Columns appear here a week after they're sent to newspaper subscribers.
Sherry Robinson photo
© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 3/23/20
Oil disruption will spark special session, and abandoned mines pose dangers
By Harold Morgan
New Mexico Progress
“A surreal juncture” was the phrase an email writer used the other day. Further comment on the COVID-19 virus is best left to others because of the rapid movement of events. But things continue to happen. Two will get a mention—oil and abandoned mines.
The big picture of oil, gas and especially the shale business has gotten attention in this column, mostly through passing along national headlines about volatility and the fact that a whole lot of the companies, the small and mid-size ones especially, aren’t making any money.
While the Delaware Basin subset of the Permian may be the best basin ever, things have changed. The point is that our massive actual and proposed increases in state spending the past two years (the current budget year that ends June 30 and the next one) are built on forecasts, not cash. The forecasts no longer work.
On March 16 oil prices on the New York Mercantile Exchange dropped to $28.70 per barrel, a four-year low, reported the Wall Street Journal. “Oil is caught in a severe demand and supply shock, both of which have an uncertain future,” the Journal quoted JPMorgan Chase analysts. A new element, the Journal reported the day before, is a Russian “strategic campaign to cripple U.S. shale-oil production.”
A special session of the Legislature looms.
Mining comes from outgoing Sen. Tom Udall, who is closing his Senate career with reports, news releases, conferences and such about mining matters and Native American issues. The latter I applaud. Udall approaches mining from the view that miners are bad guys.
Udall’s March 11 release covered a new report, “Abandoned Hard Rock Mines” (www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-238), from the General Accounting Office. Hard rock mining involves 11 minerals including copper, molybdenum, potash, silver, gold and uranium. Coal is a “soft” rock.
The GAO calls itself “the audit, evaluation, and investigative arm of Congress, (which) exists to support Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities…” That means the GAO works for Congress. Udall attached the GAO report to a March 11 release. The report was addressed to the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies of the Senate Committee on Appropriations. That means Udall.
The abandoned mine situation seems a little like what my cousin the dentist observed decades ago about my wisdom teeth; Don’t bother them unless they bother you. Think Gold King.
The GAO took 21 months to do the report. It covered 13 western states including New Mexico.
Mine sites come with “features.” Apparently, though, there is no agreed definition of a “site” or a “feature.” This throws uncertainty into the numbers. Features can be mine openings, pits, buildings, and/or leftover materials called tailings. In addition to the physical and environmental hazards at a site, young men, alcohol and nearness to more populated areas can bring in the “stupidity factor.”
Four federal agencies found “at least” 140,000 features at abandoned mines on the agency’s land. The four were the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. Of those, 67,000 might be safety hazards and 22,500 might be environmental hazards. Actual confirmed hazards are 6,439 for physical safety and 1,363 for environmental. While these numbers are large, the federal four think there might be another 390,000 problems not yet in federal databases. Then there are state and private lands.
From the 2008 budget year to 2017, New Mexico spent $4.3 million “to address” environmental hazards at abandoned mines and nothing on safety hazards, the report said. The feds spent $64.5 million.
Udall’s solution: a royalty to be paid by future mines and a reclamation fee for existing and future mines.
© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 3-16-20
State saves for the future through trust funds
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
New Mexico understands boom and bust.
We thought oil and gas production would give New Mexico a boom year. Good thing our legislators were cautious. Instead of spending all that new money – which now may or may not materialize – New Mexico lawmakers showed self-restraint by squirreling some of it away. Ironically, the financial uncertainties we face today waited until the session was over to manifest.
Prudently, lawmakers put some of the promised bonanza into income-generating accounts so that the proceeds can be spent over time. Legislation this year has created a few new funds and shored up existing ones.
The most ambitious effort is aimed at raising the education levels and general well-being of our smallest citizens. The Early Childhood Trust Fund has been created and endowed with $320 million, most of which will be invested and distributed through annual appropriations.
The Kiki Saavedra Senior Dignity Fund, named after the late legislator, sets up a $25 million fund that can be used for seniors in need. The money will have to be appropriated each year. It will address high priority services for senior citizens and adults with disabilities in New Mexico, to include transportation, food insecurity, physical and behavioral health, case management, and caregiving.
