​Merilee Dannemann 


© 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 www.triplespacedagain.com


© 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 www.triplespacedagain.com

© 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, humantraffickinghotline.org). 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 www.triplespacedagain.com

© 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 www.triplespacedagain.com.

​© 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 www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 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 www.triplespacedagain.com.

 © 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 www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 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 www.triplespacedagain.com.© 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 www.triplespacedagain.com.
  © 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 www.triplespacedagain.com.© 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 (www.NMOpenPrimaries.org), 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 www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 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 www.triplespacedagain.com.

 

© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      5-27-19
More controversy at PERA
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
At least three separate controversies are going on these days at PERA, the Public Employees Retirement Association. One involves hundreds of thousands of dollars, the second involves billions, and the third involves open meetings.
PERA is the agency that pays pensions to New Mexico state and local government retirees. PERA is somewhere between a government agency and a private organization. It’s funded by mandatory contributions from active employees (future retirees) and their employers. It’s governed by a combination of state law and its own board, elected by active employees and retirees.
A critical aspect of PERA’s mission is managing the billions of dollars (currently about $15.3 billion) in the fund to ensure that there is enough money to pay pensions into the foreseeable future.
The six-figure controversy is about salaries at PERA. Director Wayne Propst has had a couple of generous salary increases, approved only by the chairperson of the board, not the whole board as required by law. One version of the story is that then-Chair Patricia French was inappropriately persuaded to sign the first salary increase in 2014. Other employees have also received generous salary increases that were not authorized by the full board.
This has become controversial now because the information came to light only last year.
At the recent annual meeting of RPE of New Mexico, the retirees’ watchdog organization, there were some very angry people and talk of lawsuits. (Disclosure: I am a state retiree, an RPE member, and an interested party in all of this.)
The much bigger issue is the long-term solvency of PERA-- keeping the promises that were made to more than 40,000 retirees and 50,000 current employees.
There are good reasons to keep the pension system stable. A stable pension system benefits not only the recipients but also, especially in our economically fragile state, the communities whose well-being is supported by secure pensions. And government agencies need incentives to attract qualified employees, especially in professional positions, who could earn higher salaries in the private sector.
In 2013, retirees accepted a reduction in their annual cost-of-living adjustment. This year, House Bill 338 proposed to suspend all cost-of-living increases for three years and then change the rate of increase to a formula instead of a number. The legislation also would have increased the contributions from both employees and employers. The bill died because of strenuous objections. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has appointed a Solvency Task Force to meet over the next few months and develop a plan.
Retirees are asking why, if we fixed the problem five years ago, isn’t it fixed? That is the multibillion-dollar issue, and it’s related to the salary question.
As I wrote last year, the PERA board reformed its practices to reduce board member participation in investment decisions and give more authority to staff. The theory is that expert staff will likely make better investment decisions than board members, who are amateurs. A majority of board members were in favor of this, but a few were furious.
It’s argued that investment experts are highly prized and if we don’t pay them enough, they’ll go elsewhere. I agree with that. If they can make investment decisions that put PERA on firm ground, they are worth whatever we pay them. But obviously that hasn’t happened, or we wouldn’t need a solvency task force.
The third issue that’s infuriating activist retirees is the decision to conduct most of the meetings of the Solvency Task Force behind closed doors. Meetings are scheduled for June 6, June 20, July 11, August 9, and tentatively August 22. Only the August 9 meeting is scheduled to be open to the public.
Retirees pay close attention to their pensions. If the task force proposes another cut in their future benefits, retirees won’t go quietly.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

​​© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     5-13-19
New Mexico legislation moves slowly toward recognition of animals
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
Of all the bills that died in this year’s legislature, I thought surely the pet food tax would have passed.
The pet food tax – excuse me, fee – passed comfortably last year and was vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez. I thought it deserved easy passage. Instead it died early in the session. The bill was House Bill 53, sponsored by Rep. Joanne Ferrary, who was a cosponsor last year
The bill would have levied a small tax, or maybe a fee, on the manufacturers of pet food and earmarked the money for spay and neuter programs. The analysis last year estimated revenue of about $1.3 million.
The bill was stopped by a newly discovered technical issue related to the difference between a tax and a fee. Co-sponsor Sen. Jacob Candelaria introduced a similar bill, SB 367, that was stopped for the same reason, Ferrary explained in a recent conversation.
Ferrary is confident the issues will be reconciled during the interim and the bill brought back next year or in 2021.
Ferrary also lost out on HB 52, which would have added household pets or companion animals to those protected in the definition of domestic abuse. So if an abuser threatens, injures or kills a family pet as a way of controlling or abusing family members, that information could be used to obtain an order of protection. Ferrary said this bill didn’t make it because time ran out.
She also introduced HB 54, which would have removed the requirement that if a dog kills or injures livestock or poultry it must be killed. The bill would have left the decision to the owner of the livestock, recognizing the possibility of mitigating circumstances.
Bills like these show that New Mexicans are increasingly aware that treating animals compassionately is part of what makes us humane human beings. SB 76 by Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, and Jeff Steinborn, D- Las Cruces, the bill that banned coyote killing contests, was this year’s big success in the area of animal-related issues.
Several other bills didn’t get very far.
HB 218, by Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, should have passed. It was pocket vetoed in 2017. This bill attempted to make it easier for horse rescue organizations to save horses.
The bill said when the state livestock board has custody of a stray horse, rescue organizations should get a chance to buy the horse at a modest fee before the horse is auctioned. This would allow the rescue to get the horse at a low price rather than having to bid against other unknown buyers, including “killer buyers” who would sell the horse for slaughter in Mexico. It’s a simple enough concept and costs the state almost nothing.
I’m puzzled that HB 598, by Rep. Karen Bash, D-Albuquerque, didn’t make it. This bill refers to first responders at the scene of an accident who provide emergency medical treatment to injured animals. Since they are not licensed veterinarians, this bill would have established that it is legally okay for them to provide such treatment.
I can’t argue with the defeat of House Bill 445, also sponsored by Ferrary. Titled the Wild Horse Protection and Habitat Act, it started as a very ambitious bill to protect the state’s wild horses, establishing a range of protections that would have done much to save horses but would have cost millions of dollars that were not budgeted.
Ferrary told me the bill was pared down to the limited purpose of creating a state Equine Board, separate from the Livestock Board, but it still probably was too much of a stretch for most legislators.
This bill is visionary. Someday, when we have solved our educational and economic problems and become the wealthiest state in the nation, we should pass it.  
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    4-15-19
The capital outlay secret
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            Every year, the Legislature divides up a pot of money known as capital outlay, for one-time expenses such as construction, repair, and purchases of equipment. This year the total has approached a billion dollars.
The process of dividing the money is done behind the scenes, out of public view. Open government advocates have been ranting about this secrecy for the last few years.
Since New Mexico’s capital outlay structure is designed largely to provide bragging rights to legislators, the secrecy seems absurd.
But more absurd, and far more important, is the method used to divide up the money, which has received national recognition for its stupidity.
The process goes like this: legislators submit wish lists of projects to be considered for funding. Each legislator’s list is probably longer than what can realistically be funded. Legislators know some of their requests will be chopped off.
Meanwhile, the finance committees are calculating how much money in total will be available. When the numbers are crunched, the projects selected for final approval are packaged into one or two long and detailed bills. This year the main bill was Senate Bill 280.
You can read every legislator’s original list on the Legislature’s website (nmlegis.gov).
Somewhere between the submission of those lists and the final legislation, decisions are being made about what to fund and what to cut. That’s the big secret. When the final legislation comes out, it’s not clear which legislator’s allocation paid for which projects or how it was decided.
Here is where this lack of transparency gets mixed up with the bigger issue, the formula for dividing the money, which is unwritten and unofficial, but a hallowed New Mexico tradition.
Of all the available capital outlay money, the governor gets one third. One third is divided among the senators and another third is divided among House members. Each legislator gets a few local projects, and sometimes a group of legislators fund something jointly, but because of this method, the state can’t pool the money to do big ambitious things that would probably be more beneficial in the long run. Reform advocates claim this shortsighted method of dividing the money has been a significant factor in holding New Mexico back. I agree.
Those local projects are not merely pork. They may be repairs to schools or public buildings, upgrades to historic sites, water or infrastructure projects or other items that add value or enhance public safety. Small towns may have no other source of funds.
For some legislators, capital projects are the best way to show their constituents what they’ve been doing and demonstrate tangible accomplishments. Some voters may not appreciate that the real work of the legislative session is the hours of tedious committee hearings studying and voting on more complicated but possibly not very interesting legislative issues.
Back home after the session, legislators are free to claim credit for the projects they funded. Or, whoops, according to legislators’ surprisingly candid comments at one committee hearing, they might fudge a bit and claim credit for a project that got more funding from their colleague in the adjacent district. That’s one reason for keeping the process confidential.
Some projects on the original lists were trivial and got listed only to make a particular constituent happy. It’s easier to cut those projects if nobody is watching.
Another justification is the line item veto – to protect projects from a vindictive governor who can kill them out of spite. However, the secrecy trick didn’t work under former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. As my colleague Sherry Robinson wrote last year, Martinez axed many projects located in the districts of Democrats.
I’m less concerned about the secrecy issue than about the bigger issue of how the money gets divided. The practice of giving every legislator a sliver of the pie is more than a little antiquated for a state struggling to catch up in the 21st century.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   4-1-19
Health care legislation made positive change
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
The dental therapist bill has finally passed New Mexico’s Legislature and been signed by the governor, after years of persistent effort.
This bill (HB 308) creates a new intermediate class of dental providers licensed to provide basic dental treatments at a much lower cost than a fully trained dentist. The intention is that therapists will work primarily in small communities where there are no dentists. They will refer complex cases to dentists.
This bill is significant for a couple of reasons.
First, healthcare is not healthcare without dental health. Poor dental health makes the whole body sicker. This bill will make basic dental care accessible and can be expected to improve the health of many thousands of rural and small town New Mexicans.
Second, this bill tackles directly a critical problem of our healthcare system: lack of providers. It creates a new class of providers and an incentive for people who could not afford dental school to train for this profession.
It will take a few years for this program to be implemented. It has the potential for very significant positive effect.
Here are some of the other health care bills that succeeded in this legislative session. At this writing, only Senate Bill 131 had been signed.
            HB 436 aligns New Mexico with the patient protections of the federal Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Its intention is to assure that those protections will continue for New Mexicans even if portions or the entirety of the ACA are repealed or struck down.
SB 337 addresses a nasty practice called surprise billing. This occurs when a patient goes to a clinic or hospital, often to an emergency department, that is within the network of the patient’s health plan, and then receives a bill from a medical provider at out-of-network rates. Usually this happens because the hospital or clinic uses the services of a doctor, possibly a specialist, who is outside the patient’s network. As I wrote in 2016 (see triplespacedagain.com), these bills can be staggeringly high. SB 337 regulates this practice to limit or prevent most surprise billing.
            SB 131 creates the Interagency Pharmacies Purchasing Council. As the name implies, this bill creates a cooperative arrangement for nine state agencies that purchase pharmaceuticals, including several agencies that are already collaborating. The legislative analysis for this bill says the nine constituent state agencies spent more than $703 million on prescription drugs in fiscal year 2018. Just one cost-containment technique, bulk purchasing of pharmaceuticals, could potentially save between $14 million and $35 million annually.
Finally, New Mexico took an exploratory step toward a major restructuring of how we pay for healthcare. House Memorial 92 authorizes a study of this proposal, to be undertaken by the Legislative Finance Committee. As a memorial, it does not require the governor’s signature. The ultimate aim would be a program that ensures health care coverage to virtually all New Mexicans through a combination of public and private financing. It would replace the current insurance system with cooperative organizations intended to simplify the system, improve patient access to health care, significantly reduce cost and keep healthcare and insurance dollars in New Mexico.
