Merilee Dannemann 

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       11-9-20
Why we care about regulations
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
Every week or so, most likely, you engage in an action that demonstrates how much you count on government. So do millions of Americans. You probably don’t even think about it.
You drive your car to a gas station, insert a hose into the opening of your gas tank and turn on a pump. You never see, smell, taste or otherwise examine what's being poured into your tank. You trust it will be gasoline, it will be approximately the correct quality as advertised, and the amount pumped will be approximately what the meter said it was. You assume without hesitation that it will not turn out to be something completely different that could blow up your car, destroy your engine or kill you.
You have that confidence because an agency of government is inspecting the gasoline.
In New Mexico, gasoline is inspected by the Standards and Consumer Service Division of the state’s Department of Agriculture.  A few times a year, at random, gasoline from almost every gas station in New Mexico is sampled and analyzed at the department’s petroleum laboratory.
Pump fuel delivery – the accuracy of the amount of fuel you’re getting -- is measured a little less often.
The Department of Agriculture has responsibility for inspecting and maintaining standards of a variety of things. Some, but not all, are related to food safety, such as dairy, eggs and beekeepers. The department regulates sanitation not only for milk but also for the tankers in which milk is hauled and the water used to clean the tankers, to prevent bacterial contamination. The rules require the tankers to be cleaned and sanitized a minimum of every 72 hours.
As with gasoline, you take for granted the safety of the milk your family drinks.
The tanks that hold your gasoline are inspected and regulated by the state Environment Department, for a different purpose: preventing underground leaks or spills.
You might say you have put your trust not in government but in the companies that produce and sell the products. That’s a reasonable assumption, but I don’t agree with it. Enforced regulations keep businesses honest and protect honest business people from unscrupulous competition.
I’ve observed over the years that reasonable regulations attract reasonable people to industries. But when regulations are lax or are dropped or not enforced, that is when less honest individuals may invade those industries and take advantage.
For example, when the previously conservative banking industry was deregulated around the year 2000, it unleashed the imaginations of a new generation of unscrupulous bankers. They invented new forms of risky mortgages and new ways of packaging those mortgages as investments. In the short term they were so successful that most of the industry followed suit. But those practices led to the Great Recession of 2008 and a few million Americans losing their homes.
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan had famously stated that he believed the banking industry could regulate itself through an enlightened understanding of its own self-interest. Several years later he publicly apologized to Congress for that mistake.
Regulatory and inspection processes are operating in the background without fanfare, from the labeling of authentic New Mexico green chile to the safety of wiring in our homes. The public can and should call regulators to account for regulations that are excessive, overzealous or unreasonably burdensome, as I have done occasionally with respect to my favorite topic, workers' compensation. And we can argue – civilly -- about what’s reasonable and how much protection is too much.
I am occasionally chastised by my colleagues for writing about subjects that are not today’s most exciting news. I’m writing about this subject now, though it’s not “big news” this week, because we are going through the aftermath of the most heart wrenching election of our lifetime, and it’s worth taking a moment to notice some of the essential services this process of governing is aimed at preserving.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

Voters, here’s what you may not know
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
If you are voting by mail, on the outer envelope of your ballot packet there’s a bar code. That bar code is one way New Mexico protects the integrity of elections.
The code is unique to you. After you’ve mailed your ballot, the code will be scanned by every post office the envelope goes through and at your county clerk’s office. If the ballot gets misrouted, officials will be able to get it back on track.
This system, called intelligent barcode, was originally a collaboration between the Postal Service and Netflix, the movie service. Netflix used to do all its business by mailing DVDs to customers. When the intelligent barcode indicated that the customer’s return movie was in the mail, Netflix would mail out the customer’s next order, providing very fast service.
I learned this fascinating bit of technology from a webinar presented by Daniel Ivey-Soto on behalf of Common Cause, a national nonpartisan organization that focuses on fair elections. Ivey-Soto, a state senator, is one of New Mexico’s top experts on election procedure.  He presented this seminar in his private capacity from a nonpartisan perspective.
Almost all voting locations, both early and Election Day, are networked within a county. If a ballot is in the mail, or if the voter has already voted in person, election workers will see that information and prevent duplicate voting.
On the other hand, our voting machines are not connected to the Internet. So they cannot be tampered with online.
A few election procedures were passed in the special legislative session in June, just for this year, in response to the pandemic.
One such procedure is the adjustment of dates.
The last day a voter could request a mail-in ballot was October 20.
If the ballot was requested and mailed on October 20, and there is any delay in the mail, it should still have arrived by October 27. If the voter returns it promptly, there is a week to get it delivered. Mailed ballots must be received by the county clerk by 7 p.m. on Nov. 3.
New Mexico is one of only five states that received a guarantee from the Postal Service that mailed ballots can be delivered on time. So if you have an absentee ballot and have not yet filled it out and mailed it, I suggest you put down this newspaper and do it now!
On a mailed ballot, you must provide your signature and, specific to this election, the last four digits of your Social Security number. This is to provide an identifier that is unique to you and that is on record but that others are not likely to know.
New Mexico officials do not compare your signature with previous records. This is because your recorded signature may have been signed years ago and your handwriting may have changed. I know mine has! My hands are getting older, and I barely remember what my signature used to look like.
If you vote in person, you may find a few people at the polling place who are legally entitled to be there, who are not official election workers.
A “challenger” is a person officially designated by a political party, who has the right to challenge any questionable vote. Challengers are required to wear identification badges.  Challenged votes may be submitted as “provisional” ballots, to be evaluated later.
A “watcher” may be appointed by any three candidates or by a registered election-related nonpartisan organization. Watchers can observe and make notes but cannot challenge.
Anyone whose behavior is abusive, including watchers and challengers, may be removed from the premises by the presiding judge. And there is no right for anyone to self-appoint as an observer at the polling place. So if anyone bothers or heckles you, tell the election judge.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    10-12-20
Another constitutional amendment about the PRC
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
Hang on, voters. We have to deal with the Public Regulation Commission again – with yet another constitutional amendment on the election ballot.
The PRC is the bane of New Mexico’s government. In addition to being lousy at its regulatory job, it has been a source of scandal since it was created.
The PRC concentrates enormous regulatory power in one agency led by five elected commissioners, independent of the governor. It’s almost as if we had two executive branches with different sets of powers.
The PRC regulates public utilities such as electric and natural gas. It also has a hodgepodge of regulatory powers for diverse areas including towing companies, ambulances, limousines, and taxis; intrastate motor carrier registration; moving companies; telephone companies; and one that especially concerns me, pipeline safety.
It was created in 1996, by a state constitutional amendment that was passed without enough scrutiny. Two already powerful agencies were, for confusing reasons, combined. One was the governor-appointed Public Utility Commission. The other was the elected State Corporation Commission, some of whose members could fairly be described as shamelessly corrupt. A lot of New Mexicans, including me, might have voted for anything that would abolish the Corporation Commission.
Commissioners were originally not required to have expertise in the areas they would regulate. Their decisions have frequently been overruled by the courts, largely, it is said, because some commissioners didn’t know the law. Recently a weak and unenforceable requirement for qualifications was added to the law.
The original PRC was much more powerful than it is today. Several former divisions have been lopped off by a series of constitutional amendments, to which I say thank goodness -- especially the Insurance Division (now the independent Office of the Superintendent of Insurance), which desperately needed to be freed from the PRC’s political influence. 
Under legislation passed this year, the PRC will lose the State Fire Marshal’s office, which will move to the state Department of Homeland Security. There is ongoing pressure to transfer authority for broadband to anyplace else.
Two seats are up for election this year. New legislation requires candidates to file an affidavit with the Secretary of State certifying their professional qualifications. However, it’s not clear how voters can look at that information.
The proposed constitutional amendment asks whether you approve tossing out the elected body entirely and replacing it with a three-member commission appointed by the governor, “from a list of professionally qualified nominees submitted to the governor by a nominating committee” and required to be bipartisan.
The nonprofit policy organization Think New Mexico has been behind several previous initiatives but has taken no public position on this amendment. Readers interested in the lengthy and sordid history of the PRC and its predecessors can find it in a booklet published by Think New Mexico in 2011, available on its website.
Like many New Mexicans, I’m frustrated with the ongoing antics of the PRC and would like a change.
It appears the proposed constitutional amendment offers a better option. Under the amendment, starting in 2023, the PRC would be stripped of all those miscellaneous functions and be limited to utility regulation. While the governor would have the power to appoint the commissioners, candidates would have to be professionally qualified and picked from a list created by a bipartisan committee.
The commission itself would have to be bipartisan, with only three commissioners.
Theoretically, the virtue of an elected commission is that it spreads power out, limiting the amount of power that is concentrated in the person of the governor. But I’m afraid we have to acknowledge that in the case of this commission, the voters have done less than an adequate job.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     9-28-20
We support the police -- mostly
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
Here is my scary police story.
I was driving about an hour after dark, northbound on Rio Grande Blvd. in the section of Albuquerque known as Los Ranchos, which has its own local government and police force. This was about 15 years ago, before it was common to have GPS.
Rio Grande is a long and winding street that becomes semirural, with very few streetlights and few intersections that connect to the rest of the city.
The street signs were small and hard to read. I was driving slowly, trying to see my intersection.
A car came up behind me, tailgating with bright lights so I couldn’t read the street signs. I was frustrated and scared, trying to find my turnoff. I had to speed up a little bit to separate from this car.
Suddenly the car darted in front of me and then stopped. It was a police car. The officer walked to my car and told me I had been speeding – a few miles over the required 30 mph. I don’t remember what I said, but I was frightened and did not have my wits about me. The officer let me go after warning me to stay out of Los Ranchos.
There was nothing threatening about me that could have led a police officer to suspect my motives. I was a middle-aged Anglo woman, sober, driving an ordinary car.
I probably had a cell phone but not within reach. Since then, whenever I drive alone after dark, my cell phone and GPS are right next to me.
A few days later a friend advised me to call the village offices and complain about that officer’s behavior, but I never did.
Now when I hear African-Americans’ stories about the police, I have a bit of understanding. But I admit I cannot walk in the shoes of African-Americans, who routinely have to teach their children complex rules of etiquette for encounters with police, especially when driving, just to prevent getting shot.
If we want a more just and less fearful society, it’s only reasonable that we invest resources to curb the excesses of overly aggressive police officers.
Someone recently created the phrase “defund the police.” This is very unfortunate because it is so easy to distort the intent, and because it was predictable that Republican politicians would attach the phrase to Democratic politicians who never endorsed it and don’t agree with it.
There’s no denying that problems exist with police forces in New Mexico. We can say this without jumping to conclusions about fault or blame. New Mexico has placed highest or second highest in the nation for our rate of police shootings in each of the last four years. Something is not working. We have too much crime, too much mental illness, too many drug and alcohol problems, and too many police officers who lack access to more peaceful alternatives.
A recent Albuquerque Journal poll shows that a solid majority of New Mexicans support their police and do not approve of cutting police funding. The survey itself was restricted to “either/or” questions, but pollster Brian Sanderoff commented that voters’ feelings were probably more nuanced.
I probably would have been counted in the group of voters with mixed feelings. I absolutely support the police and want them to be able to do their jobs of protecting the public. I would also favor more training in nonviolent techniques, more support services such as on-call mental health counselors, and other measures to reduce the need for violent responses, plus, of course, less crime. That’s asking a lot, and I know, because of virus and budget issues, it can’t all happen right away.
New Mexico is eternally a work in progress. Our task is to acknowledge our imperfections and keep chipping away at them – including officers who scare drivers after dark.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