The Rural Libraries Endowment Fund was increased by $2 million. This fund was created in 2019 with just $1 million. It was the vision of Democratic Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, who said that in small rural communities the public library is often vital to civic and community life, but these libraries have no public funding and have to be supported by donations. The original 2019 request was for an ambitious $50 million, which would have generated enough income to provide meaningful support.
The laws creating these trust funds contain formulas setting out how much money must go into the fund and how much may be appropriated and spent at any time, frequently referring to such arcane concepts as five-year moving averages. Charles Wollmann, public information officer of the State Investment Council, explained that such provisions are intended to smooth out the distribution from the funds, so that we don’t get a big chunk of spending money in a good year and a dribble in a bad year.
Any major project takes time to get cranked up and functional, to the point where it’s ready to make use of the money. The state’s new Early Childhood Education & Care Department may be one such example, where the agency may not yet have the staff or facilities to implement the programs. That’s a reason for not rushing to appropriate excessive amounts of money.
In the midst of all these efforts to save money, one proposed amendment to the state Constitution was an apparent contradiction. That was the effort, tried many times before, to take a little more money every year out of New Mexico’s great financial treasure, the Land Grant Permanent Fund. It didn’t pass. House Joint Resolution 1 would have increased the distribution by 1%. It was amended to one-half percent, but it stalled in the Senate Finance Committee.
Distributions from this fund are expected to contribute roughly $784.2 million in the current fiscal year, according to the State Investment Council.
Any trust fund created by the Legislature can be amended by a future Legislature. If circumstances change, the Early Childhood Trust Fund can be adapted. But any fund created by the state Constitution can only be changed by amending the Constitution. To change it again we’d have to amend the Constitution again. In the unique case of the Land Grant fund, the change also has to be approved by Congress. That’s a major difference between this fund and all the other funds, and a reason to be very cautious in changing it.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.
© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 3/23/20
As coronavirus case numbers increase, hospitals scramble for basic supplies
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
CHRISTUS St. Vincent Medical Center in Santa Fe pleaded last week for medical and cleaning supplies through the state’s largest business group, the Association of Commerce and Industry.
“If you or your business have any of the following materials in stock and aren't in use, we encourage you to consider donating to the hospital as they tackle the COVID-19 crisis and work to keep New Mexico families safe and healthy.” The hospital needed gloves, masks, bunny suits, liquid cleaning supplies.
The problem is nationwide. The governor of New York pledged that his administration is “scouring the world” for supplies.
If this doesn’t make your blood boil, it should. If the state’s largest hospitals don’t have what they need, what does this bode for smaller hospitals with smaller budgets?
This has become very personal for me. My son and daughter-in-law are both New Mexico healthcare workers on the front lines of this pandemic. He’s been working without a mask because the hospital didn’t have enough. Now he’s wearing a surgical mask, which he admits is still inadequate.
She’s also been working without a mask, in a different facility. Management told her, “You don’t need a mask. You’ll be fine!” After she developed a cough and sore throat, she got tested and is now at home, but she notified the chain of command and human resources that she was sick from not wearing a mask. Now, she’s told, everybody’s wearing a mask.
For months, we’ve seen Chinese and South Korean healthcare workers in full PPE (personal protective equipment), which covers them from head to toe. They’ve learned a lot about keeping their medical people healthy, and we should be paying attention.
I was somewhat encouraged by the governor’s recent comments about supplies and testing. She said her administration is working to get PPE for healthcare workers, and she’s prodding the White House to make more available.
“The state pre-ordered equipment and only got 25% of its allocation from the government,” she said.
The U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, which manages the Strategic National Stockpile, has been dribbling out medical supplies based on population size and severity of outbreaks, but it’s holding back half its supplies in case there’s a bigger spike in demand.
This is according to the independent, nonprofit news organization ProPublica, which also reports that the Trump administration’s efforts to obtain supplies have so far been confusing. After the vice president asked builders to donate N95 masks (the most effective) to hospitals and stop ordering more, the Associated General Contractors asked for more information but got no reply. Then HHS, for the White House, asked the group not to donate supplies to hospitals but instead report an inventory of available equipment.