The bill that would have implemented this program was HB 295, called the Health Security Act, which did not pass.
The health security proposal has been around for several years. It was flagged by the business lobby as a problem bill, in part because it reduces the role of private insurance, but it looks like an idea worth consideration. I hope in the coming interim, the advocates for this concept hold some well publicized town halls around the state to give not just legislators but our citizens a chance to learn more about it.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       3-4-19
Balancing education needs and stretching budget dollars
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
“We have to fund education by starting from what’s needed, rather than how much money is available.” As education dominates this year’s legislative session, that’s the brilliant insight we hear quoted repeatedly. As if nobody ever thought of that before.
The Legislature is under pressure from the recent Yazzie-Martinez court decision, which requires the state to fund education adequately but doesn’t spell out what that means. The real pressure, however, is a widely shared desire to do better for New Mexico’s children.
New Mexico already spends more on education than almost anything else. In past decades, K–12 education accounted for about 50 percent of the general fund budget. Another 17 percent or so went to higher education, totaling two-thirds of the general fund. Most departments of state government were funded out of what was left.
Then along came Medicaid, which has gradually expanded into the monster that ate the budget. Medicaid has been a benefit, helping make medical care accessible to people who need it. But it disrupted old assumptions about the budget. This year’s state contribution to Medicaid is expected to approach $1 billion. Count that, fix some badly neglected roads, do a few urgently needed things like decent pay for prison guards, and there goes your surplus.
Forty-five years ago, New Mexico became a national model for how to fund education. Our approach was revolutionary in 1974 and is still held in high regard.
Before 1974, New Mexico funded public schools with local property taxes. Many states still do that. But New Mexico has very rich counties and very poor counties, causing huge disparities in education funding.
New Mexico found a better way. Property taxes and other sources still provide part of public school funding, such as bond issues for infrastructure. But operational money comes from the state general fund through the State Equalization Guarantee, or the funding formula.
The formula starts with the principle that every student in every district should get the same amount of money. Count the total number of students statewide, use the budget process to decide how much money will be available, then divide to determine how much is allocated for each student. Distribute the money by counting the students in each district.
The base value was that each student equaled one “program unit.”
It was determined that high school students cost more than fourth graders. So a high school student became 1.2 program units instead of one. The lowest grades cost even more and were assigned 1.4 units each. Special education is even more costly, so there’s a factor for it.
Another factor, the training and experience index, was to help districts pay higher salaries for experienced teachers and encourage advanced degrees.
Over time, the formula has become more complex as legislators introduced new factors based on the needs of their districts. The numbers have changed, but not the basic process.
A factor was added for the extra cost of small elementary schools in rural communities. Small charter schools in larger districts received funding under this factor. Legislation this year proposes a revision so that only small rural schools qualify. Naturally, charter schools object.
Changes in the formula this year can be expected to respond to the court decision. Most likely to see increases are “at-risk” districts, especially those with large Native American populations.
Certainly we’re not satisfied with our school systems. The tax cuts of former Gov. Bill Richardson and the refusal of past Gov. Susana Martinez to increase any taxes have not helped. But I don’t think our legislators have ever been complacent about education spending.
The budget has always been an attempt to balance education needs, other government needs, and how much legislators think New Mexico taxpayers can pay without harming the economy. Regardless of the court decision, that balance will have to be preserved in the final budget numbers.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      2-18-19
Minimum wage increase may be too much for some businesses
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
When you own a business, you have to pay your employees before you pay yourself, whether or not you have made any money. It’s the law.
You also have to pay your share of their Social Security, Medicare, and other required taxes, and workers’ comp insurance.
For a new small business owner, those requirements can be daunting. You’re taking on an obligation at the same time as you’re taking a risk. You have no guarantees of success.
When some business owners say an increase in the minimum wage threatens the very existence of their businesses, it’s true.
Most established businesses probably can afford it. They can choose to pass on cost increases to customers or reduce profits. But some, realistically, can’t. They would have to employ fewer people, eliminate employees altogether and use only their own labor, or close the shop.
The very smallest businesses, especially new ones, frequently are not sophisticated enough to lobby or advocate in their own behalf. We’re not hearing much advocacy for very small businesses as a vulnerable interest group with issues slightly different from other business groups.
Nonprofits are also struggling. New Mexico has more than 300 nonprofit organizations, including many that contract with government to provide essential services. An estimated 63 percent of them are functioning at breakeven or using borrowed money. This is according to the annual report of New Mexico Thrives, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
Nonprofits have been forced to do more with less year after year. Reduced donations due to federal tax law changes are a factor. Nonprofits can’t just raise prices. They have no elasticity except to keep cutting costs, which often means reducing their services.
This is not about whether workers deserve a living wage. Of course they do. But “deserve” is a difficult word to analyze. How do you measure what one person deserves at another person’s expense?
If you don’t have the money, it doesn’t matter whether the issue is increased cost of payroll or any other cost increase. The fact that it’s the right thing to do doesn’t mean you’re able to do it.
Today’s conventional wisdom says if you can’t afford the cost of owning a business, you shouldn’t be in business. I disagree vehemently. Everybody has to start somewhere, and many small businesses start out by borrowing from family or with credit cards. I think public policy should make it easier to get started in business and easier for small family businesses to stay in business.
The impact of mandatory wage increases may be greater in small towns than larger cities. Matthew Gonzales of the Farm and Livestock Bureau, who lives in Cimarron, says the town’s only grocery store closed last year. He said a new owner is hesitating before taking the plunge to reopen, waiting to find out whether he’ll be able to afford employees.
Gonzales said 70 percent of New Mexico’s incorporated municipalities have a population under 3,500. Seven New Mexico counties have total populations under 5,000: Hidalgo, Mora, Guadalupe, Union, Catron, De Baca, and Harding. We’re losing rural population, and those little towns may be barely hanging on.
As a minimum wage bill (HB 31 by Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque) works its way through the Legislature, we may want to consider what we stand to lose, including some critical nonprofit services and a little more of New Mexico’s small-town and rural heritage. Though I am wary of making legislation more complex or confusing, I suggest these concerns call for inserting some exemptions.
            A more modest minimum wage bill (SB437 by Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Cibola) has not moved much past introduction.
            If HB 31 is the one that passes, legislators should consider carefully drafted exemptions for very small family businesses, nonprofits that serve disadvantaged populations, and businesses in economically disadvantaged counties. That’s my best shot at a solution.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     2-4-19
The continuing saga of the Public Regulation Commission
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
Legislators are tinkering with the Public Regulation Commission yet again this year. If legislation is successful, we voters will be looking at another amendment to the state Constitution in the 2020 general election, fiddling with the structure of this agency that never seems to be quite right. We’ve had several such amendments since the PRC was created.
The PRC has been a perennial problem ever since it replaced an even worse problem, the former State Corporation Commission, and what used to be called the Public Utilities Commission.
The PRC was created by constitutional amendment about 20 years ago, primarily to be the regulator of electric and other utilities. It also inherited a miscellaneous divisions and responsibilities from the Corporation Commission. Some of those divisions, such as regulation of insurance, have been spun off into separate agencies, largely because we didn’t like the political pressure on those divisions when they were within the PRC.
This year there’s a bill to liberate the state Fire Marshal’s Office. House Bill 269, sponsored by Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, and others, makes it a separate agency, administratively attached to (which does not mean controlled by) the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance.
The bigger issue is how PRC commissioners are chosen. Currently, the five commissioners are elected by district. The work of the PRC requires technical expertise in the very complex area of utility regulation, and the law requires relevant professional experience, but some of the elected commissioners have been more politician than expert.
There are two competing bills: Senate Joint Resolution 1, sponsored by Sens. Peter Wirth, D–Santa Fe, and William Payne, R–Albuquerque, and Senate Joint Resolution 4, sponsored by Sen. Stephen Neville, R–Aztec. If either one passes both houses, it will go before the voters next year.
SJR 4 proposes using the old-fashioned method of having all commissioners appointed by the governor, selected at large (from anywhere in the state) with confirmation by the Senate and with professional qualifications to be determined later by legislation. Under this bill, commission positions are earmarked: one attorney, one engineer, one accountant, one member from a regulated industry and one public member.
SJR 1 is a hybrid of appointment and election. It probably has a better chance of passage because its sponsors are bipartisan and one of them, Wirth, is the Senate majority leader. It proposes that three commissioners be elected, one from each of New Mexico’s three congressional districts, and two be chosen by the governor. The appointed members may not be from the same political party. Qualifications will be established by the Legislature. It’s an interesting approach mixing the virtues and vulnerabilities of both methods.
Speaking of hybrid commissions, Wirth is also proposing, in Senate Bill 5, to reorganize the Interstate Stream Commission, which has a major role in regulating the state’s waters. The proposed reorganization is intended to reduce partisanship and assure a broad representation of water-related interest groups. It includes earmarked slots for representatives of community acequia systems, irrigation and conservancy districts, Indian tribes, academic experts and others, some appointed by the governor and others by the legislative leadership.
This commission is established in law, not in the state Constitution, so if the legislation is passed and signed the voters won’t need to amend the Constitution for it.
How commissioners are selected is always a trade-off between appointment and election. With appointment, a governor can select the top experts, but there is no guarantee that a governor will do that, and a powerful commission is a political plum that a governor could use for reasons other than expertise.
Elected officials are more likely to be politicians themselves but have the virtue of being independent. It appears that legislators are making a genuine effort to find a balance that will serve the public.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.




© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    1-21-19
About dying in peace
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
Life and death. Pain and suffering. Sometimes it’s necessary to discuss the most profound questions about the meaning of life itself and how the state might intervene in the most personal decision we may ever make.
New Mexico is going to be talking about medical aid in dying again this year. It is, to say the least, an uncomfortable subject.
House Bill 90 proposes to allow physicians or other health care providers, upon the request of a terminally ill patient, to prescribe medication that will end the patient’s life. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Debbie Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, and Senator Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos.
A similar bill was considered in 2017 but didn’t pass the Senate.
The bill specifies that the option may be used only by a medically competent adult who is capable of taking the medication himself or herself. It contains a number of safeguards, including the requirement of a 48-hour waiting period before the prescription may be filled.
The 48-hour waiting period is a new provision in this bill, compared to legislation already enacted in other states, according to UNM law professor Rob Schwartz, who has been active in this movement.
Schwartz said in some states the legislation has required a 15-day waiting period before the prescription could be filled by a pharmacist. But that has led to unnecessary days of suffering by patients who did not ask for the prescription until they were in terrible pain. And in some cases, the patient died before the 15 days were up.
The bill provides several legal protections. For example, it says a physician may not be held liable for either prescribing or refusing to prescribe the medication. If a person uses the option, the legal cause of death shall be the underlying disease.
The first state to enact an aid-in-dying law was Oregon in 1997. Similar laws have been enacted in Washington, California, Colorado, Montana, Vermont, and most recently in Hawaii and Washington, D. C.
            Oregon has the most complete statistics. Its latest annual report shows most patients (80.4 percent) were aged 65 years or older and had cancer (76.9 percent).
            One common argument against the option is that frail, sick elders will be pressured by family members against their own wishes. Schwartz said no confirmed instances of this have been found in the states with the option.
            Schwartz said the reports show that a significant number of the patients who received the prescription never filled it, and many who filled it never used the medication. The fact that they have the medication in hand, so they have some control over their situation, gives them comfort.
This is a very personal issue for me, as I deeply wish to have the choice, when my time comes, to take advantage of this gift of modern medicine. I see no value in unnecessary suffering at the end of life. I recognize that others, based on religious values, may have different feelings or beliefs. They are free to choose not to use the option.
A19th century poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes tells about “the wonderful one-hoss shay/ That was built in such a logical way/ It ran a hundred years to a day.” Then “it went to pieces all at once/ All at once, and nothing first/ Just as bubbles do when they burst.”