Small business can get help getting help
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
If I were a small business owner right now, I’d be nervous, to say the least. Maybe terrified. Maybe feeling, as the saying goes, like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
Small business is risky in any circumstance, but especially nerve-racking during this period when the business atmosphere is so unpredictable.
This may be a good time to remind the small business community that there are people and organizations devoted to helping them. When I spoke to one of those people, I was surprised to learn that her biggest concern was making sure that business owners know these services are available and where to find them. Too many, she said, don’t.
This person was Samantha Lapin, the retired former owner of a successful New Mexico small business. Lapin is now a volunteer with SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, and was recently named chair of the Albuquerque chapter.
I had asked for her help in explaining the myriad of confusing loans, grants and other forms of help that have been offered over the past few months. Instead of explaining them one by one, she suggested that business owners should take advantage of programs like SCORE and get help in finding what might work for them.
SCORE and similar organizations are holding their activities exclusively online these days, so geography is not a limitation. As long as they have internet access, business owners from anywhere in New Mexico have equal access.
SCORE’s greatest feature is one-on-one mentorship. A small business owner who needs help and contacts SCORE can be matched with a mentor who will provide a personal relationship. If necessary, due to a specialized industry or other considerations, the mentor could be anywhere in the country.
SCORE also provides trainings. In the early months of the pandemic, trainings on the grant and loan programs were two a day, six days a week. Currently they are slowed down because some government programs are no longer offering new loans or grants. One common concern now, Lapin says, is that small businesses want help making sure they follow the guidelines so that their loans will be forgiven.
SCORE is sponsored by the U. S. Small Business Administration. The mentors and trainers, as the name suggests, are retired business owners and executives.
There are only three SCORE offices in New Mexico: Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Las Cruces. As I said, location doesn’t matter when services are virtual.
Closer to home are New Mexico’s Small Business Development Centers: Alamogordo, Albuquerque, Carlsbad, Clovis, Española, Farmington, Gallup, Grants, Hobbs, Las Cruces, Las Vegas, Los Alamos, Los Lunas, Roswell, Santa Fe, Silver City, Taos and Tucumcari, all affiliated with community colleges. They also provide training and counseling to small and new businesses, including guidance on where to look for financial assistance.
New Mexico also has a few nonprofits devoted to lending to new and small businesses, such as WESST, The Loan Fund, and DreamSpring, formerly called Accion. All provide slightly different services, including help with finances. A small business owner who connects to any one of these organizations will find help getting linked to all the others.
Lapin thinks we may be seeing an upsurge of new businesses, as formerly employed workers find their old jobs are no longer available and decide to fulfill their entrepreneurial dream, perhaps turning a hobby into a business. Lapin reminds us that your special skill -- cooking, woodworking or whatever -- is not enough to enable you to succeed in business. To succeed, entrepreneurs have to deal with finance, marketing, organization, information technology -- and the set of issues everyone would rather ignore, regulations. Businesses that are surviving this extraordinarily difficult period are those that can be creative and adaptable, Lapin said.
It’s a tough time and small business can be a lonely undertaking, but Lapin reminds you, you don’t have to be alone.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    8-31-20
New Mexico is a leader in rapid response to virus at workplaces
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
If somebody at your workplace gets infected with COVID-19, you’re going to get some help from the state pretty quickly.
The initial contact is the state’s Occupational Health and Safety Bureau, commonly called OSHA after its national counterpart.
New Mexico is a national leader in responding to COVID-19 in workplaces. That is probably because the state’s OSHA is a bureau of the state, not the federal government. New Mexico long ago exercised the option to set up its own bureau. As a result, our bureau, which is in the Environment Department, has the flexibility to exceed national standards and practices.
That’s what we’re doing.
If COVID-19 shows up in your workplace, the emergency rule requires management to notify OSHA within four hours.
The state will respond with guidance on what to do next and will initiate contact tracing to prevent further spread of the highly contagious virus.
Bob Genoway, OSHA bureau chief, thinks New Mexico was the first state to initiate this kind of rule in response to the pandemic. The rule was designed to prevent spread by isolating those with known infections, quarantining those with close contact and disinfecting workplaces using EPA-recognized practices and products.
In early August the state initiated the four-hour rule so that contact tracing could begin almost immediately. OSHA will advise employers so they know what to do. The notification of the infection will be passed to the Health Department for contact tracing, or, when appropriate, another department, such as Aging and Long-term Services for retirement and nursing homes.
 The email address to report a workplace case is If you are unable to email, phone 505-476-8700 or fax 505-476-8734. For details, go to the Environment Department website and look for Emergency Rule FAQs.
Behind the scenes, New Mexico is seeing a high level of coordination among agencies -- something our state government is normally not good at. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Sandra Ely, Environmental Protection Division Director.
Breanna Henley, Special Projects Manager at Department of Health, said she thinks the groundwork was laid by the Behavioral Health Collaborative, an interagency initiative to coordinate behavioral health resources. Relationships were established that rolled over into the COVID-19 response.
This is a very positive development for New Mexico state government. For years I have been noting the lack of coordination among state agencies. I’m hoping this extraordinary degree of collaboration continues beyond the current emergency.
According to the Environment Department’s website, there have been 1,649 rapid responses from May to August 16, including 272 between August 10 and August 16.
Of those responses, the three highest categories were 16.7% in healthcare, 13.7% in nonfood retail and wholesale, and 13.3% in restaurants. By contrast, food and beverage stores were only 3%. The relatively high numbers for restaurants unfortunately show why we have continuing restrictions on restaurants.
I asked these officials what they are advising business owners to do. Sadly, they are saying the same things we have already heard over and over again.
A great frustration about this pandemic is that there are only so many things that can be done. You have heard them all. Curing the disease is not one of them because nobody knows how.
We can isolate the sick person – which, bluntly, is terrifying if you are that sick person.
We can contact trace and quarantine others who have been exposed. We can deep clean. We can practice social distancing consistently and wear masks in public. But we cannot cure anybody.
Listening to Bob Genoway and the others I spoke to, I felt – as I have many times -- the frustration of hearing that same limited list. For now, that’s all we can do in hopes of getting rid of this horrible thing.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

Nursing homes in some areas open cautiously to visitation
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
My friend’s husband, who has dementia, has been in a memory care facility for several months. She’s been writing a blog, anonymously, for a couple of years (“The Remembery Chronicles”), so I’ve been observing the experience at close range.
It’s heartbreaking every day.
He has ups and downs, but the direction is mostly down. There seems to be a pattern: every time his mental awareness declines a little bit, his physical abilities decline also. It’s a vicious cycle.
He is losing control of simple actions like lifting a spoon or fork to his mouth, maybe because he may not be aware at a particular moment that there’s any reason to do it. He has a problem with balance and he might be able to walk with a walker, but has fallen a few times so he’s in a wheelchair. The part of the mind that is kept active by the simple act of walking is not being used.
He’s not talking much, either, and that may be at least partly because his family has only been allowed to visit him through a window. This facility, like most other long-term care homes in the state, has been completely free of COVID 19, but at great personal cost to the residents and their families. According to my friend, the nursing staff  is heroic in their efforts to keep the residents upbeat and stimulated, but it’s still not the same.
So the news that in-person family visiting to nursing homes will be allowed for more than half the counties in New Mexico is big news for the affected families.
The new rules are still restrictive. Visits will be allowed only in facilities that have no cases, and the visiting family member must be healthy.
Visits, preferably outdoors, must be scheduled by appointment. Residents and visitors will be separated by Plexiglas shields. They must be 6 feet apart, or 12 feet if one of them is unable to wear a mask. The rule specifies one visit per month, which to me still doesn’t sound like nearly enough, but maybe it’s as much as the facilities can handle.
The decision regarding which counties qualify for the more lenient rules was based on virus transmission rates. Qualifying were counties with less than 5% test positivity and fewer than 10 average daily cases per 100,000 residents. The list of eligible counties may change as the case results and percentages change.
As of the announcement date, De Baca remained the only county with zero reported cases. Several counties were close to zero: Guadalupe, Harding, Hidalgo, Los Alamos, Quay, Socorro and Torrance.
Other counties eligible for these visits included Bernalillo, Colfax, Grant, McKinley, Sandoval, Santa Fe, San Juan, San Miguel, Taos and Valencia. That includes northwestern New Mexico counties that were hard-hit a few weeks ago and that have observed strict lockdown procedures.
The original list does not include Chaves, Cibola, Curry, Doña Ana, Eddy, or Lea. The main cities in those counties are Roswell, Grants, Clovis, Las Cruces, Carlsbad, and Hobbs.
It’s frustrating that residents of some parts of New Mexico, notably the southeast, seem to think their region is somehow different so that they can make up their own rules about protecting each other from the virus. It’s especially disappointing since their numbers were so low earlier in this pandemic and recently are rising.
Southeastern New Mexico certainly has its own character and culture. So does every other region. Southeastern New Mexico is no more unique than, for example, the Navajo communities of the northwest that are beginning to get the virus under control. The way the virus spreads, and public health rules for controlling it, are the same everywhere.
Maybe the thought of being able to visit their isolated loved ones will be an incentive for some southeasterners to get that message.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through 

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     8-3-20
Becoming hotter makes it drier
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
New Mexico is three degrees hotter than it was half a century ago. That is established fact. It’s probably going to continue to get warmer and drier, but that is prediction based on probability and could change.
Three degrees doesn’t sound like much to me, but the difference it makes in the climate is profound, in part because of the relationship between temperature and water.
This is described in an article in “New Mexico Earth Matters,” published quarterly by New Mexico Tech. The author is David Gutzler, professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UNM.
The author calls this current warming trend a new climatic phenomenon. “In the past,” Gutzler writes, “people in the Southwest learned to respond to climate fluctuations – sometimes, with no other choice, by moving. Now, however, humans are an intrinsic component of the climate system itself.”
Both temperature and precipitation vary from year to year, but temperature has been creeping up. Average annual precipitation has stayed about the same. What’s different is timing: when it rains or snows and when the snow melts.
The Rio Grande relies heavily on snowmelt from the northern mountains. The snow melts earlier in spring than it used to, so the river is not flowing adequately in the summer when water is most needed. This year is an example: plenty of snow in winter followed by an early spring warm-up, causing very dry conditions this summer.
Years of sufficient water and years of drought don’t simply alternate one year at a time, the measurements show. Like the seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine in the Bible, the patterns repeat for several years, so the effect of the drought gets worse before being relieved.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which has only existed since the year 2000, New Mexico’s longest period of drought since 2000 lasted 329 weeks from May 2001 through August 2007.
In one of those years, a member of a cattle ranching family I know told me her family was going to have to sell off their stock. I was relieved that they didn’t have to sell the ranch. That is a cautionary tale for us all. To run a business with so much uncertainty takes both courage and great flexibility.
Gutzler observes that vegetation is likely to change as the climate gets a little warmer and drier. Big trees may not survive. He suggests by the end of this century, if the current rate of change continues, the forested Sandia Mountains outside Albuquerque might resemble the Franklin Mountains near El Paso – treeless and much more barren.
I keep looking at a big blue squiggle on the map, which to me is not only a body of water but also an evaporation basin: Elephant Butte Lake. The dam was built about a century ago. Why did those engineers decide to build a dam that could store more than 2 million acre-feet of water in a valley that concentrates the summer heat?
As much as one-third of the average annual inflow is lost to evaporation. In recent years the lake has been as low as 3% of its capacity. It’s currently reported to be at about 10% of capacity.
So I question whether that lake continues to be a practical place to store the water that we hope will keep southern New Mexico agriculture alive for the next half century. I am not the only one asking that question.
We are right now in a moment so stressful it seems almost unrealistic to talk about long-range issues. But change is happening, faster than we want and in ways we don’t like. Maybe the pandemic we’re now living through is a lesson: if we don’t act to mitigate it, it just gets worse.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

​© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   7-20-20
COVID-19 and workers' compensation
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
            A hidden cost of the coronavirus, one that has escaped public attention so far, is workers' compensation for sick workers.
            If COVID-19 is contracted in the workplace, the worker can file an occupational disease claim under the workers' compensation law. That provides roughly the same benefits as workers' compensation, paid out of the employer’s insurance policy.
            Workers’ comp entitles the worker to disability benefits determined by a formula in the law, and to reasonable and necessary medical care with no co-pays or deductibles.
            In general, common infectious diseases like flu and cold are not covered as occupational diseases. That’s because it’s hard to prove that an illness was acquired at work. But the situation is quite different for first responders, medical professionals and frontline essential workers exposed to the coronavirus.
            If a New Mexico state government employee in a frontline job gets the virus, it will be covered as an occupational disease. That was decided by an executive order issued by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in April. The order states that those workers shall be presumed to have contracted the disease at work. The order recommends that local governments follow the same guidance.
            This order means the state will not raise a legal dispute about whether a case for a state employee in a frontline job is work-related.
            The governor’s authority does not apply to the private sector, where employers have commercial insurance. A private sector worker may have to prove that the disease was contracted at work.
            New Mexico Mutual, our state’s largest private workers’ comp carrier, states on its website, “The advice …. is to submit the claim and we will conduct a claim investigation and make compensability determinations on a case-by-case basis.” In other words, they’ll evaluate whether it’s likely that this particular person caught the disease at work. If there’s disagreement, cases would be litigated in the worker’s compensation court.
            New Mexico workers' compensation law has one provision that may turn out to be important. The law guarantees medical benefits paid by the insurer may continue through the lifetime of the worker if medically justified. We’re hearing that some COVID-19 patients suffer long-term lung damage or other symptoms after the initial sickness is over. We don’t know whether those symptoms may last a few months or forever.
            Workers can give up the lifetime medical benefit in return for a settlement, but if they choose not to settle, the result is an insurance claim that might stay open for years. Either way, the claim could affect the employer’s future workers’ comp costs. It’s a powerful incentive for employers to help employees avoid the virus.
            The pandemic has added urgency to the conversation about sick leave, nationally and in New Mexico.
            The sick leave question is a real dilemma. Workers may have to decide whether to work sick or to stay home and lose a badly needed paycheck. Small businesses that are struggling to stay alive complain that they cannot afford the cost of another mandate. Both sides have a legitimate argument.
            Forcing sick people to come to work is a bad idea, whether as a company policy or out of the worker’s financial necessity. Especially when the disease is infectious.
            If one worker comes to work infected, other workers are exposed. Among the many bad effects is the additional cost of occupational disease claims that will burden the employer. As a simple business calculation, it might be cheaper to pay that first infected worker to stay home. And we cannot forget about workers who are waiting for virus test results or who have been ordered to stay home under quarantine.
            Is it possible that there is a way to structure sick leave so it does not become an adversarial issue between two valuable groups of citizens, employers and workers?
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     7-6-20
The prom in the pandemic
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
Hobbs is planning to have a high school prom. In Texas. The scheduled date is July 16.
            It’s not an official function of the school, according to the Hobbs News-Sun, but a volunteer project organized by parents. They hired a safety consultant and even found an empty building that hasn’t been used in a year, so it should be virus-free.
Hobbs is within a few miles of the Texas border. Texas has gone way further than New Mexico in relaxing its emergency rules. It’s now experiencing a spike in cases that threatens to overwhelm its healthcare system.
But apparently not in the corner of Texas that borders Hobbs.
As of July 5, Lea County had 187 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and no deaths. On July 1, the adjacent Texas county, Gaines, had 15 confirmed cases, also with zero deaths.
            At first glance, the prom plan appears low risk. However, this virus refuses to be contained. Highways run through these communities. One infected visitor strolling through the Walmart could spread infection and change these numbers overnight. We recall that one choir member in Washington State infected 52 others in a single choir practice. A few died.
            The mayor of Roswell is complaining that New Mexico’s rules have been too hard on the economy and were unnecessary in his part of the state. Look at our low numbers! said Mayor Dennis Kintigh in a recent op-ed article.
The mayor ignores the possibility that maybe the numbers are low because the statewide emergency restrictions worked.
I predicted a few months ago that if New Mexico escapes a major outbreak, due largely to the governor’s sweeping precautionary measures, some people will say the state overreacted. Mayor Kintigh has proved me right.
Maybe southeastern New Mexico has escaped the worst because the aliens – the green ones from outer space – have been zapping the virus. If that is what’s happening, New Mexico is sitting on an economic development bonanza bigger than the Permian Basin.
De Baca County, with zero reported cases and around 2,000 people, has probably been spared by nature. Same for Mora County – zero cases, fewer than 5,000 people. Roswell, on the other hand, is a medium-sized city with around 47,000 people. Chaves County had 120 cases and two deaths. If it wasn’t the aliens, Roswell has more likely been spared a larger outbreak because the bars, restaurants, churches and schools were closed.
            The July 1 report from the governor shows the infection rate in southeastern New Mexico is low but going in the wrong direction. The rate of spread in southeastern New Mexico is 1.66, compared to the previous week’s 1.17. That means on average, every infected person passes the virus to more than one person. At that rate it will never stop, and we will never be free of it.
This week, the rate of spread is going down in the northeast and southwest quadrants of the state. In central New Mexico, after going down last week, it’s now going up.
In hard-hit northwestern New Mexico, where the outbreak has been severe and local government has responded with drastic measures, the spread rate went way down but has gone up in the last two weeks. It had been down to 0.78, which means each infected person was infecting less than one other person. The July 1 rate was 1.08.
We all wish this entire pandemic would end. For now, the only way to move toward that result is for everyone to help stop the spread. Everyone.
It’s understandable that parents in Hobbs want to do something nice for their kids. So do parents all over the country, but most would rather help end this pandemic than send their kids to a dance. Just, please, after it’s over, don’t let the kids anywhere near their grandparents for at least two weeks.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES         6-22-20
Vandalism is not okay, even against Oñate
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
The incident of violence in Albuquerque last week, in which a protester was shot, brought the wrong kind of attention to New Mexico. It detracted from our generally good record of peaceful demonstrations and our superior performance in reducing coronavirus, compared to the frightening spikes in neighboring states.
The incident came less than 12 hours after Albuquerque’s mayor announced an innovative change in law enforcement. The proposal deserves public attention. It’s a shame that attention got diverted.
As announced by Mayor Tim Keller, a new department called Community Safety will become a third alternative for first responders, alongside the police and fire departments. It is to be staffed by social workers and others, unarmed and qualified to deal with mental illness, the homeless, and other noncriminal issues.
The intention is that these professionals will be able to defuse situations that police are not trained for, preventing police from making dangerous mistakes and allowing police to focus on crime.
Mental health problems have long been an issue for law enforcement in New Mexico.  Most of our perenially cash-strapped local governments are unequipped to deal with unruly, mentally ill individuals. Mental illness is a major reason for solitary confinement in county jails.  The New Mexico Association of Counties identified behavioral health services as a top priority for 2020 legislation.
Albuquerque’s new initiative could be a model for other local jurisdictions as we watch this experiment unfold.
Regarding the incident, the analysts are still sorting out who did what to whom. The violence was apparently sparked by an attempt to pull down the statue of Juan de Oñate outside the Albuquerque Museum, complicated by heavily armed vigilantes who have appointed themselves the New Mexico Civil Guard.
Pulling down statues is vandalism, and well-meaning protesters shouldn’t do it. Some national news media have been much too casual in reporting on the destruction of Confederate memorials, suggesting to the suggestible that destroying public property is acceptable if you do it for the right reasons. It’s not.
Nevertheless, getting his statue defaced couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy. I have expected for years that statues of Oñate would someday become targets of protest.
Oñate, by historical accounts, was a brutal overlord. He is best known for the 1599 Acoma Massacre, in which Acoma Pueblo was destroyed and hundreds killed. Afterward he ordered that 20 or more survivors have a foot cut off, though there’s been some question whether that’s true.
The other statue of Oñate was, until a few days ago, in front of a public building north of Espanola that’s used as an office but also serves as a rest stop on the way to Taos.
 That statue was mutilated once when someone sawed off a foot. Now it has prudently been removed by county government to protect it from vandalism. The Wikipedia page describing the statue was updated to report the removal within two days, I noticed.
The statue was the legacy of Rio Arriba County political boss Emilio Naranjo, a controversial figure himself.  My late husband, who was in the Senate at the same time as Naranjo, told me Naranjo spent an entire legislative session saying nothing, contributing nothing to committee discussions, voting always with the Democratic leadership, and introducing only one bill, the one that funded this monument. Recently Rio Arriba County named a building in Española after Naranjo, potentially giving protesters a future project. 
 New Mexico’s protests of George Floyd’s killing were peaceful in 9 of 10 cities. If protests continue, I can only hope the vigilantes will stay home and that nobody will bring guns to what should be a word fight.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

