Merilee Dannemann 


© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    11-1-21
Open the rest stops, for goodness’ sake
By Merilee Dannemann

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            This week’s hero is the owner of the Conoco station and convenience store at the Wagon Mound exit off I-25.
            On a recent trip to northeastern New Mexico, that station was open on a Sunday afternoon, with a working restroom and fresh coffee.
            In parts of New Mexico, this is appreciated and not taken for granted.
            There was a waiting line for that restroom. Care to guess why? Several miles back, at Watrous, the restrooms at the state-owned public rest area were closed and locked.
            (To be fair, there’s another station at the Wagon Mound exit that we did not visit.)
            This was not just any Sunday afternoon. It was the last day of Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, when thousands of visitors were heading home. It was also a perfect day for an autumn drive through the exquisite turning aspens.
            At the Conoco station, my friends and I saw the same people we had seen at the highway rest stop looking confused and uncomfortable. Now they were standing in line.
            So what does it take to get the state of New Mexico to show a little courtesy to visitors who come here and support the economy?
            Consider this one day.
            A report on the economic impact of the 2019 Balloon Fiesta says 618,620 guests visited from other states, with most coming from Texas, California, Colorado, and Arizona. This year’s report is not yet completed.
            If even half of those visitors came by car, that’s a massive economic boost for towns along our major roads. New Mexico should be encouraging them by showing hospitality. You’d think there would be enough revenue to provide a restroom.
            This report does not address the economic impact of those visitors traveling to and from Albuquerque or where else they might have visited while in New Mexico. Since New Mexico government is expert at state agencies not having the sense to cooperate with each other, I’m wondering whether anybody else is measuring that either.
            I bring up the unknown but significant economic impact because when I mentioned the rest room issue to a legislator, she replied, “How are we going to pay for it?”
            The report said the fiesta generated an estimated $6.52 million for the state. Even at today’s rates that should be enough to pay for a plumber.
            The rest stops are operated by the Department of Transportation, not Tourism or Economic Development.
            I could be wrong, but I don’t think the rest stops were closed for COVID-19. They are as essential as grocery stores. The maintenance staffs should be considered frontline workers. And I don’t think a workforce shortage is likely in that part of the state.
            Last year I offered a suggestion for long-range planning on rest stops. The planning should consider keeping the rest stops always open, safe and clean, electric car charging (which users pay for), and vending operations with simple amenities such as hot coffee, located where they are needed and not competing with the privately owned truck stops.
            In the shorter term, perhaps this service should not be left to DOT by itself. Maybe the relevant state agencies and tourism-related nonprofits, both state and municipal, might form a study group to figure out how to improve rest stops as a means to enhance tourism. They should generate the numbers that would demonstrate to legislators that this is worth funding. I nominate the Balloon Fiesta people to provide some leadership.
            Or maybe we should invite private concessionaires to set up coffee and souvenir booths and keep an eye on the state of the facilities. And give a bidding opportunity to local heroes like the owner of the Conoco station in Wagon Mound.
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PERA elections need more voters
By Merilee Dannemann

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            Have you voted recently in a PERA election?
            If you are not a member of PERA, please excuse the intrusion. But you or a family member just might be a member and not even remember.
            PERA is the New Mexico Public Employee Retirement Association, the state agency that pays pensions to state and local government retirees and manages the fund from which those pensions are paid.
            If you are a New Mexico state or local government employee, you are a member and you probably know it, but right now that may not be important to you. It will be important later, trust me.
            If you are retired from state or local government, you are probably well aware of your membership because that pension is a major part of your income. You retired with a promise of small regular increases in benefits to meet the cost of living, but the increase has been on shaky ground recently.
            There is another category: former employees who have money vested with PERA and who are not yet eligible to receive a pension. They number more than 13,000 people. If you are one of these, you are eligible to vote. You might not have known that.
            Legislators are talking again, as they did in the 2021 session, about converting the board of PERA from elected to appointed. That is a complicated but fundamentally bad idea. It needs to be countered with logic about why it’s bad and with calm reasoning about why the current system is OK. I’m hoping they will postpone this issue until 2023.
            In the 2021 legislative debate, it was argued that electing the PERA board is bad because voter participation is low. That’s true. It has been just as low for school boards for a century. We have plenty of problems with our schools, but I have never heard those problems blamed on low voter turnout.
            PERA election turnout is low largely because these elections receive almost zero public attention. Candidates run for specific slots – state employee, municipal employee, county employee and retiree. Their primary means of reaching members is very limited exposure through PERA publications. They can’t exactly hold rallies or distribute yard signs because the constituency is thinly spread around the state.
            PERA’S new director, Greg Trujillo, told me the rules allow a candidate to obtain a set of mailing labels to send printed material, but that’s expensive. PERA quite properly won’t give out the database of email addresses because of security and privacy concerns.
            It’s been pointed out that PERA board members tend to be from Santa Fe or Albuquerque rather than from the whole state. That’s true, and it might be because -- with respect for smaller offices all over the state -- government agencies don’t put their financial analysts in field offices. The financial experts tend to be in the large metro centers. A few of the current board members have impressive resumes, exactly the kind of credentials needed for this board.