I’ve always thought of this poem as the way all of us would like to die. Live for a hundred years with the heart of a bull, the knees of a gazelle, the waistline of a fashion model and the digestion of a 12-year-old, and then die peacefully in our sleep. I’d certainly like that to be my fate, but I’m not counting on it, and neither can any of us.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

 © 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   1-7-19
Basking in New Mexico’s weather
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
On the morning of New Year’s Eve, the national weather map had the words “Santa Fe,” “Albuquerque,” “Roswell” and “Silver City” in big print. Most of New Mexico was a glaring shade of pink indicating the predicted snowstorm. This was on one of the national morning TV shows.
A few days earlier, the map on a different station had a big white blob over New Mexico. The word “Albuquerque”  was prominent. The weather forecaster talked about blizzard warnings for Albuquerque. She seemed excited about this, as if Albuquerque were a new discovery. Maybe she had never spoken this exotic word before.
Indeed, the weather that day was rough. We get those days from time to time, but not often. In any case, this column is not about the weather. It’s about the map.
In national recognition or the lack of it, New Mexico takes a lot of abuse. We all know the running joke that “One of our 50 is missing,” the title of a feature in New Mexico Magazine that’s still running after decades.
Years ago I noticed that those weather forecasters usually stood in front of the map, blocking the view of New Mexico. If they mentioned the Southwest at all, they referred to California and Texas and avoided the subject of what might lie between.
This has changed.
In my completely unscientific observation of weather maps on morning television, I noticed the shift several years ago. Some viewers might credit this to “Breaking Bad,” but I believe it started earlier, after Bill Richardson ran for president.
Richardson was in the national spotlight long enough for viewers to notice that the term “governor of New Mexico” referred to a state.  I don’t remember anyone asking him how the governor of a foreign country could be running for president of the United States. In the long-running battle for New Mexico, this was progress.
Then Gary Johnson ran for president. Again, the term “governor of New Mexico” was forced on the recalcitrant national media.
In 2014, New Mexico was featured as a whole category of clues on the TV show “Jeopardy.” We do well on this TV show. Last May author Anne Hillerman was a “Jeopardy” clue. There have been clues featuring Georgia O’Keefe, sculptor Evelyn Rosenberg, and a number of our state’s natural wonders.
Recently we’ve had Chevel Shepherd, winner on “The Voice,” and a newly elected New Mexico member of Congress, Deb Haaland, featured on every TV talk show because she’s broken barriers as a Native American woman.
A few weeks before our snowstorm, I had turned on that same morning TV show. The hosts were in a dither because New York and much of the mid-Atlantic were having a really bad snowstorm for which they had not been prepared. Apparently the weather forecasters had made a mistake.
I looked out the window at the sunny morning, anticipating a December day that would reach above 50 degrees, and realized that half the population of the East Coast would be thrilled to trade places with me at that moment. I thought, what if some new Mexico marketing entity could arrange to insert a live, real time New Mexico weather report as a commercial in that morning show, with one of our handsome weathermen simply reciting the forecast of sun and more sun. New Mexico should pay for that.
Even though we’ve had some cold days and a snowstorm, most of us can agree New Mexico’s weather is generally terrific.
In the 2018 legislative session a group got an appropriation to develop a marketing plan to attract retirees to New Mexico. The plan by this group, Retire New Mexico, is now in the works. I suggested this strategy to one of them, though I think I skipped the part about the handsome weathermen. I’m repeating the idea here for anyone who wants to take advantage of it.
Maybe this column is about the weather after all. Happy New Year.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 12-24-18
Government shutdown is too easy
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
In one episode of the original “Star Trek,” two warring nations conducted their wars entirely by computer. Nobody got hurt. At the end of the war, members of the losing side had to report to an extermination chamber and give themselves up to be painlessly killed. They all complied, politely.
The moral of the story, as declaimed by Captain Kirk, was that this civilization had made war too easy and therefore would never address the underlying issues.
That’s what we’ve done with government shutdowns. Our federal leaders have made them too painless. Millions of Americans will consent to being pawns in a political power game, because it’s not as bad as it should be.
As I write this on Friday, Dec. 21, it appears the shutdown is going to happen. I started looking for information. What sacrifices will the American people have to make?
If you were planning to go to Carlsbad Caverns for Christmas, you’re probably out of luck. Not exactly a national emergency. Some other parks will be open, but the National Park Service says bathrooms will be locked.
The shutdown doesn’t affect every agency because some appropriation bills have already passed. The agencies covered by those bills are funded for now.
The armed forces won’t be getting the time off. If the Chinese were thinking about invading us, this is not their moment. Whether the people who defend us from cyber attacks are employees of the same department, I don’t know.
If you are an employee in one of the federal agencies affected by the shutdown, and you provide an essential service, you’re still supposed to show up to work, whether you get paid or not. I think the word “essential” really means “urgent.” It doesn’t mean the rest of you are unimportant.
I was immediately concerned about a couple of things. First was the safety of the food supply. According to the reports, agriculture inspectors will not be off the job. But, says Vox, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration could both reduce the number of inspections they conduct. I don’t know who inspects what and I’m not waiting to find out. I will be filling my freezer with fresh meat and vegetables this afternoon.
Second was the weather. Though we in New Mexico don’t worry much about hurricanes, one of the most important and under-rated jobs in our government is weather prediction, especially the heroic pilots who fly into hurricanes. Those pilots are part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and they will stay on the job, but without pay.
Agencies that provide benefits, like Social Security and Medicare, reportedly are not disrupted with respect to routine distribution of money. But if you need help from one of those federal agencies, it’s possible no one will be there to answer the phone.
The shutdown of the Department of Agriculture will probably affect farmers. An analysis from the Democratic side of the U. S. Senate says farmers and ranchers will be looking for information on how the new Farm Bill will affect their operations, but nobody can answer those questions or assist them in signing up for programs.
Though the Justice Department is to be shut down, one report says the Mueller investigation is not affected, because it has its own source of funding.
Who cares? We’ve managed to create a so-called government shutdown that’s only an emergency for those directly affected. For the rest of us, it’s somewhere between a disruption and an inconvenience.
Utah has already prepared an alternative recreation guide for those disappointed by being unable to visit Utah’s spectacular national parks. Good thinking, Utah!
If the shutdown were going to be real, we’d have a suspension of all air travel, right before Christmas, and other immediate and dramatic impacts that would remind us of the reason we have government in the first place and what we expect of the people we elect to run it.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    12-10-18
Maybe there’s a better way to vote for judges
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
When we’re voting for judges, let’s admit it, many of us don’t know what we’re doing. We don’t know enough about the candidates or how to evaluate them.
We may vote on the basis of party affiliation or rely on the endorsement of our local newspaper or some other organization. Some of us skip those lines on the ballot entirely. This year, the total number of votes cast for four appellate judge positions averaged about 20,000 less than for the governor’s race.
According to the Secretary of State’s final tallies, out of 11 district court judgeships that could have been competitive, nine were uncontested.
What judges do is not as public as what other elected officials do. Judges preside over individual cases, applying existing law to specific facts and details. Their activities, while mostly open to the public, are rarely attended by the public. To prevent appearance of bias, they are not supposed to talk about their political viewpoints when campaigning. Most of us are, to some extent, shooting in the dark when we vote for them.
So the amendment to the state Constitution recently proposed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura is not unreasonable, at least as a beginning point for discussion. She proposes that newly appointed judges be given more than a year before they have to stand for election. She has not offered details about how that would be done.
When a judge retires, a new judge is appointed by the governor, based on a list of applicants presented by a nonpartisan Judicial Nominating Commission. The new judge serves until the next general election, then has to run against possible primary and general election competitors. If the old judge retires with a year or less left before the next election, the newly appointed judge has a very short tenure.
A lawyer who becomes a judge would have to step away completely from his or her law practice, and might hesitate to do so if it’s possible to lose the election after a year or less. That limits the pool of potential judge nominees and perhaps affects the quality of judges.
New Mexico’s hybrid system of picking judges is a continuing source of confusion to some voters. After one partisan election, judges run for “retention,” a yes-or-no vote of confidence. The Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission publishes reviews of judges running for retention, but not for the partisan elections.
If you think it might be better to have judges simply appointed by the governor, allow me to disagree. I’ve written elsewhere (see www.triplespacedagain.com) that independently elected state officials serve as a safeguard of democracy because they cannot be arbitrarily fired. Independently elected judges, even in a system as cumbersome as ours, are a similar safeguard.  Just remember the spectacle of the recent Supreme Court appointment of Justice Kavanaugh to see how ugly the appointment process can be, and the taint of partisanship that may be left behind.
Nakamura’s proposal may be in part a response to the defeat of several Republican appellate judges appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez, after a particularly offensive TV commercial, sponsored by a lawyer-funded political action committee, depicted them as Martinez puppets. The proposal itself is nonpartisan.
The proposal will likely be debated during the next legislative session, so here’s a thought to add to it.
Local jurisdictions are in the process of fulfilling a previous state constitutional amendment to create consolidated election days for nonpartisan elections, such as city councils and school boards.
Suppose we could elect judges with no party designation, like city councilors, and have them all run for office in those nonpartisan years. I realize this is administratively complicated. It could take several years and several election cycles to implement, but it might result in an even more independent judiciary.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES  11-26-18
Remember who really counts the votes
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
The books are almost closed on the recent election.
I hope we all have learned this truth: Nobody promised you final results on Election Night. Or for several days after, for that matter.
Please get that straight. If the votes don’t all get counted within the first few hours, that does not mean anything went wrong.
            We’re spoiled because the TV networks have very accurate analytical methods to project results. Usually the projections are right, but not always.
            If CNN or CBS News or Channel 7 announces a winner, that announcement has no constitutional or legal standing. None whatsoever. Those announcements are estimates by private news organizations.  
What’s real is votes counted by county clerks, watched by observers of both (or maybe more than two) parties. If that takes a few days, it just means something happened to make it take longer. For races above county level, the results are not final until they are certified by the Secretary of State several days later.
In-person votes are the easiest to count. Those ballots, both from early voting and Election Day, go through machines that record and tally them. The totals are added as precinct officials close up and take their materials to the county clerk.
Precinct officials print a paper tape with their results and post it in a window at the precinct. News organizations may have spotters who drive around to the precincts and call the information in to a TV or radio station. So they may have unofficial results faster than the clerk. If you are at a party supporting a candidate, and a TV station says your candidate won, you are free to open the champagne, but the announcement is not proof.
Absentee ballots are different. If you vote absentee, you put the paper ballot into an envelope that does not identify you. You then put the envelope into a second envelope, which does identify you, and which can be delivered or mailed.
The outer envelope is used to check off that you voted, the same as if you had voted in person. An election worker opens the outer envelope, and then the inner envelope is handed off to somebody else so that when the inner envelope is opened, the ballot is not associated with your name and your vote remains secret. This is all done under the scrutiny of observers.
The last category of ballots is called provisional. In New Mexico we don’t have many of those. They are issued where there’s a question about registration, where required ID had not been provided by a first-time voter who had registered by mail, or where a voter had asked for an absentee ballot but then tried to vote in person. Typically that would happen if the absentee ballot arrived in the mail too late. According to Jamie Diaz of the Bernalillo County Clerk’s office, provisional ballots are counted last and have to be evaluated before they are counted.
An unexpectedly large number of absentee ballots caused a hangup this year in Doña Ana County.
As explained by Alex Curtas, of the Secretary of State’s office, counties are allowed to start counting the absentee ballots a few days before Election Day, using poll workers who have been convened as a special board.
Doña Ana County had a higher-than-expected number of absentee ballots. So counting those ballots took longer than usual, but news organizations based their projections on the in-person vote, declaring Yvette Herrell the apparent winner of Congressional District 2. The absentee ballots changed the result.
