Sherry Robinson 2017

© 2017 New Mexico News Services  12-25-17
New Mexico’s 120 years in the movies
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
          New Mexico author Max Evans said: “The first movie I ever saw was in a little old place in Hobbs where they painted the ceiling blue and put foil stars on the ceiling. They showed a western movie. I fell in love with all films at that moment.”
          Evans was speaking at an Albuquerque convention of Western Writers of America in 2012. The films fell in love with Evans. His first two novels, “The Rounders” and “The Hi-Lo Country” became movies. What’s less known is that Evans himself brought movies to New Mexico.
          In December the New Mexico Film Office begins a year-long celebration of 120 years of film-making here that began with “Indian Day School,” shot in 1898. It’s 50 seconds of children leaving a schoolhouse at Isleta Pueblo.
          The next effort, in 1912, was D. W. Griffith’s “A Pueblo Legend,” also shot at Isleta with Mary Pickford the unlikely choice as a Hopi Indian girl. In the next few years, the actor Tom Mix made short westerns in and around Las Vegas.
          MGM, in 1930, shot “Billy the Kid,” which launched Gallup into its heyday of moviemaking for the next three decades. The town offered nearby picturesque scenery, it was on the rail line from Los Angeles, and stars could stay at El Rancho Hotel, where you can still enjoy autographed photos of the big-screen legends.
          When westerns were big, New Mexico was too, and one of the biggest was “Lonely Are the Brave” in 1962, based on Edward Abbey’s “The Brave Cowboy.” Kirk Douglas (now 101!) always said it was his favorite out of the many movies in his long career. Douglas bought movie rights because he loved the central character, Jack Burns, a war veteran searching for the old west. Without blinking, Douglas hired Dalton Trumbo who’d been blacklisted during the McCarthy era, to write the screenplay, which Douglas pronounced “perfect.” It was shot in and around Albuquerque.
          In 1965, Max Evans saw "The Rounders" become a film starring Henry Fonda and Glenn Ford as cowboys working for a tough, unscrupulous ranch owner. On the writers panel, Evans said “The Rounders,” written in 1961, was one of the most authentic movies ever made about the “actual West, the working West” and remains a favorite of ranchers and cowboys. Said the writer who started cowboying at age 12, “I loved it. I still do.”
          New Mexico lost its piece of the movie when the Pecos got two feet of snow. Shooting moved to Arizona.
          By then, westerns were starting their slow fade. Evans and then-Gov. Dave Cargo began courting Hollywood and jumpstarted movie making, which led to some two dozen Westerns between 1968 and 1973.
          “The Hi-Lo Country,” based on life experience, became a movie in 1998. Like “Lonely Are the Brave,” it too was about the disappearing Old West after World War II.
          When Evans returned from the service, the foreman had broken his magnificent but difficult quarter horse. “I rubbed the horse down and found healed-up scars. I knew he was spoiled. I sold him to a man (Big Boy Hittson) who became my best friend. He took that horse and turned him around and I admired him so deeply and he admired me because I was a deadshot.” Woody Harrelson played Big Boy; Billy Crudup’s character, Pete, was Evans.
          Screenwriter Kirk Ellis wondered: “Your books have very strong women characters. How do you get into a woman’s head?”
          Said Evans, “I just had a terrible attack of amnesia.”
          In 2018 we’ll remember the movies made in New Mexico, along with their stars. Let’s also remember that New Mexico – its people and landscapes – have also been stars. And before there was a movie, there was a writer and a well-told story.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services  12-18-17
Regulatory pendulum swings again in FCC’s net neutrality decision
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            The trouble with regulation is what I call the Rule of One, as in, there’s always one. It applies to the regulated and to the regulators.
            Regardless of the industry, most of the regulated do their best to operate within the rules, but there’s always at least one company abusing the process, the consumer, the environment or its own employees. Once the abuses come to light, regulators come down on everybody, and no good deed goes unpunished.
            On the other side of the fence, most regulators try to be conscientious but fair and don’t assume that every entity they oversee is up to no good. But there’s always one who doesn’t wear the mantle of authority well or applies the rules in ways lawmakers never intended. Often they have no idea what the impact of their actions will be.
            I’ve reported on this see-saw for years and heard horror stories on both sides. It’s the reason we swing back and forth between lax and intrusive regulation. Now you can hear it in the arguments for and against net neutrality. And, of course, it’s political. Republicans favor less regulation; Democrats want more.
            Last week that the Federal Communications Commission abandoned net neutrality rules debated for more than a decade in favor of what FCC Chairman Ajit Pai calls a regulatory “light touch.”
            Net neutrality guarantees that internet service providers must treat all content equally. Big companies have argued that the rules stifle innovation and undermine investment in broadband networks.
            The responses have been fierce. New Mexico’s Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat, called the decision “a major blow to the internet as we know it,” and Attorney General Hector Balderas has joined other attorneys general in a lawsuit challenging the FCC’s decision.
            New Mexico desperately needs better and faster broadband, especially in the rural areas, and business groups like the Hispano Chamber of Commerce have argued that steps like this could help. On the other hand,  I wonder if the website supporting New Mexico News Services, which you’re reading (nmopinions.com), will get lost if service providers favor better financed web traffic. Other small businesses, nonprofits and schools have the same concern.
            Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the internet, has said that from its beginning, the internet was designed to be neutral, open and transparent. “All internet traffic should be treated exactly the same regardless of source, content, or destination,” according to a newsletter from Southwest Cyberport (SWCP), an Albuquerque-based internet service provider. “Everything from email, webpages and streaming videos to spam and illegal downloads, seek out the fastest routes available without any interference.”
            In 2006, large providers like Verizon and AT&T wanted to change from flat pricing to a tiered approach based on speed, reliability and security, so they could recover costs of content hogs like Netflix and Facebook; by the same token the big users could pay for faster service.
            Under the FCC’s new light touch, premium customers might enjoy the fast lane, says SWCP, while “everybody else would have to make do.”
          The communications giants are basically saying, Trust us. Rampant consumer opposition is grounded in an economy still trying to recover from the Great Recession, caused by abuses in the financial industry permitted under another light regulatory touch. The FCC decision also violates my Rule of One: While many telecom giants may do no harm and possibly do some good, which one will abuse its trust and its position?
          SWCP points out that regulation is just one issue. Already, security fears are threatening to break the net into “firewalled enclaves.”
          All of the scenarios are hypothetical, and it will take time before the new rules take effect and the challenges make themselves felt. Verizon and its fellow travelers have an opportunity to show us their good intentions. Meanwhile, SWCP advises, the best response is to stay informed.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 12-11-17
Sexual harassment reformer shouldn’t attack another woman’s complaint
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            It was a matter of time before “me too” caught up to our state Legislature, where misbehavior and sexual harassment have been an open secret for years.
            Rep. Kelly Fajardo, a Belen Republican, did Roundhouse women a service recently when she shined a light on rampant harassment against young female staffers and lobbyists – and you can add young female reporters to that list.
            But then Fajardo stepped in the muck by attacking a former legislator who complained about a Republican bigwig.
            Recently, Fajardo pressed legislative leaders to mandate sexual harassment training for legislators, staff, lobbyists and others who frequent the Roundhouse during the legislative session. She called the complaint process a joke because complaints go to agency directors or the chief clerk, who are chosen by legislative leadership, so the likelihood of an impartial investigation is slim. Also, the procedure discourages filing a report, and the no-retaliation mandate is weak.       
            Fajardo called for broad protection, independent investigation, prompt review, mandatory counseling, and periodic surveys.
          “During my five years as a state representative, I have personally experienced harassment in the Roundhouse,” Fajardo wrote. “I have also witnessed instances of harassment where colleagues and lobbyists have been subject to repeated profane comments and innuendo. I heard stories of sickening quid pro quo propositions where legislators offered political support in exchange for sexual favors.”
            These were not misguided attempts at humor but “deliberate, often serial, offensive actions intended to intimidate, humiliate, or coerce.”
            Fajardo demands to know the outcome of three complaints filed in recent years, and yet when former Rep. Stephanie Maez, an Albuquerque Democrat, raised a 2015 incident involving then House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, an Albuquerque Republican, Fajardo and Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-Kirtland, came unglued.
            During the two years Republicans held the House, Gentry had aspirations of becoming House Speaker. After fellow Republican Rep. Paul Pacheco voted for one of Maez’s bills, Gentry created a valentine with her photo and wrote on it “XOXO” and “thanks for your vote Paul,” and then circulated it to members of the House Judiciary Committee.
            It was a sophomoric stunt, and Gentry didn’t speak to Maez or lay a finger on her, so it wasn’t on the same level as the Groper in Chief. Still, Gentry wouldn’t have used the image of a male colleague. Maez had a right to be offended. She demanded an apology, didn’t get it, and brought up her complaint again last week.
            Fajardo and Clahchischilliage responded with praise for Gentry and “the exceptional legislation he has championed on behalf of women.”
           Fair enough. But then they call Maez’s complaint disingenuous, done “as a means of diversion from serious accusations” as part of her career “working for deeply partisan organizations that exist to attack political opponents.” They claim she’s “exploiting the current discussion for political gain,” and that it “undermines our efforts as women in pursuit of equal footing.”
            Whew!
            Maez was then and is now employed by liberal political groups. Does that mean she has no right to complain about sexual harassment? Gentry may be an upstanding guy, but isn’t this incident typical of the sexist atmosphere that Fajardo wants reformed? Wouldn’t Fajardo object if Gentry used her photo in the same way? By accusing Maez of politicizing the discussion, Fajardo has minimized Maez’s complaint in the same way she believes the process has minimized other women’s complaints.
            This flashpoint over harassment is still new. We’re likely to hear all kinds of complaints, large and small, and they need to be heard because they’ve been ignored or suppressed for such a long time. Eventually, everyone will calm down, and we can deploy new sensitivities. This personal attack by two women on another woman does more to undermine women than Maez’s complaint did in the first place.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services  12-4-17
Throwing money at The Wall
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            New Mexico’s border crossing at Columbus small but brisk.
            Tiny Columbus’s claim to fame is Pancho Villa’s raid in 1916, commemorated by a state park. Snowbirds hunker down in the campground to spend a comfortable winter. The only shopping is a Dollar Store close to the international boundary.
            Across the border, the much larger Palomas gets a steady stream of Americans shopping at the Pink Store, getting dental work done or buying cheap over-the-counter drugs.
            Border guards on both sides are friendly and professional. The atmosphere is relaxed.
            You can’t visit the border without contemplating The Wall. The existing wall here of 18-foot steel columns is of fairly recent vintage. I try to imagine a new wall of the prototypes on display in California and envision a tourniquet that squeezes trade and relations between the two countries.
            In October the U. S. Customs and Border Protection unveiled eight giant rectangles made of concrete or composites. If you live in Ohio, you might believe a wall of this stuff will keep us safe and hold the hordes at bay.
          People here don’t believe it for a second. Farmers who operate on the border have said repeatedly they want boots on the ground – active, visible Border Patrol agents – and, in fact, the agency is a growth industry in Deming. It’s hard to go anywhere without seeing a uniformed agent. The Border Patrol itself is using a lot of technology and wants more.
          The president has said he will choose the prototype wall, and that it must be as transparent as a fence. “As horrible as it sounds, when they throw the large sacks of drugs over, and if you have people on the other side of the wall, you don’t see them–they hit you on the head with 60 pounds of the stuff? It's over,” he was quoted as saying in a White House transcript.
          I’m no expert, but I think drug mules are more deliberate.
          Just two of the prototypes are transparent, but portions of the existing barrier along the border, some of it built under the Secure Fence Act of 2006, is already see-through. Undocumented Mexicans here hold emotional reunions through the fence with their loved ones across the border.
            Then there is the cost. Estimates are all over the board. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has predicted the wall would cost $12 billion to $15 billion. The Department of Homeland Security, in a leaked report, pegged it at $21.6 billion. Even the president has ratcheted up from $4 billion to $6 billion to $7 billion to $10 billion.
            Two weeks ago Newsweek reported that nobody in the administration has calculated the costs of real estate or counted the number of U. S. citizens owning land in its path who are likely to lose acreage to eminent domain. Two-thirds of the land is privately held or state-owned. And there is no timeline for land acquisition, according to a report by Democratic staff members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Texans whose land was acquired 10 years ago for border barriers are still waiting for payment, the report said.
            Congress must stretch its budget around some big items. For example, it must pony up for hurricane recovery. Katrina cost taxpayers $110 billion, and Harvey and Irma will be twice that. And there’s the war on terror, which has cost taxpayers more than $5.6 trillion, or $23,000 per taxpayer, since 2001, according to a new study from Brown University reported in the Wall Street Journal.
            In three visits to Mexico over the last year, I’ve seen in the state of Chihuahua a growing middle class and a lot less poverty. We can give the Border Patrol the tools it needs or we can spend money on a pointless wall.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 11-27-17
Tax policy is a walk through a mine field
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Trying to follow the tax-cut debate in the nation’s capital is a nightmare of being trapped in a roomful of accountants. Asked if the proposed changes are good for you and good for New Mexico, they answer, “Depends.”
            It depends on which tax bracket you’re in and which credits or deductions or exemptions you’ve taken. So when Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat, says, “This Republican tax plan is full of inequity,” and Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican, says, it “provides relief for lower- and middle-income families,” they’re both correct. Sort of.
          The nonpartisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy broke out the numbers by state. In 2019 three-fourths of the poorest 20 percent of New Mexicans (average annual income, $12,600) would pay $130 less, while 5 percent of the poorest would pay $20 more. By comparison, 99 percent of the richest 1 percent of New Mexicans (average annual income, $1.2 million) would pay $29,180 less, while 1 percent of the richest would pay $20,660 more.
          Of New Mexicans in the middle (average annual income, $74,400 a year), 95 percent would pay $1,460 less while 4 percent would pay $990 more.
            The House passed its bill, but the Senate bill is still changing. At this writing, the Senate version would eliminate deductions for state and local income and sales taxes, property taxes, mortgage interest, charitable donations, medical costs, and student loans. It would double the standard exemption, which might compensate for the lost deductions. It would also repeal the estate tax for the wealthy and give corporations a break. And, yes, the deficit will spike, along with the national debt.
            (Funny the way jacking up the deficit is OK as long as it supports either party’s agenda.)
            Under the bill that left the Senate Finance Committee on Nov. 16, 19 states (not New Mexico) and at least 29 percent of Americans would pay more in federal taxes in 2027, the institute found. The poorest three-fifths of Americans would pay more and the richest 40 percent  would receive a tax cut.
            Tax cuts for individuals would expire in 2025, according to the institute, and an inflation adjustment called “chained CPI” would gradually shift people into higher income tax brackets as several deductions, exemptions, and credits shrink. Finally, fewer people would receive tax credits under the Affordable Care Act to pay their insurance premiums.
            You begin to see the complexity. One reason tax reform is so tricky is that every time Congress moves a number this way or that, it’s bad for some constituents and good for others.
            Richard Anklam, executive director of the New Mexico Tax Research Institute, told legislators recently that tax cuts are not necessarily tax reforms. You might get a tax break but still face the same maddening tangle of rules on your tax form. He warned that removing deductions would increase income taxable by the state, so people might see a slight reduction in federal taxes but an increase in state taxes.
            As for New Mexico, the state’s personal and corporate income taxes are based on the federal taxes and may be vulnerable to federal changes. Data presented recently to the legislative Revenue Stabilization and Tax Policy Committee indicate the state could suffer a revenue hit from tax cuts in the federal tax measures. Depending on how Congress goes about delivering its tax cuts, the bills could deliver more money to the state’s general fund. That’s because the state won’t feel changes in brackets or tax rates but will feel the loss of deductions and exemptions.
            It’s a political see-saw. Whether you’re up or down just depends.  