Revving up the economy in the special session
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
            In preparation for the upcoming special session of the New Mexico Legislature, we’re all nervous. Due to revenue lost through business closures, spending on emergency health and education, and the international price war in the oil industry, New Mexico has to rebalance its books for the coming fiscal year.
Legislative leaders have said the pain might not be too bad, due to high levels of cash reserves and other pockets of money, such as funds allocated for capital outlay projects but not yet spent.
Canceling some of those projects might violate New Mexico’s outdated tradition of capital outlay allocation -- the custom that splits the money among legislators for small local projects, so we never get around to large, ambitious projects that would modernize the whole state.
Maybe this is an opportunity to change that custom and undertake some of those large, ambitious projects.
And perhaps the way to start those projects, finally, is to loosen the strings on the permanent funds. 
I’ve been a budget hawk about New Mexico’s permanent funds for many years. The capital in those funds has been generating revenue that, year after year, has been vital to New Mexico’s budget. I’ve favored keeping it intact and stable. 
If existing reserves are enough to keep government running, that’s very good news. But for a time like this, not good enough.
Our permanent funds are a treasure. We have been saving and spending prudently for many years. But we’ve never seen an emergency like this. Maybe now is the time to spend a little more and put New Mexicans to work building a 21st century state.
New Mexico’s unemployment rate is over 11%. Children are being fed by their schools and local governments because their parents can’t afford groceries. When the court-ordered halt to evictions expires, we may see families forced into homelessness. The virus is still at emergency levels among the Navajo and other tribes.
The Land Grant Permanent Fund balance was $19.7 billion in December and $18.6 billion at the end of April. The Severance Tax Permanent Fund was at $5.6 billion, down to $5.2 billion in April. Those are losses, but not bad considering what the economy has been through.
The necessary constitutional amendment, to increase the distribution from one of the permanent funds, could be passed in the special session and submitted to the voters in November. I would recommend the increase be time limited to around five years. There. I’m still a budget hawk.
One priority should be broadband expansion, which is essential to expanding the economies of rural communities, including tribal communities, and delivering healthcare and education to those same communities.
New Mexico has been stumbling on this because of logistical issues like the need to acquire right-of-way. We can figure this out.
Broadband expansion should be Priority Two, not One, because of those logistics, which will take time. We need projects that can hire workers right now -- shovel-ready, as the saying goes.
There is plenty of urgency among roads, bridges and dams in need of repair. Experts can pick projects that are urgently needed, ready to break ground quickly, adaptable to Covid-19 safe practices, and consistent with the governor’s new initiative on racial justice. One benefit of public works projects like these is that outdoor work has been shown to be relatively safe from virus transmission.
This national crisis could become a benefit to New Mexico. All states are struggling right now. New Mexico has managed the pandemic better than most, has shown itself to be a prudent manager of resources and has attracted favorable notice nationally and globally. We are open for business. 
Investing in ourselves may bring a solid return. Shining up our image with infrastructure can help.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      5-25-20
Political commercials are too nasty
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
If you’ve been seeing the TV commercials for candidates for Congress in New Mexico, you’ve seen two very different concepts about what voters want, divided by political party and by geography.
In Congressional District 3, seven Democrats are on the primary ballot, running for the open seat vacated by Ben Ray Lujan. I’ve seen commercials for most of them. They are smiling at the camera, bringing their families into the picture, mentioning issue priorities like healthcare, and even showing some humor.
I have not seen commercials for the Republicans running for the same seat. I presume they are saving their money for the general election.
In Congressional District 2, the southern part of the state, we are seeing a snarling cage fight between two Republican candidates accusing each other of lying and hypocrisy. (The third candidate, who has not joined this free-for-all, appears to be outgunned and outspent.) The winner will face the Democratic incumbent, Xochitl Torres Small, in November.
The viciousness of these commercials leads me to wonder what the candidates think they’re telling the voters.
A political commercial is not necessarily meant to be an accurate depiction of the candidate’s biography or viewpoint, or even a reliable demonstration of the candidate’s competence or ability to get things done -- which, we presume, is what voters care about.
It is a statement of what the candidates thinks will make you want to vote for them. Even though the strategies were no doubt developed by consultants, if you think the candidates are merely following the advice of their consultants, imagine what they’ll do when they are elected and besieged by lobbyists.
Those two candidates in CD2 are competing for the same narrow band of voters, and conveying a very simple message: Conform. They kind of make you want to live someplace else.
In this time of crisis, Americans on all sides of the political divide are yearning for leadership and a positive vision. If these ads say anything about aspirations for the future of their district, it’s hard to hear between the name-calling. And it’s almost unimaginable to think their supporters could align behind the winner.
They have brought the worst kind of attention to New Mexico by attracting national news coverage.
The election is coming right up and many voters have already mailed their absentee ballots. If you have not yet decided, and you want real information about the candidates, you can look at their websites or go to the national website
At, enter your street address and you’ll find information about all the candidates on your ballot, all the way down to local candidates such as state representative. The information includes statements by the candidates, responding to questions from the nonpartisan League of Women Voters.
One of the congressional candidates in CD2 thought so little of the value of your opinion that she didn’t bother to respond.
The nastiness of this campaign is a hint of what voters will be battered with in the general election – adding to the despair of the most difficult year in a century.
Among the Democrats in CD3, mudslinging has not made its way to the public airwaves. Though some backbiting may be going on behind the scenes, when the primary is over and only one candidate wins, there’s room for rivals and supporters to smile and do the 2020 equivalent of shaking hands.
No doubt, massive advertising for the general election will start too soon after the primary is over. Most campaigning will be through media because the virus will continue to keep us from large gatherings. It’s probably a vain hope, but candidates have the choice to persuade us to want to vote for them rather than being disgusted.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     5-18-20
Staying at attention
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
When you were young, did you ever do something that you knew was wrong and you shouldn’t have gotten away with, but you did? Maybe you said your first swear word or smoked a cigarette behind the barn, and then you waited for the awful consequences from either your parents or On High. Waited and waited but nothing happened.
You wondered whether you could get away with it again. Over time, you realized that some transgressions are more serious than others and that sometimes, when consequences finally arrive, it might be too late.
I was really frightened of the virus for the first couple of weeks. I ordered groceries from a delivery service. Then the delivery service became too busy to schedule, and I braved a trip to a grocery store. Wearing gloves and multiple layers of cloth around my face, I shopped as quickly as I could, staying far from everyone.  
I drove home, stripped off most of my clothing in the garage and immediately took a shower, then with maximum precautions spent two hours washing my groceries. I was exhausted.
Nothing happened. The sky did not fall. I did not get sick. I wiped down the steering wheel, door handle and gearshift of my car, and everything else I could think of.
My next trip to a store was a little easier. I was still reading the news reports and the scientific explanations about how infectious and deadly this virus is. But my experience was telling me nothing was happening, so I could be a little more relaxed. I still wrapped my head in a mask plus an extra layer, but maybe I could pass someone in the aisle instead of going around, and would not have to hold my breath. Maybe I could give myself a little leeway about disinfecting the buttons on my car radio after every trip, spraying the doorknobs, or washing my sore hands.
But here’s the catch. The virus is not weaker than it was a couple of months ago. It’s still here, it still infects some people without symptoms, and if it finds its way down my throat, I’m no more immune than I was before. It hasn’t killed anyone in front of me, but that doesn’t prove anything. I haven’t witnessed any fatal car accidents recently either, but that doesn’t stop them from killing people.
So I have to keep doing the careful things. If my motivation weakens, I need to rely on logic and accurate information rather than instinct.
I have a few personal safety strategies. Years ago, I invented a technique to use when I’m driving alone with no one to remind me to keep my eyes on the road. I imagine a dog jumping into the road from behind a rock several hundred feet ahead. Because I love dogs, the thought helps me to snap to attention.
As New Mexico business cautiously reopens, and we have official permission from our state to be a little less isolated, the signals to my confused brain become even more confusing. The signals seem to be telling me there is less risk, so I can be less vigilant in my social distancing and sanitation practices.
But in reality, the risk is reduced only because of those practices and because most New Mexicans continue to follow them. The virus is still just as deadly. What’s different is that we now have some training in how to prevent it from invading our bodies.
Think of the virus as a deadly predatory insect. If we all don’t let it bite us, it will eventually starve.
I have some techniques to keep myself safe when I’m tempted to be careless. Here’s the newest one. I imagine I’m driving and several hundred feet in front of me I can see a mask-wearing hospital nurse trying to cross the road.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

Move the presidential primary before 2024
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
Even though everything before the coronavirus now seems like a distant memory, it wasn’t long ago that half the nation’s partisan voters were still tussling over who their presidential nominee would be. New Mexico was poised to play its usual meaningless role in that decision because our presidential primary is held in June.
In this year’s legislative session, a bill (HB 350 by Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque) proposed that we move New Mexico’s presidential primary to January. It went nowhere. That idea is worth another look.
I mention it now, before our primary election, because even though we’ve been distracted by a national emergency, the long primary season is still relatively fresh in our minds. We  remember what it was like before the field narrowed.
Our primary is scheduled for Tuesday, June 2. There are several important contests, including U. S. senator and members of Congress – good reasons to vote – but our presidential votes will be inconsequential by that time.
An early presidential primary gives voters a chance to set the direction of the process. And it forces the candidates to learn about the state, which may influence their future policy decisions.
This year, all the action has been on the Democratic side. Next election, it could be on the Republican side or both.
If Donald Trump is reelected, since the president is term-limited, in 2024 there will likely be large fields of candidates on both the Republican and Democratic sides. If presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden is elected this year, then probably the large field in 2024 will be Republican only because Biden will be the uncontested nominee.
Starting last fall, Democrats seeking the nomination totaled 25, though not all were running at the same time. Several dropped out before others entered.
In 2016, the number of Republicans was almost as big – 17 candidates at the start, representing a wide range of abilities, backgrounds and viewpoints. In the early debates, candidates were divided into those regarded as more serious and what was disparagingly called the “kids’ table.”
In both of these fields, some candidates were U. S. senators or other current officeholders who would go back to their existing positions with greater knowledge of the states they spent the most time in. They all learned about Iowa and New Hampshire. Might it be helpful to us if future candidates learn more about New Mexico?
New Mexico has unique issues, including the border, federal lands, several military bases, a hub of space exploration, oil and gas, and especially one interest group that has received little or no attention in any recent presidential primary: Native Americans, who have a complex and often difficult relationship with the federal government. If the candidates came to New Mexico, Native Americans would have a great opportunity to be noticed.
An early presidential primary would have to be held separately from the primary for state and local offices, which is quite reasonably held in June. That timing is fine. Some other states have similar procedures, with presidential primaries held separately.
I suggest that an early presidential primary should employ ranked choice voting, which allows voters to specify a second choice if their first choice is not the winner. This technique is a superior way to discover the real leanings of the voters. For example, this year, ranked choice in the early primaries would have shown that a majority of Democrats preferred moderates over progressives.
I also suggest that early voting for this event should just be a week or two, so that voters will not waste their votes on candidates who drop out.
An early primary would put New Mexico on the national map in a way that it’s never been before. In the next few years we’re going to need all the boost we can get.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

