers “will continue to rise and will affect our community and surrounding communities, especially if people disregard current recommendations for social distancing.”
          His hospital, like others, has “a very limited number of COVID-19 testing kits, and they are currently reserved for the critically ill,” he wrote.
          “I urge you to be stewards of our community…  Please practice social distancing and avoid social gatherings. During these unprecedented times, we should all be vigilant.”
            Baca explained that based on current data, if one person among Artesia’s 13,000 residents tests positive, an estimated 1,300 will soon be infected. Of that number, 13 to 26 patients will require critical care, meaning a ventilator and ICU bed.
          “Artesia’s medical system does not have the resources to care for that many critical patients, and (it) will completely overwhelm our medical resources,” he wrote. And the local hospital won’t be able to transfer patients for higher levels of care in distant hospitals because they won’t have the staff and equipment “to take care of their own communities, let alone assist ours.”
          We’ve heard much about shortages of protective gear and medical supplies, and it’s a bigger worry for smaller hospitals.
          At Holy Cross Hospital in Taos, CEO Bill Patten candidly talked about supplies in a teleconference last week: Isolation masks, a 50-day supply; surgical masks, 196 days; gloves, 14 to 33 days; wipes, 18 to 30 days. And the access to additional supplies could be cut off, he said.
          Holy Cross is planning to ask the community’s quilters and seamstresses to make masks. “We will give you a pattern to follow,” he said.
          He was also asking the community for N95 masks. “We can use them even if they’re expired,” he said.
          Holy Cross, which rarely has more than one patient using a ventilator, has four regular ventilators, five in the operating rooms, and two transportation ventilators. They cost $25,000 and have an eight-week delivery window. Staff tried to beg, borrow and rent, but not steal, ventilators, and found them in short supply.
          Hospital managers lose sleep about both patients and staff.
          Let’s say one person comes in with a problem but shows no symptoms of COVID-19. Then a day later the person comes down with the virus. By that time he or she has exposed a number of inadequately protected healthcare workers, and even if they don’t get sick, they still have to stay in quarantine. This could devastate a small facility.
          And that’s why Artesia’s Baca tells his community that it’s their “societal and moral responsibility to protect the community and those who are most vulnerable.” They could be your family members and friends.
          He closes with a quote from former Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt: “Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after will seem inadequate.”
          Let me be more direct. Don’t be stupid. Stay home.

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     3/23/20
As coronavirus case numbers increase, hospitals scramble for basic supplies
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            CHRISTUS St. Vincent Medical Center in Santa Fe pleaded last week for medical and cleaning supplies through the state’s largest business group, the Association of Commerce and Industry.
          “If you or your business have any of the following materials in stock and aren't in use, we encourage you to consider donating to the hospital as they tackle the COVID-19 crisis and work to keep New Mexico families safe and healthy.” The hospital needed gloves, masks, bunny suits, liquid cleaning supplies.
            The problem is nationwide. The governor of New York pledged that his administration is “scouring the world” for supplies.
            If this doesn’t make your blood boil, it should. If the state’s largest hospitals don’t have what they need, what does this bode for smaller hospitals with smaller budgets?
            This has become very personal for me. My son and daughter-in-law are both New Mexico healthcare workers on the front lines of this pandemic. He’s been working without a mask because the hospital didn’t have enough. Now he’s wearing a surgical mask, which he admits is still inadequate.
          She’s also been working without a mask, in a different facility. Management told her, “You don’t need a mask. You’ll be fine!” After she developed a cough and sore throat, she got tested and is now at home, but she notified the chain of command and human resources that she was sick from not wearing a mask. Now, she’s told, everybody’s wearing a mask.
            For months, we’ve seen Chinese and South Korean healthcare workers in full PPE (personal protective equipment), which covers them from head to toe. They’ve learned a lot about keeping their medical people healthy, and we should be paying attention.
            I was somewhat encouraged by the governor’s recent comments about supplies and testing. She said her administration is working to get PPE for healthcare workers, and she’s prodding the White House to make more available.
          “The state pre-ordered equipment and only got 25% of its allocation from the government,” she said.
          The U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, which manages the Strategic National Stockpile, has been dribbling out medical supplies based on population size and severity of outbreaks, but it’s holding back half its supplies in case there’s a bigger spike in demand.
          This is according to the independent, nonprofit news organization ProPublica, which also reports that the Trump administration’s efforts to obtain supplies have so far been confusing. After the vice president asked builders to donate N95 masks (the most effective) to hospitals and stop ordering more, the Associated General Contractors asked for more information but got no reply. Then HHS, for the White House, asked the group not to donate supplies to hospitals but instead report an inventory of available equipment.