            The number one reason for proposing to change the PERA board is recent dissension on the board. Yes, there has been dissension. Democracy can be messy. We hope much of the dissension will disappear with the appointment of new director Trujillo a few weeks ago.
            A state employee position and a municipal position will be up for election in 2022. Nominating petitions will be available in April.
            If you are a PERA member, and you believe in democracy, pay attention as we approach the 2022 legislative session. And if you have the background and talent to help oversee the staff that is managing an $18 billion trust fund, think about running for that board.
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 © 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   10-4-21
In memory of Jerry Stuyvesant
By Merilee Dannemann

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            Jerry Stuyvesant died in March. He has not been sufficiently eulogized, and his contribution to New Mexico has not been adequately recognized – partly due to COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings. Here’s a piece of the story of this very distinguished man.
            Jerry (officially Gerald) Stuyvesant was director of the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration when I started there in 1991. His presence was essential to the workers’ compensation reform that saved the state’s economy in 1990.
            He was appointed in 1989 by Republican Gov. Garrey Carruthers and retained by Democratic Gov. Bruce King. As a consummate professional of international stature, he should have stayed through succeeding administrations, which would have enabled the agency to maintain its nonpolitical character. The failure to support his reappointment in 1995 was a bad decision by Republican Gov. Gary Johnson.
            In the mid-1980s, the workers’ compensation system was strangling the economy of New Mexico. Insurance premiums were so high that businesses couldn’t pay them. Almost all insurance companies had deserted the state. The economic climate and costs of litigation had become too hostile and unpredictable.
            The WCA was created by statute in 1986, in part to be a special purpose court for workers’ comp claims, to be decided by a small group of specialized expert judges. The law was amended repeatedly in attempts to get costs under control until the reform of 1990, which finally succeeded.
            As director, Stuyvesant guided the 1990 task force that developed the historic compromise between business and labor, creating the law that saved the economy, the same law that is now in danger of being chipped away, year after year. No director since Stuyvesant has understood the intricacies of the system as thoroughly or had the commanding presence to keep the system stable as he did.
            The thing about workers’ comp, you see, is that if you don’t understand it, you probably dislike it. You think it’s unjust and illogical because it appears to be unfair to your side. Only people who understand it see the brilliance in the way it balances competing interests and limits the influence of the various professions that want get a bigger share at the expense of injured workers and small employers.
            The reform led to foaming-at-the-mouth fury on the part of a few professions whose members had been making a comfortable living from this system for decades. The lawyers now had limits on how much they could charge; and the new system made it easier for injured workers to get benefits without needing a lawyer at all. The doctors now had to live with a fee schedule and limitations on the number of extra services that they could order and bill for. And so on.
            Suddenly this Wild West had – gulp – accountability. Stuyvesant had not written the law, but he was the sheriff in charge of enforcing it. He was up to the task and not intimidated by anyone, even the politicians who were permanently enraged that King had trusted this agency to a Republican holdover.
            He told me years later that his tenure at the WCA was a minor phase of his adventurous professional life. But he was a major contributor in overcoming the crisis of that time.
            He died after a prolonged battle with Plasma Cell Leukemia, which he told me was the result of exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
            Stuyvesant was a United States Air Force veteran of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, having served with distinction for 23 years and retired at the rank of major. He received numerous commendations, medals, and awards including the Meritorious Service Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal, which he was awarded six times.
            I am forever grateful to have worked for him.
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Let WIPP expand again?
By Merilee Dannemann

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            New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad is still the only long-term storage site for nuclear waste in the United States. It might be about to get longer-term and riskier.
            WIPP holds radioactive materials 2,000 feet underground in hollowed-out deposits of salt, believed to be geologically stable. Theoretically the waste can stay forever and do no harm.
            WIPP was designated to hold only moderately risky waste, called transuranic or TRU, like clothing and tools contaminated by plutonium, packed in scientifically designed containers that would last for centuries without leaking (except for accidents like the one in 2014 that closed the operation for three years).
            WIPP has been storing TRU waste since 1999, from Los Alamos, Rocky Flats in Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina and other places, trucked across New Mexico highways. New Mexico received federal funding to improve our roads, including the bypass around Santa Fe. Not nearly enough.
            This so-called pilot project was supposed to start winding down in 2024. But that does not appear to be happening. The nation has excess plutonium, and the U. S. Department of Energy is eyeing WIPP as the place to put it.
            Of course. There is no other place. The original understanding was that states would share the burden of permanently housing this dangerous material, but other states have successfully resisted. Texas just passed legislation opposing long-term storage (Forbes Magazine called Texas “Atomic Chickens.”) So there’s just WIPP, and places like Hanford, Washington, where lethal nuclear waste is sitting at ground level because nobody will take it.
            The DOE wants to construct add-ons to WIPP that opponents characterize as preludes to a larger expansion. These have to be approved by the state Environment Department. We are awaiting findings from hearings in May and early September.