 © 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES         4/27/20                          
Drive-up and curbside can help make business safe
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
These days, sitting down to dine in a busy restaurant could put you in the hospital and make your whole family sick as well as the families at nearby tables -- that is, if there were a restaurant that would serve you. The take-out-only approach is the logical way to keep restaurants open.
When the only service is take-out, only employees go into the building and the only contact with the customers is a brief minute when the customer picks up the meal. Spread of the coronavirus through random contact with strangers is minimized.
Fast-food restaurants with drive-up windows are looking awfully smart. The drive-up window long ago streamlined the process of ordering, paying, and picking up a meal. Not only is it efficient, it helps protect the restaurant from burglars. It’s not perfect (alas, no restroom access), but it’s close.
The drive-up windows at banks are even better. My local bank is now drive-up only. On my last visit, I put my transaction into a plastic tube that was whisked through a pneumatic system to the teller and then whisked back to me. Through the thick glass I saw the teller spraying something and it looked like she was disinfecting my driver’s license. I wiped it off again when the packet was returned to me, using a paper towel dampened with Lysol that I had brought from home.
Maybe when we’re back to some kind of normal, researchers will study how effective these strategies have been in preventing the spread of coronavirus. Have fast-food workers had fewer cases of the virus than grocery store clerks? I’ll bet they have. It will continue to matter, because this will not be over as soon as any of us wishes.
I wrote a few years ago about convenience stores. In response to the tragic murders of several clerks, New Mexico adopted some of the nation’s most stringent convenience store safety rules. For stores open during graveyard shift, one security option is a bullet-resistant enclosure for the clerk. That enclosure is probably also a virus protector. I hope store owners who haven’t already done so are thinking about punching a hole in the wall to build a drive-up window with such an enclosure, with access to the all-important restrooms directly from outside, perhaps with automated locks controlled by the clerks.
Many grocery stores are offering curbside service as an option. Maybe more of them should consider closing the doors and offering curbside only, like the restaurants, at least for a few hours a day. That would ease the strain on staff and increase safety for concerned customers.
And it would be the safest way for other types of businesses to reopen when the state is ready. I’d encourage various kinds of retail businesses to consider how to adapt the curbside approach, for the health and safety of both their employees and their customers. It would also work for public libraries.
Ironically, New Mexico was infamous in the past for its drive-up liquor windows, and I cannot help but acknowledge that. Those windows were outlawed in 1998 after a years’ long brutal political battle and after serving way too many drivers who were too drunk to walk into the store. But if the windows themselves still exist, perhaps they can be repurposed and put to good use.
Experts are warning that even if the virus spread is minimized this summer, there’s a serious possibility that it will be back in the fall. Building more curbside and drive-up delivery platforms is one way to prepare.
If only there were a safe way to use drive-up windows for haircuts. I’ve been trying to think how to make that work. So far, no luck.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES        4-20-20
Testing is better than tracing
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
            New Mexico has been invited by the White House to participate in a pilot program to improve and expand contact tracing for coronavirus infections. While details are sparse, this program may provide an opportunity to develop new high-tech tools to find people who have been in contact with someone who has the virus, according to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
            That’s all good, but I hope this program starts with a major increase in testing.
New Mexico has done better than most states in getting people tested, but what the results mean is ambiguous. A test result tells whether you’ve been infected at the moment you take the test. If the only people tested are those with symptoms, people with the virus but without symptoms will not be discovered.
News outlets have been reporting the total number of tests and the numbers of positives and negatives because there are so few measurements available. Initially, those numbers were important, but they become less meaningful as time goes on. They do not tell us how many people are infected and undetected right now. It would be better if they could tell us the results of tests done this week.
We know a few things about this virus that are very unnerving:
One, you can have the virus for days before you feel sick. If you are careless, you can infect every person you come into contact with.
Two, if you get a very mild case, that doesn’t mean anyone you infect will also have a mild case. There is no information on that. You can have a mild case and infect someone who will die.
Three, it’s possible to have this virus, have no symptoms, and be unaware that you had it until you are tested for antibodies. Antibodies mean you had the virus and your body reacted by producing a defense.
Four, the experts don’t know whether antibodies will protect you from getting the virus again.
In Santa Clara County, Calif., a few weeks ago, county officials had confirmed 956 cases. Then they did widespread testing and discovered antibodies in an estimated 48,000 to 81,000 people. In another set of tests, women delivering babies at New York City hospitals were tested, and 33 out of 215, or 15%, tested positive. Only four of them showed symptoms.
To overcome this virus quickly and decisively, we would test everybody in the country on the same day, for both active virus and antibodies. Then everyone with the virus would go into isolation, and nobody new would get infected.
I thought of that a few days ago. So did the person in charge of testing on the White House task force. Admiral Brett Giroir, M.D., assistant secretary for health in the U.S. Public Health Service, said in a White House briefing that it can’t be done.
The alternative, he said, is increased testing plus contact tracing: When someone tests positive, find the people that person may have infected, isolate those people, find out who’s been near them, and so on. What could shorten this process is lots more testing of people without symptoms and very fast tracing.
Recently I wrote about a new method of testing for opioids that police officers could use in the field. Swab the person’s cheek, stick the swab into a small handheld gadget, and in five minutes you know what drugs are in that person’s system. What we need for coronavirus is something even simpler that we can administer ourselves, perhaps a test using a cheek swab that will turn one color if you have the virus and another color if you have antibodies.
I am hoping someone is working to invent that test right now. Meanwhile, if you can, please keep staying home.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

It’s easy to overlook, but an election is coming
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
When my late husband was running for the New Mexico Senate, he pledged to knock on every door in his district. He thought giving voters a chance to meet him in person was the right thing to do.
A candidate I know this year had planned to do the same thing. Now, knocking on doors is out of the question. The best he can do is to leave fliers on front porches.
And that’s in central New Mexico, where districts cover only a few square miles.
This is not feasible in most New Mexico districts, which are geographically enormous.   For example, District 28 covers Grant, Catron, and most of Socorro County. District 8 includes Colfax, Mora, Harding, Guadalupe, more than half of San Miguel and a slice of Quay. State House districts are almost as sprawling.
In a normal year, candidates would be looking everywhere for little dog gatherings of voters, whether at Easter festivities, Memorial Day parades or senior citizen centers.
Not this year.
So how do candidates campaign in the year of coronavirus?
Our primary election is on June 3. After months of hullabaloo about the Democratic contest to choose a presidential nominee (now finally settled), you might have forgotten that the presidential choice is just one item on the ballot. The real focus is local.
Every seat in the Legislature is up for election. In a state in which incumbent legislators are often unopposed, I was surprised to see how many seats have opposition, including primary opposition.
Five prominent Democratic senators who are moderates are being targeted by challengers on the left. If you are a registered Democrat in one of their districts and have an opinion about this, one way or the other, that’s a reason to vote in this primary. Whichever district you live in, it’s worth finding out whether your representatives have primary opposition.
Local officials are up for election also: county commissioners, county clerks, county treasurers, district attorneys and judges. Candidates for these offices often run with very little public interest or even awareness. I’m guessing that this season is a heartbreaker for many of them, because it’s so difficult to get their message out. Please learn a little about candidates in your county. If a candidate interests you, pick up the phone and call them. They probably will appreciate it.
Ben Ray Lujan is uncontested on the Democratic side for the U.S. Senate seat that Tom Udall will vacate, but several Republicans are running; the winner will oppose Lujan in November. Lujan’s seat in Congress has attracted candidates of both parties. District 3 of the Public Regulation Commission will be decided in the primary.
In the 2nd Congressional District, three Republicans are bidding to run against incumbent Democrat Xochitl Torres Small. This contest is already a brawl, as the three vie for the designation of most conservative. At a time when we’re all riveted on a deadly illness and the disruption of our economy, this campaign will break through and get some headlines.
To vote in the primary, you must be registered in the party of your choice. To change parties, you must submit a new registration 28 days before the election or register with your county clerk.
We will likely have an all-mail election, although that has to be settled by a lawsuit. The Secretary of State’s Office says a decision in its favor will not change any laws but will allow election administrators to apply existing provisions of the state Election Code.
This primary will go on, one way or the other, in spite of the obstacles. While you stay home and take care of yourself, please take a few minutes to become an informed voter, read the coverage in your local newspaper, send a few dollars to a candidate you really like, and help keep our democracy working.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

Crisis management
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
I can already see what the arguments will be after the coronavirus crisis is over.
If New Mexico escapes a major outbreak and many deaths, due largely to the governor’s sweeping precautionary measures, some people will say the state overreacted. Some will even insist the whole thing was a political hoax.
If New Mexico suffers from a major outbreak with many deaths because we didn’t have the resources to act quickly or decisively enough, some people will say our leadership was ineffective and incompetent.
At this writing, the virus numbers in New Mexico have been mercifully low so far. Those numbers probably do not reflect what’s really going on, because there has not been nearly enough testing.
It takes several days for symptoms of the virus to develop. An infected person may be walking around the community, unaware and infecting other people. If a person gets the virus from another person who did not know that he or she had the virus, and none of these people are self-isolating, it can multiply like weeds before the cluster is detected. The theory is that happened in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, causing the growing crisis in Louisiana.
It would not take very big numbers for New Mexico to have caseloads beyond the capacity of the state’s fragile health care system. That’s the fear, and it’s a reason to act decisively.
We have known for years that we don’t have enough doctors. As of last year, New Mexico was reported to have 241 doctors per 100,000 people, ranking 31st out of all the states, but was ranked 48th in patient access to doctors. Out of New Mexico’s 33 counties, 32 are federally designated as Health Professional Shortage Areas.
So New Mexico cannot afford to put its healthcare providers at risk by allowing them to be exposed to becoming sick themselves through lack of personal protective equipment.
And we don’t know when we will have filled every intensive care bed in the state.
As of mid-March, New Mexico in Depth reported that 54 of 344 state-licensed ICU beds were vacant. (There are additional beds in Indian Health Service hospitals and the Veteran Affairs hospital in Albuquerque.) It’s impossible to say how many we will need if the number of cases spikes, because we don’t know where an unexpected outbreak could occur or how severe it would be. 
Some counties have no reported cases. They also have no testing sites and very long distances to the nearest health facility.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose daily press briefings have been nationally televised, observed that the American healthcare system is not designed to have excess capacity for emergencies. Our hospitals do not have extra intensive care units; they are too expensive. So even though the possibility of a pandemic is predictable, we are not prepared for it.
I have watched several of those briefings, which have been methodical, businesslike and comprehensive. Watching them has been a crash course in crisis management. 
Cuomo has referred to his past experience as secretary of the federal Housing and Urban Development Department. Because of that experience, he said, he knows firsthand what resources are available. The knowledge is invaluable at a moment like this.
As I have watched Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham handle the crisis here with firmness and clarity, I’ve seen Cuomo as a benchmark. I’m reminded that she has been the secretary of New Mexico’s Health Department -- experience and knowledge that are exactly on point.
We have been watching Cuomo warn that what’s happening in New York will happen elsewhere in the country because that’s the nature of this virus. If New Mexico is spared an overwhelming outbreak, it won’t be because he was wrong. It will be because we acted decisively in time.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     3-16-20
State saves for the future through trust funds
By Merilee Dannemann
riple Spaced Again
New Mexico understands boom and bust.
We thought oil and gas production would give New Mexico a boom year. Good thing our legislators were cautious. Instead of spending all that new money – which now may or may not materialize – New Mexico lawmakers showed self-restraint by squirreling some of it away. Ironically, the financial uncertainties we face today waited until the session was over to manifest.
Prudently, lawmakers put some of the promised bonanza into income-generating accounts so that the proceeds can be spent over time. Legislation this year has created a few new funds and shored up existing ones.
The most ambitious effort is aimed at raising the education levels and general well-being of our smallest citizens. The Early Childhood Trust Fund has been created and endowed with $320 million, most of which will be invested and distributed through annual appropriations.
The Kiki Saavedra Senior Dignity Fund, named after the late legislator, sets up a $25 million fund that can be used for seniors in need. The money will have to be appropriated each year. It will address high priority services for senior citizens and adults with disabilities in New Mexico, to include transportation, food insecurity, physical and behavioral health, case management, and caregiving.
The Rural Libraries Endowment Fund was increased by $2 million. This fund was created in 2019 with just $1 million. It was the vision of Democratic Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, who said that in small rural communities the public library is often vital to civic and community life, but these libraries have no public funding and have to be supported by donations. The original 2019 request was for an ambitious $50 million, which would have generated enough income to provide meaningful support.
The laws creating these trust funds contain formulas setting out how much money must go into the fund and how much may be appropriated and spent at any time, frequently referring to such arcane concepts as five-year moving averages. Charles Wollmann, public information officer of the State Investment Council, explained that such provisions are intended to smooth out the distribution from the funds, so that we don’t get a big chunk of spending money in a good year and a dribble in a bad year.
Any major project takes time to get cranked up and functional, to the point where it’s ready to make use of the money. The state’s new Early Childhood Education & Care Department may be one such example, where the agency may not yet have the staff or facilities to implement the programs. That’s a reason for not rushing to appropriate excessive amounts of money.
In the midst of all these efforts to save money, one proposed amendment to the state Constitution was an apparent contradiction. That was the effort, tried many times before, to take a little more money every year out of New Mexico’s great financial treasure, the Land Grant Permanent Fund. It didn’t pass. House Joint Resolution 1 would have increased the distribution by 1%. It was amended to one-half percent, but it stalled in the Senate Finance Committee.
Distributions from this fund are expected to contribute roughly $784.2 million in the current fiscal year, according to the State Investment Council.
Any trust fund created by the Legislature can be amended by a future Legislature. If circumstances change, the Early Childhood Trust Fund can be adapted. But any fund created by the state Constitution can only be changed by amending the Constitution. To change it again we’d have to amend the Constitution again. In the unique case of the Land Grant fund, the change also has to be approved by Congress. That’s a major difference between this fund and all the other funds, and a reason to be very cautious in changing it.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       3-2-20
Taxes have to come from somewhere
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
Let’s be realistic. Taxes have to come from somewhere.
Many New Mexicans are uncomfortable that the state depends heavily on revenue from the oil and gas industry. If we want to be less dependent on oil and gas but still have schools, roads, a health department, and the rest of government, we have to be able to tax other things.
This year several bills were introduced (none passed) to reduce or eliminate the income tax on Social Security, with rhetoric that implied we were taking bread from poor elderly by taxing their benefits. We’re not. The lowest income taxpayers are already protected by existing exemptions. In-depth analysis on this issue can be found in the fiscal impact report on House Bill 29, on the legislative website. It’s worth reading.
New Mexico’s tax on Social Security probably deters some retirees from moving here, as advocates claim. However, the website rates New Mexico as overall “moderately tax friendly” toward retirees. And tax calculations don’t measure the weather, which retirees care about. Remember that terrible hurricane or the awful flood? Neither do I because we didn’t have one.
Retirees also are fond of low property taxes. New Mexico has some of the lowest in the U.S, says The state's average effective property tax rate is 0.78%. Our median annual property tax is $1,272, about $800 less than the national median.
Our property tax is low because unlike most states, New Mexico does not use local property tax to fund schools. Our schools are funded statewide, so that spending is roughly equalized among school districts throughout the state.
That funding comes largely from gross receipts tax. Originally, it was a very low tax on virtually everything we buy, but it’s been transformed by exemptions adopted over the years. School funding also receives a major contribution from the earnings of the Land Grant Permanent Fund, more than half a billion dollars this year.
A proposal to increase the gasoline tax didn’t get very far this session. The bill was HB173 by Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Santa Fe.
Legislators from rural communities opposed any increase in this tax, claiming it hurts their constituents who have to drive long distances. That’s true, but those same residents would benefit the most from improved roads. According to the report “New Mexico Transportation by the Numbers,” 54% of major roads and highways in New Mexico are in poor or mediocre condition, costing the average New Mexico driver $770 annually in operating costs. The impact of bad roads is probably worst for those rural residents.
 Ironically, two similar bills (HB 104 and HB 276) proposed to provide a tax exemption to any person or corporation that donates money to a county road fund. The donor would be able to designate which roads to repair with the donation. So rich corporations could, in effect, pay to have their own roads fixed. The exemption would have applied to donations up to $1 million.
I might be indignant about the unfairness of such a proposal except that it came from Eddy County. Both bills were sponsored by Rep. Catherine Brown, R-Carlsbad, where oil is making everybody rich but people are being injured or killed by the deadly condition of the roads.
New Mexico’s tax policy is already riddled with exemptions. For several years legislators have been saying they want to review the existing exemptions to see which ones continue to serve a valuable public purpose, but they haven’t done it.
That’s understandable. Legislators get pats on the back for granting new exemptions, but when they try to repeal one, they get only resistance. Maybe the coming interim would be a good time to bite that bullet and clean out a few old exemptions before establishing any new ones.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