           The White House asked the National Association of Manufacturers for companies to voluntarily donate or produce within two weeks large quantities of critical supplies. Experts say these requests are too small and too fragmented “by orders of magnitude.” The American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, and the American Nurses Association on Saturday asked the administration to use the Defense Production Act to order production of medical supplies and equipment. As of Sunday, there was no order.
          Our high-energy governor has thrown herself into this challenge. If there are supplies to be had, she’ll wrest them from the source, but at this point she will need to be a magician.
            Meanwhile, medical managers worry about how they will care for patients as care givers sicken. They sound like generals talking about troops in battle, and it is a battle. But keep in mind, every doctor, nurse, assistant, medical tech, and housekeeper is somebody’s mom or dad, somebody’s child.
          How is it that third-world countries can protect their healthcare workers but we can’t?

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     3/16/20
Coronavirus is not the flu: For everyone’s sake, do your part to limit the spread
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            A friend goes to the grocery store. She asks a fellow customer loading bags in his trunk, “Is it crazy in there?”
            “No,” he said. “The crazy people have already been there.”
            The store looked like the aftermath of a disaster. The produce aisle was largely empty, and so was the butcher case. Customers had been lining up in the dark before the store opened.
            An emergency doctor here tells me about a 30-ish woman arriving in an ambulance with no symptoms who wanted to be tested. He saw people wearing two masks – an N95 and a surgical mask – and told them they were just wasting masks.
            All of this behavior is our response to a generalized fear floating in the air like disease germs. I feel it myself. It’s driven by the weak, chaotic response to the virus by the federal government, by expanding knowledge about the virus itself, and by concerns about the capacity of hospitals, in New Mexico and elsewhere, to respond.
            State governments, including our own, are trying to compensate for the CDC’s bungling. The governor and her administration are in overdrive seeing to every last detail that’s within their scope of responsibilities. Teaming with Tricore Reference Laboratoriess to do testing was also a smart move.
            Information – credible information, I should say – has become more readily available on websites. For New Mexico information, see the state Health Department’s site (https://cv.nmhealth.org/).
          I’ve seen a lot of good reporting, especially by health reporters with previous experience covering epidemics. Pro Publica, a nonprofit news site, has even instructed journalists about what questions to ask and warned us to stop comparing coronavirus with the flu.
             “COVID-19 is deadlier than the flu. It’s deadlier for young adults. It’s deadlier for older adults. In China, early data shows that it was 10 times deadlier,” wrote Pro Publica’s Charles Ornstein.
          “If 1 in 12 people age 70-79 who get the virus and 1 in 7 people age 80 or older who get the virus die, and the virus spreads to 20%, 40% or 70% of the population, we’re talking massive death tolls, the likes of which we have never seen before in our lives.”
          That’s why medical people like the local ER doc talk about “flattening the curve,” or reducing the rate at which people get sick. And it’s why everybody from the governor on down advises us, pleads with us, to avoid crowds.
          We’ve learned a new bit of jargon: social distancing.
            How will this hit the healthcare system? Because of a bad flu season, hospitals here are still full. Every day somebody reports on available beds because we don’t have enough. If the curve doesn’t flatten, we will have no place to put new patients.
          Healthcare systems are also trying to anticipate how they will function if medical staffs sicken or are quarantined. And we don’t have enough ventilators.
          Some hospitals are expecting to set up tents in parking lots to keep ER waiting rooms from filling up with both the sick and what they call “the worried well” and overflowing into lobbies.
            These are the discussions going on in our big hospitals. Small, rural hospitals, with smaller staffs and fewer resources, will need help.
            Last week conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh said, “Coronaviruses are respiratory cold and flu viruses.” And what medical school did he attend?
            If you’re getting your health information from talk radio or political web sites, best of luck to you.
            We have to hunker down, but we don’t have to hunker down in fear. This is a time to face an unprecedented challenge with courage, creativity, and generosity. If you have crates of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, how about sharing with the local food bank?


© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      3/9/20
Rural communities score some wins and one big loss in the legislative session
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            Rural areas got some special attention at the Roundhouse this year. Besides the money legislators directed outward in new transportation and education budgets and capital outlay, several bills targeted the vast region outside the state’s largest cities.
            First, the good news.
          The governor signed SB 118, by Sen. George Muñoz, which creates the Rural Jobs Infrastructure LEDA program. The state Economic Development Department now has greater flexibility to invest in rural communities. The measure allows three types of projects – traditional LEDA projects that create economic-base jobs, retail projects in small communities (populations less than 15,000), and infrastructure work that creates shovel-ready sites.