 © 2017 New Mexico News Services 11-20-17
So-called monuments review was much ado about much ado
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            The dreaded national monument review stirred up the dust and is now disappearing.
            In April the administration called for a review of 27 national monuments, including two in New Mexico and two nearby in Utah, to examine “another egregious use of federal power,” as the president put it. After many protests and photos of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on horseback, what’s happened is: Not much.
            The blowback was hotter than Zinke and the administration anticipated; public comments, overwhelmingly in support, topped 2.3 million. New Mexicans submitted the largest number of comments per capita (97,000). Supporters went all out to demonstrate that these monuments weren’t just an environmental fantasy – they were created after long study and public hearings, and all but Utah’s monuments enjoyed broad public support.
            From the beginning, it was obvious that the main target was the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, established by President Obama at the end of his term. The two buttes that give Bear’s Ears its name lie just north of the Navajo Reservation.
          We in New Mexico should care about Bears Ears because it’s within the Four Corners tourism orbit, and a place New Mexicans visit as well. New Mexico archaeologist Tom Windes, who has worked in Bears Ears for 17 years, recently told his peers: “There are a huge number of sites that are unrecorded. Many are being reported in detail for the first time. There’s incredible archaeology there.” He also said that a lot of the rock art has been shot up or chainsawed off.
            What few people outside the area understand is that this is one more fight between the Mormons and the Navajos. The only difference is that this one includes other tribes plus environmentalists and archeologists. For years, Navajos in the Utah portion of the reservation have had to fight for everything – voting rights, roads, schools and infrastructure.
          “Everything done in San Juan County is done through lawsuits,” said former tribal council member Mark Maryboy. “We’re the poorest of the poor. It’s the poorest county in Utah and the most racist.”
            After a four-month review, Zinke submitted a secret report with his recommendations to the president, which was later leaked. He proposed shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments in Utah. The latter, designated by President Clinton in 1996, halted the proposed Smoky Hollow coal mine, and the monuments have been controversial in Utah ever since.
            Zinke’s report was loaded with generalizations about providing needed changes for nearby communities and the desirability of the smallest possible footprint. For New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte National Monument near Taos and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument near Las Cruces, he didn’t suggest changing the borders but did vaguely recommend more public access, protection of traditional and tribal uses as well as hunting and fishing, and tribal management of designated cultural areas.
          At Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks he ordered his agency to work with the Department of Homeland Security on “border safety” in the Portrillos Mountains Complex and the Department of Defense on nearby military installations. Zinke ignored Rep. Steve Pearce, R-NM, who wants the monument reduced to a postage stamp.
          At the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, Zinke said road closures had affected grazing, but he didn’t make any recommendations.
          Tribes and environmental groups have promised to fight any changes in court, and there’s now a lively debate in the legal community about what powers a president has under the Antiquities Act.
            In October President Trump told Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that he would reduce the size of Bears Ears. Nobody else, including Pearce, got such a call, so it’s safe to assume that Hatch’s gripe with Bears Ears was the point of this so-called review. The dust devil has spun itself out.

 


© 2017 New Mexico News Services  11-13-17
After 43 years of sexual harassment cases, a gleam of hope
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
           Sexual harassment is getting to be a pretty old subject. It burst into public awareness in 1974 in a lawsuit that reached the U. S. Supreme Court. There followed more lawsuits, congressional hearings, and conferences educating us on what it was and wasn’t, what was legal and illegal.
          But when Anita Hill leveled accusations at U. S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991, she revealed just how divergent our views were. A co-worker said one morning, “My husband and I had another Anita Hill argument.” Most men had never experienced sexual harassment. Most women (88 percent) had and found Hill credible.
          By the 1990s, employers were starting to understand the term “hostile workplace” and realize the law would hold them responsible for workplace atmosphere and activities. I reported in 1996 that New Mexico’s rate of complaints substantially exceeded the national average and that attorney Eric Sirotkin advised employers to make it clear that the company had zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior and spell out what “inappropriate” is.
          In 2011 sexual harassment was again in the news when Herman Cain, a candidate for president, was dogged by accusations. At the same time, multiple women at the state Workforce Solutions Department call center reported unwanted touching, crude remarks and solicitations by two managers.
          I wrote, “Herman Cain can ‘vehemently deny’ all he wants, but in a large field of candidates, he’s the only one fending off sexual harassment complaints.”
          You’re probably saying, Herman who? Which tells us something about the impact such accusations have on political ambitions.
            So here we are in 2017 and it’s big news again, but the accused and the accusers are more famous. And the case of a resident raped at the UNM Medical school by a fellow resident has come to trial, revealing the med school’s lousy response.
          The well publicized dramas tend to set off waves of insecurity in the workplace, as both sexes recalculate what’s acceptable.
            Guy question: Can I tell a co-worker she looks nice?
            Answer:  Yes, if she’s old enough to be your mother.
            In my experience, 95 percent of men are decent and professional in their dealings with female co-workers and vice versa. (We now know it can go both ways and also involve same-sex harassment.)
          Normal people may now be fretting about once inviting a co-worker to coffee or blurting out something at an office party. Relax. Sexual harassment as a firing offense or a headline grabber has certain elements: The offender is more powerful than his victim, the attention is unwanted or forced, and the behavior is repeated.
          Normal people don’t act like this, but a certain few, because of their positions or their fame, don’t think the rules apply to them.
          This time the complaints and the discussion are different. Instead of nameless women who could be dissed and dismissed, well known, powerful women are coming forward. Because they can. Because they want to make a difference for other women. Who was more convincing -- Taylor Swift or the creep who couldn’t control his hands?
          Preceding the latest explosions, another presidential candidate famously bragged about grabbing (you know the rest). He was elected, but his statements pushed a lot of women to a tipping point. After that, the accusations seemed to cascade from one offender to the next, as more women and some men found their voices, as each one who came forward gave someone else the courage to do the same.
           I ended the 2011 column this way: “If you’re the unwilling recipient of offensive comments, jokes, texts, emails or touches, know that it’s not acceptable. You have options, thanks to others who have spoken up.”
           I keep hoping I won’t need to write another of these columns. Maybe we’re getting closer to that point.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 11-6-17
Legislative report shines a light on higher education spending
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            What are we going to do about the state’s public colleges and universities?
            Lawmakers and the state Higher Education Department have called for reform and collaboration, which didn’t happen. In the last session the Legislature chopped 5 percent out of the higher ed budget.
            Now the Legislative Finance Committee staff has produced a 72-page report with more specifics, along with recommendations. It’s not a pretty picture. The only institution that shines is New Mexico Tech. The rest suffer from mismanagement and denial to varying degrees, with Northern New Mexico College (NNMC) in Española most often mentioned for wretched excess.
            In a nutshell, the report found that New Mexico’s tuition is the nation’s lowest, but the state spends the biggest percentage of taxpayer dollars on higher ed. Enrollments climbed and because administrators expected the boom to go on and on, buildings, programs and satellite  campuses proliferated – all without a guiding hand from HED or the Legislature.
            While the state increased higher ed spending, institutions spent even faster. Between 2007 and 2016, Western New Mexico University in Silver City and NNMC spent nearly twice the national benchmarks just on administration, “indicating they are overspending on their institution’s executives and administrative operations and not (spending) enough on providing instructions for their students,” the report said.
            All institutions except independent community colleges increased spending on executive management by $11.9 million during the last 10 years, often far more than inflation.
            When enrollments plummeted, administrators were slow to accept that reality. As a result, too few students occupy too much expensive space. Now tuition hikes are in the wind, but students here can least afford them.
            More than half of institutions don’t meet a benchmark for financial health (a complicated measurement calculated on operating fund balances among other things). While NNMC had a negative $651,000 balance in fiscal 2015, other schools had high fund balances that could be used to avoid tuition increases, the report said.
            New Mexico had the highest rate of federal student loan defaults at nearly 19 percent. Every institution except New Mexico Tech had default rates higher than the national average of 11 percent. Five have default rates higher than their graduation rates, and two – Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque and New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs – are in the 30 percent range. Continued high default rates could mean loss of federal loan and Pell Grant programs.
            The report made recommendations. It contemplates incentivizing efficiency through appropriations, urges institutions in the same regions to trim duplicate courses, and encourages schools to improve retention as a way to increase enrollment. Schools should identify excess space and close or lease it, and HED and the Legislature should monitor decision making and demand accountability. This is all sensible.
            On the other hand, the report recommends that UNM, ENMU and NMSU save money by centralizing administration and funding at their main campuses. Local governance provides flexibility, the report argues, but it has sometimes hurt the institution; examples are embezzlement at NNMC, a failed branch campus at NMSU, and high student loan default rates.
            I would argue that centralizing is what they don’t need. There is no substitute for decision making that’s close to the population it serves. While centralized administration might assure some uniformity of programs, it could well mean decisions made in Albuquerque or Las Cruces or Clovis that don’t work in Gallup, Los Alamos, Roswell or Ruidoso.
            In fact, the Legislature and the Higher Education Department should take this a step farther to examine what exactly rural communities need. We might learn that they need stepping stones toward certain degrees as well as certification for skills learned in vo-tech courses. How do we deliver these tailored combinations? The institutions might just have to collaborate or merge. That’s the next discussion we need.