 © 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   2-17-20
Finally, a roadside drug detector
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
In a conference room at the Roundhouse last week, uniformed police officers watched a demonstration.
They were learning about a handheld device that detects drugs in a person’s system within five minutes. It’s intended to be used by officers on the road when they have pulled over a driver. It comes with a separate module to collect saliva from the inside of the driver’s cheek and a little printer that prints out the test results.
The product brochure says the device detects amphetamines, cannabis, opiates, cocaine, methamphetamine and benzodiazepines (drugs like Valium and Xanax).
The demonstrator handed me the printout from a demonstration test result, a strip of paper about the size of a gas station receipt.
In the debate about legalizing recreational cannabis, this is a game changer. If it works as claimed, this might solve the problem of detecting whether someone’s impaired driving is related to drug use.
The device, the So Toxa Mobile Test System, is not the only roadside marijuana tester on the market. Others work like breathalyzers; some only detect cannabis, not other drugs.
It may not be sufficient for legal purposes. It doesn’t measure the quantity present in the person’s system. And it can’t tell how long ago the drug was ingested, although the demonstrator said it only detects drugs used within the last few hours. If that works as intended, it solves the problem posed by blood or urine tests, which detect cannabis days after it’s been ingested.
A device like this might also be applied to workplace safety, either to test workers after an accident or to do random testing of active workers. That was not discussed in this demonstration.
Nobody mentioned the question of false positives, either. It’s been found that eating poppy seeds on pastry can cause a positive test for opiates.
The development of these devices is a big step toward making legalization practical. However, there are still serious issues that need to be resolved.
We still don’t have agreement on how distribution and sales will be regulated and taxed, or how cannabis will be effectively kept away from children. I repeat, effectively.
If we don’t do this right, New Mexico might unintentionally create some sort of quasi-monopoly just as bad as our nutty liquor license system, or even worse, open the door to international corporations that are waiting for movement on the federal level. If that happens, most of the revenue that legislators are so excited about will not stay in New Mexico.
Nobody is talking about who is going to pay these mythical cannabis taxes that will line New Mexico streets with gold. Mostly low-income New Mexicans, I suspect – not a new stream of tourists. The governor says cannabis will generate $620 million annually in revenue and $100 million in taxes. Just like gambling, it’s another way to tempt poor people to become a little poorer.
Certainly New Mexico will be better off if New Mexicans buy drugs from legitimate taxpaying businesses rather than criminal cartels that don’t pay gross receipts tax or test their products for purity.
And of course it will be better if New Mexicans use more cannabis instead of much more dangerous drugs like meth and opioids. That is the best reason for making it legal.
I have previously said I like the proposal for state-run stores that will keep the money in-state and prevent sales to children. That deserves further discussion.
Every time a complex issue like this is run through the legislative process, more details get examined and there’s another chance that the legislation will be improved. Legalizing cannabis is a big deal. There’s nothing wrong with shaking it out through the process another time or two before it passes.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

 © 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    2-3-20
Never forget the prison riot
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
Some events must never be forgotten. They must remain in our living memory so we never make the same mistakes again.
Such an event is the 1980 New Mexico prison riot. If you were here, it is burned in your memory. It certainly is in mine.
And yet we still have not resolved all the issues that arose from that horrible event.
Forty years ago, on February 2, 1980, prisoners seized control of the state penitentiary outside Santa Fe. The mayhem that followed included fire, flood, and the horrific murders of 33 other prisoners.
A discussion about the riot took place recently, hosted by the Albuquerque Journal and radio station KANW. Present were journalists and others who had studied the riot itself, the prison conditions that led to it, and the aftermath. Also present were the current and recent secretaries of the New Mexico Corrections Department and the head of the correction officers union.
I remember it as a time when our policymakers didn’t give much thought to the well-being of criminals. Prison was for punishment, not for rehabilitation. Inmates were regarded as disposable, even though, then as now, most of them would someday be released. Public officials paid very little attention to what was going on inside the prison.
The riot was started following careless actions by a few officials that enabled determined inmates to grab the keys that would unlock many parts of the prison.
It ended with negotiation, not an invasion, largely to save the lives of the guards who had been held hostage. After it was over and the bodies brought out, New Mexico’s prison continued to have the reputation as the most violent in the country. Then came the legal decision known as Duran consent decree, establishing minimum standards for prison conditions and requiring supervision by a federal judge for decades.
Our newer prisons were designed for safety, arranged in pods rather than the large dormitories of the previous generation. The pods house fewer inmates and are therefore easy to control. If a problem occurs in one pod, it can be isolated. Other safety measures, such as use of electronic switches instead of keys, were introduced. Corrections officers now receive several weeks of training.
But we’re still not meeting the standards that a correction system should maintain. At minimum, that would be safety for both officers and inmates.
At its best, the system would be sending inmates back into the world motivated to live a crime-free life and equipped with necessary skills, ultimately getting the number of repeat offenders down to near zero.
Officers are still not safe, said Dirk Lee, president of the Correctional Officers Association. There is still overcrowding and an inadequate system of classifying prisoners – and occasionally guards are still assaulted.
And we’re still measuring success by the narrow goal of preventing another riot, said former Corrections Secretary Greg Marcantel. We should be aiming higher.
Those pods, Marcantel said, were designed for containment, not for programming. They don’t have adequate space for educational activities.
Marcantel said 70% of violent crimes are committed by 10% of inmates. That means the other 90% should be protected and given a chance to turn their lives around.
Supporting the corrections budget has never been a popular cause. It’s too easy to make the glib argument that spending money on rehabilitation or education in prison is “soft on crime.” We have higher priorities.
And yet there’s no greater waste of taxpayer money as well as human potential than locking people up with no hope of redemption, especially when we know they will be back on our streets some day.
Conscience demands that New Mexicans remember not only the riot, but also the inhumane conditions that led to it, and never let that happen again. Every now and then, we must retell the story.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