            The governor also signed HB 42 to require insurance companies to reimburse certified pharmacist clinicians and other pharmacists with prescriptive authority when they provide prescriptive and clinical services. Because nearly all the state is medically underserved, pharmacists now have greater incentive to provide services that will make a difference to low-income and rural populations, said the bill’s supporters.
            Sometimes a defeated bill counts as a victory.
             The House Appropriations and Finance Committee shot down a bill that would have spiked the price of gasoline with a tax hike from 17 cents to 47 cents a gallon, phased in over several years. The goal was to reduce pollution and improve roads, but agriculture and business groups opposed the tax. Committee members said the tax would hit rural residents hardest, and some felt that with oil and gas revenues climbing a tax increase was inappropriate.
          In the past, lawmakers have tried to ever so gently ease the gas tax upward a few cents to pay for roads, arguing that the tax is one of the region’s lowest. Those efforts also failed.
            A worthy near miss was HB 163, yet another remedy for “hold harmless.” These two little words represent a world of hurt for some small towns.
          In 2004, legislators removed food and medicine from the gross receipt tax. Because this would come at a cost to local governments, the Legislature promised to hold cities and counties harmless by replacing their lost revenues. In 2013, lawmakers decided to phase out the hold harmless payments over 15 years, beginning in 2015. The smallest cities (populations below 10,000) weren’t subject to the phase-out.
          To compensate, the Legislature gave cities and counties authority to raise their local tax rates. Even though many cities increased their local taxes, they will still be behind the eight-ball when the hold-harmless payments end because of low tax revenues and higher than average poverty levels.
          This year, Rep. Candie Sweetser, D-Deming, carried HB 163 to help towns like her own that will be hardest hit. The New Mexico Finance Authority, with the support of the New Mexico Municipal League, proposed a fix that doesn’t involve tapping the General Fund. Instead, the sums local governments pay NMFA as the governmental gross receipts tax would be used to provide services in seven communities: Artesia, Deming, Gallup, Las Vegas, Portales, Sunland Park, and Española.
          The bill passed the House and died in the Senate Finance Committee.
            We haven’t heard the last of this. Hold harmless bills have been introduced every year since 2014. However, municipalities will be without their long-time warrior, Bill Fulginiti of the New Mexico Municipal League, who recently passed on after decades in the trenches.
            A second worthy bill also died in Senate Finance.
          HB 228 would have provided a tax credit to occupational and physical therapists who work in rural communities. Testimony for this bill revealed that in many areas, it’s as hard to find a PT or OT as it is a doctor.
          In all, it was a decent but not great year for rural areas.

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     3/2/20
Public needs reliable information on coronavirus, not rosy pictures and denial
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            As an emergency doctor in Gallup, Warner “Butch” Anderson saw the first Hantavirus patient in 1993. Even then, fear and misinformation joined to spawn a rumor that the mysterious sickness resulted from biological warfare experiments leaked from nearby Fort Wingate.
            The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigated. “They asked everyone the wrong questions,” Anderson said. “If they’d asked the medicine men, they would have tapped into a collective memory of people dying in the early 1930s of respiratory problems during an overpopulation of mice.”
          “There were similar rumors about SARS,” he said, and now, in the absence of reliable information about coronavirus, we have an “infodemic.”
           Anderson retired in 2014 as director of the International Health Division in the Department of Defense. This was after years of service in Special Forces as a soldier and physician. In deployments around the world (two to Iraq) he was involved in public health, disaster response, and emergency services.
          Now his phone rings with questions. He worries about the nonsense floating on the web.
            Anderson sees two levels of preparedness, national and personal.
            The government is charged with investigation, research, containment, and development of vaccines. From his experience at DOD, where he was assigned to create a new global health specialty, he talks about the importance of interagency coordination – to include not only the CDC, Health and Human Services, and State Department but with the military branches of allied nations.
            Anderson learned that looking out for ourselves means looking out for others.
          “The most important thing is to be prepared. It makes the response easier,” he said. “Countries with the worst economic situations are hit the hardest and have the least resilience.”
          With Ebola, for example, “we tried to go to the area where it was coming from and do something there rather than wait until it gets here.”
          The DOD has sophisticated labs around the world monitoring infectious disease threats to U. S. troops. “They train local people to do epidemiological surveillance. Our people would train their people,” he said. By taking care of their own, host countries could help us as well.
          “Part of defense is in-depth healthcare prevention. We defend the homeland by reaching out.”
