Indian Country housing wrapped in BIA red tape
By Harold Morgan

New Mexico Progress
Outgoing Sen. Tom Udall likes to issue news releases calling for things to happen in Indian Country, sometimes spotlighting institutional matters. The exhortations typically come without introduced legislation and budgets, so I’m not sure what the releases really mean except for the not insignificant moral suasion of a United States senator saying something. Most recently Udall gathered 13 other Democrats to sign a letter to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission to, as the news release said, “expeditiously address the digital divide in Indian Country.”
Water infrastructure, cultural patrimony, housing grants, health care and wildlife corridors are among the topics of Udall’s news releases the past few months. Buying a house and enjoying the well known benefits of ownership is another matter of interest in Indian Country.
Wherever there is a house being purchased, paperwork is part of the process. The Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis has reviewed the mortgage paperwork process at the Bureau of Indian Affairs for home buyers on tribal trust lands. Production of the required Title Status Report (TSR) is slow, so much so that mortgages sometimes become unavailable and deals collapse. The Center’s report, dated September 9, is “Shortening the TSR timeline: A proposal to end delays that hinder Native homeownership.”
The problem, the center writes, is that “Certified TSRs from the BIA are required for underwriting trust land home mortgages and for selling those mortgages into the secondary market.” Selling the mortgage is vital because it frees up money at the typically local financial institution, allowing it to make more mortgage loans. Certified TSR’s cover all those items needed to show the title is good—the legal description, liens, past transactions—that a piece of land accumulates over time.
Note here that I’m writing from the center’s report, which says that sometimes procedures vary from tribe to tribe but does not mention New Mexico. Overall, the situation is that, “Housing shortages, trust land development, and equitable capital access are critical issues.”
The recommendations start with building on what the BIA does well. There is even a BIA handbook. Then have all BIA offices play by the rules, that is, comply with existing timelines and consider new statutory deadlines for title recording and certified TSRs.
Think about that. Passing a law is the recommendation for getting paperwork processed. That recommended law would have to go through the United States Congress, a serious time-consuming hassle. This tells me—the external person—that the problem is large. The BIA says things are fine.
There should be a secure online portal for the handling of all documents related to the transaction.
Various federal agencies including the BIA and Housing and Urban Development have housing programs in Indian Country. They should be required to talk to one another, perhaps via an interagency report card that would track delivery of the various programs, in particular the factors in delayed or abandoned deals.
Producing mortgage paper work is one of those matters given little thought by most of us; it’s in the background and supposed to work. The research and policy proposals are a big part of the Center’s job. “Our mission is to support the prosperity of Native Nations through actionable research and community collaboration,” the Center says. Being part of the Federal Reserve puts the Centers focus on the financial. My experience with Fed organizations is that Fed products are of the highest quality.
Mortgage title paperwork is stifled in the BIA bureaucracy, as, one might figure from Udall’s news releases, are a host of other matters. Udall’s released are to be commended. Getting something done would be a good next step.

 © 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   9-14-20
Small business can get help getting help
By Merilee Dannemann

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

ACI finds opportunity for Statewide Economic Strategic Action Plan
By Harold Morgan

