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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      1-22-18
You can’t vote unless you register
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
Elections in New Mexico are not compromised by massive numbers of fraudulent votes, I am reasonably confident.
This issue arose last year in the debate over voter ID and the 2016 election. Fortunately, we didn’t have any major controversy over results in New Mexico. Still, it’s worth asking what the safeguards are.
The answer is pretty simple. You can’t vote unless you’re registered, and it’s hard to register unless you are really you. New Mexico has a strict voter registration law, including procedures followed by state and local election officials to make sure only real, eligible people register. When you go to vote, your ID has already been verified.
If you register in person at your county clerk’s office or a Motor Vehicle Division office, you are, to put it simply, present in the flesh where an official can see you.
If you register with a third-party agent, such as a voter registration volunteer, that agent must be registered with the county clerk and is subject to criminal penalties for any intentional fraud. The blank forms provided to the agent are numbered, must be signed by that agent and must be returned to the county clerk within 48 hours.
If you register online, you must supply your state issued ID or driver’s license number with your registration.
If you register by mail, you can send the registration without a copy of an ID, but then your registration is flagged and you will have to present your ID the first time you vote.
To register, you have to provide your Social Security number and date of birth. Those data points will be cross checked with other records, at the county clerk’s office and the New Mexico Secretary of State’s office. If a discrepancy shows up, that will either invalidate the registration or lead to a phone call to you.
There is also a check for felons and one against a national database of people who died. The old joke I used to love to tell about the fellows in a cemetery copying names from the gravestones doesn’t work anymore.
New Mexico law requires previously unregistered voters to register 28 days before an election. So there is adequate time for all this checking. New Mexico does not have same-day registration, and I’m not in favor of it, unless we could be assured how registration would be verified.
There are reasons why an illegitimate registration might occur.
One is by accident. Jamie Diaz, election bureau chief in Bernalillo County, recalls when someone accidentally filled out the paperwork twice giving the identical information. No harm was intended, and the error was easily caught.
Another reason for illegitimate registration has been to prove for political reasons that it can be done. As I previously wrote, in 2012, New Mexico scored an embarrassing national headline when an Albuquerque man registered his dog and then announced to the media he had done it. Later it was revealed his wife was on the staff of Republican Heather Wilson, who was running for U.S. Senate. He was caught. The dog did not vote.
This is not completely infallible. I can think of a number of ways an individual or small group can slip through the cracks with fraudulent intentions.  But it’s hard to see how large numbers of people could get past all the safeguards undetected, both to register and to vote.
Our 21st century vulnerability is online. It’s possible to imagine very sophisticated hackers sneaking into the state databases and fabricating phony registrations. We know exactly who wants to mess with our elections: the Russians.
That’s why we must insist that both parties in Congress keep the focus of their investigations on the genuine issue of protecting our elections. We have to wonder why some members keep changing the subject.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2018 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     1-15-18
Senior services may be in jeopardy
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            Seniors, take note: A state agency is about to terminate the contract of the organization that provides senior services to most of New Mexico.
The termination demand has already been delivered, but a transition is in place, through Feb. 1. The organization that got axed is complying with the transition process while also fighting the decision.
This potentially affects roughly 70,000 seniors who receive services such as meals at senior centers, home delivered meals, transportation, and caregiver respite care through government-authorized programs delivered by local providers.
The state assures us services to seniors will not be disrupted. But a number of officials, including a few state legislators and Congressman Ben Ray Lujan, are crying foul and demanding that the state rescind its decision. They do not believe the state’s assurance of uninterrupted services to seniors. Lujan’s office said he will ask the relevant federal agency to investigate.
They are saying this looks suspiciously like a rerun of the behavioral health crisis of 2013. In that event, the state terminated payment to 15 behavioral health providers serving New Mexicans under Medicaid, alleging financial malfeasance that was never proved. The Human Services Department assured the public of a smooth transition to new providers, but the plan failed. Thousands of vulnerable New Mexicans, including those with drug addiction or mental health issues, were left high and dry.
If you or a family member relies on your local senior agency for home-delivered meals, transportation or other services, pay attention. This might affect you.
Senior services are provided under combined state and federal law with state and federal money. The money and contractual supervision come through the state Aging and Long Term Services Department. That is the agency that terminated the contract, and it plans to take program administration in-house for up to six months and then issue new contracts.
The Non-Metro Area Agency on Aging (NMAAA) is the primary contractor for 32 counties, all of New Mexico except Bernalillo County, and Native American jurisdictions. NMAAA is in turn administered by the North Central New Mexico Economic Development District, which received the termination letter.
NMAAA contracts with providers who deliver the actual services to seniors in all 32 counties. There are roughly 65 providers.
The fundamental issue is whether NMAAA was doing an unacceptably sloppy job in paying providers and keeping the books. In a news release, the state agency says there has been “a pattern of inaccurate recording and reporting of funds by NMAAA” and that the termination was in part “to avoid jeopardizing our federal funding due to questionable finances by NMAAA.”
“Jeopardizing our federal funding” is what the Human Services Department said when it terminated all those behavioral health providers.
In opposition, Congressman Lujan’s office said the state agency itself may be jeopardizing federal funding by proceeding illegally. State Rep. Debbie Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, former agency secretary, said the termination was a violation of both federal law and state policy. She added the department does not have enough staff to replace NMAAA in managing these programs.
Whatever happens between now and Feb. 1, the most important question is whether seniors will continue to get services without interruption; second, whether the providers who supply those services will continue to get paid so that their ability to continue in business will not be disrupted.
What also should concern us is how this process has unfolded.
Was there really a problem with NMAAA? If so, what previous steps were taken to remediate the problem before going to this drastic action? Did the termination comply with federal requirements? The two sides differ radically on their accounts of what led us to this point.
The agency issued an annual review report on NMAAA in September 2017. The report noted some accounting discrepancies that need correction but did not come anywhere close to threatening termination. So what’s going on?
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

Coalition uses data to analyze criminal justice
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
For years I have wondered whether our criminal justice system makes sense.
I think first about my own safety. Does our system make me safer? Does it prevent crime? Does it make prudent use of my tax dollars? Is it pragmatic?
Then I think about fairness and justice. Does our system teach criminals the lesson that will prevent them from committing crimes again? Does it prevent others from committing crimes? Do tougher penalties deter criminals from offending again? What is the system doing to prepare them for when they get out?
I want data. Rather than being driven by emotions, either of compassion or retribution, I’d like to know what actually works.
A group called NMSAFE (nmsafe.org) has done some of this homework.
NMSAFE is a coalition of about 30 organizations, from the ACLU to the New Mexico Conference of Churches. They have set out a non-political standard and analyzed 22 of the criminal justice bills from the 2017 legislative session. Their analysis may help us evaluate legislation coming up in 2018.
Four criteria are applied to each bill: Does it make New Mexico safer for children and families? Is it apolitical? Is it fiscally responsible? Is it evidence-based?
For example, a “three strikes” bill, HB 54 by Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, was introduced in 2017 to increase the list of crimes that would result in mandatory life in prison. It was one of several 2017 bills that would have added to the length of sentences. A similar bill has already been pre-filed for the 2018 session.
The NMSAFE analysis gives HB 54 an F. The analysis states, “There is no evidence that three strikes laws deter violent crime because most of these crimes are not premeditated, but are instead committed in the heat of passion.”
Bills also receive analysis from the Legislative Council Service with input from relevant state agencies. This analysis, called a fiscal impact report or FIR, can be quite thorough and in-depth. FIRs sometimes include input from a number of agencies that adds information from different perspectives.
For example, the FIR for HB 54 contained submissions from the Administrative Office of the Courts, Office of the Attorney General, New Mexico Sentencing Commission, Law Office of the Public Defender and Corrections Department.
This FIR noted that the cost would have been $32 million over 30 years just for the incarceration, plus other costs, such the legal cost of prosecuting these offenders, the requirement to provide them with public defender services, and other administrative costs.
What makes the NMSAFE analysis different is that it is not restricted from expressing a point of view based on its criteria.
Several other 2017 bills got low ratings from NMSAFE in part because evidence does not support the idea that longer sentences deter crime. The analyses of several bills also expressed the concern about the high cost of incarceration, an estimated $30,000 to $45,000 per inmate per year.
One bill that got an A rating from NMSAFE proposes to make it easier for inmates who have served 30 years of a life sentence to qualify for parole.
The analysis not only argues that many older inmates are no longer a threat to society, it also considers the extra cost of keeping older inmates in prison, where the taxpayers are responsible for their health care.
I like that this analysis is methodical and attempts to be apolitical, though I’m not sure anyone can be completely apolitical on the highly charged issues of crime and punishment.
NMSAFE also recommends a few specific policy proposals. The most important is to require that all bills that increase criminal sentences have an appropriation attached. Yes, yes, yes. Let’s be realistic about what prison costs and make sure that we cover those costs or get serious about less expensive alternatives.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES        1-25-17
We need procedures for harassment allegations
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
There is one good thing, and only one, about the case of state Sen. Michael Padilla. That is, the public disclosure of his alleged sexual harassment misconduct has not disrupted the 2018 election. Padilla has been pressured to give up his run for lieutenant governor. There’s plenty of time before the primary next June for other candidates to fill the void, if one existed. Other than the damage to Padilla himself, minimal harm has been done.
The Alabama special election for U.S. Senate was wildly disrupted because the disclosures about candidate Roy Moore came so late in the election process. If the revelations had become public earlier, his Republican opponent might have won the primary, or perhaps Moore would never have become a serious candidate.
The Moore case came to national attention when it did because the Washington Post sent reporters to Alabama. Logically, the Post did that because Moore was poised to become a national figure. It was the right thing to do at a very awkward time.
Back in New Mexico, Padilla remains in a hot spot. His fellow Democrats have removed him from the leadership position of majority whip of the Senate. As of this writing, it appears he will not be pressured by his caucus to resign his Senate seat, but that could change.
Let’s remember, legislators are elected by their constituents. That is the heart of the problem when a lawmaker is alleged to have committed noncriminal bad acts, sexual or other. Padilla’s constituents voted him into office. What should the criteria be that would allow his colleagues to force him out?
I wish to underscore one point: The charges against Padilla look nasty and may be true. But the fact that the city of Albuquerque made a settlement and paid damages to the alleged victims does not prove anything. Employers sometimes settle cases just to get them over with and save the expense of a civil trial, regardless of the facts.
I once witnessed a case in which a state employee was fired for legitimate reasons. The fired employee made a bogus discrimination charge against my boss, and state Risk Management settled rather than letting the case be tried. My boss was furious. His good name had been smeared, and he wanted to correct the record. I knew what had happened, and my boss had made the right decision under difficult circumstances.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, has been pressured, not forced, to resign. A few Democratic senators have reportedly reconsidered their rush to judgment, too late. An ethics investigation, conducted in public, might have created a model for how such things should be handled for an elected official. It might have helped to sort out the distinctions between conduct that deserves an apology, conduct that deserves removal from office, and conduct that merits criminal prosecution – and also to expose false allegations.
Our formal justice system is used to decide facts and guilt in criminal cases, and to determine fault in civil cases. In most of the cases that have come to light in recent months, this system has not been invoked.
Movie moguls, television stars and top executives are being fired on the basis of credible allegations, without formal proof. In some cases, organizations are now admitting what apparently they knew but had been complicit in concealing.
I suspect that while all of this public airing is taking place, millions of dollars are quietly being exchanged to bribe accusers in many industries to continue staying quiet. Some accusers might well be tempted to take the money.
Not long ago, a few people had to step down from nominations to cabinet positions because they had illegally hired an undocumented nanny. What an innocent, naïve time that seems to have been.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      12-11-17
New Mexico economy still drags
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
Economics is known as the dismal science. It has certainly been dismal in New Mexico for a while.
A few sobering facts were offered at the recent Data Users Conference sponsored by the UNM Bureau of Business and Economic Research. The presenter was Jeffrey Mitchell, director of the BBER. There were no big surprises, but no easy answers either.
People are leaving New Mexico. Net outmigration (years 2011 to 2015) is more than 150 persons leaving for every 100 who move in. All our neighboring states are going in the opposite direction.
The groups leaving are young people, young families, and seniors. Those staying are older working age adults, ages 45 to 64. Individuals with associate and bachelor’s degrees are leaving in the highest numbers.
Around 1940, Mitchell said, New Mexico was number 21 in percentage of residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher. In the 1960s we ranked fourth highest in that category. Nationally, people are getting more education, but New Mexico is dropping in that ranking. We are currently number 39.
Since the 2008 recession, the state’s economic condition has been driven by external factors such as the demand for oil and gas and the uncertainty related to the national laboratories. Even though the oil business is going up at the moment, clearly we are not in control of our own economic destiny.
Mitchell said startup businesses are not solving our problem. Compared to neighboring states, New Mexico does not lack startup businesses, but they don’t do as well as startups in other states. A higher percentage of them close or fail.
It’s not as if nobody’s trying. The state Economic Development Department keeps sending press releases announcing companies that are opening, expanding or relocating here.
A nationally known company called Keter Plastics has taken over the old Solo Cup factory in Belen. Rhona Espinoza of the Belen Chamber of Commerce says it is close to completing an ambitious construction project and should be hiring soon, providing an estimated 175 jobs.
But why did we lose Solo Cup? That factory closed in 2008, costing more than 200 jobs. The company spokeswoman said at the time the closure was due to economic conditions, product demand, and a need to consolidate operations. Apparently they did not choose to consolidate here.
A legislative interim committee report says a new company is taking over the abandoned egg processing plant in Berino, south of Las Cruces; again, good news, but why did the egg processing plant close? I’m disappointed to read that the former New Mexico Shrimp Company is closed. That company was planning to raise shrimp in the desert using high-tech aquaculture.
A brand-new startup founded by a doctoral student in biology is raising snails for escargot. This is very creative, but, let’s face it, a limited market.
One proposal that has received a favorable reception is importing retirees. The legislative Rural and Economic Development Committee has endorsed a $250,000 appropriation for a marketing campaign.
According to the proposal, submitted by economist Charles Lehman and John Garcia, of the New Mexico Homebuilders (and former Economic Development cabinet secretary), one retiree household with a $70,000 annual income contributes $65,000 in state taxes over 15 years. The numbers look favorable.
The proposers say New Mexico is a terrific place to retire; it is just not well enough known. They cite the relatively low cost of living, weather, culture, natural attractions and other factors. It is promising, but still a drop in the bucket.
As we continue to support efforts to grow businesses one at a time, New Mexico is also going to have to do something big, and probably risky.
Anything big enough (such as dipping into the state’s Permanent Fund) will no doubt make us very uncomfortable. We should be looking at next year’s legislative and especially gubernatorial candidates for the boldness to offer big ideas and the competency to get them executed.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   11-27-17
The complications of tax policy
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
Tax policy can make your head spin. Where tax policy intersects with healthcare policy, complicated further by insurance, the picture gets even more confusing.
Two speakers talking recently about New Mexico tax policy chose to focus on the same example: hospitals and healthcare.
New Mexico has three categories of hospitals, said Lee Reynis, an economist with UNM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, who spoke at BBER’s annual New Mexico Data Users conference. The categories are government, nonprofit and for-profit. Gross receipts tax applies differently to each of these categories.
Tax expert Jim O’Neill, former deputy secretary of the Taxation and Revenue Department, added a fourth category: a private hospital operated by an HMO. O’Neill was speaking at Albuquerque Press Women and Friends.
Government and non-profit hospitals do not pay gross receipts tax, Reynis said. Private hospitals do. Sometimes. It depends who is being billed.
The same “sometimes” applies to other medical services.
A doctor in private practice has to pay gross receipts tax, though you probably won’t see it itemized in your bill. But if a doctor is an employee of a nonprofit, the service is billed by the nonprofit rather than the individual doctor and so it is not taxable.
If you went to the doctor and paid the bill the old-fashioned way, by writing a check, and the doctor is a private practitioner, the entire bill would be taxable. But most of us don’t pay medical bills that way.
The bill may or may not be taxable depending on who is paying it: private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. The payment for the service is a mixture of deductibles or co-pays paid by the patient and payment by the third-party payer. If you’re on Medicare plus a supplement, there may be a portion paid by Medicare and a portion paid by your private insurance, and different rules apply to each payment.
Government and nonprofit hospitals also don’t pay gross receipts tax on things they buy, such as supplies and machinery. For-profit hospitals do.
Reynis says the estimated tax expenditure for healthcare in New Mexico is $307 million a year. Restating that in language I can understand, tax expenditure is a technical term meaning money the state did not receive because somebody had an exemption or deduction.
According to O’Neill, an HMO affiliated hospital would pay insurance premium tax and not gross receipt tax. Premium tax is what your insurance company pays on insurance premiums instead of gross receipts tax. You probably never see the premium tax you are paying because the tax is not itemized on your bill.
O’Neill commented, “Our health care taxation is complicated and may well leave practitioners in the worst possible situation--where a lot of their charges are taxable but as many or more are not. This maximizes the amount of recordkeeping and accounting work they have to do.”
On one hand, tax policy distorts consumer costs by forcing some practitioners to pay tax and allowing others to not pay tax. On the other hand, there is a genuine difference between government, private for-profit businesses and nonprofits.