            Possible expansion of WIPP is not the only issue. Other concerns are the type of material and how far it will travel.
            The bigger picture, in a very simplified version that I hope I’m explaining correctly, is to take clumps or “pits” of plutonium from the Pantex plant near Amarillo, to Los Alamos to be turned into powder, then to the Savannah River DOE site in South Carolina for more processing, then finally to WIPP for burial. The plutonium would cross part of the country three times.
            Plutonium is one of the most toxic substances on earth and lasts for thousands of years. One microscopic particle can give you cancer. A major reason for burying plutonium is to put it where it can’t ever fall into the hands of terrorists.
            For years, this stuff has been crossing New Mexico, sharing the road with New Mexico drivers and oil industry trucks. Some of that traffic is on U. S. 285, which skirts Santa Fe and runs south through Roswell and Artesia into oil country where the oil boom has overstressed the roads.
            Plutonium, I think, is much more dangerous on the road than once it stops moving and is buried forever underground. Any decision on expansion should have major input from people who live near 285 and any other road designated for WIPP traffic.
            Here’s my modest proposal. New Mexico is doing way more than its share of storing nuclear waste, while other states shirk responsibility. I am not one bit in favor of expansion. But if the state decides to allow the expansion, taking all that risk, don’t pussyfoot about the cost. Hold all those Atomic Chicken states – from Maine to California – hostage until they pay the real cost. All of it.
            No more half-adequate road subsidies. Tax every molecule of plutonium. Make them pay until every New Mexican is a millionaire and we can tear up our gross receipts tax.  
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Show your support by safeguarding your organization’s money
By Merilee Dannemann

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            When was the last independent audit of your church’s finances? Or of your favorite nonprofit?
            This might be, for some people, the most offensive question I could possibly ask. “What do you mean,” you might say, “my church or my organization? What are you implying?”
            There are two likely answers to the question.
            The first answer is, “I have no idea.”
            The second is, “We have a financial review every year. It’s routine.”
            If you gave the second answer, present a gold star to your treasurer. Hold a dinner in the treasurer’s honor. The treasurers of churches and nonprofits are unsung heroes.
            If your revenue exceeds $500,000, New Mexico state law requires an annual audit by an independent certified public accountant. If your revenue is below that, a review by an independent CPA using generally accepted accounting principles is recommended. Churches are exempt from the legal requirement but should do this anyway.
            The reasons for doing financial reviews routinely are in two categories, which can be described as catching bad guys and affirming good guys. Audits affirm the good guys, such as treasurers and bookkeepers, by verifying that they are doing things right in protecting the precious dollars donated by their members.  
            Catching bad guys is something you hope never happens. But it does. Here’s the hard part: The person who steals the money is almost always someone everybody liked and trusted.
            It’s so easy for a church, where everybody trusts everybody, to skip the audit because audits are expensive and there are many more compelling uses for the money. As one embezzlement victim commented to me, con-people know this.
            Tsiporah Nephesh, executive director of New Mexico Thrives, a nonprofit that helps other nonprofits, explained that the less expensive alternative is a Letter of Review, which can vary in scope. For moderate-sized organizations a good practice is to seek competitive proposals from three or more accounting firms, avoiding close friends and relatives.
            Bad news stories are easy enough to find.  Some reports from recent years:
            In 2016 a pastor in Ruidoso was convicted of stealing more than $20,000 from his church. One news report said it was more than $70,000.
            The business manager of a very small New Mexico school district pleaded guilty to embezzling $3.4 million from 2002 to 2009.
            In 2015, the principal’s secretary at an Albuquerque middle school was connected to the theft of $25,000 from the school’s activity fund.
            In 2016, a former church secretary in Clovis was convicted of embezzlement totaling $227,650.50. The news report said, “She was responsible for paying the church’s bills and got board members to sign blank checks in advance so she didn’t have to hunt down signatures to pay routine bills.” 
            Apparently in these trusting environments, the blank check method – or perhaps an online equivalent – is not uncommon.
            According to the victim I mentioned above, many more stories are kept out of the news by congregational leaders anxious to avoid embarrassment.
            If your organization has reasonably tight financial practices, it will not attract people who are looking for opportunities to steal.    
            The degree of prudency needed may vary with the complexity of the organization. I belong to a few organizations where the treasurer routinely provides reports. I get bored listening, but I am grateful that this person is a volunteer who puts time and effort into balancing our books to the penny.
            And I belong to one little group that has about $3,000 in the bank and collects dues plus $5 per meeting from nonmembers.  For that group, I will continue to ignore my own advice.  And I will always thank the treasurer.
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© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    8-23-21
Rural school districts are different
By Merilee Dannemann

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            People in rural school districts are different, they will tell you.
            Different from what, you might ask. Certainly some needs are unique to those districts, such as those related to the long travel distances. A lifelong resident of Magdalena told me that when her children were school age, she drove them nine miles down a dirt road to meet the school bus.
            What those folks mean, though, is that they are different from the bureaucrats and officials in Santa Fe who trounce local rights and try to tell them what to do.