          The Bush and Obama administrations actively defended against health threats, he said. “My opinion is we were better prepared two or three years ago.”
          According to Fortune magazine, the Trump administration in the past two years has largely dismantled agencies created to protect against pandemics. In 2018 alone the CDC slashed efforts to prevent global disease outbreak by 80%.
          “When healthcare funding is repurposed, we will sooner or later pay the price,” Anderson said.
          Then there’s government denial – first in China, then in Iran, and now here: “They’re afraid of a panic, so they minimize the problem. That doesn’t allow healthcare people to do their jobs.”
          While the president assures the public of speedy vaccines, Anderson, like others in his field, emphasizes that immunization is more than a year away. “We shouldn’t create expectations that we can’t fulfill,” he said. “We don’t want to paint a rosy picture, we want to paint a real picture.”
            Anderson advocates personal readiness. “The risk of getting coronavirus is very low, but the potential is there,” he said. “The risk of influenza is very high. If you do the things you need to do to prevent flu, you’ll be doing the things you need to do to prevent coronavirus.”
            Wearing a surgical mask won’t help, he said, but an N95 mask will, if you wear it correctly.
          He recommends the Department of Homeland Security and CDC websites for information.
          At this writing, the state epidemiologist has said no coronavirus cases have been identified in New Mexico, which doesn’t mean much. The stripped-down CDC hasn’t yet provided tests here.

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     2/24/20
Senators don’t want to be like the House 
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            Isolated moments in legislative sessions say a lot about how things work in the Roundhouse.
            On the final day of the 30-day session, Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, launched into a filibuster, something he’s known to do. Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, cut him off with a parliamentary maneuver to return floor discussion to a bill from the previous night’s debate.
            That particular bill was an effort to give the Secretary of State some changes she needed. But the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, had added verbiage at the last minute that complicated the bill to the point that nobody knew what was in it, something Ivey-Soto is known to do. They didn’t finish the debate that night.
            In a discussion of rules, Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, took the floor.
            “I’ve been here 36 years,” he said. “There’s a lot I’ve seen happen here, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this. This will turn the Senate into something that’s not going to be a great benefit to the people of New Mexico. This is something everyone will regret.”
            Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said, “This feels like the House. We used to take pride in trying to work together.”
            Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, observed, “I’ve seen some things happen this year I haven’t seen before. The decorum of the Senate is important. We need to step back from the emotion of the moment. If we dissolve into operating like the House, it’s not good for the people of New Mexico.”
            Wirth conceded they had a point and gave the floor back to the loquacious Sharer, who quickly wrapped up his filibuster.
            It wasn’t that long ago when both chambers were saying, we don’t want to be like Congress. This year, Congress came to the House. Now the Senate doesn’t want to be like the House.
            This year the House erupted in angry accusations any number of times, as Republicans hurled insults at Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe. The two biggest hotheads were Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, and Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, who are also two of the least experienced Republicans in the House.
            It was over the top, and it was unseemly.
            The bone of contention was debate time. Given the lopsided majority Democrats enjoy in the House, they can pass pretty much anything they want. So the question becomes, how do Republicans respond?
            In the Senate, the outnumbered Republicans maintain a spirited presence, say what they need to say, and sometimes find allies among moderate Dems. (The marijuana bill is one example.) Both sides value their cohesiveness.
          In the House, former Minority Leader Nate Gentry set an example by co-sponsoring high-profile bills with Democrats. This year and last, as I’ve written before, under Townsend’s brittle leadership, the Rs have decided to oppose everything, to throw themselves into every fight, drag the entire House into late-night sessions, and go down in a hail of words.
            The only weapon they have is the three-hour limit on debate, so every bill – large and small, important or not – turned into a three-hour debate. I use the word “debate” loosely. The dawdling was obvious. When Egolf tried to move things along, they buried him in abuse.
            Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, who is a veteran of many sessions, thinks House decorum is important. “The comments and accusations were off the chart,” she said “Brian usually keeps his cool. Some earlier speakers would just shut it down.”
            What does this mean to the public? A lot of good legislation – bills with bipartisan support, bills that would make a difference – died on the House floor.
            House Republicans have at least seven members with a lot more seniority than Townsend and Montoya. Where are their voices?

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       2/17/20
Spend some oil and gas money on state’s ailing reservoirs 
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
          One complaint you never hear is: We need more bureaucracy. But when it comes to repair and improvements of the state’s reservoirs and distribution systems, that’s exactly what we need. That and a whole lot of money.