A bill in the 2017 legislature, reintroduced in the special session because it didn’t get very far in the regular session, was an attempt at comprehensive reform of the state gross receipts tax (House Bill 412, reintroduced as House Bill 8, sponsored by Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho).
This confusing presentation may help you understand why that bill was 430-plus pages long. It did not get done, but it will have to be tried again, probably several times, in order to make a portion of our tax policy more equitable.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     11-13-17
Local employment rules are divisive and burdensome
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
The city of Albuquerque dodged a bullet recently when the voters rejected, by the narrowest of margins, an ordinance to require employers to provide sick leave.
Up the road, the local ordinance bug has hit Sandoval County, which is on the verge of enacting a right-to-work ordinance, with both civil and criminal penalties including jail time.
This ordinance was introduced by two county commissioners and therefore just needs approval by the commission itself, not by the voters. According to Bill Diven of the Sandoval Signpost, the commission has passed the ordinance once. Amendments were introduced at the Nov. 2 meeting, so it will have to be published and voted on again by the commission.
Diven said the sheriff’s office and district attorney objected to the law enforcement provision because they don’t have the resources, training or expertise to enforce employment law. One spokesperson called that provision an unfunded mandate.
The right-to-work argument has a long and tiresome history in New Mexico. I consider it a thinly veiled attempt to get rid of labor unions and weaken the worker protections that the labor movement spent a century developing.
The defeated Albuquerque sick leave ordinance was on the city election ballot based on a citizen initiative and petition drive. Most people who signed those petitions probably did not read the entire seven-page ordinance. Petition signers, probably without knowing, supported a “retaliation” clause, which says in part: “An employer shall not intimidate, retaliate, … or take or threaten any adverse action whatsoever against an employee because the employee has exercised rights protected under this ordinance … There shall be a rebuttable presumption of a violation … whenever an employer takes any adverse action against a person who, within 90 days, has exercised rights protected under this ordinance …”
In plain language, if an employee takes any sick leave, the employer cannot discipline that employee for any other reason for 90 days. Whatever the employee does, if the employer imposes any discipline, it is legally presumed the discipline was retaliation for the sick leave.
The employer can dispute that presumption, but if the employee complains to the city, the employer would have to pay penalties or engage in some kind of legal proceeding to prove there was no retaliation. And the city would have to enforce this provision: another unfunded mandate.
This is an open invitation for businesses to locate someplace else.
Now that the issue is front and center in the city, the City Council may try to draft a more reasonable sick leave ordinance.
Sick leave is good policy. But imposing burdensome mandates on small business is not. A better approach might be to adopt incentives, such as tax breaks, to reward businesses that treat their employees well.
There’s a bigger issue here than right-to-work or sick leave: the practice of bringing these divisive political issues to local government.
Cities and counties have traditionally been expected to focus on everyday community needs such as water, garbage, roads and police. That’s a big enough load to carry. We don’t need to turn them into political battlegrounds for issues that are already dividing us at the state and national levels. Nor is it helpful to expand the demands placed on them, stretch their budgets thinner due to new responsibilities, or turn New Mexico into a confusing patchwork of different regulations from county to county.
America is in a deeply traumatic time. Whichever side of the political divide you’re on, you’re feeling this. There are friends and neighbors you can’t talk to anymore, because of divisive politics.
So, should these arguments continue to be raised at the local level? I say no.
Bills were introduced in both 2016 and 2017 to prohibit local governments from enacting their own legislation regarding private employment. That concept should be applied in a bipartisan way and considered again.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES          10-30-17
Workers’ comp is healthy but not helping the state’s economy
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
An employee of a small Mom and Pop business came to work drunk and dropped a 2,000 pound chunk of marble on his foot.
His employers found out he was entitled to workers’ comp benefits just as if he had not been drunk. Sometime later, Mom got a notice from the insurance company that the business’s premiums were increasing.
Mom’s son was a brand new, just-elected state senator. That is how Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, became an advocate and sponsor of workers’ comp legislation to correct the imbalances that have crept into the law in recent years, mostly through decisions by the state’s higher courts.
Candelaria told his story recently at a meeting sponsored by New Mexico’s Association of Commerce and Industry (ACI).
“Everybody says we need to do something about the economy, but we have lacked the political courage to do what is needed,” Candelaria said. “Legal reform needs to be at the core of any economic development agenda for New Mexico.” We have a problem, he said, not primarily in the legislature but in the courts.
Other speakers echoed a similar theme: Though New Mexico’s workers’ comp system is doing reasonably well when viewed in isolation, it is one element of a combative legal climate that discourages employers from locating here. Danny Jarrett, an attorney and current chairman of ACI, said his office routinely fields inquiries from businesses in which this issue is raised.
The law itself says the purpose of workers’ comp is to provide the “quick and efficient delivery of medical and indemnity benefits to injured workers at a reasonable cost to employers” and that it is based on a “mutual renunciation of common-law rights and defenses by employers and employees alike.”
Functionally, speaker Jack Milarch of Builders Trust reminded the audience, for most cases, workers’ comp is designed to provide temporary, short-term benefits, incorporating financial incentives for injured workers to return to work and for employers to rehire them. Workers’ comp benefits are deliberately less than the worker’s pre-injury wage because if workers could make the same money staying home as going back to work, they would have no incentive to go back to work.
In that sense, workers’ comp is contradictory to what most people understand the legal system to be -- a system in which an injured person tries to get maximum money from the person or organization responsible for the injury.
New Mexico is currently ranked number 32 of the 50 states for its legal environment, said Quinn Lopez, general counsel of New Mexico Mutual, the state’s largest workers’ comp insurer. That poor ranking is keeping businesses from wanting to locate here, he said.
Lopez said, and other speakers echoed, trial attorneys from Texas are coming across the state border, especially between El Paso and Las Cruces, attempting to find new legal arguments to move cases out of workers’ comp and into the more lucrative personal injury system. Apparently, he said, it is relatively easy for out-of-state attorneys to qualify for New Mexico law licenses.
State Insurance Superintendent John Franchini noted that the oil and gas industry, a critical piece of New Mexico’s economy, is coming back from recession but jobs in that industry will continue to decline, largely because of technology. As an example, he said remote online monitoring of oil wells has replaced large numbers of workers.
According to Franchini, the state is doing very well on providing safe workplaces and preventing injuries. New Mexico is about to have a 16 percent average decrease in insurance premiums. That is a huge decrease and ought to be enormously positive news for economic development, but nobody is optimistic.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES         10-16-17
The gun behind the counter
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
At a Circle K convenience store, the clerk shot a suspected armed robber.
We expect to read the opposite story. Convenience stores can be dangerous places, especially for the people who work in them.
This happened a few weeks ago in Albuquerque in mid-afternoon. The suspect was wounded and is expected to recover; the clerk was not charged with any crime.
What was that clerk doing packing a gun?
The incident brought to mind a court case from 20 years ago in which Circle K clerk Paul Sedillo followed a shoplifter into the parking lot and was shot and killed. The Eldridge case (named for the mother of Sedillo’s daughter) raised the question of whether Circle K might be civilly liable outside of workers’ compensation, whether the company was so greatly “at fault” that it might violate the “no fault” principle basic to the workers’ comp philosophy. It was a hot issue in the workers’ comp legal community, but the case was settled out of court so the question was not resolved.
Conventional wisdom is that employees should never be instructed to pursue armed robbers or shoplifters. Let them take the money and go. I heard that message in dozens of safety seminars and passed it on to small business owners in my own seminars.
Carlos Martinez, the employer’s attorney in that case, recalled that Sedillo went into the parking lot only to get the shoplifter’s license number.
Randi McGinn was the attorney for Eldridge and Sedillo’s daughter. She represented workers in several other convenience store cases, including another death case. When clerk Elizabeth Garcia was killed at a store in Hobbs, that triggered a round of activism and led to New Mexico adopting what McGinn told me are the strictest convenience store safety rules in the country.
The rules were adopted in 2005 by the state’s Occupational Health and Safety Bureau. Stores open during graveyard shift are required to have two clerks, a clerk and a security guard, or a bullet resistant enclosure for the clerk. The rules also require all-day continuous video surveillance and other features.
New Mexico gun laws do not contain any special provision for employees, regarding whether they may or may not carry firearms at work. The same laws and restrictions that apply to the public (too big a subject to discuss here) apply to employees.
The law is silent on whether employers can prohibit employees from bringing guns to work. According to the business and legal resources website ehs-support.com, employers remain free to prohibit guns within the workplace, but, as in some other states, there’s an exception for the parking lot. Employees have the right to keep a gun locked in their own cars in the parking lot (there are exceptions, and this is not legal advice).
I do not travel during graveyard shift hours, but I’m very grateful to stores that stay open all night and the brave clerks who staff them. To me they are unsung heroes. Those stores, with their bright lights and hot coffee, are a haven for lonely late-night travelers and may very well save lives by helping drivers stay awake and take a break.
If we have to pay a little more for that coffee or microwave burrito to help provide for their safety, I’m for it. I hope there are methods less risky than guns.
A few days after the recent incident, I stopped at another Circle K. I asked the clerk if he knew of any company policy regarding clerks having guns. He said he thought there was one but he had never seen it in writing. Then he told me, smiling, he had one behind the counter and would not hesitate to use it. A nearby customer said, “Good for you.”
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES           10-2-17
Churches sacrifice to offer sanctuary
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
It is possible that the future of immigrant deportation may depend on how many churches have showers in their buildings.
That’s one factor communities of faith are invited to consider when they evaluate whether to offer sanctuary to an immigrant threatened with immediate deportation.
But it’s not critical, according to Marian Bock. An immigrant threatened with deportation will gratefully accept whatever amenities you have, she said, including sponge baths in the sink.
Bock is a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and serves on their sanctuary task force. She spoke recently, together with Justin Remer-Thamert, executive director of the New Mexico Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice, at an Albuquerque church where members were beginning a discussion of whether to become a sanctuary church.
The Friends Meeting House in Albuquerque became a sanctuary in March for Honduran immigrant Emma Membreno-Sorto, a 25-year U.S. resident, married to an American, who has been under an active deportation order. She had applied for political asylum years ago but the paperwork was never completed.
The protected immigrant, who is called a guest, never leaves the property and might not even go outside. If she leaves the building even for a minute, she is vulnerable to being picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The community must provide meals and whatever else the guest may need. Doctors may volunteer to make house calls. The guest cannot leave the premises to work and may not be able to contribute financially.
One volunteer must stay with the guest at all times, including overnight. This is so that, if ICE shows up, the volunteer serves as witness to whatever happens.
This requires scheduling volunteers for four shifts a day.  More volunteers are needed for other tasks. Volunteers don’t have to be members of the congregation but must have received training. The coalition offers that training.
Volunteers must be U.S. citizens – a protection for them so that they are not subject to immigration issues if they get crosswise with ICE. But there is no guarantee that volunteers will be free from other prosecution.
The sanctuary status of churches is not federal law but is based on a memorandum issued by ICE in 2011. The memo identifies “sensitive locations” where ICE officials will generally not arrest anybody unless they have a warrant from a judge. Those locations include churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of faith, schools, hospitals, the site of a religious activity such as a funeral or wedding, and public demonstrations.
However, Remer-Thamert cautioned, ICE could make exceptions to its own rules and has a reputation for coming in the middle of the night. The memorandum is not a law. What keeps the guest safe in a church, he explained, is not the memorandum but the public relations backlash when agents invade a church.
An online document called The Sanctuary Toolkit explains:
“Generally, people enter sanctuary because they have received a final order of deportation but believe that they have a legitimate case that either has not been thoroughly presented or appropriately argued before an immigration judge… Often there are extenuating circumstances that could or should have been raised in their defense ….”
Membreno-Sorto is one of two immigrants known to be in sanctuary in New Mexico. The other, whose case has also been publicized, is Kadhim Albumohammed, an Iraqi who has lived in the United States for more than 20 years and who previously assisted the U.S. military in Iraq. He is in sanctuary at another Albuquerque church.
Some advocates regard the “sensitive locations” memo as virtually an invitation to churches to act as protectors to immigrants in this situation.
Legislation has been introduced in Congress to give legal status to the sensitive locations guideline. New Mexico Senators Heinrich and Udall and representatives Lujan and Lujan-Grisham are co-sponsors.
But Congress doesn’t seem to be engaging seriously about comprehensive immigration reform.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES            9-18-17
Celebrate the sunshine and New Mexico’s low disaster risk
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
In my garage is an old suitcase packed with old clothes. It’s to grab in an emergency.
There’s a sturdy canvas bag tucked away in a suitable place, where a couple of checkbooks are kept and a backup computer hard drive is stored.
Because I live in central New Mexico, I probably will never need those things. New Mexico is a pretty good place to avoid natural disasters. 
            The state is ranked fortieth out of 50 states for the number of disaster declarations and 33rd of 50 for relative riskiness by the company Core Logic, based on an analysis of storm damage.
But, this week as we appreciate the sunshine and our dry feet, let’s be relaxed but not complacent. The recent hurricanes remind us that disasters can happen anytime and anywhere. What could happen here? What can we prepare for, individually or collectively?
The state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has a detailed document called the Hazard Mitigation Plan.
The plan says the most significant hazards facing New Mexico are fires at the wild land-urban interface, high wind, thunderstorms including lightning and hail, flood, and drought. Drought is a cause of disaster but generally not an emergency, unless it sparks fires.
We know about fire and that if you live near a forest you might have to evacuate on very short notice. We know about flooding and that generally floods are limited to areas near waterways.
            New Mexico is also subject to dam failures, earthquakes, tornadoes, landslides, high wind and even the possibility of a volcano becoming active, but nothing on the scale of the devastation in southeast Texas or Florida.
Dam failures, overspills and other breaches have happened. According to the hazard mitigation plan, there are 594 dams in the state, public and private. Of the 300 dams that come under the jurisdiction of the State Engineer’s Dam Safety Bureau, 151 are classified as high hazard potential, 60 as significant hazard potential, and 89 as low. Of the high-hazard dams, 115 have been identified as deficient. There has been no recorded loss of life.
If  you live below a dam, you may want to learn about your own hazard exposure.
A dam failure could be triggered by another event, such as flooding or an earthquake. Central New Mexico has earthquake activity, and apparently numerous earthquakes have occurred under my feet without my knowledge. The greatest risk, says the plan document, is between Albuquerque and Socorro.
The report says Los Alamos lies near several major boundary faults of the Rio Grande rift. Just as the nuclear material stored at Los Alamos was threatened by the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000, it’s a concern in an earthquake and a reason why New Mexicans should prioritize finding a long-term storage solution. The report says there have been at least eight earthquakes felt by residents of Los Alamos since World War II. Whatever gets loose in Los Alamos could run into the Rio Grande, affecting communities downstream.
In an earthquake, water and gas lines could rupture. Power lines could fall. Any of these things can start a fire.
Not all disasters are made by nature, as we were reminded by the Gold King mine disaster in 2015.
We can’t know what’s going to happen, but we can each do our little bit to think about it and prepare. If you have an old suitcase and room in your garage, you might throw a few clothes in it and set it aside.
However, our relatively low exposure is an advantage.
The U. S. Geological Survey predicts an 18 percent chance of a large earthquake near Socorro in the next hundred years. Taken together with the other statistics, that could be an economic development opportunity we might want to brag about.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES        9-4-17
Consumers want more information about what’s in their food
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            There’s a recent trend in food advertising, have you noticed? It is not about what is in the food; it’s about what’s not in the food.
            Much TV food advertising emphasizes what the product is “free” of. No antibiotics, artificial colors, artificial flavors. Not genetically modified, not packaged with BPA. No high fructose corn syrup. Gluten-free.
          It’s even happening with dog food. Food that is not especially good for humans is even worse for our dogs, and the dog food makers are starting to catch up.
          This is for food purchased at the grocery store. The trend doesn’t apply to advertising for fast-food restaurants, which still tempt us with how many layers of grease and salt they can pack into every item, or to pizza, which has become its own food group.
            Nevertheless, it’s a big change. And the theme is echoed in the packaging.
            Labels on some foods repeat the message of no artificial this or that. One brand of chicken even boasts that its products are made from natural chicken, as if the alternative were artificial chicken.

            All those advertisers are echoing back to consumers something powerful about what concerns us. We are worried about all the artificial and chemical-laden ingredients in our food, especially food we serve our children.
            Which makes it all the more notable that New Mexico couldn’t pass a GMO labeling bill.
This bill was Senate Bill 18 of the 2013 regular session, sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat, now Senate Majority Leader. It required labeling for all food and commercial feed containing genetically modified materials. The bill was killed by a procedural vote on the Senate floor.
SB18 was one of several bills studied in an in-depth report by Common Cause New Mexico, a nonprofit organization that advocates for ethics and openness in government.
Labeling would have provided consumers, who are also citizens and taxpayers, with information and choice.
If it had been enacted into law, the bill would have inconvenienced a number of special-interest industry groups related to agriculture. The Common Cause report analyzed campaign contributions from those groups compared to how senators voted.
It’s a complicated analysis because it considers a number of factors. For example, the lobbyists who represent the agriculture industry also have other clients. So a campaign contribution from any of those lobbyists did not directly correlate with this particular bill.
However, the report did manage to analyze the sources of those campaign contributions and found that the 23 senators who voted to kill the bill received an average of $4,341 in campaign contributions from the agriculture industry. This is nearly four and one-half times as much as the $970 average of contributions to the 17 senators who supported the bill.