Was Herrell justified in filing a lawsuit challenging those results? Certainly she had the right to do so. We’ll have to let the courts tell us whether she was justified or just a sore loser.
But this is a cautionary tale about jumping to conclusions too early.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    11-12-18
New Mexico could use a few more people
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
New Mexico has such a shortage of teachers that school districts have hired teachers recruited from the Philippines. This was reported by the nonprofit investigative news organization, Searchlight New Mexico.
It’s not just New Mexico. A New York Times report revealed that several states are doing the same thing.
The Filipino teachers make great sacrifices to come here. They pay steep fees to commercial recruiting organizations, leaving them with what any American professional would consider very inadequate take-home pay.
The reports say these teachers are highly qualified and have years of professional experience. They spend three years working with New Mexico students and learning the community’s culture. Then, because of visa restrictions, they must go home.
Would it be better if our communities had the choice to invite them and their families to stay?
In a different industry, agriculture, we’ve heard about labor shortages in New Mexico and other agricultural states. Apparently even in times of high unemployment, very few Americans want to pick chiles.
Some agriculture jobs are not seasonal. Our state’s growing dairy industry, for example, needs workers all year.
Our booming oil and gas industry is hungry for labor. Some months ago I asked an official with the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association whether businesses in their industry resort to undocumented workers to fill their labor demands. The official said carefully that they can use every worker they can get, as long as their status is legal. I thought, you have to say that, but I’m not sure I have to believe it.
Immigrants and temporary workers, both legal and undocumented, occupy categories across education and skill levels. I wrote last year about New Mexico’s foreign students, some of whom are talented, creative, and ambitious, and would love to start businesses here – the very thing New Mexico needs more of. We educate them in our taxpayer-subsidized universities and then our laws force them to go home, so New Mexico loses its investment.
Last year, in the tiny community of Capitan, I stayed in a motel owned by a family from India. New Mexico is losing population. Wouldn’t it be good to encourage a few more immigrants in places that could use a boost, like Raton, Tucumcari, or even Thoreau?
Immigration policy is a national, not a New Mexico, issue, but if we look rationally at the issues, our state should have input to an eventual comprehensive immigration law. Here are a few points for discussion.
We want people coming to New Mexico who have professional talents we need, such as entrepreneurs, physicians and those teachers from the Philippines.
We want people who will do the unpleasant, low-paid jobs that Americans don’t want. It’s not just agriculture. There are jobs like slaughterhouses and meatpacking. There is a growing need for home health aides.
We should be eager to welcome everyone who has helped the American military, should we not? One of the worst outrages I’ve heard has been the threatened deportation of individuals who risked their lives to help us in Iraq or Afghanistan.
We should want to, as the Statue of Liberty says, lift our lamp beside the golden door, to welcome those who are truly refugees, whether from violence in Central America, genocide in Africa, or war in Syria. We should be able to talk rationally about determining what numbers our communities can absorb. This is not only a moral imperative but can also be economically beneficial if it’s done with good planning.
And, while we support border security, New Mexico would not benefit from a wall disrupting our border communities.
The election is over. We can set aside the bombastic rhetoric and scare tactics. New Mexico could use a boost to its population, and this is a conversation we should have, like neighbors.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.



© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     10-29-18
A better way to borrow or save
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            Finally there’s an alternative to payday lending.
Thanks to the simple mechanism of payroll deductions, some New Mexico workers can now borrow money without having to resort to the usurious practices of payday lenders.
Affordable loan programs have been adopted by several New Mexico county governments for their employees. No legislation was required. The program is being promoted by the New Mexico Association of Counties, according to Susan Mayes of the association.
Under the program, an employee may borrow between $1,000 and $3,000 and repay the debt within one year through payroll deductions.
The official interest rate is 24.99 percent, but actual interest is considerably less because the loan is amortized over time. Every payment reduces the principal, so the loan rate works out closer to 14 percent. For example, for a $1,000 loan paid off in 12 months the total interest will be about $140.
As of late October, 14 county governments have approved offering this to their employees: Bernalillo, Catron, Doña Ana, Eddy, Grant, Harding, McKinley, Otero, Rio Arriba, San Miguel, Socorro, Taos, Torrance and Valencia. The programs are not up and running yet in all of these counties. Mayes said she is optimistic that other counties will join.
Cost to the employer is only the administrative cost of implementing the payroll deduction. The program works with a company called True Connect, which in turn works with banks. The bank is the lender and assumes all the risk. The employer’s only requirement is the bookkeeping for the payroll deduction and a procedure for paying off the loan if the employee leaves.
According to Mayes, private employers could do the same thing.
We may soon be hearing about another option using payroll deductions: savings programs for private-sector employees, especially those working in small businesses.
This initiative is being spearheaded by AARP, which is concerned that millions of future retirees will not have enough savings to retire. It would create a program that would enable private sector employees who have no other retirement plan at work to save small amounts through automatic payroll deductions.
The proposal was introduced in the 2017 legislature as Senate Joint Memorial 12, which authorized a task force to study the issue. The memorial passed both houses unanimously. The task force’s report has been released, and legislation is expected in 2019. The task force endorsed the program.
According to the report, 67 percent of New Mexico private sector employees have no retirement savings – worse than the national average of 62 percent.
As proposed, money from voluntary payroll deductions would be deposited to retirement accounts owned by the employee. Employees could determine their own savings amount, possibly as low as $5 a week. Money would be pooled, with the intention that this investment pool would generate a marketplace of options from the financial community.
Employers would administer the payroll deduction but would not be required to contribute. State government would facilitate this process but would play a minor role.
According to DeAnza Valencia, AARP associate state director, one reason poor people stay poor is that they can’t afford to save. But studies show low income people can save successfully through payroll deductions.
A similar program is already functioning in Oregon. One in California is set up to start but is under litigation. The California program requires employers to enroll but does not require employees to participate. New Mexico could choose whether or not to make its program mandatory for employers who don’t offer other savings options.
The detailed report can be found on the legislature website (www.nmlegis.gov) as a series of handouts from the Investment and Pensions Oversight Committee.
If the savings program legislation passes, it would be sensible for the two programs to coordinate so that employees who have paid back their loans are then able to start saving.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES  10-15-18
Statistically, workers’ comp is doing OK
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            The New Mexico workers' compensation system is in moderately good shape this year, say the people who are supposed to know.
NCCI, the National Council on Compensation Insurance, presented its annual New Mexico forum recently. Most important: employers can expect a modest reduction in the cost of their insurance premiums in 2019. The amount will vary depending upon industry and other factors.
NCCI serves the workers’ compensation insurance industry, in part by tracking and analyzing data so insurers will have accurate information as the basis for setting rates.
Workers’ comp is a factor in the competition among states for attracting industry and economic development.  The current numbers show workers’ comp is not hurting New Mexico.
Most states in our region are also showing cost reductions. New Mexico is not the best by this measure, but it’s doing OK. The outlier is Hawaii, the only state in the region showing an actual cost increase.
The assigned risk pool, also called the residual market, is doing very well. The pool is where the highest risk businesses can get coverage if no insurance company wants to cover them voluntarily. The pool has been reduced to 4 percent of all businesses -- another positive sign for the state’s economy.
The number of indemnity claims filed by New Mexico workers has been going down year after year. Ideally this means workplaces are safer and fewer workers are getting injured. The cost per claim– benefits paid to injured workers -- is going up, but not by much. The average payment to the worker is a little more than $24,000 over time, primarily to replace lost wages.
However, the cost of medical care for those injuries is going up and the latest estimate is around $42,000. Again, this is over the life of the whole claim, possibly several years. This is consistent with trends in other states.
The report noted that the top issue for legislation nationwide is special consideration for first responders, such as police officers and firefighters. Traumatic incidents, such as mass shootings, call attention to the effects on workers from police officers to 911 operators. The trend is to improve coverage for their post-traumatic stress.
A few years ago New Mexico passed legislation to give retired professional firefighters special consideration if they develop certain cancers. Firefighters may be exposed to many kinds of toxicity, with effects that may occur years later.
New Mexico also gives special consideration to police officers through a court decision that an off-duty police officer who was killed while trying to save a life was covered. Normally, people not at work are not covered by workers’ comp.
The opioid issue continues to be an extremely serious concern. NCCI data shows injured workers  prescribed opioids received three times as many prescriptions as the overall population. In 2018 a large majority of states considered prescription drug legislation or regulatory changes to reduce those numbers.
The sleeper issue this year is the cost of air ambulance service, which has become a national outrage.
            Regulation of air ambulances falls between the cracks of federal and state legislation, so those companies can charge whatever they like. According to reports, they do. The figures most often quoted are $50,000 to $70,000 for a short trip in an air ambulance -- several times what those services are likely to cost the providers.
New Mexico Insurance Superintendent John Franchini said there is an ongoing dispute at the national level about whether states have the power to regulate rates and that Congress, which should enact legislation to clarify the issue, has not acted.
Meanwhile, Franchini said, New Mexico has a law protecting patients from balance billing. If you receive a bill from an air ambulance company, you can call OSI and the staff may be able to help.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   10-1-18
Albuquerque Sunport reflects the special character of New Mexico
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
At the Albuquerque Sunport, the stall doors in the restrooms swing outward.
You might not notice this unless you have recently traveled through other airports where the doors swing inward and the stalls are narrower. When you are dragging a rolling carry-on bag, getting through one of those doors can be awkward. The stall doors at the Sunport are a quiet touch of courtesy.
Those restrooms are visibly clean. The coat hooks are sturdy and there are even shelves in the stalls. (Maybe these little amenities are more noticeable to women than men.)
It’s a happy airport. It’s welcoming for visitors. Considering how stressful travel can be, it’s a friendly place to land. In 2016, the Sunport was named a TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Favorite for U.S. Airports in the medium airports category, based on global feedback from the TripAdvisor community.
Doug Lutz of the airport’s marketing department told me there are 75 volunteers, called Ambassadors, roaming the airport to help visitors and 20 therapy dogs, just to make people feel good.
The City of Albuquerque sponsors live concerts by local performing groups, usually on Fridays at lunch time. I have been there several times to see the surprise and delight on travelers’ faces as they rode down the escalator and saw musicians performing for them. People point and smile, and some of them stop.
When we do something right in New Mexico, we ought to celebrate it. This airport is one of our good things. It shows off the state not just with beautiful artwork on display but with the architecture of the buildings themselves.
The airport is a showcase for New Mexico art. You can read about the collection on the abqsunport.com website.  Look for “sunport-arts-program.”
New Mexico residents may never have gone to the rental car terminal. I got to see it because I was helping out-of-town friends pick up a car. It’s an elegant Southwestern style building with huge high ceilings and decorated vigas. In the center is an atrium with a spectacular sculpture suspended from the ceiling. If you have extra time (waiting to pick up visitors, for example), it’s worth a visit.
In the year 2018 through June, that rental facility has enjoyed $45 million in car rental revenue.
A few other statistics:
The Sunport welcomed 4,958,417 passengers in 2017.
There were 135,269 takeoffs and landings, for an average of 370 per day, in 2017: 52,518 by major airlines; 24,558 by commuter airlines, 22,162 by military aircraft; and 36,031 by general aviation aircraft.
Southwest Airlines accounts for roughly 50% of all commercial airline traffic.
Tucked away along a side corridor is the office of US Customs and Border Protection. For anyone planning international travel, this is a place where you can do the required interview for a Global Entry card. I’m told there are long waiting lists for travelers who need these cards to interview in other international airports. The wait is much shorter here.
The airport has been undergoing a $30 million renovation, which is scheduled to be completed before the end of 2018. When the renovation was announced, former Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry referred to the airport as “the front porch for all of New Mexico.”
According to Jack Scherer, associate director for facilities, most of the updates are  infrastructure items like ductwork and wiring, which won’t be visible to the public, but one new feature at the ticket counters will be a series of stone panels representing iconic images from the 19 pueblos, designed in cooperation with Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.
