Merilee Dannemann 


Can a business require masks?
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
Some years ago, I went to a dollar movie theater a few days after seeing a report on TV about children with head lice.
Thinking maybe dollar movie theaters weren’t as clean as full price theaters, I looked at the back of the seat I was about to occupy and wondered when, if ever, the upholstery had been cleaned.  It could hold residue from the hair of every head that had touched it for months or years.
I spread my jacket over the seat back. That was enough protection. Then I thought, don’t assume full price theaters are cleaner. I have never heard of anyone getting lice from a movie theater, but it’s not impossible.
The movie theater incident happened before Covid. Now theaters, like other businesses, are much more conscious of sanitation. Reassuring customers about cleanliness is now a marketing tool. Nevertheless, I will probably cover the seat with my jacket for the rest of my life.
And for the foreseeable future, I will only go to a movie that requires everyone to wear masks.
The recent change in guidance from the CDC has confused everybody. Many of us are asking the same question: If everyone who is vaccinated no longer has to wear masks, but in a crowd of strangers we don’t know who is vaccinated and who isn’t, how can we be sure we’re safe?
There is another slightly more complicated question. What is the right of a business to set a standard regarding masks?
Remember the signs that said “no shoes, no shirt, no service”? Store and restaurant owners wanted to keep certain types of people out of their establishments. That practice was described as a way of keeping hippies out, but it could have simply been a declaration of cleanliness. Business owners were within their rights to do that.
A few years ago, after a convenience store shooting, I asked whether business owners have the right to prohibit customers or employees from bringing guns into the store. The answer is mostly yes, but requirements are fuzzy and vary from state to state. In New Mexico the answer is yes with some exceptions, and there is a long list of places where guns are prohibited by law.
Now I ask, similarly, whether the store owner has the right to require masks or prohibit them. A number of legal websites suggested that business owners are within their rights as long as they are acting in the general interest of health and safety.
An employment lawyer friend helped me to get more specific. The basic answer is that state laws are largely silent on this matter so some interpreting is necessary.
Laws prohibit business owners from certain specific actions, such as those related to discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and so on. If business owners’ actions don’t violate an existing law, they can set the rules for their own properties.
Right now, as we are transitioning cautiously back to normal, I would prefer to patronize stores that require masks. Someone else might prefer stores that prohibit masks or that leave it up to the customer.
 Just remember that you do not have absolute freedom of choice on somebody else’s property. But you can choose where you shop.
No shoes, no shirt, no mask, no service. That is okay with me. And you might want to cover the back of the seat. That is your choice.
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© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     5-24-21
Badly written legislation
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
Old saying: Nobody is safe when the Legislature is in session.
This year, I agree more than usual.
My top concern was bad bills in good causes. I read several.
A bill can originate in many ways. A legislator or some anonymous friend starts with a good idea and messes it up with regulatory overkill or some other weird idea that makes the bill do more harm than good.
Legislators take their drafts to the Legislative Council Service, where staff attorneys draft the bills according to official standards. Their job is to draft what the legislator wants and not give their opinions of what might work better.
As bills are heard in committee, some get the bad parts amended out. Some are put out of their misery by getting lost in the committee process. But a few make it through the gauntlet with their offensive provisions intact.
If a badly written bill for a good cause comes to the floor without being fixed, legislators are forced to vote for it or go on record as being opposed to something they support. These votes are almost impossible to explain later.
I’ve written previously about a few such bills so I won’t repeat those comments here (see
Here’s another option: Draft bills earlier and review them before the session. That’s one possible function of interim committees.
Interim committees meet between legislative sessions, usually starting in May. The season begins with the first meeting of the Legislative Council, mostly composed of members of the leadership. This year’s meeting happened on May 3. The Legislative Finance Committee, the most powerful committee because it produces the draft state budget, started earlier on April 29.
In-session committees have a specific responsibility: to review bills and vote on them. They follow formal procedures and are always rushed, usually crowded, and generally behind schedule based on a schedule that begins with wishful thinking.
Interim committees have more time. They mostly do not vote on bills. They discuss issues and listen to reports prepared by state agencies, outside experts or the year-round staff. There’s more opportunity for public comment. They are gathering the information that could lead to legislation.
They also sometimes have bills drafted and vote on approval of those bills. If a committee endorses the bill, that endorsement carries over when the bill is introduced in the session. But they have no power to officially pass legislation. That can only be done in the session. So there’s much less pressure.
In normal years, interim committees meet all around the state, giving voters in many communities an opportunity to participate or observe in person. The year 2020 was not normal, as we all know; most meetings were online. It is expected that committees will be meeting in person again this year. The schedule is posted on the website. The public can tune in to webcasts on that site.
One bill I read this year was so badly written that a person reading it couldn’t tell what it was intended to do. A supporter explained the bill’s purpose to me, but I couldn’t find that purpose in the language of the bill. The bill didn’t get very far.
If this bill had been reviewed in an interim committee, somebody could have pulled the supporters aside and whispered tactfully that their bill was well intended but unintelligible.
We keep hearing calls to lengthen the legislative session. Eventually that will probably happen, but in the meantime interim committees can help move legislation along.
I have heard legislators say, “I can’t commit until I read the bill.” I used to think that was a stalling tactic. Nowadays I think maybe they are being prudent.
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We need clean rest stops and good roads
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
            “The rest stops were built in the 1950s and cleaned in the 1970s.” So commented New Mexico State University economist Jim Peach in a recent talk about the state’s economy. He got a good laugh.
            He was talking about New Mexico’s second most commonly asked question (after our official state question, “red or green?”): How can we diversify the state’s economy?
            New Mexicans have been asking that for decades. Everybody thinks somebody should do it, but nobody knows exactly how. Even after some big wins, like the Facebook data center and the newly announced Intel expansion, we’re still dependent on oil and gas.
            Make the state more welcoming, Peach suggested.
            Maybe we are not as hospitable as we think. Some years ago I watched an argument in the Legislature, with legislators asking disdainfully why we should spend New Mexicans’ money building bathrooms for tourists, as if we really didn’t care whether they liked it here.
            A few years ago I drove through Las Trampas, home of the famous San Jose de Gracia Church, built in the late 1700s, a national historic landmark.
            In front of the church was a dirt parking area, and across the way was a small, funky shop, with “La Tienda” painted by hand over the doorway, selling crafts and cold drinks.
            Some folks asked the shop owner if there was a public restroom anywhere. The owner directed them into his house. He started a conversation with me.
            The High Road to Taos, now officially a scenic byway, is 80 miles long without a single public restroom, he said. Politicians stopped by his shop all the time and he’d been telling them for years that a rest stop is needed.
            “People stop in Chimayo and eat meat and beans,” he said. “Then they go down the road and what do you think is gonna happen?” He let visitors use his restroom as a courtesy.
            I suggested jokingly that he should build a restroom himself and request donations. I guessed he could make a decent return.
            Public facilities should be publicly funded and spotlessly clean, telling the world that New Mexico is proud of our high standards. They should show off our art. And they should be on every major road.
            The related step to making New Mexico more welcoming is to improve those roads. Imagine having beautiful, well maintained roads, so good that you couldn’t tell that you had crossed the line from Colorado or Arizona, except for a proud “Welcome to the Land of Enchantment” sign. We would think we were in a place that -- gosh -- knew how to take care of business. So would visitors, who might think more seriously about relocating here and bringing their businesses.
            According to the 2021 analysis by TRIP, a national transportation research organization, 55 percent of New Mexico’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition.
            TRIP says driving on deteriorated roads costs New Mexico motorists $1.1 billion a year – $767 per driver – in the form of additional repairs, accelerated vehicle depreciation, and increased fuel consumption and tire wear.
            This year, our Legislature again rejected a bill to raise the gasoline tax and support road building. We know all the tired arguments that gasoline taxes are regressive, because low-income people drive older cars that use more gasoline.
            The TRIP analysis shows that every New Mexican can afford a few bucks more in taxes in return for savings from improved roads. And maybe it’s time to change the method from a tax on gas to a tax on mileage, so that higher income drivers will pay a bigger share.
            Right now we have the prospect of the possible Biden infrastructure plan, which no doubt will only provide funding for things we ask for. I think we should get ready to ask for clean restrooms and good roads.
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© 2021 New Mexico News Services     4-26-21
Lawyers in the Legislature
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
 “You’re not a lawyer and you’ve never been in the Legislature,” said the line in the TV commercial.
This line helped get Garrey Carruthers elected governor in 1986. Toney Anaya, former state attorney general, was the unpopular incumbent governor that year, so New Mexicans favored a candidate who made his lack of legal background into a virtue.
This year, the lawyers in the Legislature have done well for themselves and their colleagues.
A few highly publicized and controversial bills, now signed, created new business opportunities for lawyers, which the rest of us will pay for.
The New Mexico Civil Rights Act creates the right of litigation for alleged civil rights complaints against state and local public bodies.
As reported by the Legislative Finance Committee staff in the Fiscal Impact Report, the state General Services Department projects the bill will result in a cost increase to state government of approximately $4.5 million annually, including half a million in attorney fees.
The Public Schools Insurance Authority says, “Claim values and settlements could reasonably triple based on the attorney fee provision.” The PSIA covers most school districts.
New Mexico Counties noted that though the attorney fees permitted by the act are included in the $2 million cap on claims awards, “for most cases brought under the act the attorney fees will exceed the damages awarded to claimants.”
In support of the law, the state Civil Rights Commission said, “Adding a remedy for misconduct that violates the New Mexico Constitution makes meaningful the fundamental rights that document protects without fundamentally changing the litigation landscape.”
Let’s hope so.
The commission’s final report noted that increased costs associated with the act “would act as an incentive for government entities to impose the training, oversight, and accountability policies that are necessary to prevent government misconduct. By implementing aggressive loss prevention programs, the state and local governments can avoid constitutional violations in the first place.”
While I am all for training of government employees, I have been advocating for years that training should focus on the subject matter of their jobs. When I was a state employee, I sat through lots of training sessions about avoiding discrimination. But my job was to implement the New Mexico workers’ compensation system, and I had to teach most of that to myself.
            The Civil Rights Act is one of several bills that broaden the opportunity for lawsuits. The new sick leave law also creates grounds for lawsuits by workers against employers but not the reverse. Most of these bills are sponsored by legislators who are lawyers.
As with any legal issues, there are two sides to the story. On the one hand, the right to litigate allows individuals who have been harmed to recover money damages. On the other hand, when the defendant is a public agency, the cost is borne by the taxpayers. People who advocate this kind of litigation claim that the losing defendant is taught a lesson that leads to reform, but in the case of public agencies that is a like a trickle-down theory of justice. The wrongdoers, after all, are losing other people’s money.
There are good reasons why lawyers run for legislative office and why people in other professions don’t. For example, we could benefit from some accountants in the Legislature but we usually don’t have any. That’s simple: our legislative session conflicts with their busy season.
 If we shift to a paid legislature, we will still have to allow lawmakers to practice their professions, unless we make the legislature year-round and pay lawmakers accordingly, which is neither feasible nor desirable.
The increased burden of litigation established by this year’s new laws will make it a little harder for New Mexico to meet its other goals, such as diversifying our economy. That’s what we’ve chosen.
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© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      4-12-21
Bill aimed to save bees to save agriculture
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
If you eat local honey, somebody told me, you will not develop allergic reactions to local pollens. 
This is either true or a harmless superstition. It’s one of several reasons to choose local New Mexico honey.
Honey sold internationally is one of the most adulterated foods in the world. While regulators and inspectors work at protecting imported honey, there’s a race between the regulators and global exporters, who keep finding new ways to outwit the chemical tests.
Some foreign honey is cut with cheaper products like rice syrup. It can also contain contaminants, including antibiotics fed to the bees. According to the Netflix documentary “Rotten,” the largest food-related fraud case in U. S. history concerned contaminated honey.
In protecting New Mexico producers and consumers, there are two issues: protecting honey and protecting the bees whose miraculous natural process produces it.
According to the most recent Census of Agriculture, New Mexico produced 311,818 pounds of honey in 2017. The state has 10 registered commercial apiaries and 233 registered commercial apiary locations. Surprisingly, only one is listed with the state Department of Agriculture’s “Taste the Tradition” promotional program.
We have no official count of backyard beekeepers. There are probably a few thousand. The Department of Agriculture notes that beekeeping as a hobby is growing. I note, when speaking to beekeepers, that they are passionate about their bees.   
The best way to ensure you are buying pure honey, I concluded, is to buy a New Mexico labeled product. Raw honey from private beekeepers is not regulated, but honest labeling is required by the New Mexico Food Act.
With the farmers market season about to start up, most New Mexico consumers should be able to buy direct from producers.
Producers generally cannot guarantee that any honey is completely pesticide free, because bees forage. If the neighbor’s yard has pesticides, they could pick some up. The pesticides might also kill them.
The news is not good for bees.
During the winter of 2019-2020, New Mexico beekeepers reported a staggering 47% loss – almost half of all colonies.
In the recent legislative session, Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, introduced SB103, banning some use of a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids, or neonics for short, which are especially harmful to bees. The bill made it through two Senate committees.
Neonics are sold more or less everywhere, with attractive commercial brand names but listing unpronounceable chemical names as ingredients. They are also used, usually without labeling, to treat some seeds and plants sold by retailers and purchased by home gardeners. If the plant was treated, the pesticide has been absorbed by the plant and circulates through it, so bees will be exposed. Some of these chemicals may remain active up to three years.
Supporters of the bill – a coalition of environmental groups – said it was intended to stop only residential use of neonicotinoids, not commercial use by farmers, and to require stores to label treated plants so consumers could make an informed choice.
But it’s hard to discern that from reading the bill. Even the legislative analysis, does not say the restriction is limited to residential use.
The New Mexico Chamber of Commerce opposed the bill, saying it would hurt farmers, which supporters say was not the intention. Commercial spraying is regulated by restrictions on the labels of the products and training requirements for professional pesticide applicators.  
Because of bees’ vital role in pollination, saving New Mexico bees is essential for saving New Mexico agriculture. While we wait for next year’s revision of this bill, every homeowner can help by avoiding neonics or anything called a “systemic” insecticide, and by only buying plants that are neonic free. Ask at the store before you buy.
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Sick leave bill is out of balance
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
The American workplace is undergoing a revolution. 
            The workplace is not a place simply to do a job and receive a paycheck. If that wasn’t clear before, it has been made abundantly clear in the last year.