In 2013 I would have said New Mexico should not take the lead in passing a GMO labeling bill. We are a small market and the effect could be that some food producers who don’t want to do GMO labeling might simply avoid shipping their products here, limiting our choices.
I have changed my mind since noticing all this advertising, which demonstrates that New Mexico consumers do want more information about what’s in their food, that it’s not an esoteric issue limited to health-food snobs. But it seems we can’t pass a law in the public interest because political money outweighs the will of the voters.
A law to require labeling of genetically modified food had been tried the previous year in California as a voter initiative, where it was defeated after the industry spent a reported $46 million to kill it.
In New Mexico, we haven’t tried this again. Until we do something about campaign finance, what the citizens want isn’t what gets legislation passed.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES          8-21-17
Dental care charity is not enough
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
If you need dental care and live far from the nearest dentist or can’t afford the cost, you might plan a trip to Albuquerque on Sept. 22-23. That weekend will be the occasion of the sixth annual Mission of Mercy, called New Mexico’s largest charitable event. An estimated 150 volunteer dentists will set up a temporary clinic in the Convention Center and provide services free of charge on a first-come first-served basis.
 There have been five such events since 2010, held in different cities. To date, New Mexico MOM has served more than 6,900 patients and has provided $4.9 million in donated dental care.
But New Mexico is still woefully short of access to dental care. Reports show 32 of New Mexico’s 33 counties do not have adequate access. A 2017 report from the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services states only about one-third of New Mexicans are adequately served, and an estimated 138 dentists are needed to bring the state up to standard.
So, in this writer’s opinion, the generosity of this charitable event does not compensate for the Legislature’s failure once again to pass a dental therapy bill.
Observers agree the problem is geographic, with rural communities having the least access.
A 2016 report of the legislative Indian Affairs Committee indicates dental access is worse for Native Americans than other populations, reflected both in their dental health and their general health. Colin Baillio of Health Action New Mexico testified there is twice as much untreated dental disease in tribal communities as in the general population.
Since dental problems contribute to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other health problems, Baillio said improved dental care would reduce the cost of treating these diseases. Health care reformers, please take note.
The 2017 dental therapy bill, HB 264, passed the House by a vote of 60-5, but died in a Senate committee without a recorded vote. Similar bills had been introduced at least three times in recent years. This year’s bill was sponsored by Rep. Dennis Roch, R- Logan, and Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D- Albuquerque.
The issue has not changed substantially since I wrote about it in 2013 and 2015.
Dental therapists are mid-level providers qualified to work under the supervision of a dentist who is not on the premises. The work they are authorized to do is limited and would be detailed in the statute.
The New Mexico Dental Association proposes (on its website) that New Mexico needs to make progress on starting our own dental school. This recommendation comes in the midst of growing concern that New Mexico needs to reduce, not increase, our number of colleges and campuses, because we can’t fund them all adequately.
The NMDA responds to the well documented need for dental services and the success of dental therapy programs elsewhere by saying it needs more study. With all due respect, it should be studied with a pilot program, not procrastination.
Meanwhile, sincere thanks for the Mission of Mercy.

Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES            8-7-17
No need, no excuse for voting commission
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
Thank goodness, New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver has refused to send New Mexico voter data to the president’s so-called Election Integrity Commission.
There is no excuse for this commission. Evidence, including the resumes of its members, supports the suspicion that it was set up not to ensure election integrity but to implement voter suppression, possibly by purging large numbers of minority voters from the rolls.
And it’s dangerous. A big centralized database is a huge target for hackers, Russian or anyone else. The 50 decentralized state databases are a protection.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, and several other organizations have filed federal lawsuits opposing this commission. The NAACP stated the commission “was formed with the intent to discriminate against voters of color in violation of the Constitution.”
About 30 states participate in a multistate organization called Interstate Crosscheck, which reportedly reviewed member states’ databases in 2016. This organization is headed by Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State and vice chair of the president’s commission. New Mexico belongs to a competing organization called The Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), whose stated mission includes increasing access to voter registration for all eligible citizens.
Investigative reports claim Interstate Crosscheck systematically purged minority voters in 2016, using similarity of voters’ names as a pretext for claiming they were registered twice. Interstate Crosscheck should be required to make its findings public, especially all names that were purged in 2016, to see its results and whether it was finding genuine duplications or targeting classes of voters to be illegally purged.
In the early days of the United States, in most states only white male property owners could vote. Voting rights for non-property owners, women and racial minorities have been won over time with huge political upheavals, including the civil rights movement, along the way.
            Reports claim Native Americans still have limited ballot access. They were originally not allowed to vote because they were not deemed citizens. After federal law was changed in 1924, states decided individually who could vote. It took more than 40 years for all 50 states to allow Native Americans to vote. In New Mexico, according to an account from the state historian, the state Constitution originally said they couldn’t vote because they weren’t taxed. A court decision changed that in 1948.
Last year, Indian Country Today Media Network reported that Native American and Alaska Natives flagged voting-related problems in 17 states. Recent voter ID laws in some states reportedly have made it more difficult for Native Americans to register and vote.
It is sad that this has become a partisan issue. Some Republicans, including Oliver’s 2016 opponent, have made the myth of massive voter fraud virtually an article of faith. The large-scale fraud the president alleges would have required a multistate organization to persuade a few million people to commit a crime from which they would derive no personal benefit. This is not only absurd, it could not have happened without being publicly exposed. Yet the story persists.
In 2012, New Mexico scored an embarrassing national headline when an Albuquerque man registered his dog to vote. He said he did it to prove how lax our voter laws are. Later it was revealed his wife was on the staff of Republican Heather Wilson, who was running for U.S. Senate.
The New Mexico Republican Party says on its website, “We support that every eligible citizen should have the right to vote.” It goes on to state the need for protection against fraudulent voting. But New Mexico already has established that it cannot identify more than a couple of fraudulent votes, after former Republican secretary of state Dianna Duran hunted for them in 2011. We don’t need protection from fraudulent voting because there is virtually none.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     7-24-17
Party platforms, however vague, offer a checklist of values
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
What does it mean to be a Democrat in New Mexico?
That may be a more pressing question than usual because New Mexico has open positions for several major offices in the 2018 election: governor, two of our three seats in Congress and, we learned recently, state land commissioner. Is there a common vision or set of principles shared by all Democratic candidates? As citizens and voters, what can we count on?
            So I decided to go to the closest thing to an official source, the current platform of the New Mexico Democratic Party.
It turns out there isn’t one. The most recent attempt to draft a state platform, in Hillary-vs-Bernie 2016, ended in a stalemate. The 2016 document is identified as a draft and therefore not official. There is, however, a 2014 platform. Both documents are on the website.
Here’s a brief review. I will do a similar review of the most recent Republican platform in the near future.
The 2014 New Mexico Democratic platform calls to mind the famous quote by Will Rogers: “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” You can see the heated arguments and fist pounding that must have occurred, reflected in both the content and the inconsistent writing style. You can also see a great deal of idealism and quite a few goals that are worth pursuing.
The 2014 platform covers 20 areas, each with several bullet points: agriculture, arts, civil rights, “Earth first,” economy, education, elections, energy, government, healthcare, immigration, international relations, labor, lands, media, Native Americans, public safety, taxation, veterans, and water.
In addition to New Mexico-specific issues there are national and international issues, including opposition to NAFTA, support for certain international treaties, and securing the future of Social Security by raising the income cap.
Readers will not be surprised that the platform endorses many ways to spend public money, comments little on how to obtain that money, and includes predictable platitudes about economic development.
It contains a few charming illogical terms like “mandatory whenever possible.”
On a few points, it appears someone at the table was a serious subject matter expert, such as in a detailed proposal to increase the staff of the state’s Oil Conservation Division. Someone understood that issue in depth. 
The platform takes direct aim at the state Public Education Department by proposing that future secretaries be appointed by a public education commission instead of the governor. Also under Education, the platform supports the study of civics, teaching the U.S. Constitution, and proficiency in second languages, all admirable goals, but it does not mention reading, which is a well identified problem in New Mexico.
The draft 2016 platform is shorter and easier to read, covering the same general topics with less detail.
Platforms are sometimes regarded as the unappreciated stepchild of the state political convention. Platform committees toil in obscurity, and their work is often not taken seriously. But if you’re thinking your party needs a robust set of values to commit to, this platform is a good place to look.
If you’re a Democrat, you might want to look at these documents as a checklist for issues you will consider in evaluating candidates next year. Whether you agree or disagree with the positions taken, you can appreciate that both the 2014 platform and the 2016 draft provide a comprehensive list of issues that you might care about.
The 2018 election campaign is already well underway, at least for the higher offices. We’re seeing frantic emails from candidates telling us they desperately need our money today to meet some artificially created deadline. These party platforms may offer a way for you to increase your influence as a citizen by talking to candidates and asking them to commit to meaningful answers. It’s not too soon.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      7-10-17
I have to inspect WHAT?
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
An insurance agent called me to ask about a letter one of her business clients had received from my former employer, the Workers' Compensation Administration. The client was upset and confused. The letter was about safety inspections.
I recognized the story immediately: they’re doing the affidavit thing again. Sure enough: the letter advises the business that it is required by New Mexico law to have a safety inspection and that an affidavit must be submitted to the WCA verifying that the inspection was done, under penalty of perjury.
The workers’ comp law says all employers whose annual insurance premium exceeds a certain amount must have a safety inspection every year. The 1990 law required this for employers with a premium of $5,000 or more. That’s been amended to $15,000. The requirement also applies to self-insured employers.
I’m all in favor of safety inspections. I wrote the booklet instructing employers how to conduct such an inspection. Half of the booklet is still on the agency’s website, with minor revisions.
But I have protested the affidavit regulation time after time. When I worked there, I argued against it repeatedly and sometimes won. Last year I submitted an official public comment to my former colleagues.
Back in 1992, somebody said we need to enforce the inspection law. We have to make them tell us they’ve done the inspection by sending us an affidavit. I said that’s ridiculous. Business owners will regard this affidavit as a pain in the neck and we will be turning half the businesses in New Mexico into liars.
The same somebody said, in that case we should make them do it under penalty of perjury. Then we will turn half the businesses in New Mexico into perjurers, I said. This is the kind of stuff that makes businesses hate government.
I said we should do what OSHA does: write a sensible rule that requires employers to keep their own records and to show the record to us if we ask for it.
Back then I prevailed, but the affidavit issue has popped up repeatedly. Some regulatory people can’t resist the heavy hand. The current version of the regulation was adopted last fall.
So the agency is sending out letters telling some businesses they have to have the inspection and send in the affidavit.
Safety inspections are a good practice for most businesses. If your business is big enough to have a $15,000 premium, you probably can get a safety professional to do your inspection courtesy of your insurance company. Or you can call the WCA and a safety consultant will do it for free.
If you’re a small business, you can go to the WCA website, click on the link for safety inspections, find the procedure, and do it yourself. The first step is to research your own industry standards so you will have specific information on what you need to inspect.
The concept, however, does not work for everybody. One example is any business that does all its work on other people’s premises and has no control over those premises, such as home health care services.
Under the new rule, so far 3,328 locations statewide are verifying they do annual safety inspections, according to Diana Sandoval, WCA public information officer. WCA staff safety professionals have conducted more than 155 inspections this year. Sandoval says nobody has been fined.
The statute also applies to state and local government agencies, so I’m wondering whether they’ve contacted their fellow departments. You can imagine how a letter like this would be received by – say -- the Department of Corrections, where I have no doubt safety is a very high priority. Fill out a WHAT? You gotta be kidding, somebody will say.
Exactly what all those businesses might be saying.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES        6-26-17
What if we diluted executive power nationally, just as New Mexico does?
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
We New Mexicans don’t trust our politicians. That’s built in to our history and the structure of our government.
Some years ago I started wondering why we elect not just a governor but several independent statewide officials: attorney general, state treasurer, state auditor, secretary of state, land commissioner. Those constitutionally established officeholders are not answerable to the governor. Most of them have been that way since statehood.
My guess is we do not trust anybody enough to hand over all the power for running the state.  
There are advantages and disadvantages to this system. One disadvantage is our “long ballot.” Voters have a number of offices to consider and some of us vote without making enough of an effort to learn about them.
Former treasurers Michael Montoya and Robert Vigil (Vigil was auditor before he was treasurer) went to prison for mishandling public funds after receiving kickbacks from investment advisors. What did we know about them before we elected them?
We also elect the five-member Public Regulation Commission. The PRC is a recent creation, having replaced (by constitutional amendment) both the elected State Corporation Commission and the appointed Public Utilities Commission.
The PRC is interesting because it reflects attitudes of the last 20 years. Many New Mexicans are dissatisfied with the PRC because it deals with highly technical issues and yet the law as we approved it did not require its members to be especially qualified (qualification requirements have since been added). So why did we choose this approach for a commission that sets utility rates when we could have had a commission appointed by the governor?
One reason, in my opinion, is that we don’t want to give our governors that much authority. Members of a commission appointed by any governor could be pressured by the governor and fired by the governor. We preferred to have the authority spread out.
We spread the authority even further when we passed another constitutional amendment, moving the insurance superintendent’s office out from under the PRC.
The superintendent is also independent, appointed by an elaborately structured body called the insurance nominating commission, which is required to be bipartisan and to represent both the insurance industry and consumers.
We went the other way once in recent history. We were frustrated with our education system under the elected State Board of Education and demanded greater accountability from the governor.  So we went along with Gov. Bill Richardson and amended the state Constitution to move governance of education into a cabinet agency headed by a governor-appointed secretary.
How we have loved the results of that! So much so, as we say goodbye to just-resigned secretary Hanna Skandera, that legislation was introduced last year to undo the whole scheme and go back to the old state board (the bill never came close to passage).
New Mexico is not alone in having several independent statewide positions. The website Ballotpedia tells us 35 states elect their secretary of state; 43 states elect their attorney general; 36 elect their treasurer.
It could be argued that this widespread dilution of responsibility may be a weakness and could be partially responsible for our state’s current economic woes.
Here is another thought.
I sometimes think the presidency of the United States is too big a job for any one person. The president and vice president are the only people elected at the national level. Though the vice president can’t be fired by the president, he has almost no independent powers. The entire executive branch reports to one person.
Watching the recent spectacle in Washington, I have wondered how things might be different if, at the national level, we had a separately elected attorney general who did not answer to the president.
It’s completely unrealistic to think such a thing could happen. I’m just asking.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                              6-12-17
Real impacts of budget cuts
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
New Mexico Secretary of Agriculture Jeff Witte, on a TV interview show recently, mentioned the state’s veterinary diagnostic laboratory. He was particularly proud that it is located adjacent to important facilities of the state Department of Health so that there is useful interaction between the departments.
In a budget crisis, would you want to cut this program? I wouldn’t.
I had never heard of the veterinary diagnostic lab and never thought about whether New Mexico has one or not. Now that I am aware of it, I can appreciate how such a laboratory contributes to preventing disease in New Mexico farm animals, pets and wildlife. I felt the same way in 1993 when I learned that New Mexico solved the mystery of the deadly hantavirus within several weeks because state employees had been out in the wilds counting deer mice (see triplespacedagain.com July 2011).
These programs are among essential government functions that should be preserved even in a budget crisis. Those services run from school buses to prison guards. They include a division that works to reduce forest fires and one that protects investors from fraud. 
            There’s another set of functions that are not essential to health or safety but that support our economy, such as tourism advertising, history and culture programs, the film industry incentive and economic development programs. Nobody dies if we close a museum, but it hurts the state’s economy. As you may recall, last year we had a radical cut in staffing for state historic sites. How much more of that should we tolerate?
So, if we don’t have enough money to pay for all this, what should we do?
During the regular legislative session and in the weeks following, when we were all waiting to see what the governor would veto, I saw articles and letters to the editor pleading the case of one program or another. Don’t cut the funding for this one, they all said.
I did not see a single article advocating specific budget cuts.  Nobody is jumping up to volunteer information on what’s a waste of taxpayer money.
Most every program in government was created for what seemed at the time to be a good and compelling reason -- just like that laboratory that you had probably never heard of.
If, in times of tight budgets, the state reduces funding for a program, we don’t get greater efficiency. We get less of whatever service the program is intended to perform. Having fewer teachers in the classroom, for example, doesn’t incentivize them to teach more efficiently. To claim otherwise is wishful thinking.
Friends in the construction industry complained to me a few years ago that the number of state inspectors had been reduced. That saves the state money, but it forces contractors to wait longer for an inspection before proceeding with a project. And let’s remember, we have inspectors because long experience has shown that having inspectors is better than the dangerous effects of shoddy construction that would probably result without them. 
Agencies like to use something called vacancy savings. That means that when a job is unfilled because someone left, the agency simply doesn’t fill the position. This is much less painful than having to fire or furlough employees. But it leaves to chance the decision about which services get cut. If we have fewer technicians in that laboratory, it will take longer to resolve diagnostic questions that could save lives.
New Mexico is stuck for the coming fiscal year with an austerity budget that is not going to benefit any of us or help pull us out of the fiscal doldrums. The governor’s vetoes of a few reasonable tax proposals, such as the Internet sales tax, are not what we needed in this state.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       5-29-17
A modest proposal for the inconvenient elderly: Let them die
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
The way to save Medicare, some TV pundit said recently, is to cut Medicaid. Lots of people will die before they reach Medicare age.