 

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 10-31-17
Before reforming bail reform, we need to give changes a chance to work
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            An electrician told me this week that he’s done more work installing security lights in the last few months than he has in the last five years combined. The occasion was an upgrade to our security lights after a rash of break-ins in our once quiet neighborhood.
            Repeated polls show crime topping any list of voter or resident concerns. This is the backdrop to the current debate over bail reform and the constitutional amendment New Mexico passed. The reform hasn’t panned out as expected, and now the governor, prosecutors and some law enforcement officials want a re-do.
            Last year, the Legislature passed and 87 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment that gave judges authority to do two things: hold violent offenders without bail and free nonviolent offenders who were sitting in jail because they couldn’t afford bail. Supreme Court Justice Charles Daniels was the principal advocate of the amendment, which had broad support as a public safety measure and a money-saving move that would relieve our over-crowded jails.
            Before the amendment took effect on July 1, the Supreme Court issued rules to facilitate changes. In the last month, prosecutors have complained that the rules have caused confusion; some judges require hours of testimony before they agree to keep someone in custody.
            At the same time crime spiked, and the FBI ranked New Mexico first in property crime and second in violent crime.
          The governor, a former prosecutor, has called on lawmakers to revamp the pretrial detention process and to repeal and replace the amendment and its rules. She accused the courts of using the new provisions to return criminals to the streets.
          In Farmington, William “Scrappy” Wilson became the poster boy for that accusation. Released on August 2 despite the nine felonies on his rap sheet and current charges that included aggravated burglary and larceny, Scrappy died in a gunfight weeks later after shooting the state police officer who had just handcuffed him. The bullet struck the officer’s badge and vest.
          San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen said, with a mug shot of the much-tattooed Scrappy in the background, “They’re putting dangerous criminals back on the streets. As citizens of this state and this county and the city of Farmington, (we) should be outraged that this happened.”
            Rep. Moe Maestas, an Albuquerque Democrat, a former prosecutor, and co-sponsor of the reform legislation, sees the problems in the new rules but thinks the courts need some time to adjust to the changes and to fine tune their rules. He also said the underfunded, understaffed judiciary needs financial relief to keep up with new requirements.
            UNM Law School Professor Leo Romero notes that before the amendment, New Mexico relied on “a growing money-bond industry,” in which the worst of the worst could buy their way out of jail. Judges and lawyers need time to adjust to a system that now relies on individual risk assessment, he wrote.
            Attorney Blair Dunn has argued that the crime wave and the constitutional amendment are unrelated. “Gov. Susana Martinez is wrong, and repealing the amendment will do nothing to change our problem,” he wrote.
          Dunn blames the court’s rules, saying Supreme Court judges “legislated from the bench,” and released “virtually everyone without bail.” This, he said, has created what cops call the “catch and release” system now operating. Dunn urges the Legislature to take rule making away from the state’s Supreme Court.
            We have three choices: Repeal and replace, legislate, or let judges rewrite their rules. The first would take too long, and the amendment isn’t the root of the problems. The second requires lawmakers to second guess judges and pits one branch of government against another. The reasonable choice is for the Supreme Court to rewrite its rules. Then everyone needs to give reforms time to work.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 10-23-17
State water regulators make waves as water grab moves ahead
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            When three members of the Interstate Stream Commission resign abruptly, we need to pay attention. When they point fingers at the State Engineer, we need to be worried. The two agencies are our water watchdogs.
            The ISC oversees New Mexico's participation in interstate stream compacts, protects and develops the state’s water and does water planning. The State Engineer regulates water rights and serves as ISC secretary.
          The ISC has withered with an exodus of staffers blamed on both State Engineer Tom Blaine and the administration’s budget cuts. It’s an open secret in the water world that Blaine wants the traditionally independent ISC under his thumb.
          Blaine meanwhile has opened the gate to the state’s biggest water grab.
            The ISC in recent months has lost its director, Colorado River bureau chief, special projects bureau chief, general counsel, acting general counsel, and Middle Rio Grande Basin manager. It has just two senior staffers left.
          When Blaine hired Deborah Dixon in early 2015, she was senior vice president at Bohannan Huston, a major engineering firm. "Ms. Dixon is an outstanding engineer who has valuable experience working in water projects in New Mexico,” Blaine said.
          Blaine fired Dixon in June without a word to commissioners.
            Earlier this month ISC Chairman Caleb Chandler of Clovis, former Chairman Jim Dunlap of Farmington, and Jim Wilcox of Carlsbad resigned.      
            Dunlap, who’s been actively involved with water since 1966 when he launched the first rural water district in San Juan County, said in his resignation letter to the governor that he had “great concern for lack of direction from the State Engineer and adherence to New Mexico state statutes,” along with the loss of senior staff.  
          Dunlap said Blaine refused to meet with the ISC board, and even the politically connected Chandler couldn’t get a meeting with the governor.
          Meanwhile, Blaine has opened a hearing process for the most controversial request ever to land on the State Engineer’s desk. The Augustin Plains Ranch (a group of international investors) propose drilling 37 wells 2,000 feet deep and mining the aquifer to sell 54,000 acre-feet of water to the Albuquerque area via pipeline.
          Former State Engineer Scott Verhines rejected the application, saying it was “vague, incomplete and speculative.” Blaine, however, viewed it as “incomplete” and told the company to make it complete or withdraw it. The company revised its application, and it’s now in the hearing pipeline.
            When Blaine talks about this project, he talks out of both sides of his mouth.
            Last year he told the San Augustin Water Coalition of residents that his office would ask if water was available for appropriation, and that the answer to that question would be yes. To objections that the proposal is speculative, he said, “It will take a lot to satisfy me.”
            Asked if he will consider impairment to other users, he said “it can’t cause impairment,” but then said a dropping water table isn’t impairment if water can be replaced from another source or by deepening a well.
            “Water is a market-driven resource,” Blaine said. He loves agriculture, he said, but it uses 70 percent of the state’s water. “If we take 10 percent of that water and use it for M&I (municipal and industrial), we could double the population of New Mexico.”
            Discussing water basins, he tossed out the idea of a severance tax on water to help places that lose their water.
            On Sept. 28, the State Engineer held a public meeting in Socorro. People packed into Macey Center at New Mexico Tech to ask questions, but Blaine, without notice, changed the meeting’s purpose to a discussion of process. He appeared to be trying to reassure residents. They were not reassured.
            It’s unclear whether Blaine is a loose cannon or a focused weapon. Area water users are maintaining their guard. 