          Last week, Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, presented his bill before the Senate Conservation Committee. SB 236 would appropriate $100 million in one-time money for statewide dam projects.
          We have long known the need is there. The State Engineer’s Dam Safety Bureau regulates 298 dams, and 150 are publicly owned. Of those, 69 are deficient and could take lives if they fail, according to legislative analysis. The cost to repair or rehabilitate them is more than $300 million.
          In November, The Associated Press announced that New Mexico leads the nation in the number of high-hazard dams at 97, or nearly 50 percent. Some are so old that nobody has design or construction information that would help evaluate them; others had inadequate spillways that wouldn’t withstand a historic storm. Many don’t have emergency action plans that would guide authorities in how to respond to a dam failure or alert downstream residents.
          A year earlier the state’s chief of the Dam Safety Bureau informed the State Engineer that a significant number of dams with the potential to cause loss of life have “some sort of deficiency,” and 12 dams pose an imminent threat
          Obviously, we have a public safety problem, but Campos pointed out some other pressing considerations. One is terrorism. Another is climate change. Even though a dam is safe, if its capacity is inadequate, it hinders our ability to cope with drier conditions. You might consider  adequate capacity and a sound distribution system as a form of economic development.
          “Quite a bit of work has been done to identify dams in need of repair or replacement,” Campos said, but construction costs will increase. “If we put this off, the cost continues to rise.”
          State Engineer John D’Antonio said the state can leverage its money with funding from the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers. With oil and gas revenues, he said, “it’s a good opportunity to act.”
           Nobody disagrees. But in some cases, it’s hard to know where to begin.
          Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said, “We don’t know who’s responsible for the dams.”
          Cervantes, an attorney, had a client who wanted to build near a dam but was forbidden because of the dam’s condition. He was willing to pay for the repair work, but they couldn’t identify the dam’s owner. “We couldn’t figure out who to talk to,” he said.
           He added that there are several large dams near his family’s farms, and it’s equally unclear who’s responsible. “We have to figure out who owns these things,” he said.
          D’Antonio explained that the state owns some dams and manages them through the Game and Fish Department, but most were built by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Services, and they’re managed by soil and water conservation districts.
           “Who owns them, the NRCS? Probably not,” he said.
          In some places, communities have grown out around the dams, which complicates the question of responsibility.
          D’Antonio told the committee that Albuquerque has a flood control authority. “Communities need to take control and put the mechanisms together,” he said.
           Asked if the state could efficiently spend that much money on dams, Campos said yes. Many plans are already in place. And in some cases, like Santa Cruz dam near Española, the projects have been ready for years.
          Legislators this year are doing a lot of one-time spending on roads and capital projects. They need to give dams the same priority.          

 © 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    2/3/20
Low-income furnace replacement fuels peculiar debate
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            Sometimes a bill comes through the Legislature that makes so much sense, it seems like a slam dunk.
            HB 48, by Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, is one of those bills. It would allow the state Mortgage Finance Authority to join New Mexico Gas Company in replacing old, inefficient furnaces for low-income people. The MFA would provide $2 million and the company $1 million to pay for about 1,250 furnaces.
            That wouldn’t cover everybody in need, but it would save people money on their natural gas bill and dramatically reduce emissions, explained Tom Domme, the company’s vice president of regulatory affairs.
            The new program would benefit poor people and the environment. It would also be good for the company and the industry. What’s not to like?
            You’d be surprised.
            The MFA already has a weatherization program and a strong relationship with Gas Company, said Rebecca Velarde, the MFA’s director of policy and planning, during a hearing before the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
          The average cost of a furnace is $2,400, Domme said. The company can only provide $800; the state would provide $1,600.
          In response to a question from Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, about who qualifies, Velarde said that for the weatherization program, participants must be below 80 percent of the median income in their area.
          Scott asked what the estimated savings would be for a 1,500-square-foot house, and Velarde said it’s usually a few hundred dollars a year.
          Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, asked, “What if people prefer a wood stove?” The proposed program doesn’t cover wood stoves, Domme said. “We find that natural gas customers want to replace with natural gas.”
          Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, asked if the appropriation is for recurring money. Alcon said it depends on this year’s budget. It can be one-time or recurring appropriation.
          Then Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, dug in. Many areas of the state lack a natural gas distribution system, he said. Could the program be used for propane? No, Domme said. “It’s strictly natural gas.”
          Said Townsend, “It’s taxpayer money.” He recalled that Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, once said that 16% of her constituents don’t have electricity, running water or natural gas. “Shouldn’t the MFA be directing money to that?”