It was said only about half in jest.
If low-income people can’t afford health care, some will get sick, and the sick will get sicker. When they reach 65, their health care under Medicare will be more expensive. But some will die and save the program the cost of their care.
Medicaid itself will also save money because Medicaid, not Medicare, pays for nursing homes for low-income elderly. Two thirds of Medicaid spending nationally is reportedly spent on low-income patients who are elderly or disabled or both.
Future funding for Medicaid hangs in the balance if Congress passes the proposed replacement for the Affordable Care Act or the proposed Trump budget. The healthcare law would cap federal contributions to Medicaid and the state would have to make up the rest of the cost. As you know, New Mexico is already in the midst of a budget crisis.
New Mexico total Medicaid spending is more than $5 billion a year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. It’s roughly $4 billion federal, less than $1 billion from the state. Much of the spending is on the elderly in nursing homes.
According to an October 2016 report by the Legislative Finance Committee, New Mexico has 74 nursing homes certified by the national Center for Medicare Services (CMS) with a total of 7,130 nursing home beds as of June 2016. If those facilities can’t afford to stay open, some of them will close.
The LFC report raises concerns about the quality of care in nursing homes, using a number of standard measures. Not surprisingly, the report also says costs are increasing and Medicaid is not keeping up. (The full report is on the LFC web site.)
The frail elderly are also targeted in other portions of the recently released Trump budget proposal. Meals on Wheels is one that’s been mentioned.
According to Meals on Wheels of America, almost 41,000 New Mexico seniors annually receive meals. At last count, 9,543 were homebound seniors – the same seniors who are saving Medicaid a lot of money by staying out of nursing homes. Almost 3 million meals were served in total, including both home delivery and group settings such as senior centers. The total cost was about $20 million, of which $3.3 million was federal funds.
Meals on Wheels points out that the home visits by its volunteer deliverers are, for many isolated seniors, the only human contact they have all day. The volunteers (who even pay for their own gas) not only deliver a meal but also check on the welfare of those seniors, including making sure they have not fallen. Falls among the elderly are getting increasing notice as a source of injury, hospitalization, death and costs. Meals on Wheels of America claims the home visits help to decrease the rate of falls, which nationally cost $34 billion a year. I surmise those costs would involve medical care and therefore be shifted to both Medicare and Medicaid.
Without programs like this, some of those elderly folks will die, reducing the cost of both their Medicare and Social Security.
President Trump promised seniors he would not cut Medicare or Social Security. Those programs are a big part of the federal budget and therefore the federal deficit and the extremely scary national debt, which nobody is talking about and which will continue to increase as this administration increases the defense budget and cuts taxes for people who don’t need the money. So how do you get to a balanced budget?
If you can’t cut the entitlement to Medicare or Social Security, cut the number of people who receive them.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES         5-15-17
The economic value of foreign students
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
A charming young man from South America, whom I met at a party, was a graduate student in engineering at UNM. He said he wanted to stay in New Mexico and start a business. He was exactly the kind of person New Mexico should welcome.
He told me foreign students are among the few who pay full tuition at our cash-strapped universities. Though some get help from scholarships, the full rate is the same as for other non-New Mexico residents: $22,000 a year. New Mexico resident students pay $7,000 a year.
International students attending New Mexico colleges and universities contribute $91.2 million a year to our state’s economy, according to the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs. That includes their living expenses as well as tuition and fees.
Foreign students are serious business in many states. The universities love them, not just for the money but also for the cultural diversity they bring. People who understand their value, such as Danielle Gilliam of the UNM Global Education Office, think we should be marketing more intensely.
So consider the effect of the governor’s veto of the entire higher education budget at the end of the regular legislative session.
New Mexicans understand this veto was a gambit in a high-stakes game of chicken between the governor and the legislative leadership.
But if I were a college freshman in, say, Bangladesh, trying to decide where to continue my education in the United States, I wouldn’t understand that at all. I would say, holy blank-blank, better not go to New Mexico!
The veto came on the heels of the March version of the presidential travel ban that has made visitors from many countries, not just those named in the ban, feel unwelcome in the United States.
Though the ban is currently not in force, due to restraining orders from federal courts, a cautionary message to international students remains posted on the website of the Global Education Office of UNM. Issued in March after the second executive order, the message advises international students to be careful about traveling out of the United States because they might have a hard time getting back in.
UNM’s website reports it hosted 1,339 international students in 2014, both graduate and undergraduate, up from 916 in 2010. These students, the report says, come from 97 countries. The top six countries are China, India, Brazil, Iran, and South Korea.
Iran is the only one of these countries named in the presidential travel ban. There were 67 students from Iran at UNM in 2014. The other countries specified in the ban are Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen. At the time of the report, UNM had two students from Sudan and one each from Libya, Syria and Yemen.
These students spent roughly $15 million on tuition in that year. For 63 percent, most of their financial support came from sources other than UNM; 37 percent received more than half their funding from UNM.
A 2016 report from the Institute for International Education shows 1,386 international students at NMSU in Las Cruces; 196 at New Mexico Tech in Socorro; and 118 each at Highlands and Western New Mexico universities. Highlands boasts students from 30 countries and a much lower tuition rate for nonresident and international students.
New Mexico is ranked 42 in number of international students. Colorado is ranked 25, with 10,800 students and a positive economic impact of almost $352 million. Gilliam points to Colorado as an example New Mexico should be following.
Not this year, I fear.
The expected special legislative session has been called. Higher education funding probably will be restored. But the damage to New Mexico’s reputation is done. Let’s hope the governor does not use the special session to make it any worse.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

Love the horses but let them starve
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
Of all the demonstrations of Americans’ political hypocrisy, what we’ve done about the slaughter of horses is right up there.
We can thank our governor for a recent example, though she is hardly alone.
Like other public figures, the governor shed crocodile tears a few years ago during the controversy over the possible opening of a horse slaughterhouse in Roswell. That controversy helped spark a change in federal policy that effectively banned horse slaughter in the United States.
This year, she pocket vetoed a simple bill that would have saved a few horses. A pocket veto means she simply ignored the bill until the deadline passed.
The bill, HB 390, said when the state livestock board has custody of a stray horse, licensed rescue organizations should get a chance to buy the horse at a modest fee before the horse is offered at auction. This would allow the rescue to get the horse at a low price rather than having to bid against other unknown buyers, possibly including “killer buyers” who would take the horse to Mexico and sell it for slaughter. The bill passed both houses handily.
Sometimes, as explained by Debbie Coburn of Four Corners Equine Rescue, the killer buyer wins the bid; to save the horse, the rescue buys it from the killer buyer at a much higher price. The rescues all operate on a shoestring with limited resources, so this limits their ability to save more horses.
A legislative analysis said the impact of the bill might be reduced income to the livestock board, since auctions generate money to the board.
            However, horses saved by rescues are a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the massive numbers of homeless underfed horses.
            New Mexico has nine equine rescues, all private except a small one for inmates at the Springer Correctional Center. While their work is admirable, collectively they save only a few hundred horses each year.
            Meanwhile, in Mexico, slaughter and the sale of horsemeat is a thriving business.  Several estimates agree that about 120,000 U.S. horses a year are slaughtered.
Travel writer Tara A. Spears writes from Mexico that worldwide, 4.7 million horses are slaughtered each year (not all from United States) and exported to countries where horsemeat is a gourmet food and brings more than twice as much money as beef. With a bitter tone, she writes, “It’s a classic case of if you don’t want to get your hands dirty, hire the Mexicans to do it.”
Readers may remember that during the controversy over the Roswell slaughterhouse, Gov. Bill Richardson and movie star Robert Redford teamed up to support outlawing horse slaughter in the United States. I checked recently with the staffs of Richardson and Redford to find out what they have done since then to promote the welfare of wild and abandoned horses. I got polite replies but no answers. In other words, nothing.
Meanwhile, wild horses continue to sicken and die of hunger and thirst while overgrazing and damaging the land. A 2013 news report by KOAT estimated between 60,000 and 75,000 feral horses just on the Navajo nation. When a roundup up was done in 2013, many of the horses were visibly sick and underfed.
I have found no information to indicate that any of that has changed. Coburn agrees: It hasn’t. 
            If you’d like to do a little something for horses, you can donate to a rescue. And if you have a refund on next year’s state income taxes you can contribute a portion of it to the state’s Horse Shelter Rescue Fund. The money goes through the livestock board to the licensed horse shelters. You check a box on the PIT D form. It’s one of 13 options for donating a portion of your tax refund. Last year this fund provided about $30,000 to the rescues -- helpful but paltry.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       4-17-17
Workers’ comp bill aims to reset the balance
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
The workers’ compensation system is full of temptations for people to behave badly. In response, many provisions of the law are attempts to create incentives so that people will behave constructively.
That is the simplest possible summary of the amendment passed (and signed, not vetoed) this year. The bill, SB 155, was sponsored by Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, and was endorsed by the Workers Compensation Advisory Council.
The amendment moves the system back a few steps toward a principle previously established in our state’s law: It is best for everybody when injured workers return to work.
Under this amendment, if you are an employee temporarily disabled by a work-related injury, and your employer offers you a job that accommodates your temporary disability, you have to take the job or you won’t get disability (called temporary total) benefits. If you are working under these conditions and you get fired for good cause, your disability benefits will not be restored.
The law recognizes that some employers play dirty tricks with bogus or unreasonable job offers, or rehire an injured worker and then make up excuses for firing, to get out of paying benefits. (The benefits are paid by the employer’s insurance company, but insurance premiums will increase.) So the amendment says if the employer and worker disagree about reasonableness, they can take the dispute to the workers’ comp court. Employers caught playing dirty tricks can be fined.
Return to work is critical to the workers’ comp system. It’s been proven over and over that injured workers who return to work, even if they don’t want to, generally do better in both the short and long term than workers who stay home collecting checks. Workers who stay home too long tend to become depressed, isolated, and subject to all kinds of social ills that their families and society end up paying for.
SB 155 was a response to two decisions of the New Mexico Court of Appeals.
In one case the worker was rehired during her disability period, with accommodations for her injury, and was fired for cause. In the other, the worker was offered a job by his former employer but turned it down because he wanted to retire. In both cases, the court said disability benefits had to be restored.
These two cases are among a series of Court of Appeals decisions that have been moving the workers’ comp system away from the incentives I mentioned earlier. Those incentives were built into the law in 1990, under a major reform that was a historic cooperative agreement between business and labor.
There’s a story behind the story, expressed in another bill this year, SB 122, which got nowhere. That bill, also sponsored by Candelaria, proposed the radical idea of creating an appellate division – an alternative Court of Appeals – inside the Workers’ Compensation Administration.
SB 122 was a cry of frustration from many of the participants in the workers’ comp system.
The Court of Appeals has not quite grasped the idea that workers’ comp is inherently different from tort liability law. On one hand, injured workers have rights like any other litigants. On the other hand, the purpose of workers’ comp is, in most cases, to provide benefits as a temporary bridge to returning injured workers to work. So employers are given financial incentives to provide jobs with accommodations, and workers are given financial incentives to take the jobs.
But a lawyer’s task is to get his client whatever the law entitles him to. An injured worker who hires a lawyer is more likely to be hoping for cash benefits than a chance to go back to work.
There is an inherent tension between the design of the system and the right to litigate. That’s why the 1990 reform also had incentives to reduce litigation, not to make litigation easier. But almost everyone has forgotten that part.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       4-3-17
Losing my head from a computer invasion
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
When the horrible thing appeared on my computer screen, I was stunned. First I froze. Then I forgot everything I know about computer safety.
I know enough not to have done what I did. I thought I was prepared for something like this. I have virus software on my computer and trusted professionals I can call.
The technical experts who helped me later told me the predators are getting more sophisticated. They can get past your virus software, and the traps are designed to make you lose your head.
“Don’t beat yourself up too much,” one of them said.
I am writing about this instead of my usual public policy topics, hoping some readers will benefit from my experience and will be better prepared than I was.
I put a search question into Google, clicked on what it showed me (something about senior citizen programs for what should have been my next column) and up popped this horrible thing.
In the background was an apparent pornography site. I saw the corners of photos of women in lewd postures and a few nasty words. In front, blocking most of this, was a white box saying the porn site had a virus and my computer had been locked by Microsoft for my protection. To save my computer I must call Microsoft at an 800 number in the box.
“Do not shut off your computer,” it warned me. The notice in the box looked, well, official.
If I had lost everything on that computer I would have been okay because it was all backed up. I would just lose a few days’ work. I forgot that.
I called the 800 number – the first thing you should never do. The woman who answered spoke clearly but with a foreign accent, and the connection was as clear as a bell. She assured me I was talking to Microsoft. She was very reassuring.
I was on the phone with her for almost an hour. I was even crazy enough to let her try to install a program that would give her access to my computer. Again, I know better. The gross offensiveness of the pornography in the background was making me crazy.
Fortunately, the program she sent did not install after several attempts. My trusted computer consultant told me later it was probably blocked by software he had installed.
Instead of fixing this virus, she started telling me about other security problems on my computer. I became more and more suspicious. At last she told me that to do everything that was needed, I would have to pay $400 for the five-year plan or $500 for the lifetime plan.
I came to my senses.
I asked her to wait, went into another room and used another telephone to call my trusted tech people. They said just get off the phone, shut down your computer and we can fix it.
So, a few reminders:
Back up your whole computer frequently and your new data even more frequently, on a separate hard drive or other offline device.
If you are not technically knowledgeable, find someone who is, either a friend or a professional, who can help you in a jam. If you don’t know anyone, you might check at your local senior center.
If something awful pops up on your screen, shut down your computer and disconnect from the Internet immediately. The most effective way is to hold down the on-off button.
If you had called the number provided expecting free technical advice and they ask you for money, hang up.
Never give out a credit card number, your Social Security number or other vital personal information. Never give access to your computer to anyone you don’t already know and trust.
Never call a phone number that has popped up on your screen. Never. It won’t be Microsoft.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES        3-20-17
Healthcare change asks hard questions about cost and services
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
“In America, we don’t leave people bleeding in the doorway of the emergency room.”  I wrote that line for a presentation I used to give, some 25 years ago, about medical care in workers’ compensation.
There had been a time when some American hospitals did exactly that. Even in emergencies, patients had to produce an insurance card before they would be treated. A federal law was enacted in 1986 prohibiting hospitals from turning away patients in emergencies.
The system has been been battling ever since over who pays. The hospital? The taxpayers? The patient with no money? The Affordable Care Act offers one solution by requiring everybody to be insured and providing subsidies.
The “individual mandate” is one thing many Americans detest about the ACA. So, among the features of the new proposed healthcare law it took Congressional Republicans only six years to draft, the individual mandate is to be repealed. Young healthy people who think they don’t need insurance won’t have to buy it.
But young healthy people can get sick or injured. What does the proposed law anticipate when a young healthy uninsured person shows up with broken bones from a motorcycle accident? Who will pay the bill? Or will we go back to letting him bleed? That has to be one of our questions.
We’re going to have to ask many such questions, especially questions important to New Mexico. Such as how financially struggling New Mexico is supposed to continue paying Medicaid costs if the federal match is cut in 2020.
One urgent question is how many more reductions New Mexico doctors will tolerate before they all leave.
            There aren’t enough doctors nationally because the federal government limits how many residents it will pay to train (see triplespacedagain.com, March 2014). Medicare sets different fee schedules for states based on a cost-of-living formula, with New Mexico at the lower end. So we are always competing with other states for health care professionals and coming up short.
A new buzzword we hear is “access to health care,” which is supposed to refer to the choice of insurance plans, but access to insurance is meaningless if there are not enough providers.
The ACA attempts to ensure that payment to providers will be adequate by capping insurance company profits, requiring that 80 percent of premiums be spent on medical costs. If a new law eliminates that rule, insurance companies will be free to become the next generation of payday lenders, charging whatever premiums they like and saving money by cutting payments to providers. As I have previously written, as long as insurance company profits are built in, the only way to reduce the cost of health care is to reduce the service provided.
The closest thing to a magical fix would be getting New Mexicans to adopt healthier habits, which might cut down our explosive rates of diabetes and other chronic conditions, but I won’t waste your time pretending that’s realistic.
Pontificating about personal responsibility won’t change the fate of New Mexico’s small towns, where access to health services is already tenuous. The simple stark reality is that contemporary healthcare is a complex and highly technical business that costs more than most people can afford, and we do not have national consensus on how to solve that problem. Proponents of the new bill say it will promote “competition,” but what specifically will competition achieve in the delivery of health care? It’s either a pipe dream or a reduction in services.
Mark Lautman, economic consultant to the state’s Job Council, has warned New Mexico is facing an “economic death spiral” if we don’t turn our economy around. If we lose access to healthcare throughout the state, we could be speeding up that death spiral, not just for individuals but for whole communities.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       3-6-17     
Some administrative savings work better than others
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
If I were planning to run for the Legislature, my list of priorities would look a little different from those you usually see. Instead of reciting the usual passionate platitudes about education and economic development, I would talk about saving taxpayer money while improving the performance of government agencies by means of methodical administrative reforms.