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 10-16-17
Reining in healthcare costs requires political and market solutions
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Martin Hickey has been around the quadrangle in healthcare, working in public institutions (Indian Health Service and the VA) and private. He’s best known here as former CEO of Lovelace Health Systems, although he worked outside the state for three other companies.
            Now he runs New Mexico Health Connections, a nonprofit health insurance cooperative founded in response to the Affordable Care Act.
            In a talk before New Mexico Press Women last week, Hickey was frank about doctors, hospitals, and the healthcare system.
            “Money has rained down on top of it,” he said, referring to healthcare, and yet outcomes are worse than cheaper systems in other industrial nations. We don’t have real competition between doctors or hospitals, and hospitals are money machines.
            A physician, Hickey said he took his last exam in 1981, but he can still hang out a shingle anywhere. You may like your doctor, but you really don’t know how skilled he or she is because they’re never measured.
            Some healthcare organizations have gotten better at measuring doctors, but the only people who know the results are other doctors, so “you have physicians working with other physicians, and most of the high-cost doctors will get better or leave.” Still, he thinks all doctors should undergo a yearly simulator test.
            A hospital’s “primary purpose is money,” Hickey said. “We’ve gone crazy for murals and four kinds of marble in the lobby. Who’s paying for that? You are.”
            And don’t assume for a second that nonprofit hospitals are kinder than for-profits. Nonprofit hospitals will be just as mean when they come after you for money owed.
          Hickey describes a free-wheeling system with no real competition, no cost control and no oversight.
            “Healthcare can generate its own demand. As a doctor, I can write an order, and a procedure gets done,” he said. “The system has evolved where if you do more procedures you make more money. Pharmaceutical companies can simply raise their prices.” What regulation we have is “convoluted and not well thought out.”
          Hickey said: “We’ve never had a coherent healthcare policy in the United States – ever.
            We need to figure out a way to get costs under control and get everybody covered.”
          As he sees it, there are political solutions and market solutions. Which brings us to Obamacare.
            Attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act failed, and political solutions are out of reach because members of Congress are unable or unwilling to compromise. That leaves the market, but as he already explained, a lack of competition removes the usual mechanisms of supply and demand and consumer judgment.
            One of the flaws in ACA is the mandate that everybody must buy insurance. “Twenty-something men are not going to buy insurance,” he said, because they believe they’re invincible, if not immortal. The penalty was not high enough to make them buy in, he said, and without them, the plan is unbalanced by sicker and sicker people, which raises the cost.
          “We’ve got to enforce individual mandates,” Hickey said. “We did it with car insurance, we can do it with health insurance.”
            He adds that ACA always had design flaws leading to rising rates. “Had it been set up like Medicare, we would have gone back to Congress for repeated fixes,” he said.
            Hickey would like to see employers speak up and say, “No, I’m not going to take it anymore.” He describes employers who grew tired of paying more and more for health insurance and created workplace programs for exercise, weight loss and smoking cessation.
            The solution, he said, is a market mechanism with regulation. “We’re also going to have to have political solutions.”
            Hickey says he makes himself available to talk to politicians of all stripes about healthcare. Let’s hope they take him up on that.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 10-9-17 
State’s large scientific community joins parents to question proposed science standards
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Public Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski hasn’t been in New Mexico long enough to understand the state. Otherwise, he’d know that we have a high concentration of scientists, engineers and technical people, plus a large contingent of retirees with impressive careers elsewhere. Their objections to PED’s proposed new science standards have swamped public discussion.
            Whatever the outcome, Ruszkowski will forever be the guy who tried to dumb down science in the state. He may have a bright future in places like Kansas and Alabama, but in New Mexico he’s toast.
            It began with the Next Generation Science Standards, a legitimate push to update knowledge and incorporate problem solving into teaching. PED rewrote the NextGen standards to avoid certain politically sensitive topics and produced its own science standards. The word “evolution” was replaced with “biological diversity.” References to the Earth’s rising temperatures became temperature “fluctuations,” and the age of the Earth disappeared altogether.
          Ruszkowski said the change allows New Mexico’s science curriculum to reflect the “diversity of perspectives” in New Mexico. That assumes that these basic questions are matters of opinion. They aren’t. There’s Science and there’s Not Science, and Not Science strays into the realm of belief.
            In recent weeks, letters to the editor have been blunt: David J. Raymond, a retired physics professor at New Mexico Tech, called the standards “a stealth assault on the integrity of science education in New Mexico.”
            The age of the earth is the product of data and scientific study, he said, and “evolution is at the heart of modern biology.” Strong scientific evidence documents the human role in global warming. Implementing “these ill-considered modifications,” he said, “would make us look like a pack of fools as we struggle to attract high-technology industry to New Mexico.”
            In a Los Alamos meeting, high school senior Kevin Parkinson said it’s important that students “get to learn the same information that I grew up hearing so that they can have the opportunity to know everything about the world – not just what some people think the world is.”
            PED has refused to identify the source of its watered-down standards, saying only that it accepted input from several groups. Where’s the transparency?
            Two Democratic legislators, Andres Romero and Bill McCamley, wrote recently that in the last regular legislative session they introduced a bill to require PED to adopt the NextGen standards. During a hearing a former PED staff member testified, “Toward the end of my tenure at the Public Education Department, I was tasked to edit and change some of the language in the standards to make them politically sanitized.”
            The NextGen bill passed but the governor vetoed it.
            Erin Taylor, a Las Cruces high school science department head, wrote in an op ed that four years ago she joined science teachers from across the state, along with lab and university scientists and others, to study the NextGen standards and make a recommendation. They unanimously recommended the new standards. Two years ago Taylor was part of another group that again recommended the standards, and the only alteration suggested was to add information about New Mexico’s geology and space history.
            “Instead the PED, after an inexplicable delay, ignored the advice of pretty much everyone, from teachers, to the national labs, to industry,” and released its own standards, “which is NGSS gutted almost past recognition.”
            In the past week, the Cassini spacecraft ended its astounding 20-year life, and we marveled at the scientific talent that kept it aloft. Will our young people be prepared to participate in similar endeavors based on PED’s proposed standards?
            Attend the public hearing on Oct. 16 at 9 a.m. at the Jerry Apodaca Education Building or email your comments by that date to rule.feedback@state.nm.us.         

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 10-2-17
Unexplained vetoes, free burger don’t move state’s economy
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Gov. Susana Martinez was having a bad couple of days last week. On Wednesday, she stiffed an eatery for her burger and fries. The next day a district judge ruled against her in a high-profile court case.
            According to the Santa Fe Reporter, Martinez signaled her exasperation at not being recognized in Five Star Burgers, picked up her to-go order, grabbed the check and crumpled it into the trash. And didn’t tip. The governor’s spin machine claimed it was “an honest misunderstanding” and paid the bill after the media began calling. The restaurant’s manager recalled serving former Gov. Bill Richardson and said he always paid his checks and always tipped well.
            The next day, a different kind of bill came due when a district judge ruled that ten measures Martinez improperly vetoed are now law. Several jump out because they had so much bipartisan support that the vetoes left us scratching our heads.
          The Computer Science bill, SB134, allows high schools to count computer science as either a math or science credit toward graduation. 
          The bill had support from business groups, the state Public Education Department, and teachers’ unions. It sailed through legislative committees and the House, passing unanimously; the Senate approved it 33 to 4.
          The governor vetoed it March 14 without explanation. At the time, New Mexico had the nation’s highest unemployment rate.
          After the veto, Nyika Allen, president and CEO of the New Mexico Technology Council, said: "Our New Mexico students deserve better. This bill was critical for (employee) pipeline development and I am deeply saddened to see that the governor is not thinking about our developing workforce and the needs of our technology industry.”
          Allen pointed out that the state had more than 1,500 unfilled computing jobs, and demand for computer science professionals was triple that of other professions. 
          A second vetoed bill was the bipartisan SB 24, which allows local governments to build or acquire broadband services. This measure was one of three recommended by the nonpartisan organization New Mexico First to help expand broadband access statewide.
          “This bill was essential to give local and especially rural governments the authority and ability to help their communities improve their broadband infrastructure by creating plans of action and helping to defray high costs of adding this type of critical infrastructure,” said the Tech Council’s Allen.
          New Mexico’s internet connection speed ranks 48th in the nation. Even a 7 percent increase in broadband access could create some 15,000 jobs, according to a Federal Communication Commission study.
            SB 24 passed the House unanimously and the Senate by a vote of 37-1. The governor vetoed it March 15. The following day, she said she vetoed these two bills and others because “they are not necessary for the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of this great state.” The veto message also expressed her frustration at not yet receiving a budget and not seeing her university regent nominees confirmed.
            The court ruling also gave life to two bipartisan hemp bills: SB 6 allows research and development of industrial hemp in New Mexico, and HB 144 removes hemp from the list of prohibited controlled substances. (It’s related to marijuana, but can’t make anyone high.) Because hemp is a low-water, drought-resistant crop in high demand, sponsors believe it could be a boon to state farmers. Supporters included the New Mexico Cattle Growers and the Farm Bureau. The two bills passed both chambers, but HB 144 stirred up resistance among Republicans. Martinez vetoed both bills without explanation.
            The governor has added a new chapter of pizza-gate and vetoed, for no stated reason, bills that could lift the economy. She likes to say that “our small businesses are the backbone of our state’s economy.” How do her actions square with that?

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 9-25-17
Santa Fe’s “Entrada” could give everyone a voice and bring us together
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            While the rest of the country debates the removal of confederate symbols, Santa Fe is having a parallel argument over its “Entrada,” an annual re-enactment of the Spaniards’ return to the region after they were driven out by the Pueblo Revolt in 1680.
            Native American people see it as a one-sided celebration of an event they’d rather not honor. Every year the protests get bigger and louder, and this year the police arrested eight people, including a tourist standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.
            As a historian, I appreciate the fact that New Mexico history is so compelling and relevant that people are inspired to re-create the reconquest and also to protest it. But there’s a better way to do this.
            We’re talking about some of the most significant events in New Mexico history. With a tip of the hat to scholars who’ve written fine books about the period, here’s an abbreviated refresher.
            In 1598 Spain claimed land already in possession of Pueblos, Navajos, Apaches, Utes, and other tribes. The colonizers turned Pueblo people into virtual slaves under a system that owned people as well as the land and suppressed their religious beliefs. Spanish governors enriched themselves by seizing even friendly Navajos and Apaches as slaves. Conspiracies to drive off their conquerors began.
          “All the hostile tribes surrounding the nations among whom the Spaniards are now settled think that the Spaniards are scoundrels and people who are concerned only with their own interests,” wrote Father Francisco de Velasco in 1609. “Many times these hostile natives (Apaches and Navajos) have selfishly persuaded the peaceful Indians that the latter should throw off the heavy Spanish yoke…”
          In 1680 the Pueblos, with help from Apaches, Navajos and Utes, finally made good on years of threats. In a series of coordinated attacks, they killed priests, settlers and soldiers; destroyed missions and haciendas; and chased the Spanish all the way to El Paso. Twelve years later, Diego de Vargas came to reconquer New Mexico.
          As John Kessell describes it in “Pueblos, Spaniards and the Kingdom of New Mexico,” the Pueblos initially welcomed De Vargas, just as the pageant portrays. Some pueblo villages were ambivalent, others opposed, and some pueblos were at odds with each other. De Vargas eventually had to retake Santa Fe by force and subdue the uncooperative pueblos one by one. It took years of bloody conflict. Spanish colonists also suffered greatly, and De Vargas got in trouble with his superiors.
          So Don Diego isn’t a hero to Native Americans. Protesters have called on the city of Santa Fe to abolish the re-enactment, which they see as racist. The city attempted to corral protesters in a cordoned-off “free speech zone.” That’s not free speech. But a bunch of people hollering about racism and oppression doesn’t convey an understandable message.
          Last year, a protester expressed a workable idea. “We need a new narrative. We need a counter narrative,” she said. Yes, we do.
          Santa Fe’s Hispanic people have a right to commemorate an important event in their history, but it’s only part of the story. Native American people have a right to present their side in a public setting that’s not segregated and surrounded by police.
          Come on, people. We have a great many creative individuals here. What if Native people were to tell their side of the story as part of the Entrada with the city’s sanction? (And money: the city of Santa Fe provides $50,000 for the reconquest festivities.)
          We live in a time when we see divisiveness everywhere. Santa Fe has an opportunity to create an event that could educate, heal and bring people together.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 9-18-17
Sen. Pete Domenici, statesman and workhorse, got a lot done for New Mexico
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Sen. Pete Domenici’s death last week at 85 loosed a cascade of memories. Everyone has a Domenici story.
            Mike Ford’s two-year fellowship in Domenici’s Washington office in 1991 and 1992 was “one of the most enlightened times of my professional life,” he said.
            Ford, an employee of the federal Bureau of Land Management, wasn’t politically inclined and unsure he had much to offer, but he interviewed with the senator on a cold, rainy day in December.
            “I can recall vividly our first meeting in his office,” Ford said. “He was wearing a red UNM sweater and looked like a college professor. He had all this New Mexico memorabilia on the wall. We sat like two friends talking about family and baseball.”
          The encounter was so casual, Ford didn’t expect much and was surprised to be called in for work on Monday. When Ford asked why he was hired, Domenici said, “Well, big fella, I am a United States senator, and we do have access to information.”
            Politically, Washington was a different place. “Back then the political parties, especially in the West, made deals,” Ford says. “There wasn’t all this partisan hand-to-hand combat. Some of his best friends were Democrats.” One good friend was Arkansas Democrat Dale Bumpers, who called Domenici “Pedro” and liked to kid him about being Catholic.
            Ford recalls going to small New Mexico towns with Domenici. “He was a regular guy. Whether you were in Carlsbad or Cuba (N. M.), he cared about everyone. There was no pretense.”
            Former staffers talk about Domenici’s legendary capacity for hard work. A single woman I knew said she never had a date in the three years she worked for Domenici because she was always working. Ford kept a change of clothes and toiletries in his office for the all-nighters necessary during congressional sessions. “That was normal, working for him,” Ford says. “I was honored to be part of that.”
            Of the legislation he was involved with, Ford is most proud of two bills. One transformed the privately owned Baca Land Grant in northern New Mexico into what became the Valles Caldera Preserve under the National Park Service. The second, the Federal Land Transfer Facilitation Act, allowed the BLM to sell surplus land for public purposes and keep the proceeds to buy other lands that were a better fit with agency needs. Ford, who is now the Nevada and Southwest director of The Conservation Fund, says the law expired, but a bipartisan coalition of organizations is working to get it reauthorized.
            When Ford’s fellowship ended, he became director of Albuquerque’s BLM field office just as Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit was introducing range reform to change and update grazing laws. The office’s largest permittee was then-Gov. Bruce King. Domenici was representing New Mexico ranchers.
          “Albuquerque was ground zero for range reform. It was a very difficult and contentious time,” Ford recalls, but because of his relationship with Domenici he could talk to ranchers. Domenici and Babbit didn’t see eye to eye. “I had the honor of trying to facilitate a discussion when things were going sideways. It was painful and difficult, but we all left as friends.”
            What would Domenici do in today’s gridlocked Congress? He would still be Pete, trying to make deals and work for New Mexico, Ford said. He understood lawmakers would have honest disagreements but said you have to figure out how to get things done. “I knew he believed that and practiced that until he died. I learned from him what bipartisan really was. It doesn’t exist much anymore.”
            Ford still has a photo of himself and Domenici in his office. “It was an incredible honor and privilege,” he says. “Once you worked for him you became part of his extended family. That’s how he treated people.”