            New Mexico’s small rural school districts are remarkable. Compared with our 33 counties, we have 89 school districts.
               Thirteen districts have fewer than 200 students, according to a recent report by Kids Count: Corona, Des Moines, House, Mosquero, Vaughn, Wagon Mound, Animas, Carrizozo, Elida, Grady, Maxwell, San Jon and Springer.  
            New Mexico recognizes the special nature of these districts, supports them, and does not seek to consolidate them.
            The now-famous Floyd school district has a reported 226 students. Floyd made the national news a few weeks ago when its board unanimously opposed the mask mandate issued by the state Public Education Department. Then PED stepped in and suspended the board.
            Supporters of defying the rule claimed students were switching to private schools or moving to go to school in Texas to escape the dictatorship from Santa Fe. That is possible, but the Kids Count database shows the school population has been consistently close to 226 for the last 8 years.
            Floyd is in Roosevelt County, west of Portales, less than 30 miles from the Texas state line. Other very small districts run up and down the line.
            It’s farm and ranch county. Ranchers are independent people with impressive survival skills.  I consider them courageous and very smart. If coronavirus was a cattle disease they would have wiped it out.
            But Roosevelt County and its neighbors are not doing so well against COVID-19.
            For all of its wide open spaces and nature’s ventilation, in the first half of August Roosevelt County had 42 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 population (Aug. 3-18 on the state dashboard). The positivity rate (percentage of positive COVID-19 tests in the past 7 days) was 19.18%. Nearby southeastern counties had comparable numbers, with a few positivity rates above 20%.
            Big, crowded Bernalillo County had 24 cases per 100,000 – a little more than half the rate of Roosevelt – and a positivity rate of 6.64%. Santa Fe County, home of the bureaucrats, had 14.7 cases per 100,000 and a positivity rate of 4.61%.
            The proof is in the numbers. Whatever Roosevelt County is doing is not working.
            I keep on looking for anti-maskers to present sound medical arguments against masks. Masks are inconvenient, sometimes uncomfortable and possibly annoying. They may be a distraction for children, who probably should get frequent outdoor breaks. But they don’t make you sick or cause danger.
            In all the statements against mask wearing by Floyd School Board members and anyone else, in New Mexico or on national TV, I have not heard one argument that cited harm from wearing a mask, other than a symbolic surrender to big government. Most importantly, in all this talk of personal freedom, I have not heard any consideration for others. I still find that incomprehensible.
            The fierce independence that anti-maskers express does not seem to acknowledge that you wear a mask partly to protect other people from you. If wearing a mask represents knuckling under to a tyrannical government, so does stopping your car at red lights, disposing properly of your garbage and not sneezing in other people’s faces. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Not a bad idea for a school district.
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Vaccination passports
By Merilee Dannemann

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            My friend, who was a frequent global traveler before the pandemic, has a document called the International Certificate of Vaccination. It attests that she has been vaccinated against yellow fever and several other diseases.
            The form is approved by the World Health Organization and the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. It was issued by a medical clinic that specializes in pre-travel vaccination.
            The yellow fever vaccination is required for travel to quite a few countries in Africa and South America.
            Documents like this, recognized by international agreements, have been around for a long time. Some countries require you to produce proof of vaccination before they will let you in. Exactly what’s required depends on where you are going and where you have been.
            The State Department and other sources recommend that before you travel internationally, you should check to see which vaccinations are required or recommended for the countries you are planning to visit, because different diseases are prevalent in different countries.
             They recommend vaccination against several gruesome-sounding diseases that we rarely hear about in the United States. They also advise travelers to consider a new dose of childhood vaccines to reestablish your immunity because diseases that are extinct here (polio, for example) still exist in some less developed countries.
            While most vaccinations are recommended, rather than required, the federal government can impose a requirement based on its assessment of where in the world disease outbreaks are occurring. Other countries have the same authority. You get the required vaccination and you show the documentation or you don’t get on the plane.
            I have recently heard the term “vaccine passport,” as if that is some ominous threat hanging over us. In reality, we’ve had them for years.
            As parents know, vaccinations are required for almost every student in public, private or charter school unless they have an exemption allowed by law. New Mexico law allows exemptions only for medical and religious reasons, not personal preference. We assume that because only a few students will be exempt, the vast majority of our kids are safe from the spread of those diseases.
            The state Department of Health lists 9 different vaccinations required for students and recommends a few others. Students’ records are in a database called the New Mexico State Immunization Information System or NMSIIS.
            Without satisfactory evidence of the required immunizations, schools are instructed to “start disenrollment proceedings,” which looks like bureaucratic language for kicking the child out of school. Another form of vaccine passport – or, if you like, vaccine verification.
            Parents who have chosen not to let their children have these immunizations may have to accept significant limitations, like having to home-school those children.
            Covid-19 vaccinations are not yet required for school-age children, and they are still not approved for children under 12. But friends with school-age children say that eligible but unvaccinated children might not be allowed to visit their friends – a decision by parents, not the schools.