Some of the issues have been brewing for decades. In this year’s legislative session, they exploded.
What happens to workers when a business is forced to close due to circumstances beyond the owner’s control?
What happens when a worker gets sick? Who pays for the worker’s time off? 
Should workers be answerable to their employers for what they do outside work time if their activities pose risks for sickness or injury?
What happens when the schools close and parents must stay home with their children?
Should employers have continuing obligations to workers whose jobs are temporary or who work only for a few days? Should employers continue to be obligated to a worker fired for poor performance, drug use, or stealing? How can an employer close the books completely on a terminated employment relationship?
At what level should small employers be exempt from requirements?
New Mexico lawmakers tackled some of these issues in this year’s session.
Legislators introduced a bill requiring employers to provide paid sick leave, one requiring paid family and medical leave (unpaid leave is already federal law), and one that would override existing minimum wage increases with a larger increase. I previously wrote about the bill that would have blown holes in the workers' compensation system in a misguided attempt to help workers who contracted COVID-19. 
Some legislators might have been prepared to pass all of them, even though the state is not yet fully reopened and nowhere near recovered from the effects of the pandemic business closures.
Every one of these bills addressed a genuine need. Fortunately, only one of them passed.  Unfortunately, it was the sick leave bill.  (At this writing, the bill has not been signed or vetoed by the governor.)
            This bill, House Bill 20, is unbalanced and poorly drafted.
The bill appears to have been written by somebody who never met a trustworthy employer or a dishonest worker. Some of the language looked familiar; it was similar to the local bill defeated a few years ago in Albuquerque. 
As some readers know, I look at work-related legislation from the workers' compensation perspective. The workers' compensation system contains numerous tradeoffs between the rights and responsibilities of workers and employers. HB 20 contains no such tradeoffs.
The bill contains a detailed list of situations – not just personal illness – for which an employee can use sick leave. It describes employer recordkeeping requirements. It details how to penalize an employer for noncompliance. There is nothing about penalizing a worker. 
The bill was amended multiple times, so some problematic features have been ironed out, but it’s still too one-sided. An amendment introduced near the end of the session postpones implementation until July 1, 2022. 
The issues legislators missed may be just as important as the ones they tried to address.
As a society, we have to figure out these issues. If we want to live in a more humane and less tense world, we’ll have to start paying living wages so that families do not spend their lives worrying about the next paycheck. 
We’re going to have to respect the complicated roles of employers, including small businesses and nonprofits. We’re going to have to figure out how to pay for all these changes. We’re going to have to do this with employer and worker advocates together at the same table, even if it’s a Zoom meeting.
Starting that process should provide a robust agenda for a few interim legislative committees.
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Workers’ comp bill does not protect workers
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
In the second year of COVID, we agree that we want to reward our heroes, right? We want to support the doctors and nurses, the grocery clerks and others who have risked their health to take care of the rest of us. So there is no question about passing a bill that assures access to workers’ compensation benefits.
Or is there?
Not so fast. We should only pass legislation that helps those workers without imposing unreasonable conditions. And what if those workers are already being covered, without legislation?
House Bill 268 proposes to create a “rebuttable presumption” to cover “essential” workers for COVID-19. 
Workers’ comp – in New Mexico and everywhere else – only covers injuries and illnesses that occur at work or as a result of work. Infectious diseases are generally not covered because the exposure could have happened anywhere. But nothing stops a worker from making a claim if the worker can show the exposure happened at work.
The “rebuttable presumption” means it is presumed the worker contracted COVID-19 at work and so should be covered unless there is contradictory evidence.
I applaud the heroes and support that intention, as long as “essential” is limited to frontline workers and clearly defined. I hear, unofficially, that local insurers are covering most of those workers now, without legislation.
But this bill throws the workers' compensation system into chaos. And it fails to protect those workers.
The authors did not use the capabilities of existing workers' compensation law. They made up new rules just for these cases, turning the tried and true rules upside down. Their rules are not just different from but in conflict with existing law, creating a mess that will force cases to be litigated. 
If the bill passes, heaven forbid, before insurers pay medical bills or help those workers get well, they will be paying lawyers.
Workers' compensation is a no-fault system. When a worker is injured or becomes sick from work, the claim is covered no matter whose mistake caused the injury. There is no litigation about who made the mistake.
But this bill provides coverage only if the employer did something wrong, and denies coverage if the worker did something wrong. That forces cases to be litigated. It’s the opposite of workers' compensation. If the sponsors want workers to get compassionate and immediate coverage, they wrote the wrong bill.
The workers' compensation system penalizes careless employers, not by finding fault, but by raising insurance premiums in future years.  That is the only mechanism to “punish” the careless employer.
But this bill says the COVID-19 case may not be used against the employer to calculate future premiums. So costs will be shifted to everyone else. The careless employers get off free.
The workers' compensation system is an elaborate bundle of compromises that have been worked out over decades – not just here but in every state and around the world. The purpose, as New Mexico’s law states, is to provide “the quick and efficient delivery of indemnity and medical benefits to injured workers at a reasonable cost to employers.”   
New Mexico’s workers' compensation reform happened in 1990. There are very few people still active who remember in detail how the various provisions interlink, how they achieve the balance of rights and obligations, what the law was intended to accomplish – and, just as important, what the law was intended to prevent.
If everybody forgets what the system is for, and people keep writing bad legislation, it will gradually fall apart and have to be reinvented after a lot of unnecessary hardship and expense. New Mexico lawmakers need a revival of education on the principles of workers' compensation before they venture into legislation like HB 268.
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© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES          3-1-21
Time for a nonpartisan way to redistrict
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
The Republican Party “represents about half the country,” according to a recent column by conservative commentator Rich Lowry.
No, it doesn’t. Neither does the Democratic Party.
Our two “major” parties are not so major these days. Each represents only about 25% of the total electorate, according to a Gallup poll taken in mid-January. Half of American voters identify themselves as independent.
That poll counted voters’ self-identification, rather than official party registration. Almost half the states don’t register voters by party, so self-identification is more accurate than registration.
In New Mexico, where we register by party, the numbers are somewhat higher: 44.9% Democrat, 31.3% Republican, as of Jan. 29. Independents or “decline to state (DTS)” were 21.7% and a smattering were Libertarian or minor parties.
We can speculate that some voters register with party affiliation just so they can vote in a primary. An unknown percentage would switch to DTS if they could retain the right to vote in primaries.
The structure of our election process gives enormous advantage to established major parties, as if they have higher status than everyone else. They get top billing on the ballot, and they get districts designed for the convenience of incumbents. It’s time to start changing that.
A few bills this year address these inequities. One would establish open primary elections, allowing independents to vote in any major party primary. The rumor mill tells me that bill has been held up due to technical problems and might not move very far this year.
The potential bright spot is the bill that would change the way New Mexico draws its districts, House Bill 211. The Legislature draws districts for Congress, its own two houses and the state Public Education Commission. Those districts have to be redrawn every 10 years, based on population changes as reflected by the decennial census.
Customarily, the Legislature has taken charge, hiring consultants to analyze the population data and draft options. This has been highly political, especially since legislators are charting their own future electability. Districts have been drawn so that each district is majority Democrat or majority Republican. General election outcomes are almost a foregone conclusion, but the setup is ripe for an incumbent to be challenged in the primary. This is the act of gerrymandering that has led to our current state of political extremism.
There has long been a gentleman’s agreement to allow incumbents to keep their constituencies. Unless absolutely unavoidable, no two legislators will be placed in the same district and therefore forced to run against each other. But if they have to, due to population shifts, the two who get stuck in the same district will be members of the minority party.
HB 211 is based on the report of a Redistricting Task Force sponsored by the respected good-government organization New Mexico First. It proposes creating a multi-party Redistricting Commission including two members “appointed by the state ethics commission, who shall not be members of the largest or second largest political parties in the state.” Independents!!
The commission would draw up a number of possible redistricting schemes and the Legislature would choose one. Legislators would have to pick one of the choices offered without introducing amendments. In other words, prohibit legislators from playing politics by altering a map.
The bill requires the commission to use “communities of interest” as a major criterion and prohibits the adoption of district plans “to favor a political party or incumbent.”
The bill would have to be passed this year because redistricting itself must be done this year.
Redistricting the old-fashioned way is nasty, vicious and extremely partisan. There’s a growing national mood to adopt this approach: a big step to having voters select their representatives instead of having incumbents select their districts.
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© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    2-15-21
Now’s the time for the permanent fund
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
If now is not an emergency, I don’t know what is.
If we don’t do enough, what’s the consequence?
I have always urged caution on invading New Mexico’s treasure, the Land Grant Permanent Fund. I have said the fund was never intended to be a “rainy day” fund to be drawn down when needed. It was intended to last forever, to grow through prudent investment and continue to serve as a reliable source of income.
But we have never experienced anything like 2020. The year is over, but the pandemic is not.
So this year I’m not cautious. It’s time to use some money from this fund for the urgent needs of New Mexico -- especially the children who have been so harmed by the pandemic shutdowns. Figure out how to replenish the money later. That’s what you do in an emergency.
House Joint Resolution 1 and Senate Joint Resolution 1 both propose to withdraw an additional 1% every year from the fund. The House resolution is the one that’s moving.
The fund is currently valued at around $22 billion (tomorrow’s value is always subject to the whims of the marketplace). The distribution for the next fiscal year is estimated at about $908 million. As required by the state Constitution, 86% of that goes to public education.
If HJR1 passes all the hurdles, about $196 million more would be distributed in the first year, with about $170 million going to education. The remaining $27 million would go to the fund’s 20 other beneficiaries.
That doesn’t happen for at least another year. If the proposal passes the Legislature it must be approved by the voters, possibly in a special election. Then, because the fund was established as part of New Mexico’s statehood, it might have to be approved by Congress. That will depend on the final wording.
The original language earmarks the 86% for early childhood education, but that may change. And regardless of what it says, some of that money may be needed to stop the bleeding elsewhere. Once money has been distributed into the required line items in the general fund, money from other sources can, hypothetically, be shifted to cover other priorities.
Several bills are now in the Legislature to provide tax breaks or other assistance to businesses and workers hurt by the pandemic. There’s also a bill to eliminate the state income tax on Social Security, a perennial subject of argument. Legislators are doing what they do year after year: preaching that we need to diversify the tax base so we are less dependent on oil and gas and then enacting policies that do the opposite.
Revenue from oil and gas has been hurt due to reduced demand, and more reductions may be coming due to revised federal policies. That affects both current revenue and future contributions to the fund.
Pennies from heaven may start falling due to legalized marijuana, if that legislation passes, but it will take a few years for the windfall to manifest, if it ever does. Having heard inconsistent reports from other states, I worry about the unknown side effects of legalization.
Nothing is unknown about the side effects of removing an additional 1% from the permanent fund. It reduces the money remaining to invest. After a few years, the amount available to distribute shrinks every year. So New Mexico’s reliable source of backup revenue becomes less reliable, unless the extra distribution stops.
The language has a provision to suspend distribution by a three-fifths vote of both houses of the Legislature. But prudence dictates that the distribution should stop automatically after a fixed number of years, perhaps ten, and a vote of the Legislature be required to resume it. This resolution needs a sunset clause.
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© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      2-1-21
Virus safety through open windows
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
Classrooms do not need windows, the architect assured me.
They are a distraction. They invite students to look out the window instead of paying attention to the class.
It was 1970-something, and the architect was giving me a tour of the brand new Taos Junior High School in advance of a ceremonial ribbon cutting, featuring Harry Wugalter, head of what was then called the Public School Finance Division of the Department of Finance and Administration, the highest ranking school official in the state. (I’m namedropping for the amusement of readers like me with long New Mexico memories.)
Schools and other public buildings were sprouting all over New Mexico, thanks to the booming oil and gas industry and to the newly created Severance Tax Permanent Fund.
Art Trujillo, who owned a city planning and architecture firm in Santa Fe, understood the technicalities of obtaining the funding. He was the big-city expert consulting to small-town school boards and county commissions. He would later become mayor of Santa Fe.
I was puzzled by those austere new windowless classrooms where modern ventilation systems were to replace fresh air and visual inspiration had been removed from the curriculum.
This was in Taos, mind you, where the air was as clear as crystal and almost any window in almost any building opened to some of the most celebrated views in the world.
These days, when I walk my dog, I pass by the blank brick walls of windowless classrooms on the grounds of a mostly closed school built in the same era.
Several teachers come to the building every day, doing their remote teaching from their desks rather than home. A special education teacher told me he thinks his students feel reassured seeing him at his desk, from their home computer screens. A couple of these classrooms have doors directly to the outside. In warmer weather the teachers propped those doors open.
Passing those classrooms I am reminded of that long-ago conversation and how absurd I thought it was to build classrooms without windows. I wonder whether that architectural standard was applied to schools all over the state, and whether our school districts are still using those buildings.
We are all impatient to reopen the schools safely. The governor has recently announced we’re going to start, but the risk of virus spread is not over. While the pandemic continues, one critical element in safety is ventilation. The ventilation has to be powerful enough to blow deadly virus particles – should there be an infected person in the classroom – out of the building before they infect anyone else.
The state Public Education Department has issued CDC-derived guidelines to all schools. The top recommendation is to install air filters with a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value or MERV of 13 or higher if possible. These filters can trap smaller particles, including viruses.
Schools where those filters don’t fit the air conditioning systems will have to employ other adaptations, including supplemental portable fans, air purifiers, and open windows – all to assure that the air not only moves around, but moves out of the building. That is so much easier to achieve with windows that open.
There are legitimate reasons for having no operable windows in public buildings. I’ve been told by experts that people will open them, disrupt the balance of the ventilation and waste energy. Another reason is that unruly children will jump out. Really? Those reasons are not enough for me.
We probably will not see school districts knocking holes in brick walls to install windows when it’s so much easier to plug in a fan. And yet this pandemic is a lesson. Power outages come to mind. There are times when having the choice to open a window outweighs other considerations.
I hope someone is updating the architecture manuals.
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© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     1-18-21
Special election could be too contentious
By Merilee Dannemann