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 9-11-17
Keep the Dreamers: Our workforce and economy need them
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            When the president announced the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program last week, the first howl of protest was about the cruelty of sending people who are American in everything but birth to a country they don’t know. The second howl came from employers and educators.
            For five years, the program has allowed 800,000 young people brought here illegally as children to get jobs and go to school.
            The tech industry has been vocal all along about the need for immigration reform, but now we’re hearing from companies across the spectrum. Their dilemma is simple: Once they find good employees, they don’t want to lose them.
            Nor do businesses care to lose 800,000 consumers. To good capitalists, everybody’s money is green. Colleges, seeing a dip in enrollment, want those students.
            So both economists and business were quick to disagree with the nation’s attorney general when he said the Dreamers are taking jobs from Americans. Economists have found that refugees and Mexican immigrants have little or no impact on the employment of native-born workers in rich or poor countries.
          Dreamers are not your average immigrants. They tend to be educated and skilled. They’re entering the workforce at a time when boomers are retiring in droves. And they’re a mass of young people in an increasingly older population. If they stay, they will buy homes (many already have) and pay taxes for a long time.
            A second factor is low unemployment (in other states), which makes skilled workers harder to find.
            In booming Colorado, for example, my brother just closed his business – not because business was slow but because he had a lot of business and with unemployment in the 2 percent range, he couldn’t hire the people he needed. He was doing more and more of the work himself. Finally, he just burned out.
            I saw another shade of this employee shortage last week when I accompanied a young relative to a job fair. I was surprised at how many home healthcare companies were recruiting. One man told me his startup company had plenty of elderly clients – his challenge was finding employees.
            This was disconcerting. As boomers age, who’s going to take care of us?   
            So you start to see the consequences in kicking out 800,000 young people who’ve been educated and trained here, who have jobs and homes and cars and kids and other family members here.
          Which is why Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer said his company had just reordered its lobbying priorities. Tax reform was important to business, he said, but should be “set aside until the Dreamers are taken care of.” He also said the company would go to court to protect its Dreamer employees.
          Republican Congressman Steve Pearce always positions himself as a friend of business, but he’s not on this issue. He has opposed the DREAM Act, which would have given Dreamers a path to citizenship. He has voted to deport Dreamers and to defund DACA. In a radio interview, he compared children fleeing gang violence in Central America, who were then being held in Artesia, to enemy war combatants. The Center for Civic Policy described him as an obstacle to immigration reform.
          Now that he’s running for governor, Pearce claims he’s fought for immigration reform and criticizes Congress for not finding a permanent solution for Dreamers. He’s a member of the majority party in this do-nothing body. Where has he been all this time?
          Job creators have said that travel restrictions and anti-immigrant tirades have damaged the pipeline of capable workers and future entrepreneurs. Eliminating DACA is icing on a very ugly cake.

 

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 9-4-17
Another mass shooting: Where’s the responsibility?
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Sitting in the library last week, I was more watchful than usual. One librarian was helping an elderly woman learn to use her tablet. Another was helping people find books. Did they start their day wondering if they might be shot?
            It’s unthinkable that two Clovis librarians are dead and four people are wounded. Libraries, we thought, were such safe places. But then it was unthinkable a few years ago that anybody would shoot 20 little kids and six teachers in their school or gun down adults praying in a church. Those should have been safe places.
            The unthinkable has become thinkable, and there are no safe places – especially our homes.
            This is not going to be an anti-gun rant. I understand that people feel strongly about keeping their weapons. My question is, where is the common sense?
            What we know about Nathaniel Jouett, the Clovis shooter, is that he removed two handguns from his father’s gun safe. We also know the teenager had been a meth user, was in trouble at school and was suspended several times. After the shootings, police seized shotguns, rifles, a .44 magnum, and more than 100 rounds of ammunition from a closet and bedroom. They also found several suicide notes in the boy’s room.
            So you’re the father of a troubled teenager, and you keep guns in your home. Is that a good idea? And why were they accessible? One thing we learned from the dreadful Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre is that the shooter was mentally unstable, and yet his mother kept an arsenal of weapons in the home.
            With gun ownership comes responsibility, but numbers tell us that some gun owners don’t take responsibility for their weapons.
            The Gun Violence Archive (gunviolencearchive.org) now lists Clovis on its list of mass shootings, one incident among 244 mass shootings in 240 days as of August 28, the date of the Clovis shootings. In New Mexico we’ve had 335 shootings of all kinds and 90 shooting deaths in 2017.
            A criminologist at the University of Alabama last year concluded that the United States has 31 percent of the world’s mass shootings but just 5 percent of the world’s population. And Americans are 10 times more likely to be shot to death than residents of other developed countries, according to the American Journal of Medicine.
            Apparently, the death toll has spiraled high enough to get the attention of gun owners, who increasingly question the gun lobby’s chief apologist, the NRA.
            In April, a poll of gun owners by Americans for Responsible Solutions PAC found that two-thirds of gun owners believe the NRA has lost touch with them and strayed from its original gun-safety mission to instead cater to gun manufacturers and lobbyists. The NRA is pushing concealed carry, deregulation of silencers and elimination of gun-free school zones, but few gun owners support that agenda.
            The poll also found that gun owners “overwhelmingly support background checks and want to see elected officials do more to keep guns out of the wrong hands.”
            Elected officials resist taking steps because money talks, and the NRA is a big spender. And yet, the poll found that 73 percent of gun owners are more likely to vote for candidates who support background checks for all gun purchases, and 66 percent are more likely to support a candidate who supports gun violence prevention policies.
            (Americans for Responsible Solutions was founded by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and husband Mark Kelly after she was downed by gunfire at a political rally.)
            So, gun owners, nobody’s trying to disarm you, but we ask again: What about responsible ownership?