Don’t worry, I’m not running, but I have been repeatedly frustrated that I’ve never seen a single campaign promise along these lines. Every now and then when a candidate has knocked on my door, literature in hand, I’ve invited the candidate in and talked about this. It doesn’t do any good. Administrative reform is tedious and unglamorous, is poorly understood by the public, and most of the time it doesn’t produce any bragging rights.
It should especially be a focus of attention for governors and candidates for governor. Just now, with the state’s desperate need to save money, the governor is trying some things that may or may not produce results.
Gov. Susana Martinez announced a few weeks ago that she was considering consolidating departments, but the idea disappeared down a black hole pretty quickly. That is probably because of the pummeling her staff must have taken from irate constituents the minute this thought was expressed.
Superficially, consolidation of small agencies appears to be worth considering. The state has too many departments, and they are wildly disproportionate in size and scope. For example, the Economic Development Department has a budget of less than $10 million, fewer than 100 employees, and one office in Santa Fe plus a couple of special divisions such as the Spaceport Authority. By contrast, the Health Department has a few thousand employees, dozens of specialized services, offices and clinics in every part of the state, and a budget in the range of half a billion dollars.
But putting Economic Development and Tourism back together again, as was suggested, won’t save much money. Almost 30 years ago, one very small department was separated into two even smaller departments because the tourism industry people did not think they were getting enough respect.
            Now the governor has announced she is planning to save money by taking all human resources functions out of the agencies and consolidating them in the State Personnel Office.
The human resources office is where employees get help with their human problems and where managers get support for dealing with problem employees.
The administration might benefit from standardizing some procedures, but getting rid of departmental human resources offices will not add efficiency. It will most likely slow things down and waste taxpayer resources by making employees less productive. To offer one simple example, what’s it going to take under this new scheme for an employee with a sick child to get approved for a few days of family and medical leave?
Just as underfunding the judiciary (another issue in the current budget debate) may save short-term money but will likely lead to legal delays and complications and their associated costs, underfunding personnel offices will lead to costs that aren’t easy to measure.
            Administrative savings are worth looking for, but they take time and require attention to detail. A few thoughts:
            Look not at agencies but at functions. Find little bureaus tasked with jobs that may be obsolete or unnecessary, or two bureaus in two different agencies that do the same thing and perhaps could be combined.
Look at properties all over the state, whether owned or leased by the state, not necessarily to get rid of anything but to see whether sharing could produce savings. Agency field offices that are co-located might be able to share everything from restrooms to copy machines and may offer improved convenience for the public.
This kind of analysis won’t help solve a short-term budget crisis. In fact, it’s probably a bit late for the current administration. But it’s something I hope to see on the campaign priority lists of our next candidates for governor.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                  2-20-16
Watching the governor’s vetoes
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            When Bill Richardson started flirting with a plan to run for president, some of his actions as governor looked suspiciously as if he were using New Mexico to advance his political ambitions.
            It’s hard to avoid the same suspicion about Gov. Susana Martinez. She’s taken a number of actions over her two terms that have seemed to be more about piling up sound bites for somebody else’s policy checklist than what’s best for the state.
Now she’s officially a lame duck. It may be hard for her to run for any higher office, not because of any lack of competency or accomplishments but because of the infamous Christmas party incident of 2015. (If you don’t remember this, please Google “Susana Martinez pizza.”)
But she still could have political ambitions in a less obvious direction. We can watch to see how this plays out in the bills she chooses to sign or veto.
It’s widely understood that New Mexico’s tax system could use a major overhaul. In order to do that, policymakers must be able to engage in give-and-take, which means some taxes may go down and others may go up. Gov. Martinez’s inflexibility on raising any taxes has looked like she wants to preserve her anti-tax bragging rights, not like she wants to solve the problem.
In the midst of this year’s unprecedented fiscal crisis, the session would be a good time for the governor to let go of her absolute position against raising any taxes. There are several tax bills that would not only increase revenue but would also make the tax system fairer.
One proposal (SB 264) would tax internet sales, to which I can only say, it’s about time. At minimum, brick-and-mortar stores employ New Mexico workers. Most pay some New Mexico taxes, even if they are out-of-state owned. We do ourselves no favors by not taxing internet sales.
Similarly there is a proposal (HB 266) to tax “short-term rentals” such as airbnb, which now compete unequally with hotels that pay lodgers’ tax.
Both of these tax proposals help to level the playing field for New Mexico business.  There are technical problems with implementing any tax program, but on balance, these proposals seem to serve the constituencies we should be caring about. So if they make it through both houses, let’s watch to see what the governor does.
I’m even more interested in the hemp bill.
Hemp got a bad rap many decades ago because it’s a cousin of marijuana, but it’s also a plant of many industrial uses from rope to clothing to face cream, and it grows easily on marginal soil without a lot of water – an ideal plant for parts of New Mexico and one that could replace crops that consume more water.
There are several hemp related bills this year, notably SB 6. It would allow hemp cultivation only for research and development purposes, in conformance with recent changes in federal law. Martinez vetoed similar legislation in 2015 with a veto message that could charitably be called silly. (See my article, posted May 2015, on www.triplespacedagain.com.)
SB6 sailed through the Senate with a 37-2 vote and may have passed the House by the time you read this. There is no reasonable justification to veto this legislation. So if the governor does veto it, we may wonder for whose benefit she’s planning to update her resume.
I sometimes recall Bruce King with great nostalgia. Whether you agreed with Gov. King or not, you knew that his ambitions extended no further than the governor’s mansion, and that as soon as his term was up he would be going back to the ranch. You didn’t have to play guessing games about his motives. We’ll probably never see such a governor again.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES        2-6-17
In final decisions, we’re kinder to our dogs and cats
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
I came home from dinner one evening and found my dog lying on the kitchen floor. She couldn’t get up. After I helped her up, she couldn’t walk.
My dog was old. Her back legs had been weakening for months. She couldn’t see or hear much, was experiencing dementia, and was showing clear evidence of pain.
I had been preparing myself for the difficult decision I would have to make some day. Did I say difficult? Heart wrenching.
Our pets are so lucky. When they are too sick or too infirm and their lives are mostly suffering, we can arrange for them to die peacefully, painlessly and almost instantly, with the help of a compassionate veterinarian and some drugs. It’s been said this is the most loving thing we can do for our beloved pets.
So I’ll point out a truth you might have heard a hundred times. In this most crucial matter, we can be kinder to our dogs and cats than we are allowed to be to our own families. New Mexico law does not allow us to help each other to die in peace.
The issue is in the Legislature this year in House Bill 171, sponsored by Reps. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, and Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces. The bill permits a qualified healthcare provider to assist a person to obtain aid-in-dying medication as long as the person has capacity to make the decision himself or herself, has a terminal illness, has made the request voluntarily and is physically able to self-administer the medication. It provides civil and criminal immunity for the health care provider and other caregivers who may be involved.
There’s a long definition for the word “capacity” to clarify that it means the ability to understand the nature and consequences of the decision.
I have never understood why anybody thinks the law should force dying people to suffer.
Some opponents argue the religious case that only God can give and take away life, but that should not be forced on others who believe differently. Opponents also argue that the power to end a life can be abused by, for example, greedy family members anxious to get their hands on grandma’s money.
The other side of that coin is a whole range of abuses under our current system. Among other things, we have heard about dying patients stuck in hospitals, receiving excessive, unnecessary, and invasive tests or treatments that will probably not lengthen their lives and will make the quality of their last days significantly worse.
New Mexico’s current law, which prohibits physician aid in dying, was challenged a few years ago in a court case, which concluded last June when the state Supreme Court reaffirmed the status quo. As I read the Supreme Court ruling, the justices don’t want to make this decision and think it belongs in the legislature.
Medical aid in dying is now legal in Oregon, Washington, Vermont, California, Montana and, most recently, Colorado, which approved it by means of a voter initiative last year.
According to University of New Mexico law professor Rob Schwartz, who helped write this bill, the use of aid in dying has been studied in these states, especially Oregon, where it’s been legal the longest. It has universally been found to work as intended, that is, used only by small numbers of terminally ill individuals. And, said Schwartz, it’s been found that just knowing they have access to this medication has been a source of comfort to those individuals.
Most of us, I think, hope to live a full and healthy life to the last day and die peacefully in our own beds. But if it doesn’t work out that way, we ought to be able to choose to die as painlessly as our dogs. It’s as simple as that.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES        1-23-17
Making elections and election districts fairer would serve voters
 By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
We’re going to have legislation this year to propose an independent redistricting commission for New Mexico. It’s an issue worth serious consideration.
As of this writing, no bill has been introduced, but we are assured by a group called New Mexico Open Primaries  (nmopenprimaries.org) that a bill is in the works. This group has made redistricting its top legislative issue this year. 
Redistricting has to happen every 10 years, following the U.S. Census, so that legislative, congressional, and other districts represent equal numbers of citizens. Since populations move, district boundaries must be moved to reflect these changes.
Redistricting is done by the legislature in most states, including New Mexico, but there is a growing movement in support of independent commissions, with the intention of having districts drawn that serve the public interest rather than the convenience of incumbent legislators or the party in power.
Legislators, especially those in the majority party, have an almost irresistible temptation to draw district boundaries that make their own reelection as easy as possible. And the majority party has an incentive to weaken the minority party by packing minority voters into a few districts, so that those voters will not inconvenience the majority party legislators in other districts. As it’s often said, under this system, legislators choose their voters rather than the voters choosing the legislators.
That is the formula for the contentious situation we have today. The public would be much better served with districts that are more competitive.
As the spouse of an incumbent senator, I had a ringside seat to the redistricting that followed the 1990 census. It was nasty. There were two special legislative sessions; the second was called because the courts threw out the first state Senate redistricting plan. (See the Legislative Council Services redistricting history, online at nmlegis.gov.)
Most of the decision making took place in caucus meetings behind closed doors, including quiet deal making that the public never saw.
I observed firsthand a few of the unwritten rules of the redistricting process.
Wherever feasible, carve up new legislative districts so that no two incumbent legislators end up in the same district and thus are forced to run against each other.
If it is unavoidable because of population shifts to put two incumbents in the same district, make it two members of a minority party, so you are bumping off one minority member.
Use geography to the advantage of the majority party. In rural districts, that involves such matters as roads and mountains. Make it easier for some candidates to get around the district than others.
I am still amused by the memory of a map of one Albuquerque district that was more or less square, except for a mysterious skinny finger reaching southward. It made no sense unless you knew that the very end of that finger was the home of a potential candidate that Democrats wanted to run against the incumbent Republican. That map was not adopted.
If we could really get an appointed redistricting committee that would be truly independent, and would redraw districts on the basis of such identified issues as geographical compactness and communities of interest, without regard to partisan bias, that would be a major step forward toward reducing extremism in our elections and restoring solution oriented public policy.
There are two major challenges in creating an independent redistricting commission. One is establishing a formula for selecting the commissioners that ensures they are really independent and unbiased or, this being New Mexico, only minimally biased.
The second challenge is getting the Legislature to vote for such a system. Every incumbent member of the Legislature was elected by being the winner in the current system. So why would they vote against it?
A change like this is not likely to be enacted on its first try through the legislature. Still, it’s worth the effort.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2017 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES         1-9-17
Real ID is a tough standard for some
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
New Mexico is finally complying with the federal standard for Real ID.
Real ID is the new form of driver’s license (or ID card for non-drivers) that will be required beginning in 2020 to board a plane and for other federal purposes. Real ID confirms that you are genuinely you to the satisfaction of the federal government. When you next renew your license, or no later than October 2020, to get a Real ID license, you will have to present several documents to the Motor Vehicle Department.
New Mexico’s Legislature delayed several years before adopting this standard. After studying the requirements, I see why. Pulling together the necessary documents will probably be easy for most homeowners. It will be hard for some low-income people, especially those who don’t have a stable address.
The details are on the MVD website at www.mvd.newmexico.gov/real-id-information.aspx.
You’ll have to present three types of documents: one with your Social Security number, one that identifies you by age, and two that establish proof of residence.
The first document could be a W-2 from an employer or a 1099 that shows your Social Security number – from your bank, for example. But many 1099s, to protect your security, show only the last four digits. You need one that shows the complete number, such your annual report from the Social Security Administration itself.
What if you’re not in the conventional economy? What if you do not have a bank account? Estimates say about 10 percent of New Mexicans don’t. What if you have been working at odd jobs or for employers who paid cash and kept no records? It could be tough.
The second document could be a passport or birth certificate. If you were born in any state in the US, and you don’t have a birth certificate, you can get a replacement from the vital records department of the state where you were born.
In New Mexico the current cost is $10. It takes six to 12 weeks, says the website, so you should make the request a few months ahead. And you have to provide a copy of another government-issued document, such as a driver’s license, with a picture ID.
The third category requires documents that establish your residency. No problem if you own your home in your name. But what if your home is in the name of another family member? What if you are living with a friend? What if you’re renting and do not have a written rental agreement? You might have a problem.
Fortunately, unless your current license is about to expire, you have time to gather the documents before your next renewal.
But what if you had to find all these documents in a single day or lose a basic right of citizenship?
This is a situation many thousands of Americans faced recently on the day they tried to vote. The Real ID requirements look similar to the voter ID requirements passed in a number of states (not New Mexico), though some states are more demanding. Many observers believe those requirements were enacted deliberately to prevent poor and minority people from voting. According to accounts from voting rights advocates, voters who didn’t know they would be challenged at the polls were forced to try to assemble some of these documents at the last minute before they could vote.
Real ID is NOT required to vote in New Mexico. But will most likely be used for many purposes beyond the original intention, whittling away at our privacy in ways we can’t yet anticipate. New Mexico law has created an alternative “Driving Authorization Card” for those without the necessary documents, but it seems inevitable that card will label the bearer as a second-class citizen (or not a citizen, period). One more obstacle to make life a little harder for poor people.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.


© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                        12-26-16
Lessons to learn from our Johnson administration
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
In the early days of Gary Johnson’s governorship, I had occasion to be at the State Capitol talking with some of his new appointees.
“Oh,” one of them said to me, “so you work for the Department of Labor.” He looked pleased with himself.
“No,” I said. “I work for the Workers’ Compensation Administration.”
“Right,” he said, “Department of Labor.”
“No,” I said, but he didn’t believe me.
Several similar conversations happened with other appointees of the new administration.
A few weeks later, I saw taped to a wall in the Capitol an organization chart of state government, showing a dotted line between the Department of Labor and my agency. We had at one time been “administratively attached” to that department. But we had never been part of it.
The chart was several years out of date. This new gang of managers were relying on it as reference information to learn what they were now in charge of.
Johnson was then the new guy from the private sector who was going to run state government like a business. For most high-level positions, he avoided appointing anyone who had previous government experience. Even those who had spent their careers trying to reform government were, in his view, part of the problem.
You could say those people were Romneyed. That’s a new word I just made up.
During his first legislative session, Johnson declined the help of advisors, read all the bills himself and refused to sign any legislation he didn’t understand. In the budget, he famously line-item vetoed the funding for a critical one-of-a-kind forensic laboratory. Only after the budget was done and he found out the effects of that veto did he learn that he couldn’t undo it.
(Presidents do not have line-item veto power. They cannot selectively veto parts of a budget or any other bill.)
In those days I was championing the need for more training of lower-level employees in state government. Too many of my colleagues at the lower pay grades, I had come to believe, had received only minimal on-the-job training and did not understand the purpose or context of their work. I believed that lack of a broader view was a root cause of both inefficiency and the poor customer service so many New Mexicans complained of.
I talked about this with a legislator who was close to the administration. This legislator, a retired corporate executive, told me employees shouldn’t need training because they should have known how to do the job when they were hired. The nature of much of the work in government is very different from anything workers do in the private sector, but he didn’t want to hear about that.
We have a new national administration coming in that once again is going to run government like a business and, says the new President-elect, “drain the swamp,” although the question was raised in news reports this week as to whether that phrase is still operative.
We’re also hearing that, like Johnson, he relies on his own gut feeling rather than asking anybody. A number of his appointees come from the private sector; they will start off not knowing the structures of the organizations they’re supposed to run or the purposes those organizations are supposed to fulfill.
A recent post from Politico said:
“While Trump made his ‘drain the swamp’ pledge a major part of his campaign message in the final weeks of the presidential race, his transition team was, in its early days after the election, packed with lobbyists for the pharmaceutical, chemical, fossil fuel and tobacco industries.”
Like most citizens, I’d be pleased to see government made more efficient, more cost-effective, significantly less wasteful -- and, most important by far, more effective at meeting the appropriate needs of 21st-century America.
Among many concerns about this, I hope they are humble enough to make sure they are starting from a correct organization chart.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com

© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       12-12-16
Challenges to replacing Obamacare
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
Repeal and replace Obamacare. We’ve heard it a million times. It has been a rallying cry of Republicans in Congress ever since it was passed. 
            What is it about this law that makes it so hated?
            Probably not the provisions that say you can’t be denied coverage if you have a pre-existing medical condition and you can’t be kicked off your policy if you get sick. New Mexicans really need that protection. Almost 10 percent of New Mexico adults have diabetes and another 7 percent are pre-diabetic. Before Obamacare, under private insurance they would have had to undergo a waiting period before getting coverage for those conditions.
Probably not the provisions that say your lifetime benefit cannot be capped, so if you have a serious and expensive illness you can still be insured. After all, very sick people are the ones most in need of coverage.
Those provisions make the healthcare system more expensive. They help the people who consume more services than their premiums pay for.