 © 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   1-20-20
Let’s fix the bail bond situation
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
When New Mexico passed the bail bond amendment in 2016, I thought it was simple. The language, which amended the state Constitution, seemed so straightforward.
“Bail may be denied pending trial if, after a hearing, the court finds … that no release conditions will reasonably ensure the appearance of the person as required or protect the safety of any other person or the community ... No person eligible for pretrial release … shall be detained solely because of financial inability to post a money or property bond.”
In other words, arrested criminal suspects who pose no danger will not be confined to jail awaiting trial, but suspects who do appear to be dangerous will be kept in jail even if they can pay bond.
This replaces the old system under which a low-risk defendant with no money might be held in jail for months, while risky defendants who could make bail would go free until trial.
But the new system has been controversial. Some critics argue that too many defendants are being let out and committing crimes, perhaps not violent but still a threat to public safety.
Under the new system, judges are supposed to evaluate suspected offenders based in part on a nationally verified measurement tool called the Arnold Public Safety Assessment, which compares the person’s record to a set of criteria and predicts the likelihood that this individual will fail to appear in court, commit another crime, or commit a violent crime.
A study released in November 2019 by UNM’s Institute for Social Research – limited to Bernalillo County – found 4 percent of released defendants were accused of committing a new violent crime and 17 percent were accused of committing a crime of some kind.
Whether that’s an acceptable result or not is a matter of opinion.
Rep. Bill Rehm (R-Albuquerque) finds it unacceptable. He’s introduced legislation (HB 32) to clarify the criteria for pretrial release. We will learn this week whether the bill is approved by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for this year’s 30-day session.
Rehm’s bill says no person shall be released if the charge is a first degree felony or a serious violent offense and if the person was previously convicted of any felony or has previously violated conditions of pretrial release for any offense. The bill also provides for drug rehabilitation while incarcerated.
The restrictions seem so reasonable that I’m surprised Rehm felt it was necessary to legislate this. Shouldn’t these criteria have applied all along? Rehm said the current guidelines do not require a judge to consider a defendant’s past record.
Apparently Rehm is not the only one dissatisfied.
The State Supreme Court has convened a high-level, 15-member committee to review pretrial detention procedures. The committee’s initial report is to be submitted by March 31, a month after the legislative session ends.
Rehm has been appointed to the committee but wants to go ahead with his legislation anyway and expects support from other legislators.
It does society no good when nonthreatening defendants are kept in jail before trial. Public defender Richard Pugh, in a recent talk, explained that being stuck in jail throws a person’s life into chaos. The defendant may lose his job, be unable to care for children, be unable to pay the most basic bills and so lose his home – tragic losses that benefit nobody and add to the community’s social burden.
And – a point I have not heard anyone raise – we’d have less detention if we had speedier trials, but that would require investing a heck of a lot of money in our judicial system, and even with our current flush budgets that’s not going to happen.
New Mexico did the right thing in passing the bail bond amendment. We just have to keep tinkering with the implementation to get the balance right.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     1-6-20
This is how representative democracy works
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
Across New Mexico, dedicated individuals are working for causes you may never have heard of, but which just might benefit you or someone you care about. Many of them work for nonprofit organizations that hope to present proposals to the Legislature, usually with a request for funding.
New Mexico Public Health Association’s annual conference is a gathering place for these groups, to share visions, build coalitions, and seek the endorsement of NMPHA.
We will likely be hearing from at least a few of these groups during the upcoming 2020 legislative session. Here is a sampling of the causes they represent.
One ambitious proposal seeks to expand access to New Mexico-grown fresh fruits and vegetables, already in the public schools, by requesting more money for the school program and adding a new program for low-income senior citizens. The senior program would provide vouchers that seniors could use at farmers’ markets. This has the double benefit of providing healthy food and supporting New Mexico agriculture.
The New Mexico School Nurse Association is asking to place a nurse and a social worker in every public school, pointing to New Mexico’s last-place national ranking in child well-being.
A coalition of several organizations wants to expand access to long-acting reversible contraceptives, asking for $500,000 to increase training for health-related professionals. The group cites New Mexico’s high rate of unintended teen pregnancies. New Mexico’s teen birth rate is currently seventh highest in the United States.
The state’s Center for Health Innovation is advocating development of improved open access to health-related data. This effort received a one-time appropriation of $150,000 in 2019. The group is now seeking $350,000 in recurring funds (that is, support intended to continue year after year). The same group is asking for expansion of Area Health Education Centers to encourage more New Mexicans, including schoolchildren, to undertake health-related careers.
The Drug Policy Alliance proposes a demonstration project using injectable opioids for heroin users who have not succeeded with other treatments. Their proposal says this will be similar to permanent programs already operating in Canada, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark.
The New Mexico Chiropractic Association is asking for chiropractic services to be funded by Medicaid, arguing that chiropractic treatment is a way to reduce reliance on opioids for pain treatment.
There is a movement to amend the state Constitution to divert money from the state Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood education. This has grown with the recognition that New Mexico needs major investment in early childhood education. A group called Invest in Kids Now is named as the advocate for this proposal, representing an extensive coalition.
New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence is advocating for the policy known as a red-flag law, formally called extreme risk protection order. This law would allow family members or law enforcement officials to petition a judge to temporarily remove firearms from individuals in crisis.
Some of these proposals have already been presented to legislative interim committees; some had legislative sponsors lined up. These advocates had done their homework and were offering to our volunteer legislators ideas and recommendations worth considering. The NMPHA itself will provide another layer of screening by choosing which proposals to endorse.
A few of these proposals stand a reasonable chance of being enacted into law. Most will probably never get past their first legislative committee. Collectively, they probably represent much more money than the legislature will be willing to commit, especially those asking for recurring funds.
This is how our representative democracy works quietly, year-round. Much legislation doesn’t begin at the legislature. It often begins months or years earlier, with the efforts of citizens who share their expertise, hammer out their issues, and develop broad coalitions.
This kind of behind-the-scenes effort usually gets no publicity, but it’s how citizens participate in our state’s representative democracy.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    12-16-19
Guardianship for the elderly is not completely reformed
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
If you are an old person with money and a quarrelsome family or no family at all, you are a little better off in New Mexico this year than you were last year.
You can still have your freedom snatched away by a court and your future placed in the hands of a stranger to protect you from your alleged incompetence. But you have more rights than last year. An update to the guardianship law was passed in the 2019 legislative session, improving the rights and remedies for the so-called protected incapacitated person.
(Guardianship refers to the person. Conservatorship refers to the person’s financial assets.)
The system exists for good reason. Elderly people can become incapacitated, unable to care for themselves or make rational decisions on their own behalf. If family members are not meeting that need, the system has a remedy. The intention is clearly benevolent.
But the results can be awful.
The New Mexico guardianship system at its worst was covered by an investigative series in 2016 by the Albuquerque Journal, which explained that, once appointed by a court, a professional guardianship agency has complete control over the client’s personal life and financial assets, including the authority to spend all the client’s money, sell the client’s property, make medical decisions, and prohibit family members from seeing the client.
This can start with family members disagreeing about how the elderly person is being treated. For example, one sister is taking care of Mom and another sister suspects that the first sister is stealing Mom’s money. The second sister calls a lawyer, the case goes before a judge, and they both lose control to a professional conservatorship company. In reports of these stories, often the family members say later they had no idea that the court would appoint a professional who would fritter away Mom’s savings.
The other scenario involves an individual who has no family and no one helping. In that case the phone call might come from a neighbor or another acquaintance.
After the Journal series, the New Mexico Supreme Court created a study commission that released its final report in December 2017. Legislation followed, with bills in both 2018 and 2019, sponsored by Sen. James White, R-Albuquerque. The legislation contains many features designed to protect the rights and choices of the protected person, impose standards on professional guardians and conservators, and require financial accountability.
But White acknowledges the legislation is less than perfect. At best, financial conservatorship is expensive. And there are still loopholes. While no legislation is planned for this coming session, he acknowledges future legislation may be needed.
Among the improvements:
The alleged incapacitated person will be able to participate in the court hearing that determines his or her incapacity. A future review is possible to determine whether the incapacity is no longer present.
Professional conservators will have to file reports with the court. The court may order an audit, which would be conducted by specially assigned employees of the State Auditor’s Office.
Family members will have increased access and will be able to file grievances.
The professionals will now be required to be certified according to a national standard. Susan Bennett, a champion of ethical guardianship, is coordinating New Mexico’s first and only class for these professionals, at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque.
However, White observed the new law provides no follow-up to the certification and no way to decertify a professional who violates the standards.
While lawmakers and courts have made progress in making the system more accountable, it is still a system of last resort for those who have not provided themselves with a better alternative.
Any family is still way better off by planning ahead while the elderly family member is competent to make his or her own choices.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    12-9-19
Oil and education go together in New Mexico
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
Education and oil. In New Mexico, the two are inextricably intertwined.
New Mexico must fix its education system to advance our people’s quality of life. Oil is what will pay for it.
Oil and education – and how one depends on the other -- dominated the agenda at the annual legislative forum of the Association of Commerce and Industry, New Mexico’s statewide chamber of commerce. Missing from this meeting were the usual clichés about other aspects of economic development. This was about oil.
Start with the statement by energy executive Deanna Archuleta, introducing a speaker on the oil and gas situation, that “Nowhere in the world is oil produced as responsibly as it is in New Mexico.”
Marty Durbin, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, echoed the point. As long as there is a demand for oil and gas, they will be produced somewhere, the argument goes. It’s better for the environment globally if they are produced here with responsible regulation than someplace like Russia or Iran.
Among many benefits of New Mexico’s oil production, Durbin said, is that U. S. production stabilizes international markets. He pointed to the recent Iranian attack on a Saudi oil facility, which affected Saudi production. American oil kept the international price stable. And of course, there’s the economic benefit to New Mexico, including a 31,000-job increase in the state’s workforce.
To dampen any excessive optimism, David Abbey illustrated why economics is sometimes called the “dismal science.” As director of the Legislative Finance Committee, part of his job is to restrain the spending impulses of legislators in good times. “Be careful with windfalls!” was part of his message. In 2017, he recalled, legislators had to cut budgets by 8 percent and came out of that painful process saying they never wanted to go through that again.
He explained that the volume of oil production is volatile and so is the revenue it produces. With 300 million barrels produced this year, the state was expecting 400 million next year, but the projection is now down to 360 million. To help its revenue projections, the LFC keeps count of active drill rigs. There are now about 100 operating in New Mexico. Any decline in rigs this year means a reduction in revenue next year.
Abbey noted that revenue to the state comes in severance taxes and royalties. Severance taxes are generated from all oil production. Royalties are paid only when oil is produced on land owned by the state.
The recently established “rainy day fund” will help with stability, Abbey said. Under legislation sponsored by the late Rep. Larry Larrañaga, an Albuquerque Republican, the fund will siphon off oil revenue during peak periods and set it aside.
Abbey, like the other ACI speakers, spoke supportively of the current initiatives on education, especially those that add time in the classroom for “at risk” children who start out with educational disadvantages. He said 80 percent of four-year-olds are now in pre-K, and that programs may add as much as two and a-half years of school for some New Mexico children. The K-5 Plus program extends the school year for students in kindergarten through fifth grade by 25 instructional days, with additional days for children in eligible schools.
Abbey also cautioned that appropriations by the Legislature are only the first step in implementing any new education initiatives. In the last year, roughly $100 million appropriated for education was not spent. He said some school districts are not ready to implement the programs.
This meeting was the annual event at which ACI approves the legislative agenda developed by its members. That agenda, including all-out support for the state’s ambitious education initiative, was approved unanimously. This year, nobody is talking about frugality where it comes to spending money on education.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     11-25-19
New Mexico goes all out for the census
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
Part of the planning for the 2020 U. S. census is identifying geographic locations that are hard to count. On a national map that identifies those areas by color, New Mexico is lit up like a Christmas tree.  
The map was shown recently at the state Data Users Conference, an annual gathering of professionals who use population data in their work. The presenter was Robert Rhatigan, a University of New Mexico demographer and state liaison to the Census Bureau.
“If you look at the United States and which demographic groups tends to get undercounted, it’s people of color, people who live in remote areas, people who don’t live in houses with standard addressing and rely on post office boxes, people who live in poverty, children zero to four, and renters,” Rhatigan said in a news release. “If you look at those groups nationwide, we have a higher concentration of each of them living here in New Mexico.”
The state is making an all-out effort to get a complete population count.
In 2017, local governments and state agencies cooperatively conducted an update of home addresses, which resulted in 64,000 updated addresses. This year, with about $3.5 million in state funding, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has created a Complete Count Commission, with representation from her administration, the Legislature, tribes, municipalities and community organizations. The administration has announced a plan to ask for $8 million more.
The program is attempting to partner with “trusted local voices,” including local governments and nonprofits, to persuade New Mexicans that everyone should respond to the census. Coupled with that message is the attempt to assure nervous New Mexicans that their personal data will be confidential for decades. Census Bureau staff take an oath that they will preserve that confidentiality for their life.
The questionnaire is limited to the “short form,” which asks only a few questions. Speakers at the conference said the response is much better for the simpler form than for the longer form that used to be sent to some respondents. The census questions must be answered for each person who is living in your home on April 1.
The infamous “citizenship question,” which would have asked respondents to state whether each individual was or was not a US citizen, is not on the form. That question does appear on other Census Bureau survey questionnaires that rely on population samples rather than the entire population.
Every household should receive a copy of the census form. Respondents can provide their answers online, by telephone, or by filling out the paper copy and mailing it. Online and telephone responses can be made in 12 languages: English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Tagalog, Polish, French, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, and Japanese.
If you don’t respond, a census worker will come to your door. New Mexico is expecting to need 4,000 census workers. Our “hard to count” status means there will be more census workers knocking on doors than in most states. Not surprisingly, that follow-up is regarded as one of the most expensive parts of the census process.
New Mexico is not expected to gain anything as dramatic as a new seat in Congress. The stakes involve money, several billion dollars spread across many federal programs over the next 10 years based upon the official census count. A study from George Washington University calculated that each New Mexican not counted equates to a loss of approximately $3,745 in funding per year.
With all that federal money at stake, New Mexico may be overcoming its usual inertia, getting its act together, and coordinating across agency and jurisdictional boundaries.
Lack of coordination among government agencies has been characteristic of New Mexico government for as long as I’ve been around. If this commission and its many hoped-for partners can achieve the result of a glorious successful census count, let’s hope they all remember how they did it so they can apply the strategy elsewhere.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   11-11-19
Let’s avoid the referendum trap
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
The British initiative known as Brexit is my candidate for the worst referendum in the history of the world.
In Brexit, citizens of the United Kingdom voted in 2017 to withdraw from the European Union by simply voting “leave” or “remain.” The simplicity was massively deceptive.
Now the world is watching as the UK undergoes the agony of trying to get itself out of this complex international treaty, which will affect every citizen of the UK in multiple ways.
Brexit is, thank goodness, not our problem. I mention it because it’s an object lesson in what’s wrong with referenda and why we should be extremely cautious about them.
            In trying to make policy by popular vote, it is hard to get it right and easy to screw it up. The issues are almost always more complicated than what can be captured a yes or no vote on an oversimplified statement.
And, let’s face it, nothing is a grassroots movement by the time it gets to the ballot box. While ideas may start at the grassroots, a referendum involves selling a whole lot of people on the concept so that they will sign petitions. In today’s overheated political environment, that requires support by a professional campaign, which means the movement becomes a business.
A referendum issue known as Democracy Dollars, related to public financing of local election campaigns, slipped onto the ballot in the recent local election in Albuquerque. It failed to pass, though the margin was surprisingly small.
The proposal worked like this: In the local election, there is already money set aside for public financing of candidates. Democracy Dollars would allow voters to determine how that money is distributed by giving voters vouchers worth $25 to apply to a particular candidate. Supposedly this would make running for office easier for candidates who do not appeal to the donor class of voters.
The concept is worth considering. But the language in the official proposition contained the statement: “City Council by ordinance may increase but shall not decrease the dollar amounts in … this section.”
In other words, this proposal would have limited the future ability of the City Council to fix something if the program was not working correctly. Similar tricky language, intended to limit the future power of the local legislative body, had been used in a 2016 attempt to require private employers to provide sick leave. 
            I’m willing to guess that most of the people who signed the petition to get the proposition on the ballot had not read that sentence.
We decide most issues by means of representative government instead of direct democracy because the issues are complex and require analysis. Most of us don’t have the time and energy for that, so we elect representatives to do it for us and to work out their disagreements through debate and compromise. While legislators are far from perfect, the legislative process is the best chance for coming up with laws that work.
And it is the most efficient recourse for amending the law if something isn’t working as intended.
At the state level, New Mexico’s Constitution does not allow citizen initiatives on the ballot. The only way to have a statewide popular vote on an issue is that it first must be approved by the Legislature as a proposed amendment to the state Constitution.
Traditionally, legislators propose amendments only to change existing provisions related to government structure.  They restrain themselves from adding extraneous provisions that belong in ordinary legislation, not the Constitution.
We had a close call a few years ago when some legislators were threatening to propose a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana. They were frustrated by former Gov. Susana Martinez’s recalcitrance in refusing to sign a bill, had she been presented with one. But prudence prevailed and they didn’t do it.
That could have become our little miniature Brexit. Thank goodness.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     10-28-19
What’s behind the doors of massage parlors ?
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
Massage parlors in Albuquerque seem to have bought their signs from the same sign company. Many of the signs are identical, the word “MASSAGE” in bright red letters against a white background.
They are everywhere. I’m beginning to think massage parlors have replaced payday lenders as the most common businesses in strip malls. There are websites where you can read reviews of the parlors in several New Mexico cities. To verify that, I googled an appropriate term (use your imagination), took a quick look, then clicked off within seconds and erased my browser history.  I wanted to wash my computer.
According to one recent news report, there are 849 massage businesses in Albuquerque.  Some of them are quite legitimate, providing genuine health-related services. They identify themselves as therapeutic or medical and none have a big red sign out front. They also have a certificate of New Mexico licensure on the wall.
Before I become too disgusted to continue, let me get to the point: I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that these red-sign massage parlors don’t have workers' compensation insurance.
The workers’ compensation law requires that every business in New Mexico with three or more employees must have workers’ comp insurance. There are a few narrow exemptions, but I assure you, no exemption applies to prostitution – or whatever these places are.
If a business that comes under the coverage requirement doesn’t have coverage and fails to obtain it, the Worker’s Compensation Administration is empowered to take the business to court, obtain a court order, and get a sheriff’s deputy to padlock the doors.
The WCA actually closed such a place once, quite a few years ago, when I worked there.  In those days we didn’t worry about what would happen to the young women who were put out of work.
Today the situation would be different. Today there is a good chance that those young women are not there voluntarily but are human trafficking victims, possibly brought to the United States under false pretenses.
Recently, I’ve been reminding my former colleagues at the WCA that they have the power to shut these businesses down, and it’s the work they ought to be doing. The public display of what appears to be prostitution upsets me a little bit; the likelihood that there are human slaves behind those doors upsets me much more.
Here’s another guess: I’ll bet some of those businesses are not reporting wages and paying unemployment insurance tax to the Department of Workforce Solutions using employees’ real names. I’ll bet they’re not taking payroll deductions against employees’ income tax and filing with the Taxation and Revenue Department. I seriously doubt they follow the laws regarding minimum wage and overtime, or OSHA safety rules.
It wouldn’t surprise me if they are violating local zoning laws, especially if the employees are living in the building. Zoning is a municipal issue.
Finally, it’s doubtful they have a New Mexico massage license.  The state Massage Therapy Board, a division of the Regulation and Licensing Department, could probably close them down, if it had adequate staff. Isn’t that why that board exists?
I started suggesting years ago, when I worked at the WCA, that it would make sense to have an inter-agency coordinating council for all the agencies that have a regulatory role in employment. I’m suggesting it again.
New Mexico has an interagency task force for human trafficking, as I wrote a few weeks ago. There is also an agency called Life Link (505-438-3733) that can coordinate services for the trafficked individuals, who will be greatly in need of help and support when they are freed from their captors.
All those government agencies have enforcement capabilities. I don’t know what their enforcement bureaus are doing, but those red signs tell me they are not doing enough.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      10-14-19
Human trafficking can be anywhere
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
The girl looked out from my computer screen with big round eyes and a sad face. She was maybe 12 years old, an ordinary looking white girl with long straight hair. Behind her was a featureless background. Text below her picture invited me to converse.
I had stumbled on this website by accident, and I was shocked. My first instinct was to protect my computer so I clicked off. Moments later, I realized I had lost the connection to what probably was a trafficked child – only because I’ve seen this very thing on TV’s “Law and Order: SVU.”
When I tried to find that website again, I couldn’t get back to it.
I called the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children but admitted that my information was probably too minimal to be helpful. If I’d been thinking faster, I might have saved details or taken a screenshot of the girl to pass on to law enforcement.
On other occasions, when teenagers came to my door selling candy or other items at absurdly inflated prices, I thought it was probably a scam but not that I might be looking at trafficked children. Traveling sales crews, as they are called, are another form of exploitation.  While sex trafficking is the best known, labor trafficking also occurs, involving both minors and adults.
If you see something suspicious, there’s now a national phone number with a specific mandate: National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888, You can contact the hotline by phone, text message, email, or chat. The instructions are on the website. If you think you’re seeing an emergency, you can also call your local police or 911.
The hotline is operated by a private organization called Polaris, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other sources. 
New Mexico has a multi-agency Human Trafficking Task Force, with the Attorney General’s Office as the lead agency. The task force consists of local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies, prosecutorial agencies, and service providers from around the state. Its purposes include both prosecuting traffickers and providing services to victims.
The hotline has handled about 52,000 cases since 2007. In New Mexico, there were 70 cases reported in 2018.
The national statistics of reported cases show that trafficked individuals were about 7-to-1 female to male. There were about twice as many adults as children.
Sex trafficking was the biggest reported type, but there were also many reports of labor trafficking, including domestic work, agriculture, traveling sales crews, restaurants, construction and illicit activities. Sex trafficking victims were found in illicit massage businesses, residence-based commercial sex, hotels and motels, truck stops, pornography, and online advertising.  Some victims may be people from other countries who were forcibly detained so that they overstayed their visas,     and now they’re here illegally.
A speaker at a recent meeting, who asked me not to publish her name for security reasons, said the hotline receives more calls from witnesses than from victims. Some of those witnesses may be casual observers who see something that doesn’t look right.
There has been, as one example, educational outreach to tattoo artists. Sometimes the handlers use tattooing to literally mark their property.
Prostitutes and other people doing illegal or suspicious activities may be victims rather than criminals. Our speaker said public awareness of this has been growing.
Not all cases are considered trafficking because, for example, an adult prostitute could be acting voluntarily. But where the person is underage, every case is considered trafficking because minors can’t legally give consent.
As with many kinds of crime, you can’t predict when you’ll come across the opportunity to take action, possibly saving a life. It’s just a phone call. Next time, I will be better prepared and hope you will be, also.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES        9-23-19
Public and private could combine to push broadband into rural areas
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
Under railroad tracks throughout New Mexico lies buried treasure. The treasure is black fiber.
Black fiber, also called dark fiber, is fiber-optic cable that nobody is using, cable that someone had the good sense to put into the ground anticipating that it might be needed in the future.
We don’t know completely where the fiber is, because it’s probably only buried under track that’s been repaired within recent years, and we don’t know exactly who owns it or has the relevant records.
The word “we” in this context means the individuals in both the public and private sectors who are trying to create a comprehensive state broadband plan.
There are lots of participants, both public and private sector, and as of now nobody is in charge.  All this has to be worked out.
Sen. Michael Padilla has been working on broadband for several years and has introduced legislation to get the parties together. So far he’s been partially successful.
The Association of Commerce and Industry is trying to spearhead a process called a gap analysis, which means figuring out what we know and don’t know, along with an inventory of what we have and don’t have.
For example, according to a 2017 study by the Legislative Finance Committee, 92 percent of New Mexico schools have fiber, but in many cases the fiber doesn’t go beyond the school building. High school students sit in their cars in the school parking lot, using the school’s wi-fi to do their homework.
Functioning internet connections require two things: the fiber and the electronic boxes that make the connections work.
As the LFC report explains: “There are three main types of wired broadband technologies: digital subscriber line (DSL), cable, and fiber optics. DSL is run over telephone wires and is most commonly the only available connection to the home in rural areas. Cable runs over cable television wires and is largely available to the home in urban and higher density rural areas. Fiber is run over flexible glass tubes and is available to the home only in parts of Albuquerque, with some exceptions.”
The report continues: “Only fiber is suitable for users that want to engage in heavy broadband traffic like streaming video on multiple devices, managing large online datasets, or running cloud-based software applications. Wireless technologies are also widely available, but are limited to low speeds for most users for the foreseeable future.”
In other words, meaningful economic activity in rural communities requires fiber, and the fiber has to get past the school into the neighborhoods – the “last mile.”
This is expensive, but we won’t know how expensive until we know in more detail what’s needed. Back to that gap analysis. The next stage of cooperation will require a very big table with chairs for lots of people, including those who provide these services (such as phone and cable TV companies) and those who need them.
The LFC report suggests that the solution is to aggregate demand, meaning all potential big data users in a community should pool resources and share the costs and maintenance responsibilities. That includes schools, colleges, government agencies, hospitals, businesses, and so on. The report says that has been successful in other states.
To create that big table and get this all coordinated, Padilla plans to introduce legislation next year to create one central office for statewide high-speed broadband – probably within the existing state Department of Information Technology, known as DoIT.
I have commented repeatedly that New Mexico government agencies and organizations are not particularly good at working across organizational boundaries, cooperating or sharing resources.  Our governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, has obviously noticed the same problem and talks about state government breaking out of silos. Broadband development is one where cooperation, coordination and communication can make a huge difference.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

​© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES        9-16-19
If we legalize marijuana, let’s get it right
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
Marijuana for sale in state-run stores? In New Mexico? Are you kidding?
To at least a few legislators, the idea is completely serious.
Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, is one. In 2019 he was a sponsor of Senate Bill 577, which proposes exactly that. The 133-page bill didn’t pass. A governor-appointed task force recently rejected the concept and instead favored private regulated stores. However, this approach is likely to be offered again next year.
The bill doesn’t attempt to bring medical cannabis under this program.
Moores calls himself a libertarian-leaning, free-market Republican. He describes co-sponsors, Sens. Craig Brandt and Cliff Pirtle, as having similar leanings. Why propose to expand state government into the retail business with the exclusive right to sell recreational marijuana?
Precisely because he’s a free-market businessman, Moores said, and knows how business people think. In a free market, private owners have an incentive to increase sales by every legal means. As a matter of public policy, it is not desirable to “market” marijuana. One way to bypass the marketing impulse is to have it sold by salaried state employees with no commission or incentive to expand sales.
Moores points to Joe Camel, the cute cartoon figure that was used to market Camel Cigarettes. Critics said Joe Camel was deliberately created to make cigarettes appealing to children.
The e-cigarette controversy speaks for itself. Though they’ve only been around for a few years, e-cigarettes are being linked to mysterious lung illnesses and a few deaths – so far no deaths reported in New Mexico.
The best-known e-cig brand, JUUL, claims it limits its product to adults only but has flavors like grape and strawberry milk. The flavored products have been banned in Michigan and are expected to be banned nationally.
Moores says state-run cannabis stores would have no incentive to promote sales but rather could be accurate in labeling products for potency. Readers may remember the 2018 column by my colleague Sherry Robinson, recounting a visit to Colorado, where she tried an “edible” marijuana product and wound up in the emergency room because she had had no idea how strong it was.
A private-sector marketplace of marijuana would have to be regulated to prevent a whole host of possible bad things (the imagination runs wild), just as the current private marketplace in medical marijuana is regulated.
Moores was concerned – so was I – about the recent court ruling that says New Mexico must make medical marijuana available to out-of-state customers.  That decision creates a host of potential problems, including the issue of transport across state lines.
There’s a question of what the recreational marketplace would look like, whether it would rapidly be dominated by a few corporations that would then have leverage to throw their weight around, what the regulatory challenges might be and how to avoid a tangled mess like New Mexico’s infamous liquor license system, which I wrote about recently.
The argument can be made that it might be better for the state to run the stores, keep the regulatory structure in-house and pocket the profits for the benefit of taxpayers.
The counterargument is – let’s face it – New Mexico does not have a great track record in the implementation of lofty goals. Sprinkled through my columns are repeated calls to “please let’s do this one (insert subject) right because it’s is really important.” Education, corrections, road building – in so many areas we have aimed high and fallen short. So if we do this, we’d better do it thoughtfully and thoroughly.
However we decide to allow cannabis distribution, legalizing it is a risky proposition. The state store concept has its risks, but makes it less likely that New Mexico will sell marijuana-laced gummy bears and pretend they are not going to children. 
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       9-2-19                            
Governor, remember workers' compensation!
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
When the Lujan Grisham administration announced that all the cabinet positions had been filled, some of us were quite surprised. What about the Worker’s Compensation Administration?
The WCA has had no director since the previous director resigned last December. Deputy director Verily Jones has been acting director ever since. That’s a pretty long stint in an interim position.
By the time you read this, I hope a new director has been appointed. At an August 14 meeting of the Workers' Compensation Advisory Council, it was announced that candidates for the position had been interviewed, but there was no further word. At least the governor had appointed new members to the council.
The WCA has always been a stepchild in state government. Most people, regrettably including legislators, don’t know what it’s for. When originally created, the agency was “administratively attached” to the then-Department of Labor, so it was (mistakenly) viewed as a division of that department.
It’s also confusing that the head of the agency is called “director,” not “secretary,” and so has not always been treated as a cabinet member.
Not having full authority, Jones has been unable to fill positions requiring a director’s appointment, such as the agency’s general counsel. This has limited the agency’s functioning.
The administration is aware of the WCA. Staff members got their picture taken with the governor at a “Constituent Day” early in August. And somehow a workers' compensation judge’s reappointment was accomplished, announced August 23. The term of Judge Leonard Padilla was to expire at the end of August. Since Jones did not have authority to reappoint him, we presume there was approval from higher up.
The agency’s reason for existing is that workers’ compensation is an intricate system involving several competing interests. Long experience shows the system has to be regulated to work effectively and fairly.
Workers’ comp covers the cases of workers injured at work, paying for medical care and compensation benefits. Almost all employers are required to have workers’ comp insurance as a condition of staying in business.
The WCA is partly an administrative law court that adjudicates workers' comp disputes, including mandatory mediation to reduce formal litigation.
The agency’s regulatory functions include enforcing the insurance coverage requirement, maintaining a fee schedule for healthcare services, providing workplace safety services, an ombudsman program to answer the questions of confused injured workers, and other tasks that only make sense if you understand the system, which most people don’t.
No wonder the Legislature has made a habit of skimming off some the agency’s money every year.
The WCA is funded by a fee, paid by employers and workers: $2 deducted from paychecks once per quarter, matched by $2.30 from the employer, set aside in a earmarked fund. The legislative intent was that revenue will increase as the workforce grows, so the agency can expand to respond to the needs of employers and workers -- for example, by employing more ombudsmen or regulatory compliance staff.
Revenue has grown from about $7 million 20 years ago to about $11 million currently. But in the annual budget process, the Legislature has never let the agency spend all the money. So a “surplus” was always left, and, year after year, the Legislature moved the “surplus” somewhere else. In the last few years, it’s been about $1.5 million annually to the department now called Workforce Solutions, formerly Labor.
The newly reconstituted Advisory Council has adopted a formal resolution asking the Legislature to stop this.
I’ve always thought that if the fee generates more money than the Legislature thinks the agency needs, the Legislature should reduce the fee, rather than misleading the public and giving the “surplus” to somebody else. But far better would be for legislators to understand what this agency does and let it be funded properly to do its job.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