© 2017 New Mexico News Services  8-28-17
Pistol Pete’s shootout at the NMSU corral
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Here we go again.
            My first column this year was about Bob Frank’s resignation as president of the University of New Mexico. Hired in 2012, Frank was doing pretty well, especially compared to the two previous presidents, and expected to serve a second five-year term. He surprised everyone by announcing he would step down.
            Because there was no obvious reason, regents tried to dredge one up. Their leaked report “described a man who was usually pleasant but could be sarcastic and rude,” I wrote in January. “Not exactly firing offenses and not exactly unexpected in a high-pressure position.
          The report also cited ‘perceived unprofessional communication with the Governor and her chief of staff.’ Now there’s a firing offense.”
            The drama has shifted to New Mexico State University, where Chancellor Garrey Carruthers surprised us by announcing his retirement next summer at the end of his contract. Then we learned that regents informed the highly respected Carruthers they wouldn’t renew his contract.
            The uproar this time has been even noisier than Frank’s. First a bipartisan trio of legislators asked that he stay. Next, the president and vice president of the Associated Students of NMSU agreed and called on regents to fully explain their decision to students.
            They all cite stability, consistency, leadership during difficult times, and progress.
          “The last thing we need is another administrator who views NMSU as a steppingstone to a bigger job, who has to learn about the university from scratch,” wrote Senate President Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces; Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming; and Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec.
          Carruthers has earned respect across the campus and “goes out of his way to interact with students and listen to their concerns,” wrote ASNMSU President Kevin Prieto and Vice President Emerson Morrow.
            And six donors wrote that Carruthers had restored tattered relationships with the community and donors. “We feel that turning down his offer to finish what he started would be shortsighted,” especially “given the unreliable nature of the state’s financial support.” They note that “donors have put their trust in Chancellor Carruthers to do what is best for NMSU.”
          The governor’s response: “These are just shameless politicians trying to delay a potential search in a transparent attempt to ensure that the next (NMSU) chancellor is chosen by regents appointed by the next governor.”
            Five years ago, NMSU President Barbara Couture’s sudden resignation provoked howls over the lack of transparency and her golden parachute. Couture received $453,092 in severance pay, and she had a new job lined up. The undercurrent was that she didn’t make a dent in NMSU’s problems.
          Carruthers didn’t have a fancy educational pedigree or years in higher ed administration, but he was a former governor and an Aggie and knew the institution well. By all accounts, he’s done an outstanding job.
            So we ask again, as we did in January: Why?
            Remember the governor’s irresponsible veto this year of higher education funding? Carruthers complained about at educational money getting “caught up in a political strategy.” He was the lead writer in an op ed by university presidents who discussed the veto’s collaterial damage.
          “The message the veto sent to our 133,505 registered students and their families, while unintended, leaves them confused and wondering whether they should enroll in a New Mexico college or whether they’ll be able to finish their degree and graduate,” the presidents wrote.
          Carruthers said the veto had hurt NMSU’s recruitment and retention of both students and faculty, and bond ratings and accreditations were in limbo. Carruthers was measured in his criticism, but he was understandably unhappy.
          So we might blame executive vindictiveness. Or the governor is taking a page from her predecessor and planning a cushy landing on campus for favored staff members after she leaves office.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 8-21-17
Hate groups have never flourished in New Mexico
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            New Mexico, it turns out, isn’t a racist state.
            According to a June tally by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups nationally, New Mexico had one such organization with two locations: Aggressive Christianity, which SPLC termed a “general hate group,” in Berino, between Las Cruces and El Paso, and in Fence Lake, south of Zuni Pueblo.
            For years, the SPLC has documented a rash of these groups in neighboring states, especially Texas, but New Mexico never has more than one or two. And they never last.
            Yes, we have occasional friction or incidents, but if you’ve lived in states with real, daily racism, New Mexico is a remarkable place. In terms of tolerance, we’re up high on a good list!
          And it’s been that way a long time.
            As evidence, we have the curious history of the Ku Klux Klan here.
            The KKK began in 1865 in the South to terrorize freed slaves and carpetbaggers and faded a few years later. When it erupted again in the 1920s, New Mexico had a dozen or so chapters, none particularly active, and they petered out in the 1930s.
            Initially, the Klan liked to compare itself with the Masons, but in 1921, the grand master of Masons in New Mexico denounced the KKK. The Masons then had a lot of clout, and it was believed this would squelch Klan organizing. It didn’t. A year later, a second grand master (Lucius Dills, founding editor of the Roswell Record) condemned the Klan “and all other activities that seek or assume to substitute anarchy or mob violence in the stead of constitutional government and law.”
            Belen had the first chapter, apparently started by a former postmaster, and its only public act was in 1922 when 15 members marched into a Methodist church in full costume and presented the minister a check for $26.
            Vaughn’s chapter surfaced that year with a letter to the mayor assuring him that “we as a Klan are not in politics” and hadn’t taken a position in recent elections.
            “The Klan does not take the law in its hand but gathers such information as may be needed… We are now in possession of some information on Kriminals, Krooks, Bootleggers, Gamblers, Adulterers, Etc. and stand ready to back the civil powers with this information or with the solid strength of our Mystic Order.”
            In 1922 the “Mystic Order” claimed to have 100 members in Albuquerque, but nobody ever saw them. Prominent men were solicited for membership and told all their friends were members. The group’s first public act was to donate $17.05 to the Albuquerque Day Nursery.
            However, in 1921 Sheriff Tony Ortiz found a racist sign in an Albuquerque neighborhood and immediately took it down and warned that anyone connected with such disturbances would be arrested. When the Klan staged a cross burning in 1928, Ortiz and two deputies appeared and ordered the members to unmask.
            Roswell’s Klan organized in 1924, wrote historian Elvis Fleming, announcing its presence with a burning cross. The Klan had a float in a 1926 parade and donated $500 to the First Baptist Church.
            Although the groups presented themselves as benevolent societies, nobody was fooled. The Albuquerque Journal demanded in 1921 that states take steps to break up and “punish these sheeted lynchers.” The state Legislature outlawed the public appearance of Klan members in full dress but not the burning of crosses on private property.
            The nation’s two presidents weren’t conflicted. Because of President Warren Harding’s support of civil rights, the Klan started rumors that he was a member, but he and his successor, Calvin Coolidge, soundly rejected the KKK. And they never blamed Klan violence on the victims.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services  8-14-17
How many people will die while we debate UNM’s new hospital?
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
          Six years later we’re still debating whether UNM can build a new hospital.
          This is not a UNM discussion or an Albuquerque discussion. As UNM Hospitals CEO Steve McKernan explained, “Almost every town in New Mexico is a one-hospital town, and it’s a critical-access hospital” that can’t treat seriously ill or injured patients.
          Every hospital and clinic in the state relies on UNMH, which has the state’s only Level One trauma center. In a year, it will see more than 93,000 emergency visits and 7,000 trauma cases. Patients come from around the state.
          Let’s look at the checklist:
          Can they demonstrate need? Check. UNMH began in 1954 as Bernalillo County Indian Hospital and joined UNM in the late 1960s.
        “At UNM we’re working in an old facility,” McKernan told New Mexico Press Women last year. “We worry the infrastructure could fail.”
          Can they demonstrate demand? Check. “We have 308 adult beds,” he said. “We have patients in the ER waiting for beds.”
          Can they afford it? Check. “We try to operate within a positive net margin,” McKernan said, and build up balances to meet the cost of new hospital. UNM would still need to issue bonds, and it has an AAA bond rating.
          UNMH turned away more than 1,000 patients in the past year because it didn’t have beds, and a quarter of them were critically ill or injured, according to UNM Health Sciences Chancellor Paul Roth’s recent testimony before the state Board of Finance. Rural hospitals complain that they can’t get patients in because UNMH is always on Code Purple, meaning it can’t accept any more patients.
          This should be a straightforward decision, but it’s been anything but. Blame politics.
          The hospital gets internal approvals – medical staff and university administrators are solidly behind the proposal – and then runs into resistance from the governor’s political appointees, namely two of her regents and the state Board of Finance.
          From investigative reporting by New Mexico In Depth and New Mexico Political Report, we know a lot about this troubled process. In 2011, the Board of Regents and the state Higher Education Department approved a new 96-bed hospital, but the Board of Finance simply never voted. The governor, who sits on the Board of Finance, had received a campaign contribution from Lovelace, which opposed a new hospital.
          We also know that the governor’s appointees removed two regents from UNM’s Health Science Center board of directors because they supported a new facility.
          “There’s clearly a resistance to it,” former regent Brad Hosmer told NMID. “The kind of questions and discussions that we see from Santa Fe… are skeptical, hostile, resistant, which I find puzzling.”
          Last year, the state Human Services Department asked UNM for $50 million from the hospital to bridge a Medicaid gap. When HSD learned it would need approvals from university entities, it dropped the request, but soon after, Regents President Rob Doughty began an under-the-table process that ended the Health Science Center’s autonomy and brought it under UNM’s president. 
          Last week, Lovelace dodged the Albuquerque Journal’s questions about its position on the latest proposal for a 120-bed facility, the first phase of a 408-bed, $684 million hospital.
          Doughty, who has consistently opposed a new hospital, recently questioned its impact on UNM. And the governor and her people on the state Board of Finance said they’re still opposed.
          If the governor and her appointees are bowing to the for-profit Lovelace in this decision, is that what’s best for New Mexico? If they oppose a new facility so they can tap UNMH’s nest egg, is that good management?
          And how does it look to the outside world that we’re willing to build new sports facilities for economic development, but we tolerate an aging, inadequate hospital?