            With the delta variant of Covid spreading, all kinds of places, from concerts to cruise lines, are demanding proof of vaccination. I think we can anticipate many more places requiring this. Some people may choose to make a political point by blowing this out of proportion and claiming it’s an outrageous invasion of their privacy. I hope they don’t.
             Like millions of Americans, I’m tired of living with the limitations imposed by this virus. Even more, I’m heartsick that every new development related to the virus has been turned into a political wedge issue that further divides our nation and makes it ever more difficult for Americans to solve our problems together.
            I’m guessing it’s likely the vaccine passport will be coming. Please, when it arrives, just put it in your wallet and let it be.
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 © 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      8-9-21
No gas for drunk drivers
By Merilee Dannemann

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            You don’t see cigarette vending machines anymore. Have you noticed?
            They became illegal in New Mexico a few years ago, except for limited locations where teenagers cannot get to them. Lawmakers decided the way to prevent teenagers from buying cigarettes from vending machines was to eliminate the machines entirely. Cigarettes can only be purchased face to face from a person who can verify that the purchaser is legally of age.
            I thought about this because of the new court ruling on gasoline pumps. What is a gas pump but a big vending machine? The ruling by the New Mexico Supreme Court says stores will be civilly liable if they sell gasoline to drunk drivers.
            Meanwhile, somebody has invented a vending machine for beer.
            One use for these machines is at special events such as football games, to speed up half-time sales so fans do not have to wait on line and miss the action. Because these will be used only at special events, the venue can hire an employee to check IDs before people are allowed to buy.
            The machine not only dispenses the beer, it also opens the can, because an unopened full can could be thrown by an angry fan and hurt someone.
            As a weapon, I don’t see any difference between an opened can filled with beer and one filled with a soft drink. But soft drinks at sports events are usually sold in paper or plastic cups. Maybe that’s why.
            I don’t think we have any of these beer machines in New Mexico yet. Perhaps the Legislature should outlaw them before they show up.
            A different report says an app has been developed that will verify the purchaser’s age and use facial recognition to confirm that the identity information matches the person standing in front of the machine. With this app, beer machines could be anywhere and could also dispense wine and pre-mixed cocktails. Or anything else, for that matter, in the right shaped container. Canned cannabis, for example, which is also not recommended before driving.
            But we have not heard of any device to verify whether a purchaser at a vending machine is drunk or high.
            This court decision claims that selling gasoline to a drunk is not so different from a bartender selling liquor to a drunk. But that is questionable at best. A bartender selling liquor is a face-to-face transaction in which the bartender can observe the customer. Most gasoline purchases are made at outdoor self-service pumps.
            Under New Mexico’s brand-new liquor law, it is still legal to sell alcoholic beverages in convenience stores, except in McKinley County, where only beer is legal. Like bartenders, clerks have the dual responsibility of checking the purchaser’s age and assessing whether the purchaser is drunk.
            I am all in favor of getting drunk drivers off the road.  But it’s just as important to protect the safety of the clerks.
            New Mexico has done a good job enacting a law to protect convenience store clerks from being injured or killed, especially those working alone at night. It took the murders of several clerks over a period of years to get that law enacted.
            I can’t imagine how the clerk inside the store would be able to tell whether a person outside at the gas pump is drunk.
            But, just for argument’s sake, let’s assume the clerk can tell. What next?
            What happens if the clerk flips a switch to cut off the gasoline, and now the driver can’t get home and it’s almost midnight? How can that be handled without compromising the safety of the clerk?
            I don’t think that’s going to happen. It’s possible this new court decision might not save any lives. It could just cause lawsuits.
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Etiquette in the era of Covid
By Merilee Dannemann

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            My friend is invited to a relative’s wedding in another state. Along with the invitation she has received a request for proof of vaccination.
            Some people might consider this rude. Not me. I am relieved. My friend (who never smoked and is vaccinated) has lung disease and walks around attached to an oxygen tube. If not for the assurance that everyone will be vaccinated, she might be unable to go because of the risk.
            I help coordinate an organization that meets once a month to hear interesting speakers. After a year on Zoom, we’re going to be back in person in September. Our steering committee was unanimous in deciding to admit vaccinated members only.
            I was embarrassed when I asked our September speaker if he’s vaccinated.
            He thanked me.
            “I have been a bit frustrated,” he emailed, “that we have been making policy/rules based on the unvaccinated, whereas I believe we should make policy/rules based on the vaccinated, which not only rewards those of us who have participated in shared protection, but also incentivizes vaccinations for those who may be hesitant.”
            Groups of all kinds and sizes are facing this question and handling it differently. Some churches, for example, are wide open, having chosen hospitality over safety, though I’m sure they wouldn’t describe it in that language. Others are asking members for copies of vaccination certificates.
            Most of us are not sure what is appropriate in this new reality.
            I have started trying to set guidelines for myself, so that I can avoid getting accidentally trapped in unsafe situations. Sometimes, where physical closeness indoors cannot be avoided, I am going to have to ask people whether they are vaccinated, politely but in plain language. I hope they will expect the question and to be willing to answer it.
            If you are not vaccinated, your reasons are generally none of my business. So I won’t ask why, and I won’t judge you. But I may choose not to sit next to you.