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New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland has been nominated to serve as U. S. Secretary of Interior. Lots of New Mexicans are happy about this. I’m not.
My concern is not with Haaland. I wish her all the best. I especially wish the best for the vast lands and natural resources managed by the Department of Interior: for the national parks, public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, fish and wildlife and the 578 tribes affected by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
My concern is about the vacancy she will leave in New Mexico’s First Congressional District. Assuming she is confirmed by the Senate, we will have an election to fill her seat in Congress.
Partisan emotions are running dangerously high. The last thing New Mexico needs is a special election.
If Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham had received a cabinet appointment, a different law would have applied. The lieutenant governor would simply take over for the rest of the term. A further order of succession is spelled out in the state Constitution.
If Tom Udall had been appointed, as had been speculated, no election would have been needed. Udall has (perhaps much to his relief) already retired from the Senate.
The special election will happen only if Haaland is confirmed by the Senate for her Cabinet position. From the date she resigns her seat in Congress to the date the election results are certified -- two to three months -- New Mexico CD1 will not have representation in the House.
The nominees to replace Haaland in Congress will not be chosen in a primary but rather by the central committees of the major parties. That’s a lot of power to give a small number of people. I’m steeling myself in case I’m disappointed with who is chosen.
But I’m relieved there won’t be a primary. Right now, when the whole country is facing multiple crises, we don’t need a public process in which members of the same party take pot shots at each other.
The special election could potentially be bad enough.
In November, our most hotly contested race was Congressional District 2. That race battered us with $30 million of contentious advertising, most of which was spent not by the candidates but by third-party organizations, some anonymous and mysterious, not from New Mexico and not caring in the slightest what kind of wreckage they left behind. The advertising barrage drove me into the arms of Netflix.
Then we saw Georgia. In the Senate runoff election (New Mexico does not have those), more than $500 million was spent. Day after day, I was quietly grateful that I don’t live in Georgia.
Elections are very big business. Somebody is making huge profits by keeping voters as riled up at the opposing party as possible. Political operatives are getting very rich by destroying our democracy.
That underlying profit motive is a piece of the explanation for what we saw in the treasonous assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6. The same kind of rhetoric that made some people angry enough to commit sedition is the language that is used to keep voters angry and donating.
New Mexico CD1 is just one seat in Congress, but it will be a special election at a moment when the Democratic majority has been narrowed, and that seat could make a difference. There will be lots of pressure and lots of money. And lots of clever language meant to make you hate your fellow Americans.
I want to keep reminding myself that political profiteers are trying to brainwash me. I want to remember to shout “Don’t do that!” back at my TV. I invite you to do the same.
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Virus numbers force New Mexico into crisis mode
By Merilee Dannemann