© 2017 New Mexico News Services  8-7-17
State’s economy appears to be turning around, but some indicators are troubling
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Is it possible that New Mexico’s economy is finally starting to revive? If you follow the numbers in the last couple of months, you could get whiplash.
          Some major indicators are up dramatically, but they’re both heartening and concerning. Bear with me for some statistics.
            We’re finally on a good list. The U. S. Bureau of Economic Analysis recently clocked a healthy surge in gross domestic product for the first three months of 2017. New Mexico’s growth was 2.8 percent, the nation’s third highest. The leading contributor was oil and gas.
            In late July the Legislative Finance Committee brought joy to state bean counters with the news that recurring revenues in May were up 32 percent ($141 million) from May 2016.
            More good news is that gross receipts tax revenue in May was $39.3 million higher than the year before, and year-to-date it was up 6.2 percent. This means, among other things, that people are out spending money. For five months in a row, revenues have surpassed the same months in 2016.
            The LFC had some bad news. Corporate income tax revenues of $3.1 million were down $15 million from May 2016, and year-to-date revenues plummeted by $65 million, or 56.9 percent, from FY16. Even with preliminary June revenues, corporate income taxes for fiscal 2017 were just $40.7 million. This is way below the forecast of $70 million. FY16 revenues, by comparison, were $118.5 million.
          Production taxes from oil and gas climbed 29.2 percent, or $69.5 million year-to-date. The state Oil Conservation Division reports that oil production in May was up 4.4 million barrels. Natural gas was down somewhat in May but up 1.3 percent for the year to date.
            Job news is mostly upbeat. Between June 2016 and June 2017, the state added 19,300 jobs, a 2.3 percent increase that’s double the number for May, according to the Department of Workforce Solutions. The private sector added 18,900 jobs, for 3 percent growth, the largest gain in more than a decade.
          Labor economists say the hemorrhage of jobs in oil and gas has slowed, and construction picked up. Service industries, especially leisure and hospitality, were up 16,400 jobs, or 3 percent. Leisure and hospitality added 7,500 jobs, a whopping 7.7 percent gain. Of that number, the sector gained 4,300 jobs between May and June alone. Construction added 3,500 jobs, or 8.1 percent.
          But manufacturing has lost 800 jobs in each of the last three months.
            June’s unemployment rate was 6.4 percent, down from 6.6 percent in May. The May rate allowed us to shed the four-month ranking of highest unemployment in the nation.
            The governor, relieved at some good economic news for a change, attributed the gross domestic product increase to tax cuts, streamlined regulations and “a relentless commitment to reforms.”
            Well, no, not really. Taken together, the numbers tell us that what we have is a large gain in low-paying jobs and continuing loss of high-paying jobs.
            We’re happy about the uptick in the oil industry (welcome back!), but it marches to a drummer outside the state’s influence, and we’re still heavily dependent on this sector.
          We also know tourism is booming. Experts say New Mexico’s outdoor activities are still a big draw, and national park visitation is twice the national average. We hope Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will factor this into his monument decisions.
          Notice that corporate income tax revenue has sagged badly, and the most likely reason is economic development loopholes. If all those tax breaks are working, where are the high-paying jobs? And why do we still not know if they’re working?
            Hang on to your confetti. It’s not time to celebrate just yet.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 7-31-17
Medical, religious communities sing from the same hymnal on healthcare
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            An emergency doctor is duty-bound to give the best care possible to each patient, whether it’s a drunk who rolled his car or a grandma having a heart attack. Their ethical code prohibits prejudice and value judgments from interfering with care.
            The drama in Congress last week left us back at square one, although many of us heartily applauded Sen. John McCain in telling his fellow lawmakers to stop behaving like children and return to practices that have served the nation well from its beginnings – namely, open hearings, open discussions, and compromise.
            If the power brokers listen to McCain, we can look forward to an unfettered flow of information from both medical professionals and number crunchers. In New Mexico, where the need is great but the funding isn’t, we struggle to balance the two. Is it possible to look at healthcare reform in a compassionate way?
             The answer is yes. All along, physicians and clergy haven’t been far apart.
          “Our nation's health care system serves too few and costs too much.” This was the opening comment in a 1993 statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who called for “a major national debate on how to assure access for all, restrain costs, and increase quality.”
          The bishops prescribed five tenets: Coverage for all people from conception until natural death, a ban on federal funding for abortion, pursuit of the common good and preservation of pluralism, cost constraints, equitable cost sharing, and access for all.
          “Our approach to health care is shaped by a simple but fundamental principle: ‘Every person has a right to adequate health care,” the bishops wrote. “This right flows from the sanctity of human life and the dignity that belongs to all human persons, who are made in the image of God.’”
          The code of ethics for emergency doctors requires them to uphold patient welfare, rights, interests and privacy and provide access for all, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians. Other tenets include prompt and expert response, truthful communications, protecting patients from impaired, incompetent or dishonest providers, keeping up their knowledge and skills, and cost containment.
            The bishops and emergency docs all see cost containment as essential because otherwise, widespread access is impossible. By cost containment, the doctors mean reducing redundancy and waste, and better communications, records management, and delivery of care. And they need tort reform to reduce unnecessary testing, hospitalizations, and treatment. (New Mexico already caps compensation in malpractice cases.)
            What they don’t want is cost containment that reduces access or quality. Limited resources must be allocated to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people, they say.
            Our crowded hospital emergency departments are ground zero in reform because this is where the uninsured come for treatment, and by law, emergency personnel can’t turn anyone away based on their ability to pay.
            The American Medical Association is famously conservative, but it too wants access for all Americans. And it supports scientific evidence, affordable and adequate coverage for the poor, sufficient funding for Medicaid and other safety-net programs, and tort reform. The AMA opposes caps on Medicaid and anything else that deprives people of coverage. It wants to maintain such insurance market reforms as pre-existing conditions and parental coverage for young adults.
            By these yardsticks, the state Human Services Department proposal to raise co-pay fees to Medicaid patients is a step in the wrong direction. Hardest hit would be the poorest people, the disabled, and kids, according to a letter from a long list of medical groups and social advocates led by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.  Co-pays delay care, force patients into emergency rooms, and create long-term costs, they write.
            Healthcare reform is still a long discussion, and it’s best done in the open.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services  7-24-17
Electric grid is still reliable, but NM faces a future without coal
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
             When we touch the electric switch, we expect lights and humming devices. We give so little thought to how electricity gets there that the occasional power failure is a shock.
            People in the electric industry pay close attention to the power grid, the colossal network of lines spanning the nation, and monitor its security and reliability.
            When Energy Secretary Rick Perry ordered a study of whether government support for renewable energy is hastening the closure of coal and nuclear plants and threatening grid reliability, it agitated the solar and wind industries. Perry cited experts who claimed that renewables make the grid vulnerable on cloudy or windless days, so the fear was that the administration would use the study to promote coal and reduce support of wind and solar.
            New Mexico – with an abundance of coal, natural gas, uranium, solar industries and wind power – has a big stake in this discussion.
            Now a recently leaked draft of the Department of Energy study concludes that renewables have not affected grid reliability.
          "Numerous technical studies for most regions of the nation indicate that significantly higher levels of renewable energy can be integrated without any compromise of system reliability," the draft says. Growth of renewables could require more transmission lines, advanced planning, and more flexibility to balance generation and meet demand, but because of technological advances, baseload power (coal and nuclear) "is not as necessary as it used to be."
            Grid operators, like the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, don’t see a problem. Texas gets 15 percent of its power from wind.
          The draft report also restated what everybody in the industry has known for years: Cheap natural gas is displacing coal.
          The draft report’s findings are in line with an analysis by the North American Electric Reliability Corp., a not-for-profit regulatory body. It concluded that the grid is reliable and resilient despite the growth of renewable energy sources and the increasing risk of cybersecurity and physical threats. The power system is adapting, but vigilance is in order.
            Even before the DOE draft appeared, renewable advocates released their own studies. One said that new technologies are making the grid more diverse and therefore more reliable, market forces and not government policies are the reason for coal and nuclear power plant closures, and the changing resource mix doesn’t threaten reliability. The report was funded by the Advanced Energy Economy Institute and the American Wind Energy Association.
            New Mexico has lost coal mines, could lose more, and the coal-fired power plants near Farmington are approaching the end of service. The Navajo Nation alone could lose hundreds of jobs in rural New Mexico and Arizona.
            One positive note: Lawmakers passed unanimously one of the more forward-thinking pieces of legislation this year. House Memorial 72, by Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, directs three state agencies to study the Escalante Generating Station west of Grants for future uses and report back. Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association hopes to operate the plant as long as possible, but it’s also looking ahead. Because the cooperative has invested millions in the site, and it’s located near rail and highway corridors, Lundstrom believes the assets would be attractive to other industries. The study could be applied to other power plant and industrial sites, she said.
          Such approaches are more useful than the administration’s promise to revive coal. The only way to save coal is with subsidies, and that won’t sit well with the free marketers now running the government.
          In my office is a small figure of a miner made of coal. I spent years writing about coal mines and coal-fired power plants, so it contributed to my livelihood too. Now we have to contemplate a future without coal.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 7-17-17
Fake Indian jewelry by the thousands threaten New Mexico artisans
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Last summer, at the Santo Domingo Pueblo arts and crafts fair, I bought a carved wooden bear from a seller who said he was from Jemez Pueblo. He was sitting with fetish carvers from Zuni Pueblo. Imagine my surprise when I saw a shelf full of the same carved bears across the border in Mexico.
            Recently, U. S. Sen. Tom Udall held field hearings on the issue of counterfeit Native American art. His goal was to hear from artists, experts and law enforcement officials about changes needed in the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 to better protect both artists and buyers.
            This is not a trivial problem. In the past year, we’ve seen multiple indictments stemming from a federal investigation. The quantity of fake Indian jewelry pouring in from Asia is truly staggering. It’s risen to a level (one number used in the hearing was 80 percent ) that will kill our jewelry industry if we let it.
            I was surprised to learn some years ago that New Mexico’s jewelry industry is the fifth or sixth largest in the country. This includes the individual artisan all the way up to sizable manufacturing operations in Albuquerque and Gallup. In addition, we have weavers, potters, carvers and painters. Because so many of these folks are artists, who resist being organized, they don’t have a trade group. If they did, it would be jumping up and down.
            In 2015, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched an investigation. With the help of the FBI and other federal and state agencies, it busted about a dozen jewelry sellers in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Gallup. It was the largest investigation of its kind. In one case I covered, a Gallup man allegedly took jewelry molds created by Native artisan to the Philippines and set up a jewelry manufacturing operation. Agents documented the jewelry entering this country and found it in shops across multiple states.
            These operations have imported hundreds of thousands of items. Some of the accused are represented by some very fancy law firms – an indicator of the money involved.
            What this means is that Native artisans who once made a living as jewelers are finding their outlets drying up as more fakes flood the market.
            Counterfeit Indian jewelry has been around for decades but not in such quantities. And it used to be easier to spot. Now it takes a very discerning eye, and even experts can be fooled.
            Consumers have options. In New Mexico, you can buy directly from Native artisans at crafts fairs, the Santa Fe Plaza, and the Santa Fe Indian Market coming up in August. This isn’t guaranteed 100 percent, as I learned with my bear; even Native jewelers may use turquoise that’s more plastic than stone or other questionable materials. (A friend advises to ask the artisan what would happen if you poke a hot needle at the stone.)
            The other option is to support retailers who have been in business many years and have established relationships with their artists. A tipoff: Beware of the perpetual “going out of business” sale.
            Something else I learned is that the retailers selling fakes are a minority of all sellers -- and they’ve been selling fakes for years. If they’re busted, they keep their nose clean for a while and then go back to selling fakes.
            Which brings us to enforcement. We have laws that forbid misrepresenting and selling non-Indian crafts as Indian-made. In an era of lean government and demands for less regulation, scammers flourish. Congress can modify the law, but somebody has to be watching. And some scammers need to go to jail.
            I cherish the Native art I own but decided to keep my wooden bear as a reminder to be more cautious.

 

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 7-10-17
Texting while driving may overtake DWI in deadly accidents
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
          Less than five seconds.
          That’s how long it takes you, on average, to look at a text message. In those few seconds, you can drive the length of a football field. You can also kill somebody.
          In 2015, Michael and Robin Jakino, a much admired Farmington couple, were enjoying an autumn motorcycle ride when Kristen Moon’s truck drifted across the centerline of U. S. 550 near Durango, striking the Jakinos’ motorcycle. Michael died at the scene; his wife was seriously injured and ultimately lost most of her left leg. Authorities say the cause was “distracted driving,” which usually translates as texting.
            I hadn’t grasped the magnitude of texting-while-driving accidents until January, when I heard Transportation Secretary Tom Church say that of New Mexico’s 386 highway deaths in 2014, half were alcohol related, and 40 percent were texting.
          Think of that. We know well our abysmal drunken driving statistics. Do we know that texting and driving now approaches DWI?
          According to the state Department of Transportation, in 2015 driver inattention (including texting) was the leading factor in crashes and the third leading factor in fatalities.
          In 2014 the governor signed a bill that prohibits texting on New Mexico roads while driving or even while stopped at an intersection. The exceptions are calling for medical or emergency help; the driver is also allowed to send or receive texts while pulled off the road.
          “There is no text message, no Facebook post, no tweet worth a person’s life,” the governor said.
          We weren’t exactly early adopters; New Mexico was the 42nd state with such a bill. And the fines of $25 for the first offense and $50 for the second aren’t much of a deterrent, although Albuquerque and Santa Fe have higher fines.  
          The Jakinos’ tragedy moved Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec, to introduce a bill this year to increase fines for texting and driving. The bill passed the Senate and died in the House. One strike against it was the courts’ argument that increasing penalties weakens a prosecutor’s bargaining position in plea agreements and would add to the courts’ workload.
           The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that penalties for distracted driving must be well known to the public and have a high probability of being imposed. To be effective, these laws have to be part of a system that includes public awareness, active enforcement and publicity.
           That may be one reason why the governor just announced a new anti-texting-while-driving ad. It shows a woman answering a text while driving who kills a child crossing the street.
          The ad appears just as the Albuquerque Journal wrote that despite the increase in citations by State Police since 2014, texting while driving has increased. State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said the law is hard to enforce and officers cite drivers only when they see blatant texting or erratic driving. Even so, citations have jumped from 1,029 from July 2015 through June 2016 to 1,696 in the same period this fiscal year.
          There’s another kind of enforcement. Since 2014, the state’s personal injury attorneys have pounced on a promising new area of practice. You know those “We sue drunk drivers” ads that shout at you from your TV set? They’ve added texting drivers.
          “Injured in a car accident caused by driver texting? Call us today!!!”
          “If you or a loved one has been injured in an auto accident, you need an attorney that will help you get fair compensation for your injuries. We will ensure that the distracted driver is held accountable for their reckless behavior.”
          “Wrecked by a texter?”
          We hope the state’s ads will leave more cell phones untouched by drivers. If not, the legal beagles will drag them to court, and we’ll all pay higher insurance premiums.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 7-3-17
Inept management at HSD shows in lawsuits, festering problems
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            People remember Brent Earnest as a competent and well-liked legislative analyst. Then he joined the state Human Services Department as deputy secretary under Secretary Sidonie Squier, best known for the behavioral health disaster and her hostility to legislators.
          Squier decimated the state’s behavioral health system by accusing 15 providers of overbilling based on a deeply flawed audit. Then she halted their Medicaid funding, driving many out of business. When Squier departed in 2014, Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, chairman of the Senate Public Affairs Committee, suggested Earnest as a replacement.
          “A lot of us in the Legislature have confidence in his ability and think he’s a genuinely caring person,” he said.
          Earnest got the nod but declared right off that he would uphold the same muddled agenda. The Senate confirmed him unanimously, probably expecting him to clean up the troubled department. Earnest just leaned into the wind and slogged on.
            Ortiz y Pino in May called for Earnest’s resignation.
          This was because of HSD’s other running disaster – a longstanding lawsuit over the department’s poor handling of SNAP (food stamp) applications. While Sidonie Squier owns the behavioral health mess, Earnest gets credit for the SNAP program’s advanced decay.
          The lawsuit, filed in 1988, reached a boil last summer when nine HSD employees testified that it was a longstanding practice to inflate the income of people applying for emergency SNAP benefits. Federal law requires emergency applications to be processed within seven days. By inflating income or adding fake assets, HSD workers could change the applications to non-emergency status. It gave them more time to process forms, but desperate people weren’t getting food.
          Three HSD administrators took the Fifth Amendment in court. District Court Judge Kenneth Gonzales later held Earnest in contempt for failing to follow a consent decree and appointed a special master, Lawrence Parker, to help HSD comply with federal law. In last week’s hearing Parker recommended a staff shakeup.
            Gonzales wrote, “Secretary Earnest’s testimony is indicative of a general lack of awareness and managerial engagement over HSD.” He threatened a federal receivership if the department isn’t in compliance by January.
          The recent hearing also revealed an April email directing HSD employees to stop interviewing and communicating with Medicaid and SNAP clients at 3:30 p.m. and to lie about the hours if asked. And, while HSD has reduced its backlog of SNAP cases, its Medicaid renewals have ballooned. Earnest said his department is making significant progress on both fronts and is trying to hire more staff.
          The Center on Law and Poverty, which brought the suit, argued that needy people aren’t getting help because of HSD’s backlog. Most clients can’t even get questions answered because, by HSD’s own count, it answers calls 35 percent of the time for English speakers and 19 percent for Spanish speakers. If they come to the office, they wait for hours. HSD has more than 100 vacancies in the division managing federal benefits.
          Judge Gonzales questioned the internal culture that allows this to happen. In Management 101, you learn it starts at the top. Two judges in this case have warned Earnest repeatedly, and because he can’t get his house in order, the SNAP program faces a federal receivership.
            Meanwhile, in the behavioral health arena, HSD settled with a former Las Cruces provider for $484.87 after accusing it of $2.8 million in overbilling. The state is now the defendant in a raft of lawsuits filed by former providers.
            We pay taxes so the least among us receive care. Thanks to HSD, its bosses and a culture of deceit, the most vulnerable go hungry and untreated.