The hated provisions are the individual mandate and employer mandate. The employer mandate requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide coverage to their employees. The individual mandate requires individuals not otherwise covered to buy their own coverage, which for some will be subsidized. We Americans don’t like mandates.
Letting healthy people choose not to buy insurance would be a bit like requiring only accident-prone drivers to buy auto insurance and then expecting the cost to be reasonable.
The insurance is expensive and continues to increase. It can be very costly for people who don’t qualify for subsidies. There are logical reasons why.
Healthcare itself is becoming more expensive, in part because people use more of it. If you are paying for it anyway through insurance, you tend to want to get your money’s worth by receiving some service.
As the science and technology of medical care have expanded, patients have come to expect longer lives and better outcomes. Not many years ago, cancer was a death sentence; options were limited. Now cancer cures are common, but they are expensive. Instead of limping along with your gimpy leg you can get a knee or hip replacement. You can get a bypass instead of dying of a heart attack.
We’re using many more pharmaceuticals, including drugs to counter the side effects of other drugs.
The New Mexico Retiree Health Care Authority reported recently that 75 percent of its members over age 65 took five or more prescription drugs last year. Congress has repeatedly refused to pass any legislation to control the cost of prescription medications. The pharmaceutical industry spends more on lobbying Congress than any other industry -- $240 million in 2015, according to opensecrets.org. A friend of mine told me recently her new medicine costs $95,000 a year.
Obamacare has very high administrative costs, which include both overhead and profit of the numerous private for-profit health plans. A portion of your insurance premium is paying dividends to stockholders.
By contrast, Medicare, administered by government, is extremely efficient, with administrative costs only about 2 percent.
There really are only two ways to make health insurance less expensive:  cut the administrative cost or reduce services. Uh-oh.
Theoretically, we consumers provide the incentive to companies to improve efficiency by choosing the health plan that costs the least while promising all the services we want. The problem is, as with any insurance, when you pay in advance, you don’t really know what you’re going to get when you need unexpected services.
The cost of pharmaceuticals is politically untouchable. Any more reduction in payment to doctors will worsen the severe shortage of doctors, especially here in New Mexico. Our small community hospitals are financially strained.
We have been waiting for six years to see the replacement part of the “repeal and replace” plan. We’re still waiting.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES         11/28/16
 Do we believe in free and fair elections?
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
New Mexico dodged a bullet in the recent election. We elected a Secretary of State who encourages voting instead of a candidate whose publicly stated goal is to suppress it.
Congratulations to us!
At a candidate debate in October, Republican nominee Nora Espinoza talked about only one issue: requiring voter ID. Her opponent, Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver, won by almost 100,000 votes.
Voter ID has been shown to be a code word for voter suppression – purposeful organized techniques to prevent legally qualified Americans from voting.
Some forms of voter suppression are now legal in America. Both legal and illegal forms of voter suppression were employed this year in several states. Pundits and scholars will argue whether voter suppression caused the election results or merely contributed, but there’s little doubt that many votes were never cast or never counted – as to how many, the pundits will argue about the numbers also.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act recognized that voting practices in some states actively discriminated against ethnic minorities and other target groups. The law required that voting procedures be conducted so as not to discriminate against those groups. In states with records of discriminatory practices, federal oversight was imposed.
A few years ago, over the objection of civil rights groups, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the oversight was no longer required. Several states with Republican legislative majorities have enacted laws creating obstacles to voting for targeted groups of citizens – 14 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. They were listed as Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.
In North Carolina, courts determined the state’s new law was so overtly discriminatory that it was overturned, but other states’ laws are still standing.
That is reprehensible but legal. What may not have been legal were such practices as closing polling places in minority neighborhoods, “purges” that removed registered voters’ names from the rolls based on phony criteria, and poll workers who demanded forms of identification that their own state law did not require.
This is clearly one-sided. In every case, these actions have been done by Republicans to limit ballot access to voters who are likely to vote Democrat.
But, with a few exceptions, it didn’t happen in New Mexico.
When I wrote in a recent column that you can’t rig a national election, I made a mistake. It was the same mistake journalists were making all over the country. Journalists as well as politicians took Donald Trump’s bait and rushed to defend our system against what we foresaw would be a post-election attack by him after losing. But we failed to raise the alarm about the purges and other activities going on quietly in state after state.
We’ve had some voter suppression attempts in New Mexico, including a flier mailed to voters this October threatening that “your neighbors will know” if you vote Democratic. It made national news.
In 2012, a video was made public, showing New Mexico Republican poll challengers being trained to give false or misleading information to voters about what ID was required.
Secretary Clinton won the popular vote and only lost the election because of the way votes are counted for the Electoral College. We don’t know whether the votes never cast or never counted would have made the difference.
We are now living in a country in which the majority does not rule, and some people seem to like it that way. So I will ask you, readers, is that what you want? Is that the kind of country you want to live in? If you believe in the traditional values of your party but you don’t support large-scale voter suppression as a value of your party, maybe you should send a letter to your party leadership.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      11/14/16             
It’s the health insurance season, and help is available
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
The national enrollment period for health insurance through the exchanges is taking place now, with a Jan. 31 deadline, and if you are confused I don’t blame you. But it may not be all that intimidating. Some practical information:
An exchange is where you go to get health insurance if you don’t have coverage through Medicare, Medicaid, or another plan such as an employer’s group plan. In New Mexico, the exchange is called “bewellnm.com.”
You can go to the website and click on a link to find help online, by phone or in person in your part of the state. Scroll down to the blue-green box that says “get started today” and click on “I need help with my application.” From there you can click on “Find a broker” or “Find a counselor.” Enter your zip code or your county and you will see a list of the people in your area.
Or skip the computer and phone 1-855-996-6449.
Either an insurance broker or an enrollment counselor has the knowledge to help you through the enrollment process. They are located throughout New Mexico.
The recommendations here are from a training program given by the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance and BeWellNM.)
If you already have coverage through the exchange (except for Presbyterian), you can do nothing and let it roll over for another year, but it’s recommended that you review your plan to see whether your needs or the plan’s provisions have changed.
or individual coverage, there are four options through the exchange: Blue Cross Blue Shield, Molina, Christus, or New Mexico Health Connections, which is a relatively new in-state nonprofit health insurer.
Each of these four offers a few plans. The major differences: Some plans will cost you less in premium, but you might have to pay more in deductibles and co-pays. If you are in good health and have few medical needs, the lowest premium might be your best option.
If you change plans, you might lose access to a particular doctor. If that is important to you, you can check before changing.
Presbyterian has dropped out of the exchange this year. If you already have coverage with Presbyterian through the exchange, and you don’t switch, you will be enrolled in another plan, but you can change later.
If you have Presbyterian coverage that isn’t through the exchange, this does not affect you.
Your cost could be going up, but so could your subsidy. A calculator on the website can tell you how much your subsidy might be.
When you are covered through the exchange, there is no lifetime maximum benefit. If you develop a serious illness that turns out to be costly, your access to benefits will never run out. Outside the exchange, it is possible for a plan to have a lifetime limit.
If, based on your income, you are eligible for Medicaid, the website will figure that out. You’ll be advised to get help enrolling in Medicaid. For Medicaid information, one place to check would be the nearest office of the Income Support Division of the state Human Services Department.
There is a special exchange program for Native Americans. They may continue to use the Indian Health Service and also get benefits through the exchange for services not available through IHS.
The election won’t affect the system in 2017, Insurance Superintendent John Franchini assures me.
The President-elect and both houses of Congress will be Republican, and have said they want to repeal the Affordable Care Act. However, even if they do, Franchini said approvals already in place will keep the system stable through 2017 and probably beyond.
No doubt it’s a clumsy system, but using the exchanges is no more difficult than selecting a Medicare supplement or private insurance. Whenever Congress gets around to it, the system will benefit from an overhaul, not a repeal.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES         10-31-16
Getting real about elections
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
You can’t rig a presidential election.
Of all the damage in this presidential election, perhaps the worst is Donald Trump’s allegation that the election is rigged.
Some things will probably go wrong. Bad things can happen, but they will most likely be localized and not systemic. Our unwritten national agreement is that we try to prevent them, but when they happen, we accept the results. The “peaceful transition of power” is not just a slogan. It’s what preserves our republic.
Our elections are so decentralized that it’s logistically unimaginable that anyone could pull off a successful national conspiracy. There are too many different processes, conducted in too many separate places. Any attempted conspiracy would be exposed long before it could be achieved. I don’t think I’m being naïve in saying that.
Our elections are run by thousands of county clerks, with officials and observers from both major parties. The machines are from different manufacturers and built without the capability to be networked, so they can’t be hacked. Most states, including New Mexico, use paper ballots in addition to machine counting.
New Mexico has 33 county clerks, elected in the last election cycle before anybody knew who the 2016 candidates would be. There are about 1,500 precincts in the state, each overseen by local election officials from both major parties.
New Mexico’s election safeguards were outlined for me by Daniel Ivey-Soto, a state senator, executive director of the New Mexico association of county clerks and an expert on election law and procedure. He described the multiple ways the ballot counts are verified, preserved and audited, with every step watched by bipartisan officials and open to the public. Once you’ve cast your ballot and it’s in official hands, it is as safe as safeguards can make it.
But, sure, things can go wrong, mostly before you cast that ballot.
New Mexico had unacceptably long lines in Sandoval County in both 2012 and 2014. When the lines are long, some voters can’t wait and leave without voting.
Long lines can be accidental, such as a technical problem with a machine, or deliberate. We’ve seen deliberately created long lines recently, according to federal court decisions, in a few states that had a pattern of not enough machines or poll workers in minority districts. Analysts say these disparities were made possible by a recent Supreme Court decision that weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Weather is a factor. The snowstorm that hit New Mexico’s northern counties on Election Day 1986 affected my life. I had a good job prospect if a particular candidate won. He didn’t. We didn’t have the option of voting early in those days.
Our Constitution doesn’t provide for do-overs due to weather or any other contingency. Recounts are possible, but do-overs are not. When the election is done, it’s done. In the 2000 election, when recounts occurred in Florida, one issue was the confusing shape of the ballot in certain counties. Many voters complained that they unintentionally voted for the wrong candidate. But it was done.
I know of one exception. In New York City, on September 11, 2001, a mayoral primary was scheduled. The terrorist attacks were a catastrophic interruption. It was a local election, and local officials rescheduled that primary.
This election season has aroused an alarming degree of divisiveness and suspicion in voters. As this tension feeds upon itself, we forget that our nation was built on compromise. It’s up to all of us to be Americans first and partisan second.  If you’re worried about election procedures, go to your local polling place and observe. It’s a free election and that’s your right.
I said observe, not heckle or interfere. Make yourself part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES        10-17-16
Overcoming the isolation of the elderly
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
A woman I know lives alone and, at age 60-plus, has a chronic health condition. Often she doesn’t feel well. She thinks she would not be good company, so she doesn’t reliably return the calls of people who are trying to be her friends. She’s isolated and depressed and has difficulty asking for help when she needs it. Eventually those friends may stop calling. Does that sound like anyone you know?
Social isolation of the elderly and those with disabilities is an epidemic of our time. It’s receiving increasing recognition in public policy and public health circles. Isolation makes many frail elderly individuals miserable. And they develop health problems that add costs to our health systems.
Most people who have homes want to stay in them as they age; the studies confirm what common sense would tell you. But they (make that “we”) are all at risk for the frailties of old age, including losing the ability to drive and other skills basic to living independently.
About 10 percent of New Mexicans are 70 or older, and the number is growing. About 30 percent of those 65 and older live in households with $20,000 or less in annual income. About the same percentage, according to statistics from the state Department of Health, do not engage in any recreational physical activity.
At the recent state Conference on Aging, several social service professionals talked about elders they know of, using terms like “dying of loneliness,” living alone without nearby family or community support.
One new approach that’s getting attention is called “villages.” It’s a slightly misleading term because it suggests a physical grouping. This concept doesn’t require that people live next door to each other, as long as they’re in the same neighborhood. It’s a mutual assistance organization.
The village concept was the topic of a talk by Aging and Long Term Services Secretary Myles Copeland at the conference.
A “village” is a self-governing self-help organization created by a group of older people for the purpose of enabling seniors and those with disabilities to stay in their homes. The village concept recognizes that those who are not independent in all respects have talents and abilities to contribute and that everyone can participate.
The form of the village is whatever the founders decide they want. If they decide to charge dues or hire employees, they can do so, and there are models available for them to follow. If they want to make their organization free and voluntary, they can do it that way. They can undertake programs like providing transportation, contracting with reliable handymen or other service providers, keeping neighbors connected and checked on, or whatever else they choose.  Unlike informal arrangements among friends, this approach can ensure that nobody is left out.
The concept is simple to understand. The implementation can be a huge undertaking, depending upon how ambitious the group tries to be. It’s as big as creating a business from scratch.
Villages can choose to join a national nonprofit called the Village to Village Network, which provides information and resources for new and prospective villages. The network’s website (www.vtvnetwork.org) lists several villages in New Mexico. Three are listed as “open,” meaning currently functioning, in Santa Fe, Corrales and Albuquerque. Listed as “in development” are villages in Las Vegas, Las Cruces, Santa Fe and Taos.
The 20th century created unprecedented levels of freedom and mobility. We have known all along that there’s been a price to pay for all that freedom, including the loss of support for elders left behind. Creating villages is one approach toward restoring the structure of community that most of us will need, now or in the future.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                           10-3-16
Laws should never be unamendable
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
Unamendable: a law that cannot be changed, no matter how problematic it has become. Think about that.
An “unamendable” provision of the New Mexico Constitution has finally been amended. This was the provision that required school board elections to be held at a separate time from all other elections. It has resulted in miserably low turnouts at school elections for decades.
The provision was written in a way that required impossible majorities to change it. So even though solid majorities have voted several times over the years to change this, it was not done until a few weeks ago, when the state Supreme Court found a legally adequate argument to acknowledge the will of the voters.
It will still take several steps, including new legislation, before the change can be implemented, so that school elections can be held together with municipal and other nonpartisan elections.
At the same time, however, the voters of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County have just temporarily dodged a bullet of unamendability: a proposed city ordinance to require all employers, with no exclusions, to provide sick leave.
Remember California Proposition 13 – perhaps the most famous voter initiative of our era? Passed in 1978, it severely limited increases in property taxes for existing property owners. Like other citizen initiatives, but unlike a law passed by the Legislature, Proposition 13 could only be changed by another voter initiative. It is still in effect and has caused many problems, among them, shifting the burden of higher taxes to new homeowners and new businesses.
We no longer live in the age of the New England town meeting, in which the citizens can vote on everything. Public policy issues are often complex. That’s why we have not only a legislature but a year-round nonpartisan legislative staff that can research issues and help legislators to understand what they’re doing.
In New Mexico, at the state level, a proposal can get on the ballot only if it first passes both houses of the Legislature. You may think that limits democracy. I think it has saved us from heaven only knows what.
But the city charter of Albuquerque allows voter initiatives. So issues can be placed on the ballot that the voters do not fully understand. And let’s be realistic; most voters will not inform themselves fully before election day.
The proposal on sick leave would have been on the general election ballot this November in Bernalillo County but was stopped by a court decision based on the length of the seven-page proposal. All seven pages will now be on the ballot at the municipal election next year.
I am in favor of sick leave, but not at the cost of driving small companies out of business. This proposed ordinance contains several inflexible technical requirements, including ones that would force employers to provide for the sick leave according to an inflexible formula, apparently written by the people who wrote the proposal.
And the last paragraph makes the ordinance unamendable, if it is approved by the voters next year. It says:
“This Chapter may be amended by the City Council without a vote of the people as regards the implementation or enforcement thereof, in order to achieve the purposes of this Chapter, but not in a manner that alters the effective date or lessens the substantive requirements of this Chapter or its scope of coverage.”
It will take another Supreme Court decision to figure out what that means. The employers of Albuquerque could possibly be stuck with this forever.
There has been talk around the Legislature about limiting the right of cities and other local government jurisdictions to enact separate ordinances relating to workplace or labor practices. After reading this proposed ordinance, I am very sympathetic to that position.
Nothing should be unamendable.
 Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                      9-19-16
 Help for elders might be a phone call away
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
          If you are elderly or have a disability, an extensive network of services may be available to you. Depending on where you live and what you need, you might have access to home–delivered meals, home repair, transportation, financial consulting, legal assistance, and numerous other services.
           Whatever you think you might need, it’s worth asking if there might be a service to help you.
          There are two places to ask: your local senior citizen center, and the state Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC), a bureau of the New Mexico Aging and Long–term Services Department (ALTSD).
          The resource center can be reached at 1-800-432-2080. Save this phone number. The email address is nm.adrc@state.nm.us. There is an online resource directory at www.nmresourcedirectory.org. 
          I discovered the resource center at the annual state Conference on Aging. Several agencies were represented, hoping to increase the public’s awareness of what they do. The resource center is a link to all of them.
          Services to the elderly in New Mexico are provided through a bureaucratic tangle of state and federal agencies and local nonprofits. Some programs for seniors are intertwined with programs for people with disabilities. Some involve other government programs, such as Medicaid and the Veterans Administration. Some are only for low-income clients; others have no income restrictions.
           If you need something, you should be able to ignore all that bureaucracy and get connected to a service that can help you.