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In a California hospital, patients who could barely breathe were crowded in a hallway because there was no room for them anywhere else. This was in a TV news report in mid-December. That’s what it looks like, I thought.
Around the same time, New Mexico’s healthcare system went over the line into crisis mode. It has swung back. It will probably go back and forth again, especially if we have the anticipated surge resulting from people who did not take the holiday warning seriously.
New Mexico does not have enough hospital beds to cope with a surge of COVID-19. We’ve known that since the beginning. We don’t have enough doctors or nurses to serve those patients, if the case numbers continue to rise.
Panels of experts have been organized to make the decisions about who gets the ventilator and who doesn’t, if those decisions have to be made.
The governor cautioned, last spring, that New Mexico’s healthcare system is not robust enough to respond to an explosive spread of the virus. She warned New Mexicans to follow the guidelines, including wearing masks and staying out of large gatherings.
We heard from healthcare leaders. A few of these discussions were online and public. The CEOs of the major hospital systems described their plans for cooperation and sharing of resources. They talked about medical ethics issues and how New Mexico could be forced to ration health care. They did not want physicians to bear the burden of life or death decisions – who does not get the hospital bed or the ventilator -- while standing in the hallway of the emergency room.
There was talk of a statewide panel of medical ethicists who would create guidelines that doctors could follow.
The science has progressed in the last several months. Ventilators are no longer quite as critical as they were back then. Treatments now exist that were not known in the spring. Those treatments are available only if there are doctors, nurses, therapists, and hospital beds.
New Mexico has been over the line. Though I cannot predict our status on the day you read this, we have spent some days in crisis mode.
The governor’s executive order 2020-083 orders a new COVID-19 credential for physicians, nurse practitioners and other advanced health care providers treating patients with the virus or believed to have the virus. With this credential, they are considered public employees for the purposes of the state’s Tort Claims Act. That ensures doctors treating COVID-19 patients have some of their liability exposure absorbed by the state.
This order takes effect when the state reaches the point where “crisis care” is necessary because there aren’t enough resources for every patient. At that point, the health care system switches from the standard of the best interest of every individual patient to the best interest of the state’s public health.
The governor didn’t get us here. People who ignored the public health guidelines did.
The executive order is on the governor’s website. It’s worth reading in detail.
I also recommend a longer document titled “New Mexico Triage Protocol for the Allocation of Scarce Resources Under COVID-19 Crisis Standards of Care.” I especially recommend this document to you if you think your individual judgment is smarter than the science and you don’t have to social distance or wear a mask. 
The protocol document is on the Health Department website. With almost mathematical specificity, it explains the statewide and local advisory boards and the standards for decisions that have to be made under crisis standards of care.
As the policy documents explain, if someone in your family is the one denied a ventilator, it will not be the governor but a member of your community who will make that tragic decision.
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© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   12-21-20
Expanded gaming is the last thing we need
By Merilee Dannemann