The White House asked the National Association of Manufacturers for companies to voluntarily donate or produce within two weeks large quantities of critical supplies. Experts say these requests are too small and too fragmented “by orders of magnitude.” The American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, and the American Nurses Association on Saturday asked the administration to use the Defense Production Act to order production of medical supplies and equipment. As of Sunday, there was no order.
Our high-energy governor has thrown herself into this challenge. If there are supplies to be had, she’ll wrest them from the source, but at this point she will need to be a magician.
Meanwhile, medical managers worry about how they will care for patients as care givers sicken. They sound like generals talking about troops in battle, and it is a battle. But keep in mind, every doctor, nurse, assistant, medical tech, and housekeeper is somebody’s mom or dad, somebody’s child.
How is it that third-world countries can protect their healthcare workers but we can’t?
© 2020 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 3/16/20
Coronavirus is not the flu: For everyone’s sake, do your part to limit the spread
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
A friend goes to the grocery store. She asks a fellow customer loading bags in his trunk, “Is it crazy in there?”
“No,” he said. “The crazy people have already been there.”
The store looked like the aftermath of a disaster. The produce aisle was largely empty, and so was the butcher case. Customers had been lining up in the dark before the store opened.
An emergency doctor here tells me about a 30-ish woman arriving in an ambulance with no symptoms who wanted to be tested. He saw people wearing two masks – an N95 and a surgical mask – and told them they were just wasting masks.
All of this behavior is our response to a generalized fear floating in the air like disease germs. I feel it myself. It’s driven by the weak, chaotic response to the virus by the federal government, by expanding knowledge about the virus itself, and by concerns about the capacity of hospitals, in New Mexico and elsewhere, to respond.
State governments, including our own, are trying to compensate for the CDC’s bungling. The governor and her administration are in overdrive seeing to every last detail that’s within their scope of responsibilities. Teaming with Tricore Reference Laboratoriess to do testing was also a smart move.
Information – credible information, I should say – has become more readily available on websites. For New Mexico information, see the state Health Department’s site (https://cv.nmhealth.org/).
I’ve seen a lot of good reporting, especially by health reporters with previous experience covering epidemics. Pro Publica, a nonprofit news site, has even instructed journalists about what questions to ask and warned us to stop comparing coronavirus with the flu.
“COVID-19 is deadlier than the flu. It’s deadlier for young adults. It’s deadlier for older adults. In China, early data shows that it was 10 times deadlier,” wrote Pro Publica’s Charles Ornstein.
“If 1 in 12 people age 70-79 who get the virus and 1 in 7 people age 80 or older who get the virus die, and the virus spreads to 20%, 40% or 70% of the population, we’re talking massive death tolls, the likes of which we have never seen before in our lives.”
That’s why medical people like the local ER doc talk about “flattening the curve,” or reducing the rate at which people get sick. And it’s why everybody from the governor on down advises us, pleads with us, to avoid crowds.
We’ve learned a new bit of jargon: social distancing.
How will this hit the healthcare system? Because of a bad flu season, hospitals here are still full. Every day somebody reports on available beds because we don’t have enough. If the curve doesn’t flatten, we will have no place to put new patients.
Healthcare systems are also trying to anticipate how they will function if medical staffs sicken or are quarantined. And we don’t have enough ventilators.
Some hospitals are expecting to set up tents in parking lots to keep ER waiting rooms from filling up with both the sick and what they call “the worried well” and overflowing into lobbies.
These are the discussions going on in our big hospitals. Small, rural hospitals, with smaller staffs and fewer resources, will need help.
Last week conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh said, “Coronaviruses are respiratory cold and flu viruses.” And what medical school did he attend?
If you’re getting your health information from talk radio or political web sites, best of luck to you.
We have to hunker down, but we don’t have to hunker down in fear. This is a time to face an unprecedented challenge with courage, creativity, and generosity. If you have crates of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, how about sharing with the local food bank?