            Perhaps the unvaccinated should assume the responsibility for being considerate, by sitting a few feet away from others without being asked or by wearing a mask and keeping it on. Based on a very simple understanding of the mechanics of breathing, I think the unvaccinated have no business singing in a choir.
            This period is going to be unavoidably hard on those who are forced to be unvaccinated because of other health issues that involve compromised immunity. They are already struggling and this makes it more difficult for them, but they may have to endure their difficulty from a few feet away, for their own safety as well as for others.
             Recognized etiquette experts are writing about this issue and taking the side of safety plus disclosure. They are saying that safety first is good manners. As long as you inquire politely, it is not rude to ask.      
            We have a guideline from the heir to Emily Post. For those too young to recognize the name, Emily Post wrote her first book in 1922, and her name was synonymous with etiquette for generations. There is now an institute in her name.
            Lizzie Post, her great-great-granddaughter, writes that today, asking questions about other people’s status before inviting them is polite. So is stating your personal safety boundaries.
            “Although etiquette has always had an undertone of safety first, during the pandemic, safety became the main point of politeness,” she writes.
            If you care about other people, are you more concerned about insulting people who are not vaccinated by asking or about protecting your friends and family? Every one of us has to make that decision.
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© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 7/26/21                                  
A little more respect for teachers
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
            “The NM school system is a total disaster IMO,” a reader from Hobbs wrote to me recently. “Our children deserve much better than they are receiving and it's entirely the fault of the politicians and the people they appoint to oversee the education system.”
            He switched from blaming politicians to blaming incompetent teachers, who, he said, should be fired. I agree. But, as I pointed out in response, New Mexico has a statewide teacher shortage and there is no assurance that we could replace them with anyone better – or with anyone at all, for that matter.
            Our students will soon be going back to in-person school after the most difficult school year in modern history. Let’s consider this from a different perspective and take a minute to note some of the pressures that affect our teachers.
            Simple logic tells us that if qualified people don’t want to be teachers, there’s a reason. Try asking yourself what factors would have to change to make you willing to be a public school teacher these days.
            Low pay is probably one. If we want teachers with a higher level of qualifications, puny 2 or 3 percent raises will not make a difference. If our current teachers are not adequate, we need to attract people with better qualifications. So we would have to pay them like professionals. Then we would have to treat them like professionals, give teachers the freedom to use their intelligence and initiative, and let them try creative approaches that could not be measured by rigid standards. But you and I know New Mexico will not do that.
            What about other demands we are placing on our schools these days?
            I’m thinking of it this way: What is the worst thing that could happen to you if you were a teacher?
            Some errors might be embarrassing but endurable. Other kinds of mistakes might destroy your career and force you to leave town.
            Here are a few top priorities:

  • Protecting students from getting shot.
  • Protecting students from being sexually molested.
  • Preventing students from killing each other with drugs.
  • Violating your local community’s standard for political correctness.

            In some communities that is using the wrong word for an ethnic group. In some other communities it is suggesting that transsexual children have the right to use the bathroom. A teacher can be hounded out of town for inadvertently violating the local norm, even though the norms keep changing.
            Mere mediocre teaching results do not make it on to this list. And I haven’t even mentioned building maintenance.
            At the same time, packs of hungry lawyers are watching on the periphery, waiting for the misstep that will get you humiliated beyond recovery and your school district sued.
            It’s one thing to criticize teachers for doing a lousy job. It’s quite another thing to punish them by taking away more of the resources that they already do not have enough of. That’s a mistake we often make in how we treat all branches of government.
            So maybe we need to do better at finding incentives to attract qualified people to this work, or give the current batch of teachers better training and more resources, and then treat them as if we respect them.
            My reader suggested that New Mexico should look to other states that are more successful for better methods of education.
            Good idea. To her credit, the governor hired a secretary of education from out of state. Secretary Ryan Stewart came with multi-state experience and an impressive background. But he didn’t have a chance to do much before the pandemic and the shutdown. Now he and the whole system have lots of catching up to do. Let’s take a breath and let them try.
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These vacancies need filling
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
            The rumor is that the governor has begun making appointments to the Workers' Compensation Advisory Council. We only need three. It’s about time.  
            New Mexico needs this council as a moderating voice on workers' compensation legislation. Anyone who understands workers' compensation and reads the bills from the 2021 session – the bills that could have blown up the system – knows that.
            The Advisory Council, by statute, has six members, three appointed from business and three from labor. By custom, the business members have been business owners and the labor members are from organized labor, though they do not have to be.
            The members, therefore, come from the two interest groups that are governed by the system, rather than from any profession that makes its living from workers’ comp. That is absolutely on purpose. The statute explicitly says no member of this council can be a lawyer.
            The people who wrote New Mexico’s reform law, which saved our economy in 1990, thought this council was so important that they put it at the beginning of the statute, at Paragraph 52-1-1.2, where you can’t miss it. The original members had all served on the 1990 task force that wrote the law. Their job, which they understood fully, was to keep the system from being torn apart for several years and pass that mission on to successors.