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Gambling halls that never close, with alcohol and cash machines, in a state where the schools have to feed children because parents can’t afford to. What could possibly go wrong?
The state’s racinos (racetrack/casinos) are expected to ask the Legislature for a major expansion in gambling activities, including the toxic combination of alcohol and ATMs on the casino floor.
New Mexico has a big problem with people who don’t have much money, don’t do well at managing what they have, and consequently live on the edge of poverty. Policy makers keep on proposing new methods to help them. At the same time, this gambling proposal is an open temptation to entice them to spend money irresponsibly.
New Mexico’s policy toward poverty is like a cat chasing its tail. I’m dizzy from watching.
In 2019 our Legislature enacted the New Mexico Work and Save Act, for workers who don’t have access to an employer-sponsored savings plan. Aimed primarily at small businesses, the law allows employers to enroll in a savings plan so employees can save through automatic payroll deductions – putting money aside before they have a chance to spend it.
Automatic payroll deductions are also the mechanism for lending money to low-income workers, as an alternative to payday lenders. Employers can enroll with a program called TrueConnect, which will lend money to workers at moderate interest rates, secured by repayment through payroll deduction. It’s used by some county governments as well as private employers.
Another run at the payday lending industry itself might appear in the upcoming legislative session.
New Mexico allows lenders to charge 175% interest, a statewide embarrassment and a moral abomination. There have been several attempts at reducing the maximum interest to 36%, but so far, legislators have been sympathetic to the poor lenders’ claims that this would put them out of business. New Mexico is still the state that couldn’t ban fireworks in a drought because our legislators are so moved by the poignant appeals of special interests.
The advocacy group Think New Mexico announced it will take up payday lending interest rates in the coming session. Think New Mexico has a pretty good record of success, so this is worth paying attention to. The proposal, says the group’s annual report, will also include a requirement for financial literacy classes in high school.
If it were up to me, proof of financial literacy would be required at the entrance to every casino.
We all love horses. We recognize that the racing industry provides jobs and contributes to the economy, as the gaming advocates point out. The industry says revenue from expanded casino activities is needed to keep the industry alive and prevent the loss of all those jobs. In other words, we need slot machines and sports betting to subsidize horseracing.
But it is an unfortunate side effect that this industry makes its money from people who make bets and mostly lose.
New Mexico is not Las Vegas. I am not confident that gambling is a tourism draw or that gaming revenue is mostly coming from wealthy Texans. I fear our casinos make most of their money from New Mexicans. If that’s correct, it is not a net gain for our economy. Economically it might be a break even. But the damage gambling does to some individuals and families makes it a net loss.
The proposal throws into confusion the existing compacts with tribal casinos. The gaming tribes will no doubt have plenty to say about this. Their opposition may stop this proposal in its tracks (pardon the pun).
If an opposing special interest with an equally powerful voice is what we need to prevent this expansion of gaming, well, that’s fine with me.
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The diabolical plan that never was
By Merilee Dannemann

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Could Brian Egolf really be that dumb?
That was my first thought when the headline caught my eye, as I picked up the morning newspaper from my driveway.
The headline implied that state House Speaker Egolf, a Democrat, was threatening to use the redistricting process to dismember Congressional District 2, where Republican Yvette Herrell had just beat Democrat Xochitl Torres Small.
If he really had such a plan, it would be ridiculous to announce it more than a year in advance.
But that’s not what he said.
This analysis is mostly not about Speaker Egolf. It’s about the language used by a reporter and the chairman of the state’s opposition party. It’s about creating sensationalism out of nothing. It’s a reminder to readers that the superficial appearance of the news is not necessarily the accurate meaning. It’s the curse of our time.
Egolf’s exact statement as reported was: “So this is the last election for New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District with a map that looks like it looks now. So next time it’ll be a different district, and we’ll have to see what that means for Republican chances to hold it.”
It is a fact that redistricting will happen before the next general election, and our congressional districts will probably change in size and shape, based on changes in population that will be reported in the 2020 Census.
But here’s the next sentence in the article, which was written by Associated Press reporter Susan Montoya Bryant: “State Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce criticized the plan.”
How did Steve Pearce get into this article? My guess is that the reporter called him for a comment, and Pearce obliged with a diatribe (which is not quoted here).
Reader, look at the word “plan.” Plan? What plan? Egolf did not say he had a plan. He was simply making an observation. If there was a plan, the reporter should have clarified that fact.
The framing of the quote made it easy for readers to jump from Egolf’s statement to assuming that a nefarious plan by Democrats is already in place for cutting up Congressional District 2 – even though such a plan is not even possible until we have results from the census.
The word “plan” implies a whole story that does not exist. As used in this article, the word is inflammatory. It appears to have been inserted by the reporter. It has resulted in a loud and entirely unnecessary argument being fought on editorial pages.      
In an op-ed he wrote to respond to the controversy, Egolf said:
“This month, I spoke to journalists about a wide range of election topics, including the redistricting process that will take place next year. I stated that electoral districts in New Mexico will change and that political parties will have to take that into account moving forward. That is simply true…”
Okay, let’s not be naïve. The original statement by Egolf that started this brouhaha is not exactly neutral. His statement does not reveal a “plan,” but it does suggest an intent. Readers can infer that Egolf probably had some thoughts about redistricting and was careless enough to speak his thoughts out loud to reporters.
            That carelessness is a luxury that legislative leaders cannot afford these days. We are living in cutthroat times. Twisting a political opponent’s words to expose diabolical intent is what some political leaders think their job is, rather than finding common ground and getting things done together.
Our amateurish volunteer Legislature, robust with friendly rivalry and good-old-boy backslapping, is one of the things I came to love about New Mexico when I settled here more than 40 years ago. That’s pretty much over. I’ll have to find something else to be nostalgic about.
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© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     11-23-20
Fear beats communication in election
By Merilee Dannemann