New Mexico Progress            
Crisis offers opportunity. That appears to be the logic behind the “Statewide Economic Strategic Action Plan” being developed by the Association of Commerce and Industry. The effort is worthy.
Nearly all of the talk about the economy in New Mexico is inane. Too much government! More recently, too much oil and gas! The Spaceport will be a great thing! (Maybe eventually.) The pablum of New Mexico First reports is close to humorous. As noted in my last column, economic development in New Mexico means, among other things, repairing the fronts of buildings in down Truth of Consequences. Wow.
ACI is the natural organization for such a project. It is statewide. It is the New Mexico chamber of commerce. “Business,” however defined, is the constituency.
Allison Smith, a lobbyist from Las Cruces, is the current ACI chair. Smith has a separate business, Roadrunner Capitol Reports, for tracking legislation. The first vice chair is Tom Briones, an Albuquerque lawyer who represents small and medium businesses. Last year’s chair was Sayuri Yamada, the government affairs director (i.e. chief lobbyist) for the Public Service Company of New Mexico.
The project will cost some money. PNM is the “lead partner” with Chevron the “premier partner.” Among the top 15 supporters, I saw only two financial institutions, both Albuquerque based, Nusenda Credit Union and Bank of Albuquerque. Not so long ago (well, 25 years ago, actually), with PNM, banks would have led support of an effort such as the ACI study. We would have seen Wells Fargo, Sunwest Bank (now Bank of America), First National in Albuquerque (now Bank of the West), Los Alamos National Bank. Let’s do credit US Bank as a major ACI supporter.
The project is worthwhile, even if nothing much comes from it. The worth will be from many people thinking about the state as an entire entity. I don’t remember a similar effort that was substantive happening for a long time. Under the Martinez administration in 2014, the Cultural Affairs Department did an excellent and thorough analysis of the “Creative Economy.” The report hit the shelf about 20 minutes after completion. But nothing has viewed the entire state. I hope ACI’s consultant, Economic Leadership of Raleigh, North Carolina, digs the art study off the shelf.
An online survey with four main sections, done last week, is part of the project. The survey asked “satisfaction” with 15 matters, including legal climate, business taxes, public safety, broadband, and quality of life. It says to pick the top five from 19 ultra broadly stated approaches that will help businesses—reduced business taxes, more access to capital, promotion of better health (rah, rah!). Pick three from a ten-item list of workforce issues, such as basic academic skills, childcare, and drugs and five top things state government might do from a 16-item list.
The project document is full of today’s business jargon, “deliverables… slide deck… supply chain disruptions… leadership planning session… leadership retreat… outreach strategies…”
To me, the most encouraging deliverable (that means a product) will be a “cluster analysis and a supply chain analysis of major industries statewide to identify opportunities for growth.” That almost sounds like figuring out major industries really work, just about my favorite topic. Over time, chile has been the working example. My work in this area has produced little interest and no actions. (Of course, it may have been the sales pitch.)
Finally, there will be “potential legislative and regulatory reforms” and “outreach strategies,” whatever those might be. For reforms, start with the state’s Constitution, the key to higher education change.
All by November.  

Columns appear here a week after they're sent to newspaper subscribers.

Sherry Robinson photo

New stab at statewide public health insurance could be do-able, consultant says
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            Writing about healthcare coverage is always a dizzying experience, I find, but lately there’s some encouraging news. Recently a legislative committee heard an update on the proposed Health Security Act. Proponents say it would save billions and control rising costs while providing access and almost universal coverage.
            Introduced in the 2019 legislative session, the Health Security Act offered a detailed, public healthcare plan, run by cooperatives, that would cover all New Mexicans. Plan members could choose their providers, even across state lines. Private, for-profit insurance would take a supplementary role. The ambitious bill, introduced by some Dem heavy hitters, called for fiscal analysis to determine potential costs, savings and coverage. If lawmakers and the administration found it feasible, it would be implemented.
           The bills ran into resistance. Although it was presented as a study, it would “lay the ground work for a government-run healthcare system that would lead to the collapse of the private insurance market in New Mexico,” wrote the Association of Commerce and Industry. The group’s concern was that the bill wouldn’t receive enough study, “leaving New Mexico taxpayers with the surprise costs of covering government-run healthcare.”
            Lawmakers passed House Memorial 92, which called for a fiscal analysis. KNG Health Consulting, of Maryland, assessed the five-year cost of the proposed plan and looked at whether the state’s revenue and potential savings would cover the cost.
            KNG reported Sept. 4 to the interim Health and Human Services Committee. Costs are hard to pin down because of variables, like how generous the plan would be and in what circumstances, along with a host of unknowns, so the consultant used four scenarios. (This came after the consultant scared everyone with a $7 billion cost estimate.)
            KNG concluded that the plan, to begin in 2024, would provide universal coverage and reduce the percentage of uninsured people to almost zero. Without reform, New Mexico healthcare costs are expected to rise by $2.1 billion between 2024 and 2028, but over five years, the plan could reduce state spending between $1.6 billion and $2.7 billion, depending on the scenario. It would reduce healthcare costs substantially under all scenarios. Existing revenue could fund the plan under some scenarios; in others, there could be a funding shortfall, although the shortfalls decrease each year. One scenario predicts a funding surplus.
            How does it reduce costs? The plan would reduce administrative costs by merging Medicaid, state employees, and health insurance exchange programs. It would buy medicines in bulk. It would simplify billings and stabilize revenues for hospitals. The consultant also predicted the plan would reduce workers’ compensation and car insurance premiums. A focus on prevention would result in a healthier population.
            During the committee hearing, legislators asked about the impact on private insurers and on small business.
            Mary Feldblum, executive director of the Health Security for New Mexicans campaign, said that private insurers opposed Medicare in 1965 because they feared it would put them out of business but then found new roles in offering supplementary insurance.
            She said that employers who currently don’t provide coverage would have an increased expense for paying into the plan, but employers who do already provide coverage would see a reduced cost for coverage.
            Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, called the plan a good start while noting the many unknowns and the sheer scale of the plan. If the assumptions are incorrect, she said, the result could be catastrophic.
            But Feldblum sees the current path as fraught with hazards --  rising out-of-pocket costs, escalating drug prices, beleaguered hospitals, frustrated providers who spend more time on a computer than with patients, and employers who can’t afford to protect employees. Add to that around 200,000 New Mexicans who still lack coverage.
            Maybe the Health Security Act doesn’t have all the answers just yet, but we’ve got to start somewhere.  