Scherer said the renovation was planned with awareness of the airport’s uniqueness as an expression of New Mexico’s character. “Visitors say, ‘When we get here we know where we are. This is not just another airport.’”
 Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   9-17-18
The medical marijuana quandary
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            Medical marijuana poses an intractable quandary. The issue could be described as zero-tolerance versus, well, tolerance. Floating elusively between the two – and genuinely hard to pin down – is common sense.
            The issue affects employers and people with various health conditions who would like to work. And an undetermined number of New Mexico schoolchildren with serious health issues.
As of June 2018, almost 55,000 patients were enrolled in the legal medical cannabis program in New Mexico, according to Jenna Burt of the state Department of Health. They become eligible if they’re diagnosed with one of several qualifying conditions. For some of those people, this is lifesaving medicine.
But can they keep their jobs if they are using medical marijuana?
            For years, New Mexico employers have been urged to adopt zero-tolerance policies regarding drugs that could impair workers’ ability to function safely. That’s good, right? Employees who are under the influence of hazardous medication, legal or not, pose a risk to themselves, their fellow employees, and possibly the public.
At what point does marijuana cause a person to be impaired, and how can you tell? If someone is using marijuana for a medical purpose, how does it affect that person’s capabilities? We do not have a reliable scientific way to measure that. And the trouble with measuring marijuana in the blood is that marijuana stays detectable for several days, long after the mental effects have dissipated.
The situation is perhaps more tragic for schoolchildren. Specific strains of cannabis have been hailed as the only medicine that works for some children with epilepsy and other conditions. But marijuana is prohibited from school grounds by federal law, and school personnel are not allowed to administer it. So those children are stuck: they can’t function without their medicine but they can’t have it in school, even if a parent comes to administer the dose.
We don’t know how many New Mexico children have these conditions. New Mexico Department of Health statistics show the total number of registered medical cannabis users under 18 is 123, with 45 of these using it for epilepsy, 50 for post-traumatic stress and the remainder for other conditions.
One Albuquerque school official commented that if children use cannabis at home and no effects show up in school, the school would not know. She implied the school would not need to intervene in that case. But according to parent and advocate Ginger Grider of Portales, the need for a dose of cannabis can arise at any time.
Grider said cannabis is the only product that works for her children with autism. She said people with autism experience constant sensory overload, unable to block reactions to stimuli like sound and light. Cannabis reduces the sensitivity so they can function more normally.
Grider said once cannabis is allowed in school, thousands of New Mexico parents with autistic children will want to let their children use it.
Grider is active in the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patients Advocates Alliance, which is in process of organizing as a legal nonprofit.
Federal law still categorizes marijuana as a dangerous drug with no acceptable medicinal value. That categorization, which has severely limited research, has been clearly demonstrated to be wrong. Cannabis has proven to be beneficial, possibly lifesaving, for a number of serious health conditions, and in some cases as a preferred alternative to opioids for pain.
In May 2018 a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill that would encourage the Department of Veterans Affairs to research cannabis as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and other chronic pain. The next necessary step is the complete removal of barriers to research, so methods can be developed to let all those people go to work and school.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    9-3-18
Unions are still necessary to safeguard worker rights
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
Labor unions aren’t that important any more, my friend said, because all the issues that unions used to fight for are now established in law, and we have government agencies to enforce them.
This conversation happened before the 2016 election. Today, even the most basic labor protections are no more guaranteed than, say, the continued protected status of national monuments.
Laws can be changed. For every human right that was earned through political struggle, somebody has to be the watchdog to prevent that right from being taken away and to alert the public when it’s threatened.
For fair labor standards and workplace safety, that watchdog is organized labor.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision in June overturned the “fair share” requirement as applied to public-sector unions. Shortly thereafter, the state of New Mexico stopped taking fair share payroll deductions for state workers.
Fair share is based on the principle that labor unions negotiate wages and working conditions on behalf of all workers in eligible categories, including those who have not joined the union. Unions are required to negotiate on behalf of all eligible employees, not just union members.
Therefore, until this court decision, nonmembers were required to pay, through payroll deductions, their share of the cost of those services -- not full union dues.
New Mexico public-sector unions are now receiving less revenue. The loss is not enough to damage their effectiveness, according to Josh Anderson of AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees). However, both the Supreme Court decision and the state’s action represent steps in rolling back the rights and protections of workers.
At the same time, private-sector unions are being challenged from a different direction: right-to-work ordinances at the county level. Right-to-work means that workers cannot be required to join the union as a condition of employment.
I wrote last year about the divisive tactics used to attempt a poorly drafted sick leave ordinance in Albuquerque and a right-to-work ordinance in Sandoval County (see triplespacedagain.com, November 2017) . The sick leave ordinance didn’t pass. The right-to-work ordinance did.
Right-to-work ordinances have now been passed by county commissions in Otero, Lincoln, Chavez, Eddy, Roosevelt and Lea counties. That covers about a quarter of the population of the state. They have failed in Curry, McKinley, and Sierra counties. At the time of this writing one is under consideration in Torrance.
The practice of picking off local governments one at a time, dividing neighbors on a local level, is a relatively new tactic used for issues that cannot win at the state level, often because the substance is something citizens don’t want. I said this about the progressives on the sick leave issue just as I’m saying it about this. It is bad governance. It pits communities against each other and makes the whole state look weak, which, I believe, is not the image New Mexico wants in attracting business.
Right-to-work is not what its name suggests. It weakens unions and therefore worker protections. Organized labor represents not just its own members but also the standards and principles of fair worker treatment that America has been developing for decades. Damage labor, and there’s no one to defend those principles.
Right-to-work has been argued in New Mexico for decades. Adherents claim it is essential to economic development, and New Mexico will not move forward without it. Others, including me, are concerned that when unions are too weak, labor laws will not be enforced and workers may be subject to exploitation.
Among the counties where these ordinances have passed are the southeastern counties in the Permian Basin which, we hear, are undergoing the biggest oil boom in the century and companies are grabbing up every available worker. Those companies don’t need lax labor laws as an incentive. They have oil.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   8-20-18
School responsibility goes beyond education
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
Welcome to the school year and all the issues our schools have to contend with besides educating New Mexico’s children.
Such as what is required if a student needs to take a pill.
Even if you have had children in school in recent years, you may not know how complicated this is.
I thought I was posing a simple question when I asked about rules for medication in schools. But simplicity cannot be assumed when parents are putting their children in other people’s hands every day.
The minimum advice to parents is that before you send your child to school with even an aspirin, find out the rules of your school district. Each district makes its own rules within a general framework. Some may be different for elementary versus older students.
The national associations of pediatricians, pharmacists, nurses and others all have sets of guidelines. That’s how important this is. The guidelines are reflected in policies of the state Department of Health.
Most common: Almost all medication should be delivered to the school nurse with written instructions from the family doctor. Most medications should be administered to students only by the nurse, based on those instructions. There are a few exceptions. For example, with proper documentation, districts may allow students to carry inhalers for asthma. Any medications considered to be narcotics have to be locked up.
A school nurse may not always be in the building. Some schools don’t have a nurse at all. The state rules provide for “Delegation to Unlicensed Assistive Personnel,” and require training for those staff members.
In Las Cruces, as an example, district policy allows older students to self-administer some medications. For this the parent needs not only a child with good sense but also a friendly local pharmacist. The student has to carry no more than a one-day supply in a properly labeled pharmaceutical container from the drugstore. That means the student should have two containers, one for home and one to take to school.
Your district probably also has similar precautionary rules for field trips. Don’t assume you can pack a couple of pills along with the sandwiches. Again, your district may require pills to be in separate properly labeled containers.
An Albuquerque high school teacher told me: “Students are not allowed to carry ANY medication, prescription OR over the counter. Nor are they allowed to give meds to other students. This includes Tylenol, aspirin, etc…. Message to students and parents: possession of a drug is treated as possession of an illegal drug. Otherwise, how could a teacher/staff member know whether a student is popping legal or illegal pills? Or sharing them with peers?” (She noted there’s an exception for inhalers.)
So these policies have to be aimed at preventing not only accidental overdoses or some kid taking another kid’s medicine by mistake, but also students abusing drugs by deliberately sharing, selling, stealing or giving away medications.
Keep in mind, if you were the parent whose child was made sick by taking another student’s medication at school, you might do everything in your power to sue your school district or at minimum humiliate the administration. I mention this because it helps to explain how rules that may seem absurdly complicated are actually complicated for compelling reasons.
And how does a student in the middle of class go about asking the teacher for permission to go to the nurse’s office without exposing private matters to anyone within earshot? (Think: embarrassed teenage girl with menstrual cramps.) Teachers just have to figure it out.
Realistically, it’s easy enough to hide a few pills in a pocket and students probably get away with violations. My point is to help us appreciate that rules like these that may appear to be excessive bureaucracy are often very far from unnecessary.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    8-6-18
The complications of paying the Legislature
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
The notion that New Mexico should pay legislators a salary has been discussed many times. In 2016, a constitutional amendment was proposed to establish a salary, but wasn’t passed.
Some observers think we’d get a better quality legislature. Maybe. But it’s not so simple.
A salary would make it easier for intelligent, principled, civic minded individuals representing a broader range of backgrounds to seek elective office. It also could make legislative service attractive to some people who would want the job primarily for the money. Alas, New Mexico does have history of that. (Recall a past state auditor or two, for example.)
New Mexico is the last state to have no salary for legislators. Our legislators receive per diem expenses tagged to the IRS rate for Santa Fe, currently $183 a day for the legislative session and interim committee meetings. Most legislators actually do have to stay in hotels and pay for lodging and expenses. (I’ll mention exceptions another time.)
The 2016 amendment would have set legislators’ salaries to the state’s median household income, currently around $45,000. For 112 legislators, that totals a little more than $5 million a year. But the cost of a salary is never just the salary.
In case another such proposal is introduced in 2019, let’s examine.
First, additional costs: Salary is taxable for both federal and state income tax. So the take-home salary would be less than that hypothetical $45,000 – just as for any other salaried employee.
Legally, a salaried person is an employee of somebody. Currently New Mexico legislators are not employees. If they become employees, who’s the boss? If a legislator fails to show up at all the required times, would salary be docked? Would legislators be entitled to sick leave and the state employee health plan?
If they receive a salary, then, unless special law is made to provide otherwise, they have the same rights as any employees. That includes unemployment coverage, which requires a payroll deduction with a match from the employer. When would unemployment apply? If a legislator loses the next election, is he or she entitled to unemployment?
Salaried employees are covered by workers' compensation if injured on the job. When is a legislator on duty? A legislator might slip and fall in the supermarket while talking to a fellow shopper who is a constituent. The legislator could, hypothetically, claim workers’ comp. And whether any legislator ever claims it, the insurance premium would still have to be paid by the employer (that’s us).
Second, different expectations of service: Should legislative sessions be longer? Should legislative service become a full-time, year-round job? If so, what should legislators be doing all year? Poking around into all the state agencies? Educating themselves by going to more conferences?
Would you expect legislators to be available to constituents year-round? Informally, they already are. If they are paid to be available, would they need offices in their districts, another taxpayer expense (perhaps with staff)? If they have an existing job or profession, should they give it up?
Would the salary replace the per diem that legislators are now paid? In our sprawling state, that would hurt legislators who have to travel long distances.
The other 49 states have, presumably, dealt with these issues, possibly in 49 different ways. So it’s not impossible, just cumbersome. But before New Mexico discusses this further, we ought to figure out what we expect or we could have a decade of litigation.
Our citizens already spend dizzyingly high amounts on campaign contributions for a part-time job that pays no salary. Legislative campaigns used to involve a few brochures and a lot of shoe leather, but no more. If the legislative salary encourages more candidates to jump into the ring, campaigns will become even more expensive. And you as a citizen will have to do more homework to pick the best candidate.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     7-23-18
Responsible governing requires flexibility on taxes
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
I have been hoping the Legislature will try again to pass the pet food tax next year.