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Too much of this recent election was about fear. The campaign messages you saw, on TV and social media, were designed to ramp up your anxiety beyond the boiling point. Too many of us, I suspect, voted not so much in favor of what we support but against what we fear the most.
This was on vivid display in the vicious advertising war in New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District and, to a lesser extent, in the conflicting claims by our candidates for the U.S. Senate.
The ads against Republican Yvette Herrell, now the winner, did not talk about her policy positions but were entirely directed at her alleged corruption. Herrell did part of the Democrats’ advertising for them by declaring that she supported President Trump. Many Democrats are not just opposed to Trump but terrified of him. When she said she supported Trump, what Democrats heard – correctly or not – was that she fully endorses his worst excesses.
The advertising against Democrat Xochitl Torres Small attempted to paint her as a radical socialist out to destroy New Mexico’s oil and gas industry and take away everybody’s guns. Some ads pictured her with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi while others added New York Congress member Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who has become the symbol of a so-called socialist agenda. Republican advertising described Torres Small as if she held the most extreme progressive positions. She tried vainly to say she doesn’t.
This was a very expensive election. According to Ballotpedia, the Herrell campaign spent $2.5 million, and the Torres Small campaign spent $7.5 million. But these sums were dwarfed by outside organizations, which spent more than $10 million against Herrell and $11 million against Torres Small, roughly 10 times as much as they spent on positive advertising supporting their candidate.
In the Ben Ray Lujan vs. Mark Ronchetti race for the Senate, Lujan ads scared voters by showing the former TV weatherman, in his very familiar voice, saying he supported President Trump, and linked that with the threat to the Affordable Care Act. It was all Democrats needed to hear. When Ronchetti said he would never support removing coverage for pre-existing healthcare conditions, it fell on deaf ears – just like Torres Small’s support for oil and gas.
Republican ads linked Lujan with Pelosi and “San Francisco values,” but in his case it didn’t stick.
Here is a bit of very oversimplified speculation on what may underlie all this fear: We are living through wrenching change. The climate is in trouble, and we must make difficult changes or suffer dire consequences. The ethnic and cultural makeup of our country is changing, with long-neglected issues of poverty and injustice rising to the surface. Technology is forcing us to change our everyday habits. And the pandemic has caused major disruptions on top of all that. It’s stressing us all out, but we react differently to it.
We have not yet figured out how to talk to each other across our contradictory opinions. We have to start.           
            Whichever side of this you are on, please understand that the other side thinks you are either deliberately selling out your country or ignorantly being the dupe of those who are doing just that. Your neighbors are afraid of you.
We are all listening to networks and commentators that make exorbitant amounts of money profiting off our fear, turning us into loyal viewers by poking at our vulnerabilities, inducing us to listen for the next outrage committed by the other guys, and influencing us all to take sides.
If we are going to save our republic, this is going to take a lot of work to unravel. Meanwhile, I wonder if we could try this: If you want to find out what Democrats believe, first ask a Democrat. To find out what Republicans believe, first ask a Republican.
And remember that both Democrats and Republicans are individuals with their own individual viewpoints.
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© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       11-9-20
Why we care about regulations
By Merilee Dannemann

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

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If you are voting by mail, on the outer envelope of your ballot packet there’s a bar code. That bar code is one way New Mexico protects the integrity of elections.
The code is unique to you. After you’ve mailed your ballot, the code will be scanned by every post office the envelope goes through and at your county clerk’s office. If the ballot gets misrouted, officials will be able to get it back on track.
This system, called intelligent barcode, was originally a collaboration between the Postal Service and Netflix, the movie service. Netflix used to do all its business by mailing DVDs to customers. When the intelligent barcode indicated that the customer’s return movie was in the mail, Netflix would mail out the customer’s next order, providing very fast service.
I learned this fascinating bit of technology from a webinar presented by Daniel Ivey-Soto on behalf of Common Cause, a national nonpartisan organization that focuses on fair elections. Ivey-Soto, a state senator, is one of New Mexico’s top experts on election procedure.  He presented this seminar in his private capacity from a nonpartisan perspective.
Almost all voting locations, both early and Election Day, are networked within a county. If a ballot is in the mail, or if the voter has already voted in person, election workers will see that information and prevent duplicate voting.
On the other hand, our voting machines are not connected to the Internet. So they cannot be tampered with online.
A few election procedures were passed in the special legislative session in June, just for this year, in response to the pandemic.
One such procedure is the adjustment of dates.
The last day a voter could request a mail-in ballot was October 20.
If the ballot was requested and mailed on October 20, and there is any delay in the mail, it should still have arrived by October 27. If the voter returns it promptly, there is a week to get it delivered. Mailed ballots must be received by the county clerk by 7 p.m. on Nov. 3.
New Mexico is one of only five states that received a guarantee from the Postal Service that mailed ballots can be delivered on time. So if you have an absentee ballot and have not yet filled it out and mailed it, I suggest you put down this newspaper and do it now!
On a mailed ballot, you must provide your signature and, specific to this election, the last four digits of your Social Security number. This is to provide an identifier that is unique to you and that is on record but that others are not likely to know.
New Mexico officials do not compare your signature with previous records. This is because your recorded signature may have been signed years ago and your handwriting may have changed. I know mine has! My hands are getting older, and I barely remember what my signature used to look like.
If you vote in person, you may find a few people at the polling place who are legally entitled to be there, who are not official election workers.
A “challenger” is a person officially designated by a political party, who has the right to challenge any questionable vote. Challengers are required to wear identification badges.  Challenged votes may be submitted as “provisional” ballots, to be evaluated later.
A “watcher” may be appointed by any three candidates or by a registered election-related nonpartisan organization. Watchers can observe and make notes but cannot challenge.
Anyone whose behavior is abusive, including watchers and challengers, may be removed from the premises by the presiding judge. And there is no right for anyone to self-appoint as an observer at the polling place. So if anyone bothers or heckles you, tell the election judge.
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© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    10-12-20
Another constitutional amendment about the PRC
By Merilee Dannemann

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Hang on, voters. We have to deal with the Public Regulation Commission again – with yet another constitutional amendment on the election ballot.
The PRC is the bane of New Mexico’s government. In addition to being lousy at its regulatory job, it has been a source of scandal since it was created.
The PRC concentrates enormous regulatory power in one agency led by five elected commissioners, independent of the governor. It’s almost as if we had two executive branches with different sets of powers.
The PRC regulates public utilities such as electric and natural gas. It also has a hodgepodge of regulatory powers for diverse areas including towing companies, ambulances, limousines, and taxis; intrastate motor carrier registration; moving companies; telephone companies; and one that especially concerns me, pipeline safety.
It was created in 1996, by a state constitutional amendment that was passed without enough scrutiny. Two already powerful agencies were, for confusing reasons, combined. One was the governor-appointed Public Utility Commission. The other was the elected State Corporation Commission, some of whose members could fairly be described as shamelessly corrupt. A lot of New Mexicans, including me, might have voted for anything that would abolish the Corporation Commission.
Commissioners were originally not required to have expertise in the areas they would regulate. Their decisions have frequently been overruled by the courts, largely, it is said, because some commissioners didn’t know the law. Recently a weak and unenforceable requirement for qualifications was added to the law.
The original PRC was much more powerful than it is today. Several former divisions have been lopped off by a series of constitutional amendments, to which I say thank goodness -- especially the Insurance Division (now the independent Office of the Superintendent of Insurance), which desperately needed to be freed from the PRC’s political influence. 
Under legislation passed this year, the PRC will lose the State Fire Marshal’s office, which will move to the state Department of Homeland Security. There is ongoing pressure to transfer authority for broadband to anyplace else.
Two seats are up for election this year. New legislation requires candidates to file an affidavit with the Secretary of State certifying their professional qualifications. However, it’s not clear how voters can look at that information.
The proposed constitutional amendment asks whether you approve tossing out the elected body entirely and replacing it with a three-member commission appointed by the governor, “from a list of professionally qualified nominees submitted to the governor by a nominating committee” and required to be bipartisan.
The nonprofit policy organization Think New Mexico has been behind several previous initiatives but has taken no public position on this amendment. Readers interested in the lengthy and sordid history of the PRC and its predecessors can find it in a booklet published by Think New Mexico in 2011, available on its website.
Like many New Mexicans, I’m frustrated with the ongoing antics of the PRC and would like a change.
It appears the proposed constitutional amendment offers a better option. Under the amendment, starting in 2023, the PRC would be stripped of all those miscellaneous functions and be limited to utility regulation. While the governor would have the power to appoint the commissioners, candidates would have to be professionally qualified and picked from a list created by a bipartisan committee.
The commission itself would have to be bipartisan, with only three commissioners.
Theoretically, the virtue of an elected commission is that it spreads power out, limiting the amount of power that is concentrated in the person of the governor. But I’m afraid we have to acknowledge that in the case of this commission, the voters have done less than an adequate job.
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© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     9-28-20
We support the police -- mostly
By Merilee Dannemann