 © 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     8-19-19
State’s liquor license system is out of hand
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
To call New Mexico’s liquor license law a mess would be an understatement. The law is blatantly unfair in how it allocates access to liquor licenses, and it’s not helpful either to the state or to New Mexico citizens.
But it’s almost impossible to correct. Legislators keep trying.
There are a fixed number of liquor licenses in the state – exactly 1,411, according to Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, who’s been working on the issue for years. Unless the law is changed, no more licenses will be issued, perhaps ever. The number is based on a quota system: one license for every 2,000 persons. Under the quota system, there are already too many licenses.
The quota applies only to the most comprehensive type of license, a dispenser’s license.
A liquor license is originally issued to a business by the state. But licenses have acquired commercial value and been sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Businesses have made huge investments to buy licenses, which are so valuable banks have accepted them as collateral on loans.
This is the result of a process that got out of hand decades ago.
New Mexico should never have allowed liquor licenses to be sold and acquire commercial value. If we could start over from scratch, the law should have said that a liquor license belongs to the original applicant, and if the applicant surrenders that license, it would disappear, just like your driver’s license.
But the quota system prevented the issuance of new licenses. Prior to a major change in the law in the 1980s, licenses could not be sold across county lines. So you can imagine how a local neighborhood bar with an old license might be under pressure from a new hotel or supermarket to sell the license for a handsome profit.
The quota system was intended to prevent having too many alcohol dispensers, as a deterrent against excessive drinking. As our DWI problem attests, clearly that hasn’t worked. It just forced determined drinkers to drive farther.
Naturally, market pressure increased to allow licenses to be sold across county lines, from small counties to the wealthier growing counties. The poor city dwellers had been suffering from too much sobriety.
The 1980s legislation legalized sales of dispenser’s licenses across county lines. It also created new restrictions about which rights could be transferred.
An original dispenser’s license allows both package sales and sales by the drink. But if the owner sells the license to a business in another city or county, the new owner may lose the right to sell package liquor.
Because the state could not fix this system, and we were stuck with this limited number of licenses, the legislature created restaurant licenses allowing the sale of beer and wine, restricted to restaurants that serve food, and the newest licenses for breweries and wineries that produce their own product.
These categories create mind-boggling compliance issues.
For example, to keep its restaurant license, a restaurant has to document that 60 percent of last year’s sales were for food. A division of the Regulation and Licensing Department, recently renamed the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, is supposed to keep tabs on this.
All this complication is the result of two opposing forces. On one side, consumers want to have a drink, and many businesses would like to sell and serve those drinks. On the other side, existing license holders sank their money into a license that was supposed to assure profit by limiting the competition.
Griggs has submitted bill after bill trying to tinker with technical details to expand the number of licenses. He says there’s a simple but monumentally unacceptable solution: the legislature could abolish the quota system. It is unacceptable because it’s outrageously unfair to existing license holders. Griggs will not propose it and probably neither will anybody else.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     8-5-19
Oh, those high salaries
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
 I used to say to myself, “New Mexico, love it or leave it.” I was thinking about salaries.
I have changed my thinking.
This is New Mexico, I thought. New Mexico is a special place and we are all lucky to be here. People who have an opportunity to make more money somewhere else should stay and contribute their talents here. Since most New Mexicans don’t make much money, we can’t afford exorbitant salaries and should not have to pay them, especially to some out-of-state hotshot.
If you have had similar thoughts, perhaps they go something like this: Why should this person get so much more money just because they’re coming from out of state? If we’re going to pay anybody such a high salary, shouldn’t it be a New Mexican? By doing a national search, are we saying that New Mexicans are not good enough?
Not the most productive way to think.
Recently Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham fired the secretary of the Public Education Department, and the governor’s office announced there would be a national search.
The fired secretary, Karen Trujillo, is a New Mexican who was a teacher, principal, and education researcher hired from New Mexico State University. The education community had embraced her. The hostility of that community toward Martinez-era education Secretary Hanna Skandera had been colored by a tinge of resentment because she was one of those out-of-state hotshots.
The governor had intended to do a national search for secretary of the Corrections Department. Eventually, after several months with the position vacant, she promoted Alisha Tafoya Lucero from within.
An appointment for Corrections had been announced in January, but the nominee withdrew. The nominee, Julie Jones, had been head of the prison system in Florida, a system whose problems were similar to ours but on a much larger scale.  
New Mexico’s corrections system needs massive improvement. It’s possible that the experience of a leader from a larger and more complex system, plus that leader’s outside perspective, might have enabled our corrections system to take a great leap forward. With no disrespect to the new secretary, we have missed that opportunity for now.
A long time legislator commented to me that if we are committed to genuine corrections reform, we should find the best expert available. But why, the legislator said, would someone come to New Mexico to take the top spot, if, in another state, that person could earn double the salary and have twice the number of deputies to support an ambitious reform program?
Recently the governor announced across-the-board salary increases for cabinet secretaries. Indignant gasps were heard and a few editorial pages rattled. Those secretaries are now earning $131,000. I hate to say it, but in some states that is not an executive salary.
In Albuquerque, there’s been controversy about how big a raise to give to the superintendent of schools, who was hired from within. Her last couple of predecessors, men recruited from out of state, earned more than she is earning now, but turned out to be duds. They earned more than she will be earning if she gets the maximum raise under consideration.
There have been a few expensive disasters at our universities, particularly distasteful because of the grandiose contract buyout provisions.
Do you remember William Bratton? He became the Police Commissioner in New York City at a time when the city was desperate to solve its crime problem. He instituted major changes of policy that resulted in a dramatic turnaround. Someone who can produce results like that is worth far more than what he is paid.
So it is not productive to be resentful of high salaries. Sometimes they pay off. In the case of critical departments like Education and Corrections, they are worth an educated gamble.
Maybe we need a really expensive out-of-state consultant to advise on the selection process.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      7-22-19
Counting New Mexico’s children
 By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
New Mexico is once again at the bottom of the barrel for the well-being of children. The annual survey known as Kids Count has placed us at 50 out of 50.
Kids Count measures categories in the areas of economic well-being, education, health, and family and community. Behind the summary numbers are detailed analyses of characteristics that affect the lives of children and teenagers.
In economic well-being, the survey says 27 percent of New Mexico children live in poverty; 36 percent of their parents lack secure employment; 28 percent live in households that spend more than 30 percent of their pretax income on housing-related expenses; and 10 percent of teenagers are neither in school nor working.
These numbers do not surprise us, unfortunately. These issues bring us back to the difficult question of how to address rural poverty. It’s hard to create jobs in very small towns. Other states are not doing well with this issue, either.  
The education category is just plain alarming: 56 percent of young children are not in school; 75 percent of fourth-graders are not proficient in reading; 80 percent of eighth graders are not proficient in math; and 29 percent of high school students are not graduating on time.
We’ve been beating ourselves up about education for decades. With the new governor and new revenue from oil and gas, there are ambitious new initiatives this year. New Mexico must stick to the commitment to expand early childhood education, after-school programs and summer programs.
The health numbers look better than I would have guessed: 9.5 percent of babies are low birth weight; 5 percent of children have no health insurance; the child and teen death rate is 32 deaths per 100,000; and 6 percent of teens abuse alcohol or drugs. The death rate is not much worse than the national average of 26, and the drug and alcohol number is higher than the national average but lower than I would have expected. The report reminds us that the leading cause of death for children is accidents, especially motor vehicle.
In the category of family and community, two numbers stand out. First, 45 percent of children live in single-parent families. That’s a very significant number. A child living with only one adult is at a great disadvantage in many ways.
However, the report’s footnotes say “single parent” households include unmarried couples living together. Two parents in the household are generally better than one, married or not.
Second, the teen birth rate is 28 per 1,000 population. That is more than twice as much as the teen birth rate for non-Hispanic whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The national statistics show that Hispanics, African-Americans and Native Americans have much higher teen birth rates.
This high number reminds us that education is not just about reading and arithmetic but also about cultural values, attitudes and expectations.
New Mexico does more than tolerate teenagers having babies. We accept it. Perhaps New Mexico’s institutions –– public, private and religious –– should be working harder at strategies to persuade vulnerable teenagers that it’s better to wait, or to persuade parents to impart those values to their children.
It’s well-established that when teenagers have children, the socioeconomic outcomes are significantly worse compared to teens who complete their education before becoming parents. They’re less likely to graduate and will have reduced their career and income options dramatically.
We don’t have to fall back on old concepts of morality that teenagers probably won’t believe anyway. There are ways to frame a message to young people about what is in their best interest.
The teen birth rate number is a contributor to all of those other problem statistics. Expanding access to education will help reduce that number, no doubt. Maybe we should go a little further and make it the next goal New Mexico sets.

Contact Merilee Dannemann through
  © 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    7-8-19
Medicare for all, whatever that means
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
“Medicare for all” is not a program. It’s a slogan. We don’t know what it means until somebody defines it.
By itself, it is not a solution to America’s health care needs.
Medicare for all was hotly debated during the recent Democratic presidential debate and will continue to be a major topic during the presidential primary season.
New Mexicans may want to consider what the effect would be in our state, especially since more than half of our population is covered by Medicare or Medicaid or both.
The version advocated by Sen. Bernie Sanders, as expressed in legislation he has already introduced, would make medical care free to everybody and would add services not currently covered, such as dental and vision care.
With this version, Americans would no longer pay insurance premiums but would pay for health care through taxes.
TV commentators occasionally try to play “gotcha” with Sanders by asking him to “admit” that his proposal would cause a tax increase. Of course it would. We would be paying for health coverage through taxes rather than insurance premiums. The presumed tax increase would be a saving – perhaps a big one -- compared to the cost of insurance. I have found Sanders to be remarkably inept in trying to explain this very simple concept.
            The first obvious problem that Medicare does not solve is that it does not pay healthcare providers enough. Providers commonly say they couldn’t keep their doors open if Medicare were their only source of compensation. The system now is kept afloat by the much higher reimbursement rates paid by private insurers, which act as a form of subsidy for both Medicare and Medicaid.
If private payers are eliminated, the reimbursement rates will have to be increased. New Mexico’s reimbursement is lower than many other states based on a cost-of-living formula is not helpful to us. New Mexico policymakers should be ready to raise that issue.
Medicare does not help us to have enough doctors or facilities or access. That low reimbursement rate is one of the reasons. One recent study ranked New Mexico 48th in access to physicians.
A counterbalance is New Mexico’s malpractice law. Our state has a very low cap for malpractice awards to wronged patients. That helps providers to have relatively low malpractice insurance costs, which is good for everybody except victims of malpractice and their lawyers.
It was not surprising that legislation was introduced this year to increase the maximum malpractice award to $25 million. It was also not surprising that the legislation didn’t get very far. But it will surely be back.
            Solving the problem of access to health care requires not just more doctors. It also requires more innovation and creative solutions. New Mexico is on the front lines of such innovation with Project Echo, a program created at the University of New Mexico that now has global reach, where specialists and experts teleconference with providers wherever they are. Using a different strategy, the recently enacted dental therapy law is an example of how lower paid providers with limited licenses can be used to dramatically stretch resources.
Medicare for all also does not by itself address the outrageous cost of pharmaceuticals. That’s a major cost driver in health care, and it will take separate legislation and perhaps a change in the lobbying laws to get prices down to the relatively reasonable levels of other countries.
            My best guess is that national support will swing to one of the more centrist presidential candidates and a policy that moves gradually toward a single national coverage plan.
The Democratic Party is currently the only “big tent” party, with candidates and ideas ranging from center to left. We’re likely to hear those ideas debated vigorously over the next several months. Let’s not prejudge, but examine them against the template of what works for New Mexico.

 Contact Merilee Dannemann through© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     6-24-19
Voter registration access will get easier
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
New Mexico is making it easier for voters to register to vote or update their registration, starting after the 2020 presidential election.
This year’s Senate Bill 672 provides that, beginning in 2021, voters may register or update their registration any time up to and including Election Day.
The bill also provides for so-called “automatic” registration when an individual applies in person for a motor vehicle license or any state issued benefits.
It isn’t completely automatic. An eligible voter is to be offered a choice whether to register or not. The process is designed to prevent anyone who is not an eligible voter, such as a noncitizen, from being registered by accident.  
As you might expect, the bill is full of procedural details about how this is to be done to avoid errors or duplications.
Every voter must choose political party affiliation. If you don’t want to affiliate with any party, you register as DTS or “Decline to State.” Our recognized major parties are Democrat, Republican and Libertarian.
The Green Party is a minor party, having lost its major party status some years ago. New Mexico also recognizes the Better for America Party and the Constitution Party. These parties have no primary.
A new voter can register until election day with any affiliation, but if you are changing your registration –  for example, if you have changed your address – you may not change party in a last-minute registration.
This provision is most likely intended to prevent voters from playing fast and loose with the primary process by voting in the primary of the opposing party. According to Sen. Daniel Ivey Soto, a co-sponsor of the bill, this has hardly ever happened, but some legislators apparently worry about it anyway.
The Secretary of State’s office shows 1,273,775 total registered voters as of January 2019. Registered Democrats totaled 582,279, or 45.7 percent; Republicans 386,441, or 30.3 percent; Libertarians 9,995, or 0.8 percent, DTS 282,299, or 22.2 percent; and other parties 12,761, or 1 percent. The office estimated there were about 385,000 unregistered eligible voters in 2018.
In New Mexico’s closed primary system, only registered members of major parties can vote in that party’s primary. DTS and minor party voters don’t participate.
In addition, only party members can validly sign nominating petitions for candidates in partisan elections, vote in pre-primary nominating conventions, or serve as party officials.
Nowhere is there any requirement to agree with the policy positions of your political party, whether officially adopted in a party platform or unwritten and favored by the current leadership. You can affiliate with a party because you like what it stands for, or because you want to influence what it stands for, or for any reason you choose. In some northern New Mexico counties, for example, it’s common to register Democrat because local elections are likely to be decided in the Democratic primary.
And there’s never been any obligation to vote for your party’s nominees in the general election.
Newly registered New Mexico voters are less likely to register in a party. From March 2017 through August 2018, 43,434 new voters registered, and more than 50 percent registered as other than Democrat or Republican.
New Mexico has a movement advocating open primaries (, which would allow independent voters to vote in primaries. About half the states now have such systems. Though they’re all a little different, the general principle is that the unaffiliated voter gets to choose which ballot to vote.
In 19 states, voters do not register in a party. In 18 of those states, they just register. North Dakota has no registration at all but a somewhat restrictive voter ID process (the state tried to disenfranchise Native Americans last year with restrictive address requirements but was stopped).
Open registration seems quite radical even to suggest in New Mexico, but it may be worth talking about.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through

© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     6-10-19
Mass shootings becoming business as usual
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
There’s a new standard of heroism in America. The hero is the one who jumps in front of the shooter, saving lives while sacrificing his own. It happened twice in recent weeks.
This is a new subject for frank talks between parents and teenagers. You may be the mom or dad who pleads with your teenager not to be a hero.
John Castillo, father of 18-year-old dead hero Kendrick Castillo, had that talk with his son. Kendrick did the opposite, jumped in front of the shooter, and was killed in the attack on a high school south of Denver on May 7.
College student Riley Howell was killed while tackling the shooter at the University of North Carolina on April 30.
On May 17, in Portland, Ore., the hero was a coach, Keanon Lowe. He tackled the gunman before shooting started. He and everyone else at the school, including the gunman, lived to tell about it.
The hero phenomenon is an escalation of the school shooting phenomenon. In one incident last year, a 29-year-old teacher was the hero, disarming a 13-year-old student. The teacher was injured; no one was killed.
During the Aztec High School incident in December 2017, several staff members took quick action and helped save lives, but nobody jumped in front of the gunman.
Training and preparing for active shooter incidents has become an industry. In New Mexico, our Public Schools Insurance Authority has hired a consulting firm to train personnel. I recently attended a presentation on preventing and responding to active shooters, for both workplaces and schools.
I found especially troubling the reminder, now commonly repeated, to be suspicious, in our workplaces and classrooms, of individuals who behave oddly. Watch out not only for the bully but for the one who is bullied and silently smolders with resentment. It makes perfect sense, but is hardly the way I’d like to view my fellow human beings.
In active shooter situations, the presenter said, it’s better to run than hide. That’s because it’s hard to hit a moving target. Statistically, you are likely to survive if hit. If you have to hide, barricade the door of the room and hide in a “hard corner,” one that cannot be seen if the shooter breaks the glass in the door. Hiding under a school desk is almost useless.
But stopping that troubled individual from getting that gun is still something we can’t agree on.
The 2019 New Mexico legislature passed a law (SB 8) requiring background checks for gun purchases and another law (SB 328) prohibiting domestic abusers and persons convicted of domestic violence-related crimes from possessing firearms.
The sheriffs of 26 of New Mexico’s 33 counties have declared they won’t enforce these laws. County commissions have supported these declarations, declaring themselves “Second Amendment sanctuary” counties. That includes San Juan County, where Aztec is located.
Kendrick Castillo and Riley Howell, the heroes, have been deservedly celebrated in their own communities. They will probably get school buildings or parks named after them. Perhaps Aztec will do something similar for the two dead students, Casey Jordan Marquez and Francisco Fernandez. Ask their parents whether they’d rather have a monument or a live child.
The Internet has created insidious new ways for children to feel isolated and left out. The ubiquity of news coverage provides models of how to use violence to express rage. And our gun culture continues to give ready access to weapons to anybody who wants them. “Harden” the school buildings and the shooters will use a bus stop or the football field.
And now Virginia Beach, 12 dead. Business as usual.
In America, we would rather keep our guns and risk losing our children. So this is not going to change. Get used to it.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through