This was a small proposed tax whose proceeds would have been earmarked for badly needed spay and neuter programs. For no good reason, Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed it, maintaining her unblemished record of not approving any taxes. Had she signed the bill, the program could perhaps have saved local governments much more than it would have cost. That would be taxpayer money well spent. I’m hoping one of the co-sponsors will reintroduce it in 2019. (The main sponsor, Rep. Carl Trujillo, won’t be back.)
New Mexico is overdue to apply gross receipts taxes to Internet sales. Since a recent U. S. Supreme Court decision affirmed the right of states to tax online sales, I’ve been hoping someone’s drafting that bill. When retail purchases are made online instead of from local stores with local employees, the state loses out all around. The tax advantage has been unfair for years. It’s time to level that playing field for New Mexico businesses.
It’s often said that our gross receipts tax system in general is messy and needs reform, in part because it is riddled with exemptions. When taxes are reformed, some taxpayers end up paying less and some pay more. It’s possible that a tax overhaul could increase some taxes, perhaps for industries that have been enjoying special advantages.
And we should be open to the option of increasing New Mexico’s gasoline tax. Our gasoline tax of $.17 per gallon is among the lowest in the country. A small increase, earmarked for the road fund, might save money not in taxes, but in the cost of wear and tear on our vehicles and auto insurance due to safer roads. And better roads might encourage economic development. That would also be money well spent.
So voters should know that Congressman Steve Pearce, Republican gubernatorial candidate, recently announced he has taken the “no tax increase” pledge. If Pearce becomes governor, none of these things is possible.
The tax pledge, which has been fashionable among some Republicans for several years, is credited to Grover Norquist, a well-known anti-tax spokesman. Norquist’s most famous comment was that he would like to see government reduced to the size of a bathtub and then drowned in the bathtub. We may guess that Norquist has never needed the services of a police officer, doesn’t mind industrial waste in the water he drinks, and would prefer that the children of parents who cannot afford private schools get no education at all.
Curbing the excesses of government is a worthy goal. Conservatives have tried to do that by limiting the revenue to government so that lawmakers are forced to reduce government activity. But many of us would argue that New Mexico needs more essential services, not fewer, and should have more resources to improve roads, schools, law enforcement and other public services.
The tax pledge has no flexibility. It’s all or nothing. The governor who makes that promise relinquishes his or her ability to make choices for the best interests of the state. Martinez demonstrated that when she vetoed population control for dogs and cats.
It’s early in the general election campaign season. Pearce has plenty of opportunity to modify his position and show where he would be flexible. I hope he does that. If he doesn’t, voters might recognize that anyone who takes this pledge has promised his loyalty to outside interests and made himself incapable of responding to the needs of this state.
Meanwhile, however, we must note that at the federal level, we have a whole new raft of taxes. These taxes were intended for another purpose, changing the balance of international trade, but they could also bring in a lot of money. They are called tariffs. Being opposed to taxes is no longer the conservative position.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    7-9-18
Refugee children, New Mexico children
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
The federal government can ship a child back to the child’s home country, where the child’s life is in imminent danger. But if you want to take that child into your home, government won’t let you – to protect the child.
People want to do something for the children caught in the immigration crisis. But you can’t simply drive up to a border station and offer to take a child until the child’s parent is through the immigration process.
The children are in federal, not state, custody. Undocumented minors become part of the federal foster care system run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Separated children have been sent to group facilities that have federal contracts. None are in New Mexico.
If the state were in charge, you would have to qualify as a foster parent. This process takes several months, including background checks and home visits. The first legitimate concern is to make sure prospective foster parents are not pedophiles or traffickers.
Our state’s system is not adequate for the number of New Mexico children needing foster care. There are about 1,300 foster parents in the state, and well over 2,000 children in foster care. In 2017, 152 foster homes had more than the recommended maximum of six children because there were no other available homes. 
As if this were not confusing enough, a new change in federal law may reshape our entire foster care system, which is largely paid for by federal matching funds and therefore regulated by federal standards. As described by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the law “effectively blows up the nation’s troubled foster care system.”
The law, called the Family First Prevention Services Act, was tucked inside the 2018 Budget Act passed in February.
It is based on the principle that children in difficult homes usually fare best if they stay with their parents. Instead of removing children from their homes, it proposes to pay for programs that put families on treatment plans to help resolve the parents’ issues – drug addiction, domestic abuse, or whatever.
The federal Health and Human Services Department is currently asking for public comment on figuring out how to implement this law. New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department may have to make major changes to our system, but not until the feds figure out the rules.
You may have noticed the irony. Keeping families together is the opposite of the border policy that separated all those children. Gee, government departments are contradicting each other’s policies. What a surprise. 
And the State Department has just issued its annual Trafficking in Persons report, which claims that worldwide, children removed from their families and placed in institutions are at greater risk of being trafficked. Again, the irony is noticed.
For those poor immigrant children that we don’t seem to be able to help, I would like to say you could send them blankets or teddy bears, but I don’t think so. Just send donations to advocacy organizations you know and trust.
New Mexico may have more influence over the conditions of adult detainees, because two adult prisons here house immigrant detainees.
The legislative interim Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee is planning to look into the private prison companies operating in New Mexico that incarcerate detainees. The committee will be asking about the state’s right to inspect and whether these companies plan to build more facilities in New Mexico. A hearing is scheduled for July 16 at the Roundhouse. Stay tuned.
While we’re spending untold taxpayer dollars to keep people locked up, helpless and unproductive, the president of the New Mexico Chile Association told me there aren’t enough workers to pick the crop. “There is a very real possibility that some crops that require hand harvest will not get harvested,” chile farmer Rick Ledbetter said.
If you feel like you’re halfway down the rabbit hole, so do I.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     6-25-18
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
Good news from MainStreet
When you think of Farmington, arts and culture may not be your first thought. But that could change.
Farmington -- specifically, part of Farmington’s downtown – – is one of three communities recently endorsed by the New Mexico Arts Commission as a Start-Up Arts & Cultural District. It is recognized as a historic area with preservation value and economic potential.
This program is a division of the state’s MainStreet program, primarily operated by the Economic Development Department (EDD). It means the state will be involved in coordinating local public and private efforts to upgrade and renovate the area.
            The Farmington district overlaps with the Historic Downtown Commercial District, located where the Animas, San Juan, and La Plata rivers converge. This downtown district contains an eclectic mix of galleries, locally owned retail stores and restaurants.
            Corrales and Carlsbad are also newly designated Start-Up Arts & Cultural Districts.
The Carlsbad district is home to private and cooperative galleries, art-related businesses, Halagueno Arts Park and the Carlsbad Museum. The vision for the district includes plans to rehabilitate the Cavern Theater and repurpose the old Odd Fellows Hall into a coffee house, bistro and event space.
            For more than 30 years, MainStreet has been working with communities to provide technical services and some of the funding for downtown improvements – always focused on preserving the unique character of the community.
            Arts & Cultural Districts are a relatively new addition to New Mexico’s MainStreet program. Another new designation is the Frontier Community Initiative, for communities with a population below 7,500. The newest additions are Cimarron, Conchas Dam, Rodeo, and Taos Pueblo.
MainStreet co-directors Daniel Gutierrez and Rich Williams explained that revitalizing the downtown involves more than just saving old buildings. Planning has to consider infrastructure, such as aging water lines or cracking sidewalks. MainStreet can bring in technical experts to make sure the total package works. All MainStreet projects must have economic potential, community participation, and public or private sources of funding.
More than 30 projects, some completed, are all over the state, from Nob Hill in central Albuquerque to Mosquero and Zuni Pueblo, the first Native American MainStreet community in the United States.
            Last week in Grants I was delighted to visit the lovely Riverwalk Park, part of its MainStreet project. The park, a magnet for special events, is across the street from the historic Mining Museum along Route 66. Last year I stopped in Carrizozo, where MainStreet-inspired painted burros look down from rooftops on to an eclectic mix of art galleries.
            In an age of big box uniformity and look-alike shopping malls, it’s worth celebrating that small towns, including very small ones, are redeveloping their downtowns and preserving their unique histories.
Under MainStreet’s Historic Theater Initiative, the EDD has made grants to six publically owned classic theaters: in Clayton, Silver City, Lovington, Raton, Gallup and Clovis. Each historic theater has been identified as a catalytic economic driver for its community.
            MainStreet involves coordination among several state agencies: the Historic Preservation Division and New Mexico Arts Division of the Department of Cultural Affairs and the New Mexico Tourism Department as well as EDD. I have written columns critical of New Mexico state agencies that don’t even talk to each other. I am pleased to write about agencies working together.
Do you remember the movie, “The Last Picture Show?” It’s a nostalgic story of a dying small town where the wind blows tumbleweeds down the main street and the local movie theater must close for lack of business.
Imagine if a few artists set up shop in those abandoned storefronts, a coffeehouse opened next to the pool hall, and an arts-minded developer restored that theater to its original Art Deco glory. That town’s future might be completely different.
Allow me to suggest that the next priority should be an Artisan Public Restrooms program, which will be appreciated by tourists and definitely create a few jobs.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     6-11-18
The big retirement investment
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
Investing money is a daunting experience.
In the past you could put your money into a few safe, respectable stocks, keep them for years, enjoy regular dividend checks and sleep peacefully.
Those days are gone. Whether you manage your investments yourself or hire a financial advisor, the market is confusing and complex. The choices are bewildering and conditions are constantly changing.
Imagine if you had to do this for almost $16 billion of other people’s pensions.
That’s the responsibility of PERA, New Mexico Public Employee Retirement Association, which manages the pension fund for state and local government retirees. (This fund is separate from the state’s funds, and from the fund for education retirees.)
PERA pays more than $1 billion a year in pension benefits, with most beneficiaries still living in New Mexico. It’s a major contributor to the economy of our communities. If you or a family member is a current or future PERA retiree, the fortunes of this fund affect you.
For years I have voted in PERA board elections, but I never asked exactly what their responsibilities were or how PERA investment decisions were made -- until now.
Here’s what I learned from executive director Wayne Propst.
Governance of PERA’s investment policy is done by the elected board, professional staff, consultants and money managers. There’s been a change recently in how responsibility is divided.
The board oversees the entire process. The board has the power to hire and fire the executive staff. The board also sets the “asset allocation” – the formula for portioning out assets among different types of investments: U.S. or international, reliable dividends versus growth potential, stocks or bonds, and so on. In the high-stakes gamble of global investing, asset allocation is educated guessing which sectors of the economy will make the most money. It is considered the most important factor in determining the success of the fund.
Within this framework, someone has to pick specific assets. PERA selects money managers – possibly 100 or more -- and gives each manager some of its portfolio to invest.
The recent change is who picks the money managers.
The professional investment staff, with help from consultants, reviews money management firms and makes selections after extensive analysis, which may involve months of review.
Until recently, board members participated in the selection, including going on trips with staff to visit management firms.
Recently a majority of board members decided to take themselves out of those decisions and leave them to the staff and consultants.
John Melia, an Albuquerque firefighter, is chair of the board’s investment committee.
“In the past it was simpler,” he said. “You did not need experts to reach the numbers you needed. Nowadays it’s hard to meet goals in the stock market. We should leave that job to the experts. We need full-time dedicated people to manage these investments.”
Not everyone agrees with this change. The decision was not unanimous and there has been some controversy.
But PERA has been underperforming compared to its peers and failing to meet its own benchmarks. Over the last 10 years, average total growth has been almost a percentage point below the 4.96 percent growth goal the board set for itself. This jeopardizes the long-term future of promised retirement benefits for thousands of state and local government retirees. The threat of future cuts to benefits is distant but never disappears.