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

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If I were a small business owner right now, I’d be nervous, to say the least. Maybe terrified. Maybe feeling, as the saying goes, like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
Small business is risky in any circumstance, but especially nerve-racking during this period when the business atmosphere is so unpredictable.
This may be a good time to remind the small business community that there are people and organizations devoted to helping them. When I spoke to one of those people, I was surprised to learn that her biggest concern was making sure that business owners know these services are available and where to find them. Too many, she said, don’t.
This person was Samantha Lapin, the retired former owner of a successful New Mexico small business. Lapin is now a volunteer with SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, and was recently named chair of the Albuquerque chapter.
I had asked for her help in explaining the myriad of confusing loans, grants and other forms of help that have been offered over the past few months. Instead of explaining them one by one, she suggested that business owners should take advantage of programs like SCORE and get help in finding what might work for them.
SCORE and similar organizations are holding their activities exclusively online these days, so geography is not a limitation. As long as they have internet access, business owners from anywhere in New Mexico have equal access.
SCORE’s greatest feature is one-on-one mentorship. A small business owner who needs help and contacts SCORE can be matched with a mentor who will provide a personal relationship. If necessary, due to a specialized industry or other considerations, the mentor could be anywhere in the country.
SCORE also provides trainings. In the early months of the pandemic, trainings on the grant and loan programs were two a day, six days a week. Currently they are slowed down because some government programs are no longer offering new loans or grants. One common concern now, Lapin says, is that small businesses want help making sure they follow the guidelines so that their loans will be forgiven.
SCORE is sponsored by the U. S. Small Business Administration. The mentors and trainers, as the name suggests, are retired business owners and executives.
There are only three SCORE offices in New Mexico: Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Las Cruces. As I said, location doesn’t matter when services are virtual.
Closer to home are New Mexico’s Small Business Development Centers: Alamogordo, Albuquerque, Carlsbad, Clovis, Española, Farmington, Gallup, Grants, Hobbs, Las Cruces, Las Vegas, Los Alamos, Los Lunas, Roswell, Santa Fe, Silver City, Taos and Tucumcari, all affiliated with community colleges. They also provide training and counseling to small and new businesses, including guidance on where to look for financial assistance.
New Mexico also has a few nonprofits devoted to lending to new and small businesses, such as WESST, The Loan Fund, and DreamSpring, formerly called Accion. All provide slightly different services, including help with finances. A small business owner who connects to any one of these organizations will find help getting linked to all the others.
Lapin thinks we may be seeing an upsurge of new businesses, as formerly employed workers find their old jobs are no longer available and decide to fulfill their entrepreneurial dream, perhaps turning a hobby into a business. Lapin reminds us that your special skill -- cooking, woodworking or whatever -- is not enough to enable you to succeed in business. To succeed, entrepreneurs have to deal with finance, marketing, organization, information technology -- and the set of issues everyone would rather ignore, regulations. Businesses that are surviving this extraordinarily difficult period are those that can be creative and adaptable, Lapin said.
It’s a tough time and small business can be a lonely undertaking, but Lapin reminds you, you don’t have to be alone.
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© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    8-31-20
New Mexico is a leader in rapid response to virus at workplaces
By Merilee Dannemann

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

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My friend’s husband, who has dementia, has been in a memory care facility for several months. She’s been writing a blog, anonymously, for a couple of years (“The Remembery Chronicles”), so I’ve been observing the experience at close range.
It’s heartbreaking every day.
He has ups and downs, but the direction is mostly down. There seems to be a pattern: every time his mental awareness declines a little bit, his physical abilities decline also. It’s a vicious cycle.
He is losing control of simple actions like lifting a spoon or fork to his mouth, maybe because he may not be aware at a particular moment that there’s any reason to do it. He has a problem with balance and he might be able to walk with a walker, but has fallen a few times so he’s in a wheelchair. The part of the mind that is kept active by the simple act of walking is not being used.
He’s not talking much, either, and that may be at least partly because his family has only been allowed to visit him through a window. This facility, like most other long-term care homes in the state, has been completely free of COVID 19, but at great personal cost to the residents and their families. According to my friend, the nursing staff  is heroic in their efforts to keep the residents upbeat and stimulated, but it’s still not the same.
So the news that in-person family visiting to nursing homes will be allowed for more than half the counties in New Mexico is big news for the affected families.
The new rules are still restrictive. Visits will be allowed only in facilities that have no cases, and the visiting family member must be healthy.
Visits, preferably outdoors, must be scheduled by appointment. Residents and visitors will be separated by Plexiglas shields. They must be 6 feet apart, or 12 feet if one of them is unable to wear a mask. The rule specifies one visit per month, which to me still doesn’t sound like nearly enough, but maybe it’s as much as the facilities can handle.
The decision regarding which counties qualify for the more lenient rules was based on virus transmission rates. Qualifying were counties with less than 5% test positivity and fewer than 10 average daily cases per 100,000 residents. The list of eligible counties may change as the case results and percentages change.
As of the announcement date, De Baca remained the only county with zero reported cases. Several counties were close to zero: Guadalupe, Harding, Hidalgo, Los Alamos, Quay, Socorro and Torrance.
Other counties eligible for these visits included Bernalillo, Colfax, Grant, McKinley, Sandoval, Santa Fe, San Juan, San Miguel, Taos and Valencia. That includes northwestern New Mexico counties that were hard-hit a few weeks ago and that have observed strict lockdown procedures.
The original list does not include Chaves, Cibola, Curry, Doña Ana, Eddy, or Lea. The main cities in those counties are Roswell, Grants, Clovis, Las Cruces, Carlsbad, and Hobbs.
It’s frustrating that residents of some parts of New Mexico, notably the southeast, seem to think their region is somehow different so that they can make up their own rules about protecting each other from the virus. It’s especially disappointing since their numbers were so low earlier in this pandemic and recently are rising.
Southeastern New Mexico certainly has its own character and culture. So does every other region. Southeastern New Mexico is no more unique than, for example, the Navajo communities of the northwest that are beginning to get the virus under control. The way the virus spreads, and public health rules for controlling it, are the same everywhere.
Maybe the thought of being able to visit their isolated loved ones will be an incentive for some southeasterners to get that message.
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© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     8-3-20
Becoming hotter makes it drier
By Merilee Dannemann