          The MFA is self-supporting. It’s the state’s housing agency and provides financing for affordable housing, rehabilitates and weatherizes old homes, offers emergency shelter, and administers rental assistance and subsidies.
          At this point in the hearing a strange thing happened. Two Democrats tried to explain to Townsend, who is House Minority Floor Leader, how this MFA-Gas Company partnership would work.   
          “All we’re asking is to stretch out Gas Company money,” said Alcon. “A lot of people in my district have wood stoves. We can’t cover that at this time.”
          Alcon’s district includes the Navajo and Zuni reservations. He knows about wood heat. He also chairs the Legislature’s MFA Oversight Committee, which has spent months hearing about existing and proposed programs for low-income people. HB 48 is the committee’s bill, which means it’s been vetted.
          Townsend wasn’t giving up. “If you’re really out to help low-income people, it would do more good to replace wood stoves than to increase furnace efficiency.”
          Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe and a member of the MFA Oversight Committee, jumped in: “This is predicated on the energy company’s participation. It’s a way for energy companies to come to the table. New Mexico Gas Company came to the table with this.”
          That should have resonated with Townsend, who spent his career with Holly Energy Co., but no. “It’s taxpayer money,” he said again. “I just hate to leave people out.”
          By that reasoning, if Gas Company’s offer can’t be made to fit everybody, then nobody should be helped.
          Fortunately, Townsend was alone in his vote against the bill.

           © 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    1/27/20
Stop arguing over who picks up the pension tab and split the bill
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            Fixing the public employee pension funds is a recurring headache and a minefield for legislators. In a nutshell, employers (state and local governments) and employees don’t pay enough into the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA) fund to assure that it can meet its obligations to future retirees.
          It always boils down to who pays – government (taxpayers) or workers (firefighters, police officers, judges, and state and local employees). In previous debates, Republicans wanted workers to pay, and Democrats wanted government to pay.
            This year the governor’s Pension Solvency Task Force offered its solutions, which became SB 72 in the current legislative session. The idea was the spread the pain, said Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, who carries the bill. A scarred veteran of pension reform, Munoz chaired the interim Investments and Pensions Oversight Committee.
          So far, most of the parties are on board, namely the organizations and unions representing local governments, state workers, fire fighters and police.
          But not the Retired Public Employees of New Mexico. It’s not hard to understand that retirees on modest fixed incomes will fear any changes in their benefits, especially the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). It could affect their ability to meet rising healthcare costs and other expenses.
          The 91-page SB 72 is a complicated, ambitious bill. Its goal is to eliminate the PERA’s unfunded liability within 25 years.
           It does this by temporarily reducing the COLA and then basing it on profit sharing, which might range from 0.5 and 3% rather than the accustomed yearly 2% increase. To ease the temporary COLA reduction, retirees would receive 2% of their pension in a lump sum for three years, paid for by $76 million from the state. Lawmakers would have to approve the appropriation. It would phase in higher contributions from working members but delay increases for local government employees for two years.
            The task force tried hard to protect the oldest and most vulnerable retirees. Those who are over 75, disabled, or receive less than $25,000 a year with 25 years of service, would be exempt from changes and receive a 0.5 percent COLA increase.
            Incredibly, the Retired Public Employees’ executive director, Miguel Gomez, told the New Mexican recently: “It’s not necessary for this fund to be 100 percent funded. We think there should be no pension reform right now at all.”
            A few lawmakers also worry about the burden on retirees, but they should look at the shared burden. Currently, employees provide 12% of contributions, and employers (local and state government) provide 14.88%. The shortfall is 6.51%, according to the PERA.
            Moody’s Investors Services has downgraded the state’s credit rating twice in the last two years; in June 2018 the rating agency cited the condition of the state’s two public pension funds. As recently as June and despite the spike in oil and gas revenues, Moody’s declined to upgrade the state’s rating.
            These credit ratings decide what the state will pay to borrow money for public projects and other needs. A downgrade means higher costs.
            How does it serve employees and retirees to let the PERA fund continue its downward slide? How does it serve citizens and taxpayers?
            Munoz led a 2012 pension reform. In the 2013 session, he talked about shared sacrifice as he defended a bill that also adjusted the COLA and employer-employee contributions. Retirees made the same arguments. That bill passed and helped the system, but it wasn’t enough.
            Munoz has a better grasp of pensions than most in the Roundhouse. He sees the short term but what worries him is the long term. For two years in a row, he’s warned that in another recession, the pension funds would be unrecoverable. Lawmakers need to take the long view.