The new approach makes sense to me, but I’m not an expert either. If you are a current or future PERA retiree, you may want to pay attention yourself. The governance information is public and on the website. The annual meeting will be September 27.
Or you could join Retired Public Employees of New Mexico (rpenm.org), an organization of retirees whose primary purpose is to safeguard PERA retirement benefits. Dues are only $30 a year and you will find a group of people who are paying attention with you.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   5-14-18
Advice on Congress from Joe Skeen
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
When Joe Skeen first went to Congress, he told my husband, it was the most humbling experience of his life. He had never felt like such a nobody.
The U. S. House of Representatives has 435 members. As Skeen told it, freshman members got no respect at all.
My husband told me that story several years later.
Skeen wasn’t exactly wet behind the ears when he went to Congress. He had served 10 years in the state Senate and run for both lieutenant governor and governor.
Old-timers will remember that Skeen, a Republican, first won his seat in Congress as a write-in candidate. His predecessor, Democrat Harold Runnels, had been so popular that the GOP didn't put up a candidate against him in 1978 or 1980. On August 5, 1980, Runnels died, too late in the campaign season for the Republican Party to put up an official candidate.
Skeen served 11 terms. He rose in the ranks, serving as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior, which sets the budget for national parks, federal land agencies and government Indian programs.
I mention this point as we approach the primary election and voters are choosing their candidates.
(You, reader, are planning to vote, I hope – that is, if you’re registered as a Democrat or Republican. In our closed primary elections you can only vote in the party in which you are registered. If you’re an independent, or as New Mexico calls you a “DTS,” or “decline to state,” you don’t vote until November. The Libertarian Party also has candidates on the ballot, but no primary contests between Libertarian candidates.)
In two of our three congressional districts, incumbents Michelle Lujan Grisham and Steve Pearce have vacated their seats to run for governor, so the contests to replace them are crowded. Whoever wins will be a freshman member of Congress.
In District 1, six Democrats are still running after others dropped out. There’s only one Republican in that race.
In District 2, there are four Republicans and two Democrats. This is a particularly competitive race because the pundits think Democrats have a chance to win in a traditionally Republican district.
In District 3, incumbent Democrat Ben Ray Lujan is running to retain his seat. He will be opposed in November by a Republican and a Libertarian. There is no primary contest in that race.
So what does my Joe Skeen story have to do with how you decide to vote this year?
The most important thing a member of Congress does is vote on legislation. The newest members of Congress don’t get to initiate much. They’ll mostly be voting in favor of bills initiated and vetted by their leadership or against bills their leaders oppose.
Whatever they say their priorities are, it may not matter much, at least for their first term. Democratic members of Congress will vote the same on major issues like healthcare and the environment. Republican members will vote in favor of stronger immigration restrictions and border protection. That’s all predictable.
If you are a passionate partisan and have already selected your favorite candidate on the basis of issues or personality, you are ahead of most voters. But if you are still wondering how to decide, here’s a suggestion: Consider experience, and especially experience that will be appreciated by other Congress members and allow that member to jump to the head of the class. Before you go to vote, check out the biographies on the candidates’ websites.
Some of these candidates are fine people with excellent backgrounds. So was Joe Skeen. Because we only have three members of the U.S. House, New Mexico treats its Congress members as celebrities. In Washington, it will require a different set of talents to become more important than a nobody.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      4-30-18
It’s past time to solve the dental epidemic
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
New Mexico children are going to school with toothaches and sore gums. And we wonder why they have problems learning to read?
Dental disease is a hidden epidemic for both children and adults in New Mexico and many other states. It causes pain, suffering, lost school and work time, emergency room visits, and health complications including heart disease.
A 2016 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation rates New Mexico highest of all 50 states for dental problems in children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that New Mexico has the nation’s highest prevalence of gum disease – 52.79 percent. Conditions are worse for Native Americans than other minorities.
New Mexico doesn’t have enough dentists in enough places, but that’s only part of the problem. Low income New Mexicans cannot afford dental care. Only about half of dentists take Medicaid. They say it’s because the reimbursement rate is too low, and it probably is, but there is also evidence that they simply don’t want to. And they should not be forced to.
The solution, if it can get through the Legislature, is dental therapists – mid-level practitioners who can safely perform extractions, drill and fill cavities, and do other basic dentistry. The safety and effectiveness have been shown by years of experience in other countries. Dental therapists are recruited from underserved communities and go back home to work. They work under the supervision of a dentist, but the dentist does not have to be in the building.
We even have schools ready to train them: several community colleges (including CNM, NMSU, ENMU and San Juan College) offer dental hygiene programs that could be expanded to accommodate the additional training.
A national gathering of dental therapy advocates took place in Albuquerque recently. Attendees included representatives of major charitable organizations such as Pew and Kellogg, several universities and leaders of what has become a passionate national movement. The lead organization in New Mexico is Health Action New Mexico (healthactionnm.org).
Like any other licensed healthcare practice, dental therapy requires approval by the Legislature. The state’s Dental Association has been fighting this for years. In 2017, a compromise was reached and the Dental Association reportedly endorsed the compromise, but some suspect that may have been just lip service (pardon the pun). A bill got through the House and died in a Senate committee. It’s not clear why it was stopped. No other interest group opposes dental therapy. Dozens of organizations support it.
Ironically, dentists probably would not lose money if dental therapy were licensed in New Mexico. Therapists would treat patients dentists don’t want to treat in places dentists don’t want to live. The therapists would refer patients to dentists for more complex, more interesting and more lucrative procedures.
So far, Alaska and Minnesota are the only states that have legalized dental therapy. Reports are that they have relieved massive amounts of suffering. And data are beginning to show economic results as patients are no longer prevented by their symptoms from going to school or work.
The New Mexico Dental Association provides free dental care in an annual charity event called the Mission of Mercy. It says the 2017 event provided more than $1.1 million in dental care to 1,300 patients. That’s about 1 percent of the people who need that care.
One unknown is whether all New Mexico dentists fully understand this issue and the current position of their association.
Suggestion: Next time you go to your dentist, ask him to take his fingers out of your mouth for a minute. Then ask him if he knows the statistics and if he has taken a position on the dental therapy issue. If he thinks dental therapy is a reasonable idea, ask him to contact the state association and say so.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   4-16-18
What you didn’t want to know about the Land Grant Permanent Fund
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
               We’ve all heard the arguments about early childhood education as the solution to pull New Mexico out of poverty. The state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund is targeted as a way to pay for it.
               Not so fast. The devil is in the details. 
               What follows is the kind of policy wonkish recitation that sends people tiptoeing out of the room. This explanation comes from former State Land Commissioner Ray Powell, who knows because he’s watched lawmakers and others sneak out the back door.
               The Permanent Fund is not one big pot of money that we can dip into any way we choose. The money is all spoken for. Changing the distribution requires a state constitutional amendment and approval by Congress.
               Our state trust lands were established with a checkerboard pattern, six squares by six, a total of 36 squares each representing a square mile. The pattern was applied all over the state. In each checkerboard, four squares – none touching each other -- were given to the state. 
               These tracts are scattered everywhere. On the Land Office map (on the website, look for LandStatus11x17) they appear as lots of tiny pale blue squares and larger clumps where tracts are consolidated.
               Each tract is earmarked for a specific beneficiary. And so is the revenue from that tract.
               This system was created in federal legislation at statehood. Exceptions were made for private, tribal, federal lands and land grants. To make up for those lands, the federal government designated “in lieu of” lands, some of which, luckily, were rich in oil and gas.
               Some land generates income from oil and gas; some is good for grazing; some may be in the middle of a city. The Land Commissioner has authority to sell tracts, and over the years the holdings have been reduced from about 13 million to 9 million acres.
               One complication: Surface land can be sold but the mineral rights cannot be sold so simply. Any such sales create a potential legal mess.
               The largest beneficiary is the public schools, with more than 7 million acres designated, but there are several other beneficiary entities, each with specific tracts and thus a designated piece of the revenue pie.
               Revenue from a renewable resource like a grazing lease goes directly from the land office to the designated beneficiary, such as a specific university or hospital, or the fund for the schools. Potentially, a very lucky beneficiary could get the revenue from a shopping mall.
               Revenue from nonrenewable sources like oil and gas goes into the Permanent Fund – but again, it is not one big happy bank account. It’s all earmarked. The income from each tract is designated for a specific beneficiary. The beneficiary with a producing oil well is luckier than the beneficiary with a dry well or no well at all.
               When the Legislature gets the annual numbers, a further complication happens – for example, with education. The Legislature decides the total dollars for the education budget. The Permanent Fund contribution is combined in the state general fund with revenue from other sources to reach that total. A good year for the Permanent Fund does not necessarily mean more money for education.
               Given this configuration, it is not clear how the money for the early childhood program could be allocated.
               The proposals we have seen would mandate that the total distribution from the fund be increased and a certain percentage of that increase go to the early childhood program. But it is not clear how that distribution would work.
               The Land Office, in legislative analysis documents, has offered a different possible approach: to buy new land that could be earmarked for early childhood. I don’t know whether that’s the right idea, but I know that next time the issue comes up, I will not sneak out of the room.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    4-2-18
Educating students about civic participation
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
Could your teenager pass a citizenship test?
A recent national study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center study found that more than a third of adults surveyed can’t name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment, and only 26 percent can name all three branches of government.
As a condition of high school graduation, several states require students to score a passing grade on the test that immigrants must pass when they apply for U. S. citizenship. Should New Mexico?
This year New Mexico considered a different goal. House Bill 23, which died quietly in our recent legislative session, proposed a graduation requirement that focused on readiness for work, not citizenship. The bill would have required high school students, for graduation, to demonstrate that they applied for college, got a job, or committed to an internship or military service. This would have added to existing requirements for “next step plans” for graduating seniors.
We have been justifiably concerned with educating our students to earn a living, but some of us worry that we may be neglecting to educate them to be citizens.
I had been looking at this issue for some time, talking with teachers and others who share this concern about the decline in civic literacy.
I found some bright spots.
One high school teacher told me his students take that immigration test as a start for the semester. Travis Crawley, winner of a Golden Apple teaching award, said, “We use it as a teaching tool.” After the test, the students research and debate the issues.
Here’s another bright spot called National History Day.
This is a competition with regional, state and national levels. Middle school and high school students prepare projects, individually or in small groups, that are judged by volunteer panelists. The projects can be websites, exhibits, performances, documentaries or papers.
This year’s theme is “Conflict and Compromise,” the profound principle that underlies our Constitution, as articulated by James Madison in 1787 in the Federalist Papers. There is no more relevant theme for a student history project in 2018.
About half of the state’s school districts (plus private school and home schooled students) are participating. The three regional competitions took place in March. The state contest will be April 27 at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque. State winners compete nationally in June.
At the metro area contest, among the many entries I saw a video documentary on the Iranian hostage crisis, a group performance about the women’s suffrage movement and an individual performance on education for the deaf using sign language. Exhibits included the use of the atomic bomb in World War II and a long-ago controversy in New Mexico involving the employment of Catholic nuns in public schools. The display of knowledge and enthusiasm was exhilarating.
And then the world changed.
We are now witnessing the most powerful civics education project of our generation. The protest movement against gun violence, led by the students of Parkland, Florida, will offer young people the chance to learn for themselves how citizen participation can bring about change – or not.
These students are learning in real time about the way our system works. They very well may get the change they are asking for. And they may lead their generation to much broader reforms. Many high school seniors who are eligible to vote this year will vote.
I hope this new activism includes the students at whom HB 23 was aimed – the ones who may be uncertain about their own futures. They will be voters too.
Meanwhile, you can find the practice version of the naturalization civics test online at my.uscis.gov/prep/test/civics. This practice version is multiple-choice. Before you ask your kids to take this test, you may want to try it yourself.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   3-19-18
Preserving the governor’s no tax policy
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
             If by paying a tax I save more money than the tax costs me, I don’t mind paying it. In fact, I’m happy to, not just because I support the purpose of the tax but because it’s economically prudent.