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New Mexico is three degrees hotter than it was half a century ago. That is established fact. It’s probably going to continue to get warmer and drier, but that is prediction based on probability and could change.
Three degrees doesn’t sound like much to me, but the difference it makes in the climate is profound, in part because of the relationship between temperature and water.
This is described in an article in “New Mexico Earth Matters,” published quarterly by New Mexico Tech. The author is David Gutzler, professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UNM.
The author calls this current warming trend a new climatic phenomenon. “In the past,” Gutzler writes, “people in the Southwest learned to respond to climate fluctuations – sometimes, with no other choice, by moving. Now, however, humans are an intrinsic component of the climate system itself.”
Both temperature and precipitation vary from year to year, but temperature has been creeping up. Average annual precipitation has stayed about the same. What’s different is timing: when it rains or snows and when the snow melts.
The Rio Grande relies heavily on snowmelt from the northern mountains. The snow melts earlier in spring than it used to, so the river is not flowing adequately in the summer when water is most needed. This year is an example: plenty of snow in winter followed by an early spring warm-up, causing very dry conditions this summer.
Years of sufficient water and years of drought don’t simply alternate one year at a time, the measurements show. Like the seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine in the Bible, the patterns repeat for several years, so the effect of the drought gets worse before being relieved.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which has only existed since the year 2000, New Mexico’s longest period of drought since 2000 lasted 329 weeks from May 2001 through August 2007.
In one of those years, a member of a cattle ranching family I know told me her family was going to have to sell off their stock. I was relieved that they didn’t have to sell the ranch. That is a cautionary tale for us all. To run a business with so much uncertainty takes both courage and great flexibility.
Gutzler observes that vegetation is likely to change as the climate gets a little warmer and drier. Big trees may not survive. He suggests by the end of this century, if the current rate of change continues, the forested Sandia Mountains outside Albuquerque might resemble the Franklin Mountains near El Paso – treeless and much more barren.
I keep looking at a big blue squiggle on the map, which to me is not only a body of water but also an evaporation basin: Elephant Butte Lake. The dam was built about a century ago. Why did those engineers decide to build a dam that could store more than 2 million acre-feet of water in a valley that concentrates the summer heat?
As much as one-third of the average annual inflow is lost to evaporation. In recent years the lake has been as low as 3% of its capacity. It’s currently reported to be at about 10% of capacity.
So I question whether that lake continues to be a practical place to store the water that we hope will keep southern New Mexico agriculture alive for the next half century. I am not the only one asking that question.
We are right now in a moment so stressful it seems almost unrealistic to talk about long-range issues. But change is happening, faster than we want and in ways we don’t like. Maybe the pandemic we’re now living through is a lesson: if we don’t act to mitigate it, it just gets worse.
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​© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   7-20-20
COVID-19 and workers' compensation
By Merilee Dannemann

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            A hidden cost of the coronavirus, one that has escaped public attention so far, is workers' compensation for sick workers.
            If COVID-19 is contracted in the workplace, the worker can file an occupational disease claim under the workers' compensation law. That provides roughly the same benefits as workers' compensation, paid out of the employer’s insurance policy.
            Workers’ comp entitles the worker to disability benefits determined by a formula in the law, and to reasonable and necessary medical care with no co-pays or deductibles.
            In general, common infectious diseases like flu and cold are not covered as occupational diseases. That’s because it’s hard to prove that an illness was acquired at work. But the situation is quite different for first responders, medical professionals and frontline essential workers exposed to the coronavirus.
            If a New Mexico state government employee in a frontline job gets the virus, it will be covered as an occupational disease. That was decided by an executive order issued by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in April. The order states that those workers shall be presumed to have contracted the disease at work. The order recommends that local governments follow the same guidance.
            This order means the state will not raise a legal dispute about whether a case for a state employee in a frontline job is work-related.
            The governor’s authority does not apply to the private sector, where employers have commercial insurance. A private sector worker may have to prove that the disease was contracted at work.
            New Mexico Mutual, our state’s largest private workers’ comp carrier, states on its website, “The advice …. is to submit the claim and we will conduct a claim investigation and make compensability determinations on a case-by-case basis.” In other words, they’ll evaluate whether it’s likely that this particular person caught the disease at work. If there’s disagreement, cases would be litigated in the worker’s compensation court.
            New Mexico workers' compensation law has one provision that may turn out to be important. The law guarantees medical benefits paid by the insurer may continue through the lifetime of the worker if medically justified. We’re hearing that some COVID-19 patients suffer long-term lung damage or other symptoms after the initial sickness is over. We don’t know whether those symptoms may last a few months or forever.
            Workers can give up the lifetime medical benefit in return for a settlement, but if they choose not to settle, the result is an insurance claim that might stay open for years. Either way, the claim could affect the employer’s future workers’ comp costs. It’s a powerful incentive for employers to help employees avoid the virus.
            The pandemic has added urgency to the conversation about sick leave, nationally and in New Mexico.
            The sick leave question is a real dilemma. Workers may have to decide whether to work sick or to stay home and lose a badly needed paycheck. Small businesses that are struggling to stay alive complain that they cannot afford the cost of another mandate. Both sides have a legitimate argument.
            Forcing sick people to come to work is a bad idea, whether as a company policy or out of the worker’s financial necessity. Especially when the disease is infectious.
            If one worker comes to work infected, other workers are exposed. Among the many bad effects is the additional cost of occupational disease claims that will burden the employer. As a simple business calculation, it might be cheaper to pay that first infected worker to stay home. And we cannot forget about workers who are waiting for virus test results or who have been ordered to stay home under quarantine.
            Is it possible that there is a way to structure sick leave so it does not become an adversarial issue between two valuable groups of citizens, employers and workers?
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© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     7-6-20
The prom in the pandemic
By Merilee Dannemann

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Hobbs is planning to have a high school prom. In Texas. The scheduled date is July 16.
            It’s not an official function of the school, according to the Hobbs News-Sun, but a volunteer project organized by parents. They hired a safety consultant and even found an empty building that hasn’t been used in a year, so it should be virus-free.
Hobbs is within a few miles of the Texas border. Texas has gone way further than New Mexico in relaxing its emergency rules. It’s now experiencing a spike in cases that threatens to overwhelm its healthcare system.
But apparently not in the corner of Texas that borders Hobbs.
As of July 5, Lea County had 187 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and no deaths. On July 1, the adjacent Texas county, Gaines, had 15 confirmed cases, also with zero deaths.
            At first glance, the prom plan appears low risk. However, this virus refuses to be contained. Highways run through these communities. One infected visitor strolling through the Walmart could spread infection and change these numbers overnight. We recall that one choir member in Washington State infected 52 others in a single choir practice. A few died.
            The mayor of Roswell is complaining that New Mexico’s rules have been too hard on the economy and were unnecessary in his part of the state. Look at our low numbers! said Mayor Dennis Kintigh in a recent op-ed article.
The mayor ignores the possibility that maybe the numbers are low because the statewide emergency restrictions worked.
I predicted a few months ago that if New Mexico escapes a major outbreak, due largely to the governor’s sweeping precautionary measures, some people will say the state overreacted. Mayor Kintigh has proved me right.
Maybe southeastern New Mexico has escaped the worst because the aliens – the green ones from outer space – have been zapping the virus. If that is what’s happening, New Mexico is sitting on an economic development bonanza bigger than the Permian Basin.
De Baca County, with zero reported cases and around 2,000 people, has probably been spared by nature. Same for Mora County – zero cases, fewer than 5,000 people. Roswell, on the other hand, is a medium-sized city with around 47,000 people. Chaves County had 120 cases and two deaths. If it wasn’t the aliens, Roswell has more likely been spared a larger outbreak because the bars, restaurants, churches and schools were closed.
            The July 1 report from the governor shows the infection rate in southeastern New Mexico is low but going in the wrong direction. The rate of spread in southeastern New Mexico is 1.66, compared to the previous week’s 1.17. That means on average, every infected person passes the virus to more than one person. At that rate it will never stop, and we will never be free of it.
This week, the rate of spread is going down in the northeast and southwest quadrants of the state. In central New Mexico, after going down last week, it’s now going up.
In hard-hit northwestern New Mexico, where the outbreak has been severe and local government has responded with drastic measures, the spread rate went way down but has gone up in the last two weeks. It had been down to 0.78, which means each infected person was infecting less than one other person. The July 1 rate was 1.08.
We all wish this entire pandemic would end. For now, the only way to move toward that result is for everyone to help stop the spread. Everyone.
It’s understandable that parents in Hobbs want to do something nice for their kids. So do parents all over the country, but most would rather help end this pandemic than send their kids to a dance. Just, please, after it’s over, don’t let the kids anywhere near their grandparents for at least two weeks.
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© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES         6-22-20
Vandalism is not okay, even against Oñate
By Merilee Dannemann

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

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