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     1/20/20
Two governors, two sessions, two approaches
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            Starting this week, the second legislative session of the current governor bears some resemblance to the second session of the previous governor.
            In both cases, the winners entered with what they considered mandates and immediately launched their priorities.
          For former Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, that included driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, teacher evaluations, school grading, more standardized testing of students, and a cap on film incentives.
          For Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, it includes education reform, early childhood programs, marijuana legalization, red-flag gun laws, and pension reform.
          While legislative leaders, all Dems, complained in 2012 that Martinez had so much on her to-do list for a 30-day session that they feared an unproductive logjam, nobody’s complaining about Lujan Grisham’s equally long list because this year, they all have the same to-do list.
          Martinez’s hot button issue was getting rid of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. I wrote at the time that, while it was an issue, it was a minor issue, and New Mexico, wallowing in the Great Recession, had pressing problems. It was also terribly divisive. Martinez burned a lot of legislative time and her own political capital fighting over driver’s licenses.
          This session, the red-flag law may be the hot button issue for Lujan Grisham. It would allow the courts to issue extreme-risk protection orders so that police could take firearms away temporarily from people who might hurt themselves or others.
           This hits you where you live. If you live in Albuquerque, torn by gun violence, and other big cities, the red-flag law is an urgent need. If your community isn’t a scene of regular gun violence, it’s not. The bill is carried by Albuquerque and Las Cruces legislators, and it’s a priority for the governor, who was a Bernalillo County Commissioner.
          Then we have our county sheriffs, who said they would refuse to enforce the new gun laws. I have a lot of respect for rural law enforcement, the men and women who often work in remote areas and form the thin line between civilization and lawlessness. But I don’t understand how people who are sworn to enforce the law can simply say they won’t enforce a particular law. This law would protect them as well.
          We need to see some compromise here. The governor, who prides herself on talking to all sides, hasn’t budged on this proposal. And Cibola County’s Sheriff Tony Mace, who heads the New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association, should understand that being a leader is more than being a tough guy.
          Another big item in 2012 and this year is transportation.
          Martinez attacked pet pork projects and called for statewide or regional projects. That’s well and good, and legislators do join for bigger projects, but if your county roads are falling apart and the county depends on the state for funding, that doesn’t work.
          Last year the Legislature created a fund for local transportation-related projects. This year there’s a bill to create a trust fund to pay for a variety of projects. Two of the sponsors are Reps. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, and Sen. Bobby Gonzales, D-Taos. They tried for years to get road funding, usually from small increases in the gasoline tax, but bills didn’t survive the Martinez vetoes.
          Gonzales, newly appointed to the Senate, was for years chair of the House Transportation Committee. He’s been a tireless advocate of road funding. Lundstrom chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, so the two have the knowledge and the means. In a year when Republicans are reminding lawmakers to spend and save wisely, the trust fund idea is both. The bill provides steady funding for transportation, but a provision allows the Legislature to tap the fund in down years.
          Old hands at the Roundhouse will find that the faces may change but the issues and dynamics remain the same.

   © 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     1/13/20
Research sheds light on impacts, perceptions of raising teacher pay
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            Lawmakers and the governor want to give teachers another raise.
            The Legislative Finance Committee has proposed a 3% pay raise for teachers and school personnel and more for bilingual and special education teachers. The governor proposed 4% increases for teachers.
            Recently, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, called for a whopping 10% hike.
            Last year, teachers and school administrators got 6% pay raises. That brought the three tiers to $40,000, $50,000, and $60,000 for fiscal 2020. The House Education Committee wanted $46,000, $56,000, and $66,000 but compromised in hopes of raising salaries this year.
            Reformers say too much money went toward teacher salaries and not enough into programs that meet demands of the Yazzie-Martinez education lawsuit for more attention to at-risk students.
            Still, one of the stumbling blocks in improving those programs is attracting qualified teachers, especially faced with high teacher vacancies around the state.
            Research shines a light on several aspects of teacher compensation. Rewards can pay dividends for schools and students, and the way it's done makes a difference. Here are findings of studies in the last 10 years:

  • Schools used higher salaries to attract teachers with the best qualifications.
  • When teacher salaries are more attractive, college students with high test scores gravitate to education courses.
  • Pay raises improved teacher retention, but the biggest impact was on less experienced teachers while the impact was weaker on experienced teachers.

          Having teachers with strong skills translated into improved performance by students, and the presence of highly skilled teacher was primarily a result of better pay.