 © 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    9/14/20
Virus is top of mind for voters, and masks win the day
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            My doctor told me back in April, “The governor is giving us good information. The president is not.” He was spending extra time with each patient, despite a busy schedule, to make sure they understood how dangerous COVID-19 was and what they needed to do to stay safe.
            Months later, a majority of New Mexicans apparently agree.
            The Albuquerque Journal’s pollster has taken the temperature of voters and found healthy support for the governor and her handling of the virus and tepid support for the president’s handling of the virus, except on the East side, where the numbers were reversed.
            Results of the poll published last week showed that:

  • The virus and related issues (health care, economic uncertainty, schools) were by far the top priority for likely voters; crime was farther down the list.
  • The governor’s overall approval rating was 59% and her virus response was 60%, compared with about one-third who disapprove of both. Among Democrats, her approval rating was 86%; among Republicans, 23%; among independents, 58%. She notched 74% with voters who consider the pandemic their top issue.
  • The president got a 36% thumbs up for his handling of the pandemic and a 55% thumbs down.
  • Masks won big. A whopping 78% support the public masking requirement, and just 17% were opposed. The support cut across party lines and geographical regions, although Republicans, the East Side and the northwest were less enthusiastic.

          Masks really were the only surprise in these numbers. They indicate that the state’s consistent messages have taken root and that citizens, out of self-preservation and fear, have informed themselves.
            We’ve learned the hard way that all those warnings have a basis in fact. McKinley and San Juan counties suffered a frightening spread of the virus until residents got serious about masks and other precautions and the Navajo Nation ordered lockdowns.
            Now, in Chaves, Lea and Eddy counties – anti-mask, anti-governor turf – the infections have spiked. Lea is fifth in total cases, and Chaves is sixth. By population, they’re among the highest concentrations in the state.
            Lea and Chaves counties have 20 cases per 100,000 population; testing positivity is 12.3% in Lea and 7.5% in Chaves. Eddy has 14 cases per 100,000 and positivity of 7.8%. Curry, Roosevelt and Quay counties look like Eddy.
            Now compare this to hard-hit McKinley County with 8 cases per 100,000 and positivity of 3.4% or populous, mask-wearing Bernalillo County with about 5 cases per 100,000 and positivity of 2.1%.
            This virus gets a lot more real once you know somebody who’s gotten it, or you’ve gotten it yourself. You’ll either have no symptoms or mild symptoms or you’ll be sicker than you ever thought possible. As one man described it in print, “Think of the worst flu you ever had and multiply by 10.” My 82-year-old stepmom toughed it out home alone for six weeks because she didn’t want to infect anybody else.
          The second person in my family to contract it is a chaplain in a Florida hospice facility. The source of disease was a male nurse who refused to wear a mask. By the time he was fired, he’d infected my brother-in-law and several patients. Since his hospital stay and recovery, my brother-in-law, is no longer a Trump supporter.
          The poll results should weigh heavily in political deliberations. Voters’ top concerns and the governor’s robust support, including among independents, mean that Republicans who need votes from Democrats and independents to win, aren’t likely to find it.
          Some pundits are calling this election a referendum on the president. It’s also a referendum on science. Those who’ve built a political strategy on opposing science may have egg on their faces.

© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     9/7/20
Counties in the COVID economy: Not as bad as expected
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            Thank God for construction.
            That’s at least one conclusion to draw from the County Reports, a new project by the state Economic Development Department. The other is that the state is doing better than we might expect, in the view of Deputy Secretary Jon Clark. The economy faltered, he said, but it didn’t stop.
          The reports are intended to provide a better idea of what’s happening in the local economy as counties try to regain their stride.
          In a videotaped interview released with the reports, Clark said the declines weren’t as bad as expected. By June the state was starting to get back to where it was a year ago. Obviously the arts and entertainment sector has taken a hit, along with lodging, but construction is up.
          Clark added that after the Great Recession the state gained jobs and economic growth, which adds optimism to people’s outlook.
          However, federal stimulus money bankrolled a lot of consumer and business spending. At this writing we’re still waiting for further relief for the unemployed. If that happens, he said, “we can expect to see New Mexico climb out of the hole.” If it doesn’t happen the state will see $40 million a week less for unemployed workers.
            The first set of reports are for April, May and June, the final quarter of fiscal 2020. Find them at https://gonm.biz/site-selection/county-profiles/.
            Statewide, matched gross receipts taxes (tax payments matched with taxpayers’ reported receipts) were down 2% from the previous quarter, food and lodging dropped 31%, and arts and entertainment plummeted 68%. Retail was up 11%.
          Construction was a healthy 28% higher statewide, but in small counties with big projects it was huge: Roosevelt, up 293%; Luna, up 237%; and Torrance, 166%.
            Our tourist meccas suffered. From the previous quarter, Santa Fe saw its gross receipts tax collections decline nearly $522,000, or 3.5%. Taos and Lincoln counties saw 20% and 5% drops.
            Bernalillo County, the state’s largest county, was down 6% while Doña Ana, the second largest was up 2%. Sandoval County, with a big construction sector, was up a whopping 37%.
            Outside the urban corridor, the picture is mixed. Rio Arriba, McKinley, and Chaves counties are big market centers in their regions. So when retail climbs, it’s amplified through the economy.
          In Rio Arriba, retail is 43% of economy, and it grew 15%. The county was also blessed with a 49% increase in construction, so even though oil and gas were down, Rio Arriba could post a respectable $107,000, 8% increase.
          In Chaves County, retail is 31% of economy, and spending was steady, but construction, which is 20% of economy, vaulted $68.3 million, or 64%. Despite decreases in oil and gas, the county’s receipts of $3.7 million were up 13%
          Retail couldn’t salvage tax receipts in McKinley County. Retail is a third of the economy and grew 4%, and construction was up 20%. But food and accommodations, 11% of the economy, dropped 25%. For months the county was the virus’s biggest target. So for the quarter, receipts are down $252,000, or 7%.
            Now consider Eddy and Lea counties, where energy is about one-third of the economy, so even a small decline makes a big difference. In Eddy, oil and gas dropped 14%, or $78 million, and took construction with it. In total, the county was down $3.2 million, or 23%. In Lea County, oil and gas fell 35% with no offset from construction, so quarterly receipts were down $1.8 million, or 31%.
            The reports also tally the cost of a census undercount for each county over 10 years. In Lea County, for example, it was $20.4 million.
            Kudos to the department and its economists for producing useful data. At times like this, it helps to know precisely how things are and not leave it to our overworked imaginations.