            The terms of three members expired in April, four months ago.
            (The April deadline was my idea, years ago when I worked for them.  If the council’s primary purpose is to advise on legislation, I suggested, terms should expire only after the legislative session.)
            Appointing members is not difficult.  Recommendations have been sent to the governor’s office. I’m hoping the governor will renew one member who has served at least three terms on this council and understands the law because workers' compensation is hard to understand.
            Workers’ comp is not like anything else, especially the conventional legal system. It’s hard to grasp until you have learned it because it is so different. It’s filled with unusual compromises that actually work.  
            Probably the most important compromise is the no-fault principle, which is at the heart of the system. If a worker isn’t looking where he’s going and walks into a pothole, he’s covered, without argument or delay. The injured worker is usually at least partly at fault in causing his own accident. So that principle is really valuable to workers, but it is so unusual that most people (including legislators) do not understand it. It eliminates vast amounts of litigation, saving time, money and frustration.
            If a lawmaker writes a bill that says the worker is only covered if the employer did something wrong (such as HB 268 this year), that rips a hole in the fabric of workers’ comp.
            The Advisory Council’s primary job is to make recommendations to the Legislature. Historically, the council has written some bills and made recommendations on others. Over the years most recommendations have been unanimous, with business and labor members voting together.  
            The council used to have enough credibility that its recommendations were generally followed. Legislators appreciated the guidance because most of them didn’t know enough about workers’ comp themselves. These days, most legislators have never heard of this council, so new council members will have to get up to speed and reestablish that credibility.
            It takes some educating for anyone to understand why a strong and functional workers’ comp system is vastly superior to the possible alternatives, and why such a system is a vital contributor both to economic development and the well-being of New Mexico workers.
            I’m hoping that by the time you read this, the appointments have been made and the new council is scheduling its first meeting. I will plan to attend.
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© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    7-12-21
The long haul after Covid
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
            Some days, only one person dies of Covid in the whole state of New Mexico. Good news, right?
            No, it most emphatically is not.
            It is good compared to the months of isolation, children stuck at home, crowded hospitals, exhausted nurses, and much bigger fatality numbers. But, frustrating though it may be, we are not all the way out of danger yet.
            News releases come from the state Health Department every weekday, giving case counts, death counts and other statistical details. Some days there’s only one death. That is less bad, but still not good.
             Some days the news release says, with no personal information attached, that the person who died had a pre-existing condition, as if that makes it okay.
            The new delta variant is in New Mexico, so far not in large numbers. This mutation is much easier to catch, or to transmit, than the original disease. Even if you are vaccinated, there is a slight chance you can catch it and a slighter but not zero chance you can transmit it to someone else even if you don’t get sick.
            We know much less about the mystery illness that follows Covid in upwards of 10 percent of cases. Based on the statewide total case count of a little more than 200,000, there could be more than 20,000 New Mexicans with this condition.
            The mystery illness is called long hauler syndrome. That’s a generalized term for several different sets of symptoms, affecting people of all ages. The one thing they have in common is that they all happen after a case of Covid and not necessarily a severe case.
            Some people lose taste and smell. Some develop shortness of breath, chronic cough or other symptoms reminiscent of chronic fatigue. “Brain fog” seems especially frustrating for patients who become unable to think clearly or do not have enough energy to go back to work. For some patients, the symptoms don’t clear up.
            Recognizing that Covid is still lurking among us, that’s another reason to be cautious. I’m trying to dial my mental state to the right setting, somewhere between relief and vigilance.
            But I was shaken out of complacency recently when I touched the wrong buttons on the remote and accidentally tuned to a TV station I don’t usually watch. The speaker was delivering a diatribe. He called Covid a “scam-demic” and described people wearing masks as putting dirty diapers on their faces.  
            After a few shocked minutes I realized the show was an infomercial aimed at viewers who don’t trust the government. It was selling investment products that are supposed to be safe from financial collapse. The logic here was that if you’re concerned about the future, don’t take precautions, don’t trust the science, and make vicious fun of those who do.
            But dirty diapers, really? Does that image really reflect what some people have been thinking? Did it ever? Did that language ever sell the product to a single customer in New Mexico?
            I would really like to know if it’s still necessary to persuade anyone in New Mexico that the virus is real and masks are protective. For those unvaccinated and determined to stay that way, the risks have grown.
            The biggest concern remains the possibility of more new mutations that are resistant to the vaccines. Viruses mutate, and the next dangerous new variant could arise halfway around the world or right here. For an unlucky few, the long haul symptoms may last a lifetime.
            If we had all followed the guidance when the virus first reached the United States, the pandemic here might have been over in a month. Six hundred thousand deaths later, if we’re vaccinated we can relax, but we must continue to do so with caution.
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© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     7-5-21
Millions of school lunches
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
            It’s been a tough year for New Mexico schoolchildren, but through it all, they have at least had access to meals. That will continue through the summer.