            A few programs worth noting:
          For active seniors, the department’s website lists more than 200 senior citizen centers. A detailed list can be found at: www.nmaging.state.nm.us/senior-services.aspx.
          If you’re a senior who would like to help other seniors, you could volunteer for the senior companion program, providing companionship for a  homebound senior; or the ombudsman program to maintain supportive contact with elders in long-term care facilities.
            Adult Protective Services is the division that responds to reports of abuse against adults, whether by family members or others. It is for people over age 18 who cannot protect themselves, not just elders. The phone number is 1-866-654-3219, with 24-hour access.
          The Governor’s Commission on Disability (a separate department) serves individuals with any kind of disability. It can help with assistive technology and has low-interest loans to purchase adaptive devices or make home modifications.            Another loan program helps individuals purchase equipment to expand or create a home-based business. Call the Technology Assistance Program: 505-841-6646 in Albuquerque; www.tap.gcd.state.nm.us.
          The Brain Injury Advisory Council, part of the Commission on Disability, provides services for individuals with brain injuries and distributes bicycle helmets to children: 1-877-696-1470.
          The Securities Division of the Regulation and Licensing Department has an investor education program for community groups, to help elders avoid being victimized by fraud: 1-800-704-5533 or redflagsnm.com. 
          Legal Resources for the Elderly is a joint program of the Aging and Long-Term Services Department and the State Bar. Anyone age 55-plus may consult with an attorney on the phone free of charge. Referrals can sometimes be given to other volunteer attorneys who help at no cost with estate planning and other matters: 1-800-876-6657.
            The Alzheimer’s Association helps families affected by Alzheimer’s and dementia.  Reach the 24-hour statewide helpline at 1-800-272-3900 or www.alz.org/newmexico.
          Despite all this, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that resources are limited and funding doesn’t always get where it’s needed.
            Attached to the aging department is an 11-member volunteer Policy Advisory Committee. At the recent conference, the committee held a listening session, to hear concerns from elders and service providers. The most common concerns were about elders living alone in rural areas. Some of these elders are virtually abandoned, with no family, no transportation and no assistance.
          These problems are tough to solve institutionally. If you know someone in such circumstances, you might help by being a concerned neighbor and making a phone call to one of the services listed above.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com

© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES            9-5-16
Payday lending costs everybody
 By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
I am really tired of paying off loan sharks for other people’s debts. Aren’t you?
You’re wondering what I’m talking about? The social cost of predatory lending.
We’ve all heard about this, the payday loans and the car title loans, the astronomical interest rates and the low-income people who take these loans, probably not understanding they’re getting themselves into a tangle of ever-increasing borrowing and perhaps believing they have no choice.
We haven’t heard enough about how much this is costing us as taxpayers, as donors to charities and as residents of a state where poverty depresses the standard of living for all of us.
When a low income person spends $500 to pay off $100 loans, year after year, that affects you and me. When my taxes support that person’s access to Medicaid, I’m paying off the loan shark. When I write a check to Roadrunner Food Bank or put cans of tuna fish in a donation box, I’m paying off the loan shark again.
When that borrower’s children are living on hot dogs and corn chips, their poor health is a future cost I will pay for. When they keep moving from place to place because mom can’t afford the rent, that’s my investment in their education going down the drain because they’re too unstable to pay attention in school. When mom loses her job because she can’t afford a car to get to work, she switches from a taxpayer to a welfare recipient.
So if you don’t have any compassion for the borrowers, if you think they’re irresponsible and careless, from your own self-interested point of view their behavior doesn’t matter. You’d be better off if they had a few bucks in their pockets. Probably some of them would spend it on booze and cigarettes, but some would buy their children an apple, or a salad, or a book, or a home. 
On its website, loansharkattack.com, the New Mexico Fair Lending Coalition summarizes data from the state Regulation and Licensing Department, showing that in 2013, more than 164,000 loan customers paid an average interest rate of 340 percent. Former state Sen. Steve Fischmann, a cofounder and activist with the coalition, says the numbers are probably higher because the reporting is unreliable.
There is no excuse, considering the level of poverty in the state and what this is costing all of us, to allow this to continue. Oh, wait, sorry, I forgot. As I often repeat, New Mexico is the state that couldn’t pass fireworks legislation in a drought. The lending industry is generous with campaign contributions. Legislation to cap interest rates has been tried. If it is tried again, Fischmann thinks it couldn’t pass or would be vetoed.
The coalition is trying other approaches, Fischmann said. Top priority is to create a marketplace for affordable loans for low-income borrowers. For example, many borrowers are employed. The coalition is working with some employers of low-wage workers to link them to lenders who charge interest rates around 20 percent and arrange repayment through a payroll deduction. 
A memorial was passed this year through the state senate asking the State Personnel Office to evaluate this service for state employees. Fischmann said as many as 20 percent of New Mexico state employees use payday loans. (Parenthetically, now is not a time to argue for higher wages for government workers.)
This approach through employers, obviously, is no answer for those who don’t have a job.
The industry’s favorite argument is that it makes money available to people who would otherwise have no access to it and that those high interest rates are necessary so the lenders can stay in business.
I don’t believe that. It’s a moral outrage that New Mexico allows its weakest citizens to be victimized in this way. And beyond that, it’s a bad use of my money and my generosity. And yours.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                      8-22-16
Rooftop solar power challenges utility rate making
 By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
The story went like this: You could install solar panels that would generate electricity on your roof. When the sun was shining, you’d generate enough to power your house and then your meter would run backwards, and the power company would send you a check instead of a bill. How cool was that!
That works, and it’s called “distributed generation,” but the real world has complications. One complication is that the power generated while the sun shines is not stored. The utility still has to provide another source of power to turn the lights on at night.
Beyond that – no surprise – utilities don’t like having to buy back power. That’s not unreasonable. Utilities have a mandate to provide reliable power all the time and must build and maintain costly infrastructure to meet that requirement.
The more solar capacity you have on your house, the fewer hours you will buy. Therefore, the cost to deliver power to your house is more expensive per hour than for the typical household. To compensate, the utility does not pay you nearly as much for the power you sell as you pay for the hours you buy.
The price of power today to New Mexico homeowners is about 12 to13 cents per kilowatt hour, varying with each utility. What the utilities pay back also varies.
Utilities have tried to squeeze a little more profit out of solar-powered homes by adding surcharges. A national organization called Vote Solar challenges these surcharges on behalf of consumers. Recently in New Mexico, Vote Solar has intervened in several rate cases before the Public Regulation Commission. It’s represented here by former PRC Commissioner Jason Marks.
PNM tried to get distributed generation surcharges in 2011 and again in 2015. Each time, it gave up that request as part of a global rate case settlement. The 2015 proposal was $6 per kilowatt (not kilowatt hour), roughly $18 per month for a typical distributed generation customer. PNM’s original 2015 case was dismissed in spring 2015 for technical issues. When the case was refiled in the fall, PNM agreed with Vote Solar not to include a surcharge for distributed generation.
Southwest Public Service, which serves parts of southeastern New Mexico, had a surcharge of 1.8 cents per kwh and raised it in 2012 to 3.7 cents. They attempted to increase it again in 2016 to 4.8 cents but, according to Marks, Vote Solar intervened. Marks said Vote Solar prevented the increase and negotiated a change so the surcharge applies to fewer kilowatt hours.
El Paso Electric serves the Las Cruces area. Marks said El Paso Electric tried a different approach. EPE tried to segregate distributed generation customers into a separate rate class, which might enable EPE to charge more in the future. That was defeated after a Vote Solar intervention, based on PRC rules that prohibit discrimination between classes of customers.
Even though utilities’ advertising encourages efficient energy use, they make less money when consumers buy less power. This reality does not fit the model under which these “regulated monopolies” (or the cooperatives that serve the rural areas of New Mexico) were developed.
Rooftop solar make sense for a number of reasons. Central New Mexico experienced a massive power outage a few weeks ago. Homeowners who have rooftop solar could look forward to their refrigerators and home computers starting back up in the morning, no matter how long the outage might last.
The economics of distributed generation will continue to improve as the cost of installation goes down. In addition, decentralized power generation could be a significant benefit to national security, as the centralized grid system is a potential target for terrorist attack. The freedom to expand rooftop solar is something we should be welcoming, and let’s hope the utility companies figure out a way to make it work for them, too.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     8-8-16
 Court decision makes small farmers more like small businesses
     By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
          Is a small family farm a business, a hobby, a living museum or something else? 
          It's increasingly clear we can't have it both ways – business and quaint tradition. The recent state Supreme Court decision on workers' comp coverage for farms and ranches puts that in sharp relief.
          The court decided the special exemption for farmers and ranchers is unconstitutional. Agricultural employers are now required to buy insurance if they have three or more employees, just like other small businesses. (Construction is an exception, requiring all employers to have coverage.)
          One insurance professional commented to me that he is impatient at the way New Mexico has coddled family farmers. They are running businesses, he said. They should develop budgets like other businesses, make businesslike decisions about who is an employee and treat employees as the laws require.
          That’s what this court decision will force them to do, but we also may be losing a  valuable part of our traditional culture. The change will mean more formality and bureaucracy. Probably some family farms will be scared to hire anybody, even when they need help, and some farmers will decide farming is not worth the trouble. 
            The insurance premium will be high, because physical labor is inherently risky.  According to one estimate, the cost to insure a ranch hand is $12 to $18 per $100 of payroll.
            Most small farms and ranches will have to buy their initial coverage in the Assigned Risk Pool, where the premium is automatically higher than in regular commercial insurance. The pool is where businesses are forced to buy coverage if they are particularly high risk or have no risk history. The extra cost is an obstacle to success for any small business.
            The Workers' Compensation Administration has published a fact sheet which you can find at www.workerscomp.state.nm.us/pdf/faqs_agricultural.pdf. Most of the points are taken from the Supreme Court ruling or the statute.
            Since the ruling makes farmers more like other employers, we can speculate that the decisions about who needs to be covered may apply to all small businesses. I said "speculate," so don’t count on it, but if you run a very small business you might want to look at this fact sheet.
            The fact sheet says, for example, that neighbors who trade labor are volunteers and do not have to be covered as long as they don't pay each other. It also says unpaid family members do not have to be covered. Aha, but what does the word “pay “mean? “Pay” is not defined. In case you were wondering, “employee” is not defined, either.
            As I say with annoying frequency, in workers' comp there are many ways to count to three. Farmers will struggle with that, as other small businesses struggle. There are lots of uncertainties with no simple answers.
And there's more to workers' compensation than buying an insurance policy. You have to know what to do with the insurance.
The whole purpose of workers' comp is providing coverage when a worker gets injured. In addition to taking the worker to medical care (which most employers would do anyway), employers are supposed to know what to file, how to instruct the worker and other administrative matters.
When my job was to talk to small businesses about workers' comp, I used to ask them whether they knew where in the office their insurance policy was filed and whether they had ever opened the envelope to read the instructions. Many looked chagrined. I told them to go find it as soon as they left my seminar.
The mistakes employers make in the initial phase of a claim are a major reason too many workers' compensation claims result in litigation. The 1990 workers' compensation reform was supposed to minimize that, but the authors of the reform forgot to make the procedures simple enough for small businesses. Or small farmers.

Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                                   7-25-16
Focus legislation on one issue at a time
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
The U. S. Senate, as you probably know, left Washington for a lengthy summer recess without passing an appropriation for research on the Zika virus. Though most senators agreed on the funding, Democrats disagreed with provisions unrelated to this issue, which had been included in the bill by Republicans.
Among those provisions were restrictions on funding for birth control services from Planned Parenthood, weakened clean water laws governing pesticides and, as if the nation needs something else to motivate people to shoot each other, a provision that would have allowed the Confederate flag to be displayed at military cemeteries.
Let us not, for this moment, debate the Planned Parenthood issue, the pesticide issue or even the Confederate flag issue. Let's talk about process.
This process, sometimes called logrolling, is what happens when legislation is written so that in order to vote for one thing that a legislator is in favor of, the legislator has to vote for something he or she opposes.
In this case, according to the news reports, U. S. senators on both sides are now waiting for a few American babies to be born with tragic deformities so they can point fingers at each other. At least New Mexico, with its low humidity, is not a heavy mosquito state. 
I have written before about the "single subject" provision of our state constitution, which is shared by 41 other states (see triplespacedagain.com, October 2013).  This provision says simply that a law must be about one subject and the subject must be stated clearly in the title of the bill. Given that New Mexico legislators have not been above pulling nasty tricks on each other, the imagination runs wild when I think of what this provision has saved us from.
As I mentioned previously, the single subject rule was invented 2000 years ago in the Roman Senate.
I bring it up now because so many Americans, exasperated and fed up, are in a mood to demand serious reforms.
Forcing this restriction upon Congress would require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That would be fine with me but unrealistic, so I don't advocate it. However, our members are now here at home on their long recess. This may be a perfect time to exhort them to stop pulling these tricks and clean up their legislation, one bill at a time. 
If you agree with this, I invite you to put it on your wish list and share the thought with whichever member of Congress you see in your district.
From time to time we have movements to "throw the rascals out" or to enact term limits, to get rid of corruption. I don't believe either of these approaches would make much difference, because the problem is in the system, not the individuals.
Good people run for office, usually beginning at lower levels like the state legislature. They lose focus as they find themselves in a system that rewards them with fame and the illusion of power but forces them to play the game. The current game is party polarization,  trying to make the other side look bad rather than reaching compromises that will get anything done.    
If lawmakers think they can make more of a contribution by staying in office than by stepping aside for a newcomer, they are probably right, because seniority, experience and relationships all matter.
These days we are bursting at the seams with anger and frustration, and our politicians have been shocked into listening. So let’s ask them point blank to stop this particular kind of nonsense. For starters, let’s get a bill that funds research into a dangerous virus and does nothing else. And save the argument about Confederate flags for another day.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                                   7/11/16
Early voting may involve a long drive
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
          The map of New Mexico is a vivid reminder of what starkly different worlds we New Mexicans live in – one tight clump in the center of the state and enormous open spaces dotted with small towns.
          The map, in this case, was provided by the Secretary of State’s office, showing the polling sites for early voting and Election Day voting for the recent primary.  It is online at polling.sks.com. Save this link for the general election.
          We can’t tell from the data how much early voting influenced our recent primary election.  What we can tell is how much the early voting option was utilized.
          The numbers indicate that early voting was much more heavily used in Bernalillo County and other metro areas than in our sparsely populated rural counties. 
          The early voting period this year was May 21 to June 4.  By law, each county was required to make early voting available at the county clerk’s office.  Counties could also set up additional early voting sites.
          Several rural counties used only the clerk’s office.  Others had an additional location at a fire station or other public building. Most tribes had a site location at a tribal community center, but not all.  Voters from little Picuris Pueblo would have to go to the Peñasco community center.
            McKinley County had three sites; San Juan had five. Most eastern counties had only one site each.  Lea County had five; Chaves (which includes Roswell) had three; Eddy had two.  So for many New Mexico voters, early voting involved a long drive.
            For this analysis, I’m not looking at who won but at the pattern of who voted and when.   (I did not analyze absentee voting, which shows far lower numbers.)
            The total number of Democratic voters who voted in the presidential primary was 216,075.  Of those, 78,817 voted early; 13,734 absentee; and 123,524 voted on Election Day.
            That total is more than twice the number of voters in the Republican presidential primary – not surprising, since that race was decided in early May, before our early voting started.  A total of 104,627 votes were cast: 36,091 voted early; 8732 absentee; and 59,804 on Election Day.
            The urban-rural difference was easiest to see by looking at the three Congressional districts.   In compact urban District 1, Democratic incumbent Michelle Lujan Grisham received almost the same number of votes from early voters as on Election Day – 31,371 early; 32,380 Election Day.  Ben Ray Lujan, whose District 3 is more-or-less the northern half of the state, had almost twice as many votes on Election Day as early;  25,139 early; 48,000 Election Day.  Republican Steve Pearce in District 2 had more than twice as many votes on Election Day:  10,860 early; 23,417 Election Day.
            Legislature races let us see the voting patterns at a more local level.  In most cases, the general rule held that in urban districts, the early voting and Election Day numbers were almost equal, and in rural districts, about twice as many voters turned up on Election Day as in the three prior weeks.
            There were wide variations in that pattern, but it’s clear that distance matters and Election Day – with many more polling locations available – is still the popular choice for a majority of New Mexico voters.  (The complete results are on the website at sos.state.nm.us.) 
            More than half of the state House races and almost half of the Senate races will be uncontested in November.  It remains to be seen whether this year’s weird presidential race will draw record numbers of voters or discourage many from turning out.  However, it’s clear that voting on Election Day is still a community activity, a chance for neighbors to say hello and visit even if they grumble about standing on line.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES       6-27-16
The cultural challenge of gender identity
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            The kid was obviously talented. He was athletic and graceful. He could sing, dance, memorize lines, and occasionally did a cartwheel across the room for fun.
            We were in an amateur show produced by a local community organization. Most cast members were adults. The kid held his own, did fine, brimmed with confidence. 
            This kid is going to be a big success in life, I thought.
            A few weeks into rehearsals, his grandmother pulled me aside. He is biologically female, she told me. It was a lot to absorb, to say the least. The grandmother was not confiding in me because of any special relationship. She told me, I thought, because others already knew. It was not a secret.