            That was how I felt about the pet food tax. Then the governor vetoed it.
          House Bill 64 (sponsored by Democrats Carl Trujillo of Santa Fe, Debbie Rodella of Española and Joanne Ferrary of Las Cruces, would have levied a small tax on the manufacturers of pet food and earmarked the money for spay and neuter programs to reduce cat and dog overpopulation in New Mexico.
            It should have been signed purely as a cost-saving measure.
            The Legislative Finance Committee report said the cost to local governments for public animal shelter services and euthanasia of unwanted dogs and cats is $27 million annually. With private nonprofit animal shelters added, the total cost is $38 million, according to cosponsor Trujillo.
            If we could reduce that cost by preventing the birth of unwanted animals, that’s a saving to you and me that could be put to use for other purposes.
            I am sad for dogs and cats who are abandoned or in shelters, and I regret that some of them have to be killed by their municipal caregivers because nobody wants them – 70,000 a year in New Mexico, according to Trujillo. But let’s focus on the money.
Gov. Susana Martinez’s veto message says, “Local governments are better suited to promote spay and neuter programs, and many already do, through licensing programs and fines for those who do not spay and neuter their pets.”
Local government is indeed the right place for such services; however, state government is much better equipped to administer a tax program. It is not uncommon for the state to impose and collect a tax and pass the money to local governments.
The tax on alcoholic beverages is one such example.
This excise tax is imposed by the state and paid by the vendors who sell the products. Some of that money is distributed to local governments through a program called the DWI Grant Fund. Grants are awarded to programs that reduce the incidence of DWI, alcohol and drug abuse and related problem behaviors.
Local governments also have the authority to impose a tax on alcoholic beverages. The only such local tax is in McKinley County.
As a responsible occasional drinker I don’t mind paying a little extra for both law enforcement and social programs to reduce the chance that drunk drivers might kill me.
Surely in New Mexico no one can doubt the need for alcohol and drug abuse intervention. Whatever is done to reduce the damage caused by alcohol and drug abuse benefits not only the abusers but all the rest of us as well by making our communities safer. Having the state collect the tax reduces the administrative cost and leaves more money for services.
By similar logic, no one can doubt the worthiness of spay and neuter programs for dogs and cats. As a society we have decided to pay attention to dogs and cats on both the practical and humane levels. We want to prevent unneeded suffering of our favorite kinds of animals and we don’t want to be endangered by wild dogs or cats running loose in our streets. This program would have helped.
House Bill 64 passed the House by 48 to 19 and the Senate by 30 to 4. That’s a pretty strong mandate for a governor to ignore.
But we also know how Governor Susana Martinez feels about taxes. No new taxes, period, no matter what the purpose, no matter that the tax would have saved more money than it cost. She has apparently succeeded in keeping her record pure and her resume uncluttered with such complicating information.
There will be a new governor next year. Sponsors, please try this one again.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    3-5-18
Attorneys general and the separation of powers
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
DACA expired on March 5.  Or maybe not.
DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is the federal program that protects undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. It was enacted as a regulation by President Obama, and President Trump declared that it would be discontinued effective March 5. Some federal courts, in response to lawsuits filed by state attorneys general, have ruled against termination. The U. S. Supreme Court has decided not to intervene.
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has joined with his counterparts in 15 other states and the District of Columbia to ask courts to prevent ending DACA. It appears DACA will remain in force temporarily.
Attorneys general from multiple states have banded together, issue by issue and lawsuit by lawsuit, to oppose policies of the Trump administration. Balderas’ office is currently active in 15 such lawsuits, according to AG spokesman James Hallinan, and has filed amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs in a number of others.
Four of these lawsuits involve methane.
Methane is a greenhouse gas, associated with climate change and pollution-related health effects. It leaks from natural gas extraction, and a gigantic cloud of it called a methane hotspot sits over the Four Corners.
Rules to reduce methane leakage from industrial sources such as oil and gas wells were adopted by the Obama administration in 2016 and have been hard fought ever since. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has delayed implementation, and states including New Mexico have challenged the delays. As of now, according to Hallinan, the rules are in effect. That means oil and gas producers are required to comply and the EPA is required to enforce.
As long as one party or the other continues to file appeals, or until a case is decided by the U. S. Supreme Court, none of these lawsuits is permanently concluded. And in some cases, as with the methane issue, different lawsuits are moving through different courts.
New Mexico is a participant in a suit related to the Affordable Care Act, demanding that the federal government keep its commitment to cost-sharing reduction payments; several suits related to environmental issues; and one challenging the federal Education Department regarding student loans. That department has moved to freeze new rules intended to erase the federal loan debt of student borrowers who were cheated by colleges that acted fraudulently.
New Mexico recently joined other states on the issue of net neutrality, the move to preserve equal access to the internet in the face of a recent ruling by the Federal Communications Commission.
New Mexico has filed amicus curiae briefs in support of litigation led by other states at the U. S. Supreme Court level and in other federal courts. These briefs are on a range of issues of national importance such as redistricting, voting rights, the federal travel ban, LGBTQ rights and reproductive rights. 
This type of intervention by state attorneys general is not new. Several states sued the federal government during the Obama administration because they objected to the Affordable Care Act. One of those states was Oklahoma, whose Attorney General at the time was Scott Pruitt. Pruitt also sued the EPA 14 times when he was Oklahoma AG.
What constitutes abuse of power or illegal action by the federal government depends on viewpoint. It’s a matter of picking your fights. State attorneys general, as independent elected officials, have the power to do that. 
Like millions of Americans, I am concerned about the current climate in Washington: paralysis in Congress, disrespect for ethics and the rule of law, and the threat to our democracy from widespread lack of appreciation of the principle of separation of powers.
State attorneys general have found a way to cut through this paralysis in addressing issues of national importance. They’re carrying those issues to the most deliberative process currently available, the courts.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       2-19-18
Labor missed an opportunity on a workers' compensation issue
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
Sorry, my friends in organized labor, you missed one.
On a party line vote, Democrats in the state House Labor and Economic Development Committee voted to kill a harmless little memorial, HJM 5, sponsored by Rep. Randall Crowder, R-Clovis. The memorial, a nonbinding legislative recommendation, asked for future studies of the workers’ compensation system, to be conducted by independent research organizations -- one this year and one every five years thereafter.
Studies are good for injured workers. They reveal gaps and hardships in the system and suggest things that should be fixed, usually to benefit workers.
Organized labor was apparently behind the effort to kill the memorial. Somebody commented that any studies should be done under the next governor, as if a study done this year would be biased against workers.
It’s been almost 20 years since the last independent study of New Mexico workers’ comp. The Worker’s Compensation Administration commissioned the RAND Corporation to study the long-range financial outcomes of injured workers receiving workers’ comp benefits. The researchers used sophisticated methods and had access to in-depth data. They also compared New Mexico results to four other states they were studying at the same time. The information provided a factual basis for improvements in worker benefits.
The Workers’ Compensation Advisory Council has been asking for new studies for several years. This year, since they weren’t asking for other legislation, they thought this memorial had a chance.
The memorial could have been better worded. It shouldn’t have been specific about issues to be studied. The intent could easily be distorted, and apparently it was. The list of issues should have been left to be decided later by the Advisory Council and staff experts.
But still, there was no good reason to oppose this modest request.
Organized labor has an extraordinarily powerful voice in workers’ comp. The Advisory Council, which is established in law and whose approval is essential for any workers’ comp legislation to pass, is composed of three members representing business and three representing workers.
Through the years, organized labor has demanded that all worker representatives must be union members. Several years ago, when the Martinez administration appointed someone who was not a union member, labor caused a showdown and won.
But labor has not been providing leadership on the issues. The labor leaders who participated when the law was reformed in 1990 are retired and gone, and their younger replacements have not done the homework. They’ve left the details to the trial lawyers, but the interests of workers and lawyers are not identical.
How workers’ comp affects the individual injured worker is very complicated. So, for example, if I were to tell you the permanent partial disability formula might be discriminatory against women, you’d say, “What? How could that be?” Answer: the formula favors workers who did physically heavy labor as measured by lifting. Most heavy lifting is done by men. Does this formula disadvantage injured women workers? Without data we don’t know.
The memorial suggested studying the opioid issue. I don’t believe it was intended to deprive injured workers of needed pain medication, but perhaps to find out the best practices in other states for handling our drug addiction problem. I wouldn’t be surprised if such a study would lead to a ringing endorsement of medical marijuana, but without data that’s just a guess.
Without data, you are flying blind if you try to estimate the benefits and costs of any proposed change to the system.
Meanwhile, these days insurance premiums are relatively low and there might be an opportunity to do a little horse trading – propose some kind of clearly worded and narrowly targeted increase for injured workers in return for resolving some of the procedural problems created by case law. But you can have that conversation only if you know what you’re talking about.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    2-5-18
School buses don’t have to be toxic
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
School buses can be hazardous to your children’s health.
Most school buses, including New Mexico’s, are powered with diesel. The diesel fumes contain enough toxic substances to cause an identifiable health hazard to children (and others, especially the drivers) who are regularly exposed to the fumes.
Documentation is ample. Diesel exhaust has more than 40 toxic air contaminants, including nitrogen oxides and known or suspected cancer-causing substances, such as benzene, arsenic and formaldehyde.
Diesel soot from school buses has also been associated with reduced lung function and increased incidences of pneumonia in children, according to a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. And New Mexico has a respiratory disease problem.
“Asthma is one of the most common chronic diseases in New Mexico, with an estimated 150,000 adults and 47,000 children currently having the disease,” said a report from the state Health Department. It notes that asthma contributes to reduced quality of life and health care costs.
Asthma rates in southeastern New Mexico are the worst in the state, based on measures for middle school and high school students and for Medicaid recipients, according to the report. Quay (7.06 percent) and Roosevelt (7.11 percent) counties had the highest persistent asthma prevalence. African-Americans have significantly higher rates than other ethnic groups. The report also finds that lower income individuals suffer higher rates of asthma.
There’s a move afoot to replace diesel buses with electric buses. It even has a suggested funding source.
The school bus memorial, HJM 6, proposes replacing diesel-powered school buses with electric buses. The sponsors are Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, and Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque. The memorial has been endorsed by a number of environmental groups.
The proposed funding source is money expected from the Volkswagen settlement. In 2017, Volkswagen admitted to rigging millions of vehicles worldwide with software to dodge emissions tests. New Mexico’s expected share is $18 million. The state’s Environment Department explains that the funds must be used for projects that reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides from vehicles. School buses are mentioned as an eligible category.
This initiative was written as a nonbinding memorial rather than a bill because the terms of the fund give the governor, not the Legislature, power to decide how to allocate the money.
A legislative analysis says existing state law requires school buses to be replaced every 12 years. So there is already a schedule for replacing old buses, which would normally be funded by capital outlay. One stated purpose for Volkswagen settlement money is to replace eligible vehicles with more fuel-efficient alternatives.
The analysis cautions that the $18 million is not likely to come in all at once but would probably be spread over three years. It notes that currently the state has 201 buses older than the 12-year replacement cycle.
A separate analysis from the Legislative Education Study Committee references a study from Delaware for cost information. The Delaware study shows electric buses cost considerably more to purchase but with savings over time, the cost after 12 years is only slightly higher per bus than the cost for diesel. It says the $18 million could purchase approximately 69 electric school buses.
I live down the street from a high school. Twice a day, the buses line up and idle. Until now, I’ve never realized how toxic they are.
At this writing, the memorial received a tie vote in its first legislative committee. It may be in competition with other proposals that also involve replacing dirty fuel with better alternatives. It’s probably a very good thing that this settlement money came with sensible restrictions.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.