            The school meal program has been chugging on, month after month.  Students who could not attend school in person could go to their school or another site and pick up meals to take home. According to Public Education Department spokesperson Judy Robinson, the total number of meals provided in the 12 months between March 2020 and February 2021 was 32,261,941. That’s 32 million.
            The summer program is now in operation, with more than 700 sites around the state. To find the site nearest you, go to and select your city or town. Then click the map for detailed information, which will include the exact location of the site plus the days and specific hours when food is served. All service will be on a grab and go basis. Covid restrictions are still being followed.
            Most sites are providing breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday. Some are also in operation on Saturdays and a few on Sundays.
            Meals are available to all children ages 1 to 18 at no cost -- regardless whether they were enrolled or otherwise qualified for free lunch.
            Some districts will allow students to take home a week’s worth of food rather than picking food up one meal at a time. That’s at the discretion of the district and is a variation from normal rules.
            The programs are a cooperative effort by the school districts, the Public Education Department, the state’s new Early Childhood Education and Care Department, and the U. S. Department of Agriculture, which has been the financial backbone behind school meal programs for as long as we can remember.
            The summer program is good news. But I have a few concerns.
            I wonder who is providing (or not) the rest of the week’s meals for all those children.
            I wonder whether the children are getting all the food or whether adult family members might be diverting some of it. I can’t think of any way to prevent that if it is happening.
            On a larger scale, I wonder what is so out of balance in our society that parents cannot afford to feed their children and whether today’s children will come to believe that’s normal.
            The annual Kids Count Data Book was released about a week ago. The book is, as always, a report on the well-being of America’s children through statistical measures, state by state and segmented by ethnicity.
            While most of the measures in this year’s book are pre-pandemic, a few give insight into how children fared during the Covid lockdown.
            One category is “Adults in households with children who sometimes or often do not have enough food to eat.” New Mexico overall fared the same as the national average. Hispanics in New Mexico did significantly better (13%) than the national average of Hispanics (20%), but the number is still appalling. Native Americans did even worse with 22% for New Mexico compared to 20% nationally.
            When the schools were forced to close last year, the meal program was an immediate statewide priority. It’s easy to see why.
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Let’s teach people to read
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
Almost half of New Mexico adults can’t read well enough to understand this paragraph. The statistics from 20 years ago are not showing improvement.
New Mexico’s school children are also behind. According to the Kids Count Data Book for the state, 76 percent of fourth graders are not proficient in reading.
So it is commendable that the Albuquerque Journal, KOAT-TV, and KKOB radio have initiated a year-long project to call attention to our literacy crisis.
The rest of the country is not doing well either.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), 21 percent of U.S. adults fall into the illiterate or functionally illiterate category. Nearly two-thirds of fourth graders read below grade level, and the same number graduate from high school reading below grade level.
It’s no surprise that low literacy is associated with social dysfunction. Among many depressing statistics, two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare. More than 70 percent of America’s inmates cannot read above a 4th grade level.
Clearly, it’s past time to tackle this issue in New Mexico.
            Hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans were idled by the Covid stay-at-home orders. Thousands are still unemployed and collecting benefits. What are they doing?
While many have legitimate reasons to stay home, such as caring for small children, even child care does not occupy every minute of every day.
Some of the unemployed are now required to prove they are looking for work. Business owners say some workers go through the motions without really intending to get a job. Maybe, for those who can’t read, it would be more beneficial to enroll them in a reading program.
And then there’s my favorite topic, workers’ comp.
Before the reform in 1990, New Mexico’s workers’ comp system provided vocational rehabilitation. As implemented then, it was expensive and ineffective. The requirement was eliminated in the reform but unfortunately not replaced with anything better. Since then, as the principles behind workers' compensation reform are being forgotten by policymakers, we have simply not gotten around to figuring out what would work better.
Some workers with injury-related permanent limitations can’t return to their old job, may be off work for several months or longer, and have no guidance on what to do next. During this period they are expected to work on their recovery, through physical therapy or whatever the doctor recommends, but otherwise they are being paid to do nothing. (We don’t know how many because the Legislature keeps raiding the Workers' Compensation Administration budget so there’s not enough money for a study.)
I see a pattern.
New Mexico provides free adult basic education all around the state, funded through the state Higher Education Department, including 24 programs mostly affiliated with community colleges.
According to Amber Gallup Rodriguez, director of HED’s Adult Education Division, the programs moved online last year and now are developing hybrid options. There are two major program groups, inconveniently named adult education and adult literacy, so it’s hard to tell them apart.
In 2019-20 the adult education programs served a total of 9,520 students, including 1,369 through the state Corrections Department. They cover students with grade zero education through high school equivalency. Adult literacy served smaller numbers providing basic literacy skills.
I’m not suggesting anyone should be forced to enroll in literacy programs, but, for those adults who would benefit, the resources exist.  One way to improve the state’s literacy is to connect these programs with people like injured workers who are already idled by circumstances and might welcome a chance to improve not only their skills but also their employability and self-esteem.
This would require changes in the rules. It’s not too big a leap for workers' compensation. It just needs policy makers with imagination and incentive.  
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Can a business require masks?
By Merilee Dannemann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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