            This child knew who he was from age three, the grandma explained. He had a girl’s name and was treated like a girl. For his third birthday his family bought him a tutu. He refused to wear it and told them he was a boy, and that was that. 
            This was the most accepting family a child could have hoped for. “We told him, ‘We didn’t know, we didn’t understand,’” the grandma told me. They changed what had to be changed, including his name, and never tried to change his mind.  
            He was not the first transgender person I’ve met. I have been acquainted with a few others. The revelation has always been a shock. I’ve had to compose myself, avoid asking inappropriate questions, and remind myself that this person has probably experienced a lifetime of obstacles and rejection and doesn’t need any more tactlessness from me.
            It’s a great relief that New Mexico has not turned the transgender bathroom issue into a political football as a few other states have. Good for us, New Mexico.
            The schools in Santa Fe and Albuquerque have adopted tolerant policies regarding use of restrooms and locker rooms by transgender students, allowing them to use whichever restroom fits with their chosen gender identity (though Albuquerque had a hubbub before the policy was adopted). Most importantly, these school districts have taken a stand against bullying and discrimination against transgender students.
            The issue can be handled without a formal policy, as the Rio Rancho schools are doing, simply working with students case by case. This may be a useful model for smaller school districts that may encounter transgender students only rarely.
            Gender identity issues don’t care about demographics. Looking at the stories of the Orlando shooting victims, I was reminded that gay people come from every kind of background and every ethnic group. The same is true for transgender. Wherever you live, the next gay or transgender child could show up in your neighborhood or your family. 
          Most kids with gender identity issues are nowhere near as fortunate as the boy I described. A national study entitled “Injustice at Every Turn” found that most gender-nonconforming individuals have suffered lifelong discrimination and harassment, beginning in school. Most of them live in poverty because no one will employ them, and an astonishing 41 percent have attempted suicide.
            In Albuquerque, a shelter called Casa Q (www.casaq.org) provides living options for teens with gender identity issues, some of whom were homeless because they were kicked out by their parents.
            The very idea that a person can be not completely male or female but somewhere in between is troubling to many of us. It takes getting used to, and some folks will never accept it. Transgender people have probably been among us forever but hid their identity just as gay people did. Now they are out of the closet.
            New Mexico has prided itself on being the land where many cultures live together in peace and harmony. Let’s hope we can add this other set of cultural variations with a minimum of trauma.   
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

 © 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                                   6-13-16
Save pollinators by avoiding pesticides for home use
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            One day last summer, I found a dead bee in my driveway. A few weeks later, I found another one. Since this had not happened before, I wondered whether I was inadvertently responsible.
            It might have been the fertilizer-pesticide combination product I was using on my rosebushes. It contained imidacloprid, one of a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids or neonics. Imidacloprid is said to be the most widely used pesticide in the world. I’m not using it any more.
            Nationwide, bees are dying in record numbers from a condition called Colony Collapse Disorder, a term that suggests nobody knows what’s causing it. Environmental groups such as EnvironmentNewMexico.org claim neonics are a major culprit. They say these chemicals are 6,000 times more toxic to bees than DDT. According to a study from Pennsylvania State University, neonicotinoids used at current levels don’t kill bees suddenly from a single exposure. The danger is repeated exposure over a long period of time. 
          The neonicotinoid family includes acetamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, nitenpyram, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam. The European Union has banned some of them.  In September 2015, a federal court banned another neonic called sulfoxaflor, finding that the Environmental Protection Agency had relied on “flawed and limited” data in approving it.
          Bees are necessary to human food production, so this is an environmental threat we can’t afford to ignore.
            New Mexico is home to numerous backyard beekeepers – there isn’t an official number – and six commercial apiaries, according the state Department of Agriculture, which licenses the commercial operations. 
            The state’s beekeepers’ association (nmbeekeepers.org) has more than 1,000 people on its mailing list. The Albuquerque association, ABQ Beeks, has more than 1,200 members and holds monthly meetings where 60 to 100 people typically show up. There are also beekeepers’ groups in northern and southern New Mexico, and a plethora of conferences, websites and newsletters.
            The measured economic value of commercial beekeeping, according to the agriculture department, was $908,000 from sales of honey in 2014 and about $350,000 in 2015-2016 for shipping bees to California for pollination. There are no figures for sales of honey at farmers’ markets from backyard operations. The commercial value of pollinating crops in New Mexico is recognized but not measured. Bee pollination is essential, the department says, to apples, pumpkins and melons.
            According to spokesperson Katie Goetz, the department advocates neither for nor against pesticide use but does monitor and enforce existing laws. “Our job in the realm of pesticides is to ensure that if/when a pesticide product is used, it’s used in accordance with the law,” she said.
            The agency implements the Driftwatch program, which allows beekeepers to register their locations as sensitive areas on a map, so pesticide applicators can avoid them. New Mexico State University is doing research on plants that support pollinators at its center in Los Lunas.
            The 2016 legislature enacted Senate Memorial 103, which, among other provisions, encourages state agencies to select bee-friendly plants in their landscaping. The memorial forgot to mention – but I hope landscapers realize – that those plants should not be treated with products that kill the bees.
            The Albuquerque group is asking the city to adopt a Bee City designation, which would involve developing an integrated health-conscious pest management program.
            Growing flowers that attract bees while inadvertently loading the flowers with poisonous pesticides is a little like using tainted meat to poison the neighbor’s dog. Now that you know, you probably won’t want to do it. 
            You can do something for bees by planting a few of the flowers and shrubs that feed them and avoiding the pesticides that kill them; nmbeekeepers.org has links to helpful information, including lists of plants. You might start by reading the labels on the fertilizer and pesticide products you own and getting rid of some of them.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

Turning the presidential campaign into a pie-throwing contest
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            Gary Johnson is saying something worth listening to. It’s about the conduct of the presidential election.
            New Mexico’s former governor is running for president again as the candidate of the Libertarian Party. He probably will be the only third-party candidate on the ballot in all 50 states. I am not a fan of Johnson or his political philosophy, but he’s absolutely right about the process.
            He tried to run as a Republican but was not given a chance to appear on Republican debate stages because he was not high enough in the polls. As he has said, the only way to get higher in the polls is to get enough exposure on TV. Debates are one critically important way to do that. The other way is through all the interviews Johnson didn’t get.
          Last fall and into the spring, when Republican candidates were interviewed, they were usually asked to comment on Donald Trump, and were not given a chance to talk about their own views on national policy. It was disgraceful.
          Senator Bernie Sanders didn’t get much exposure, either, you recall.
          Way back before the public was invited, a few network executives apparently decided which candidates were going to get coverage and which would be ignored.
            I watched some Republican debates starting when there were 17 candidates. The networks colluded with the Republican National Committee on a format that insulted half the candidates. They were split into two groups, with those polling lower assigned to what commentators disparagingly called the “kids’ table.” I thought there should have been a random selection so each debate had a mix of the best known and lesser known candidates.
            The second-tier debates were interesting, substantive and respectful, but they did not change the fortunes of those candidates. And the networks, which have the choice of what to cover and how to cover it, have chosen, day after day, month after month, to cover the campaign for the highest office in the world as a pie-throwing contest.  
            We the people own the airwaves where the broadcast signals fly and the city streets where the cables are laid. The networks are licensed and franchised by public officials, locally and nationally, on our behalf.
            The major networks are all owned by six or seven enormous conglomerates (Disney, Comcast, Time-Warner, etc.), most of which have deep financial interests in industries besides the news business. Nothing stops them from covering the presidential campaign for profit rather than public service. Maybe something should.
            I had to laugh when I saw news coverage recently in which Facebook was accused of anti-conservative bias in its trending posts. I don’t know if that’s true and I don’t care. Facebook is a private company, not a public utility. If the networks can give Donald Trump 80 minutes of coverage for every minute they give Senator Sanders (as analysis has shown), who are they to throw stones at Facebook?
          There used to be something called the Fairness Doctrine, a rule of the Federal Communications Commission requiring broadcasters to devote time to controversial issues and to air opposing views on those issues. The doctrine was effectively revoked in 1987 after being weakened by a series of court challenges. It was less than perfect, but it helped force the networks to serve the public interest rather than their own. And the broadcast networks used to be independent companies devoted to nothing but their TV shows.
            A serious question: what is the meaning of the First Amendment and “freedom of the press” in an era when the “news” is dictated and dominated by a few enormous corporations that set the agenda for the rest of us? Can the First Amendment survive this – and should it?
            As a journalist, I’m supposed to be a flag-waver for free speech, but these days I am not sure what that means.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                                   
An old question – employee or contractor – gets more complicated
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            A commentator on a TV news show recently talked about new developments involving the ride company Uber. The commentator remarked that Uber has made sure to set up its procedures so drivers are independent contractors, not employees.
            The dilemma over independent contractors versus employees is nothing new. It’s just expanding and affecting more of us with changes in the way Americans do business.
            This was cited as a major trend at a national conference of workers' compensation professionals. The International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC), meeting in April in Santa Fe, noted how new businesses like Uber are blurring the lines between employment and self-employment. This could lead, some participants said, to significant changes in how workers are protected, if they are protected at all.
            Workers' compensation is provided by almost all employers to employees. Employees injured at work are entitled to medical care with no deductibles or co-pays and, if unable to work due to the injury, cash benefits as a partial wage replacement. 
            Workers’ comp is part of the social safety net mandated for employed workers. This includes the right to get paid for their time, including extra pay for overtime. The safety net also includes unemployment insurance for workers who get laid off, employer contributions to the worker’s Social Security, and other benefits.
            Self-employed people don’t get any of those protections. If you’re self-employed and get injured, or if you’re a consultant and your contract doesn’t renew, you’re on your own. 
            But if you’re the business owner starting a new business with limited capital, you have incentives to set it up so the people who work with you are independent contractors like Uber drivers. Being an employer may be more responsibility than you can handle.
            Self-employment is common in New Mexico. According to the New Mexico Economic Development Department, in 2013 there were about 119,195 nonemployer businesses in New Mexico, and roughly 43,737 employer establishments. 
            All those self-employed people are not protected.
            In workers' compensation, two big questions determine whether an injury is covered or not. First, is the person an employee? Second, when the accident occurs, is this person at work or not at work? In real life, the answers are not necessarily simple.
            If you work in a factory and get a paycheck, you’re an employee. You’re at work when you’re inside the building. When you step out the door (or drive out of the parking lot), you’re not. 
But what if your boss asks you to stop at the post office on your way home? Are you covered if there’s an accident? What if you’re working at home and dividing your time between writing a report and doing your laundry? Those gray areas are one reason cases get litigated.
            What if your “employer” makes you sign a contract saying you’re an independent contractor? That actually has a simple answer (in the past my job was to explain this to new business owners, who didn’t believe me). The contract is meaningless and unenforceable.  Whether you are an employee or a contractor depends on several conditions, such as whether you control your own time. The IRS has a set of guidelines. The workers' compensation system does not necessarily follow them. That’s another reason cases get litigated.
Participants at the IAIABC meeting suggested we might start hearing again about sweeping changes to the old protections, to provide equal coverage regardless of employment status. This concept was once called 24-hour coverage. We don’t have it because after years of national debate, nobody could figure out how to make it work or who pays for it.
And the argument about Uber will continue. 
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

 © 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES                5-2-16                   
Surprise billings add pain to medical costs
Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
            A woman in a small New Mexico community was pregnant and went into labor prematurely. She went to the right hospital – that is, the one covered by her health insurance plan. She gave birth to premature triplets. Specialists were called in. Two of the babies could not be saved.  
          Several months later, she and her husband were confronted with more than $3 million in medical bills. 
          Heather Widler of the state Office of the Superintendent of Insurance (OSI) explained what happened. The hospital had to call the specialists for this urgent situation. The specialists were not contracted with the health plan that covered this family. They were “out of network.”So they billed the patient directly.
          This kind of complication happens so often in the topsy-turvy world of today’s health insurance system that it has a name: surprise billing. 
          According to a Consumer Reports study cited by OSI, 30 percent of privately insured Americans have received a surprise medical bill. Consumers pay an estimated $1 billion annually in these unexpected billing charges.
          Most consumers don’t know what to do, said Widler, when billing issues like this arise.  Some pay the bill without asking any questions or raising the issue. Sometimes the paperwork is so confusing to consumers that they send a check when the notice they received was not even a bill.
          OSI wants you to know that help is available from OSI’s Managed Health Care Bureau.  You can call the bureau at 1-855-427-5674.
           In the case described above, OSI helped untangle the billing complications so the family owed only their contracted annual maximum.
            It’s also critical, said Widler, to work with the insurer, the hospital and the specialists so that no party ends up being a big loser. Our institutions cannot afford to absorb big losses, she said.
            OSI is the new state agency created when the former Department of Insurance was separated from the Public Regulation Commission by a constitutional amendment approved by the voters in 2012. Now that it is separated from the politically charged PRC, OSI is moving aggressively to develop a number of consumer protection initiatives., including this one.
          One concern is reaching the people who have the greatest need for assistance. OSI has held several public meetings around the state, but that’s not nearly enough to reach people who might be receiving surprise bills.
          (Disclosure: I am a volunteer member of the Insurance Fraud Policy Advisory Group, which works with OSI.)
          Here’s my request:  if you are a community leader, or if you are in the healthcare field and in contact with patients, keep this information in mind and share it with those who might need it.
          Nationally, the Affordable Care Act has reduced some of the strain of surprise billing by requiring that in an emergency, the bill from the hospital itself must be handled as if in-network, even if the patient went to the “wrong” hospital.
          A few states have passed legislation protecting consumers from surprise bills. Others are considering legislation. While OSI’s help can protect some consumers from some excessive bills, it does not have the authority to fix every problem. And we have to remember that our state is short of doctors and our rural hospitals are financially distressed, so we can’t simply force them to absorb these costs.
          This surprise billing issue is just one aspect of a much bigger problem: our irrational, confusing and overly expensive healthcare system. Whether you think the Affordable Care Act made the system better or worse,  our nation desperately needs to reach a consensus on how to fix it. Until then, New Mexico should follow the lead of other states and seriously consider a law to protect both the consumers and the providers.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

 © 2016 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES           4-18-16
We need two in the cab
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
          In May 2015, an Amtrak passenger train derailed outside Philadelphia, killing eight people and injuring more than 200. The cause is still a mystery. The train was going too fast around a curve, but, according to recent news reports, federal investigators have not figured out why.
          Another accident occurred outside Philadelphia on April 3 of this year, killing two people and injuring more than 30.
           Two Amtrak routes run through New Mexico. The Southwest Chief runs between Los Angeles and Chicago, with stops in Raton, Las Vegas, Lamy (outside Santa Fe), Albuquerque and Gallup. The Sunset Limited runs between Los Angeles and New Orleans, stopping in Deming and Lordsburg. 
            The state is crossed by several freight routes. Freight trains can carry just about anything, including the most hazardous chemicals, with long lines of container cars moving faster than 100 miles an hour.
            Once in a while, a train derails with disastrous consequences. In 2013, a freight train carrying petroleum derailed in Quebec, leading to a fire that left 47 people dead. 
            So you might think it would be dangerous to allow a train to be operated by just one person, the engineer alone in the cab.
           That’s what I think, and I’m not alone. There’s even a Facebook page called Spouses and Families Against One Man Crews. 
            Legislation was introduced in Colorado this year to ban one-man crews for trains traveling through that state. The bill passed the House but not the Senate. According to the sponsor, Rep. Daneya Esgar (D, Pueblo), 25 states have introduced similar bills and three have enacted them.
          States have acted, Esgar said, because the Federal Railroad Administration had delayed adopting a rule requiring two-person crews. That rule has now been drafted and was released in March for public comment.
          After last year’s Philadelphia accident, we heard about a new technology called Positive Train Control (PTC) that can stop a train if the engineer loses control. That’s good, but safety systems are supposed to be redundant – that is, more than one backup method. The simplest old-fashioned backup plan is a second human being.  
            Commercial airliners have a pilot and copilot in addition to all the automation that can fly the plane if needed. Why not trains?
          Esgar wrote to me: “I can bet that every day, there is a freight train running through each of our districts. Some are carrying coal, chlorine or oil, some are carrying hazardous waste… through our towns, alongside houses, some even near schools. Having two sets of eyes on the train at all times, keeps Coloradoans safe from potentially hazardous or even fatal accidents in our state.” 
            In New Mexico, our only recent fatalities have been on the Railrunner, the commuter line between Belen and Santa Fe. These accidents have all involved people or automobiles on the tracks, too close to allow the train to stop in time. They represent a different safety issue.
            The engineer is alone in the cab on Railrunner trains, says spokesperson Augusta Meyers. They use a system of “alerter” buttons. At higher speeds, the engineer hears a beep every 25 seconds and has to push a button to show he’s alert. If he doesn’t, the train will slow itself down and stop. At slower speeds, the alerter beeps every two minutes.
            News reports say the commuter train that derailed in New York in 2013, killing four, did not have that system. The engineer fell asleep.
            The cost of one more crew member is trivial compared to the human and financial cost of a rail disaster. Beepers are not enough. Let’s have a second crew member in the cab of every train.
            To comment on the proposed federal rule, go to  https://www.regulations.gov and enter FRA-2014-0033 in the search box. The public comment period is open until May 16.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.