            Then there's the debate, here and in other states, over how to reward teachers. Districts usually base salaries on longevity and education level, but some argue that this lumps good teachers in with mediocre teachers. However, attempts here by the last administration to give bonuses to good teachers ran into flak from teachers who say it's easier to look good if you're in a middle-class or affluent school where the students have every advantage. The unions have backed teachers up.
            In 2011 a landmark law in Wisconsin limited the influence of teacher unions and allowed districts to change their pay schedules. Where districts abandoned seniority pay schedules and raised pay for their most effective teachers through "flexible pay" schedules, teachers increased their classroom efforts and test scores improved. Effective teachers left schools with seniority pay schedules and migrated to schools with flexible pay. This is according to the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2019.
            Another piece of this debate is the reward itself. A 2017 study at Vanderbilt University found that bonuses, gifts and salary increases were linked to modestly improved test scores, and group incentives were more effective than individual incentives.
            A 2018 study showed that short-term bonuses and college loan forgiveness programs helped retain teachers in jobs that were difficult to fill, and direct payments to teachers were more cost effective than loan forgiveness.
            The governor and lawmakers will have to sell teacher raises to constituents, and one study produced a mixed result.
            Although most people sympathize with teachers, two polls last year found that Americans who thought teachers were poorly paid weren't always well informed about what teachers really make. When people had current salary information for local teachers, they were less likely to support higher salaries, according to a survey for Education Next magazine. Most Americans, the study said, believe teachers earn a lot less than they actually do.
            Many New Mexicans would consider a salary of $40,000 to $60,000 pretty darn good. And yet we can't ignore the positive impact of raises on teacher recruiting and the mandate of the lawsuit. Legislators will have to find the balance.


© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    1/6/20
Secretaries of State must protect a voting system that’s under attack
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            For secretaries of state, the good old days were when the biggest priority was accurately counting votes. That’s still a priority, but so are cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns, bots, and phishing scams.
          “Election security is like running a marathon without a finish line. You solve one problem, another pops up,” said Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver during a recent talk to New Mexico Press Women.
          Toulouse Oliver is leading a national voter education campaign, #Trusted Information 2020, as president-elect of the National Association of Secretaries of State.
          The bipartisan initiative is intended to counter persistent sources of bad information by driving voters with questions to their election officials.
            Election integrity has two technical aspects, she explained. One is making sure voters can freely cast their ballots, and the second is protections against hacking. “We have nations attacking our system,” she said.
          Toulouse Oliver herself got a phishing email and reported it to the Department of Homeland Security. “It was of Russian origin. We definitely expect those, and we’re trained to deal with it. We’re also bracing for ransomware.”
          She said the federal government should do more, but she gives DHS credit for performing risk and vulnerability assessments. “DHS is working very hard,” she said. “DHS has been an amazing partner with us.”
          Election integrity is under attack from a third direction.
          “The biggest thing I’m concerned about is disinfomation attacks,” she said. “People get information from the internet. Often the Russians are putting out misinformation, plus bots and groups. They’re attempting to sow and foster discord. It’s not just hardware being targeted but our hearts and minds.”
          These are the texts and emails that misinform people about voting sites and dates, that distort candidates’ records and comments, that allege voter fraud when there is none.
           “Be really vigilant about what you’re consuming. Be careful about what you forward. Make sure it’s from a trusted source,” she said.
          The New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office is on most social media platforms, and legislators gave it a budget for voter education.
          Regarding voter fraud and voting irregularities, we have less to worry about here than most states.
          “Here in New Mexico we do have one of the best systems in the U. S. We were forward thinking. In 2006 the Legislature passed a law requiring paper ballots. Some saw this as a step backward, but now, regardless of what happens, we have a paper ballot to fall back on.”
          The trusty paper ballot can be used in post-election audits, spot checks, and for full recounts by hand. And when results are close, they can be recounted.
          “We’re really high on lists of voting integrity,” she said.
          To give credit where credit is due, it was former Gov. Bill Richardson who pushed for paper ballots, with support from then Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil Giron. After problems with the 2000 elections nationwide (remember hanging chads?), Richardson saw it as a way to restore confidence in the system. At the time 13 counties were already using the proposed paper system. County clerks weren’t opposed but wanted time to phase in the new systems and train employees.
          Republicans objected that it was a handout to the one company whose machines could process the ballots. A Clovis legislator asked why they were going back to the horse and buggy. The bill passed on party-line votes.
          The newest wrinkle is ranked-choice voting, which is now reality in Las Cruces and Santa Fe. “It’s just a different way of thinking about voting,” she said. With every change, voting officials have to think about cost, voter fatigue, and wear and tear on staff. The goal is always accessibility. It’s a job that’s never done.