 

© 2017 New Mexico News Services  6-26-17
In Trumpcare debate, who’s looking out for rural hospitals?
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            If you live in rural New Mexico and you have a heart attack, where will you go? The local hospital? Think again. Even if you have insurance, your local hospital may no longer be there for you.
            In all the arguments over the U. S. Senate’s Better Care Reconciliation Act, called Trumpcare, we’re hearing about the impacts on the poor and the disabled from Medicaid cuts. We’re not hearing about the collateral damage.
            The New Mexico Hospital Association says that 29 of its 45 member hospitals serve frontier, rural, or small-town areas in one of the nation’s most sparsely populated states. These are places of “aging and declining populations… and fragile community economies,” the association says.
          Stephen Stoddard, executive director of the New Mexico Rural Hospital Network, said in an email that the Senate bill will hurt the state’s rural hospitals. “One of the major concerns is that the Senate bill includes deep Medicaid cuts, plus the Medicaid expansion is being phased out over a four-year period from 2020 to 2024.” 
          The financial underpinnings of these small hospitals are challenging, to say the least. More people in their service areas are uninsured or underinsured, so they’re more dependent on Medicaid. Even the big hospitals count heavily on those dollars.
          Medicaid covers the poor, the disabled and special-needs children – about 922,000 people in New Mexico, including 388,000 children. It pays for 72 percent of babies born in New Mexico, the nation’s highest rate. And it supports more than 50,000 jobs, mostly in the private sector.
          Even now, reimbursement rates don’t cover the cost of care. Last July, the state cut provider reimbursements. Again.
          “The Medicaid expansion in New Mexico ultimately helped rural hospitals because more of their patients were insured and some payment for their services could be received… (S)ome payment is better than little to no payment from most uninsured patients,” Stoddard said.
          “Many of the New Mexico residents covered in the Medicaid expansion were previously uninsured, which means that rural hospitals have now been receiving Medicaid compensation for those patients, plus many of the newly enrolled Medicaid patients have been seeking medical care for things that they may have ignored when uninsured.  The Medicaid expansion being phased out would mean that rural hospitals would lose the gains made through that program.”
          Trumpcare would restructure Medicaid and shift costs to the states. Instead of matching costs four to one with states, the federal government would give states a lump sum. The Senate bill increases the lump sum but not enough to keep up with medical costs. The extra funding states received for the Medicaid expansion would become temporary.
          Obviously New Mexico can’t shoulder more of the cost, so it would have to restrict coverage and services. And if Medicaid pays hospitals even less for patient services, and fewer people qualify for Medicaid, the uninsured population would balloon. Again.
          Even before Trumpcare, 673 rural hospitals were in danger of closing because of previous cuts, Stoddard said.
          “Nationally 41 percent of rural hospitals operate at a financial loss and if the current rate of rural hospital closure continues, 25 percent of rural hospitals will close in less than a decade,” he said.  And because they’re often one of the community’s largest employers, they take jobs with them.
          For all these reasons, the American Hospital Association told the Senate to “go back to the drawing board.” The association argued for coverage of Americans, especially the most vulnerable, and said deep cuts to Medicaid would only raise the costs of private insurance. This is because providers will have to make up for the costs of uncompensated care.
          This is where we were before Obamacare.
          “The reality is,” Stoddard said, “that expansion of insurance coverage is irrelevant if there is no one to provide care in rural communities.” 

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 6-19-17
Early public lands debate resolved by compromise
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Public land debates aren’t new. Here’s what happened back when people still talked to one another.
            President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 appointed George Curry as governor of New Mexico Territory. He was trying to heal a rift in the state’s Republican Party, and he regarded Curry, a Rough Rider captain, as “one of the very best men I know anywhere.”
            The source of rancor at the time was public lands.
            Gov. Herbert J. Hagerman had tried to carry out what he thought were Roosevelt’s policies, according to a 1958 article in New Mexico Historical Review, but after he approved an improper sale of public land, Roosevelt asked for his resignation.
            Curry, whose ranch abutted Lincoln National Forest, sympathized with users of grazing lands, who believed that federal regulations discriminated against ranchers. Agriculture was a far bigger piece of the territorial economy than it is now, so public opinion favored the ranchers.
            Public lands became a hot subject after the U. S. Forest Service added substantial acreage to forest reserves and limited their use. Remember, this was at a time when intense logging was shearing the slopes bare.
           Curry sided with locals, criticized federal agents and offered his resignation to Roosevelt. The president refused to accept it. Curry next looked into complaints from Lincoln County that the new policies were forcing settlers off their lands because they couldn’t afford the forest reserve’s new fees.
          Curry wrote to Chief Forrester Gifford Pinchot that while he admired Pinchot’s work, Pinchot didn’t understand the West. New Mexicans, he said, opposed enlarging the reserves and favored reducing them. Furthermore, administration of the reserves was unfair to many people. He threatened to go to Roosevelt.
          After Curry visited Pinchot in Washington, D. C. in 1908, Pinchot restored 109,000 acres of the Lincoln National Forest to public use. The Albuquerque Journal reported, “There had been a great deal of complaint and suffering among the people of Lincoln County because of the extension of the reserve, and the governor made the reduction desired by the people one of the chief efforts of his stay in Washington.”
          Curry assured his constituents that the Forest Service policy “is to deal as fairly as possible with the people… when the facts are properly laid before it.”
          Their meeting was the start of a friendship between the two men. Forestry policy – and conservation itself – became more acceptable to both Curry and New Mexicans. Curry came to believe that reasonable administration of natural resources was vital to New Mexico. He got personally involved in settling complaints over use and boundaries and worked with federal officials. He believed Pinchot would meet him halfway.
          In 1908 Curry created the Territorial Conservation Commission, and made sheep rancher Solomon Luna one of his appointees, Curry’s way of bringing business interests into the discussion.
          At Curry’s invitation, Pinchot addressed the Legislature in 1909, explaining what the agency had done and why.  His talk, the Journal wrote, was “likely to bring the men who heard it into much closer sympathy…”
          That year Pinchot ordered his districts to examine forest boundaries and make sure they didn’t include unsuitable areas. The work, he said, must be unimpeachable, and each district forester should be able to vouch for the correctness of the boundaries. Agricultural land must be excluded.
          In 1910 the New Mexican editorialized that New Mexico had “slowly and unwillingly learned that the forest reserves are good for it and its people.”
          The Journal wrote Pinchot “established the forestry system of the United States upon a firm basis and … awaken(ed) this nation to the need of forest protection and reforestation.”
          Today, we could use some of their compromising spirit and old fashioned give and take.

 


© 2017 New Mexico News Services 6-12-17
We can learn from the troubled legacy of Hanna Skandera
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
          Two comments from Twitter say a lot about the announced departure of Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera.
          “Thank you Hanna Skandera for your leadership and relentless fight for kids. You will be missed.”
          “Every public school teacher I know is ecstatic today.”
            Nobody, it seems, is neutral on the subject of Skandera and her education initiatives. The administration and Skandera critics reach for numbers as markers of success or failure, but that doesn’t really tell the story.
            Skandera gave it her all. She drove policies she believed would make a difference in New Mexico. Now that she’s leaving, it’s time to look at those policies and the way they were delivered.
            High on her list was ending social promotion, which means holding back third graders who can’t read at grade level. (This is also called mandatory retention.) We were arguing about this long before Skandera arrived, but the push intensified under Skandera and her boss, Gov. Susana Martinez.
            Years ago, I wrote about retention when it was all the rage and considered the key to better education. It started in the 1980s, picked up momentum with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and took off with a 2012 study documenting that kids advanced to the next grade when they can’t read are four times more likely to not finish high school.
            Then along came more studies concluding that holding kids back can actually hurt a student’s long-term achievement. So the pushback began, and we’ve been debating it ever since. Now it’s politicized. Republicans positioned themselves in favor of retention; teachers’ unions (and many teachers) and Democrats are opposed.
            Fifteen state legislatures have passed mandatory retention laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some states allow promotion to fourth grade if there’s intervention.
          Current thinking among educational experts is that schools shouldn’t get hung up on retention or promotion but instead focus on learning before third grade.
           In Florida, where Skandera honed her beliefs in retention, the number of retained students has dropped steadily as kids performed better, probably because the best teachers were moved to kindergarten, first and second grades, according to Reading Rockets, a multimedia literacy initiative. Some reformers now call for better instruction in the early grades, earlier intervention, and more training for teachers.
            Another Skandera initiative is the teacher evaluation, which she handed down by administrative rule in 2012. The goal was accountability. Fine, but the result was a system so demoralizing that the two unions sued and even Republicans carried bills to change it. After five years of misery, Skandera in April agreed to a compromise proposed by a teachers’ group.
            Skandera may be most remembered for testing. The warring parties agree that testing is necessary, but how much testing? Skandera gave us PARCC tests. Looking at the time blocked out on a school calendar, I was shocked at the amount of time they soak up. When parents and educators rebelled against the PARCC tests and states began dropping out of the consortium that produced it, Skandera became chair of its governing board.
            We also have to look at how Skandera worked, and it was mostly top down. You won’t see the word “collaborative” used much until very recently. And while she always claimed to support teachers, you won’t find many teachers who feel that way.
            Words are important. Skandera aims her flamethrower at “union bosses” as if they’re separate from teachers, but the unions have thousands of members for a reason, and they don’t take a position without a lot of input from teachers.
            With Skandera gone, we have an opportunity to open a new chapter of education reform. Let’s start by not making teachers the enemy.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 6-5-17
PED’s teacher evaluations stumble on transparency
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Late last year, we saw some light in the education wars with proposals to revamp the state’s teacher evaluation system. Various legislation would have altered the weight of testing in the evaluation or allowed teachers more sick days. At least two aimed for a complete rewrite.
            The Public Education Department in 2012 handed down the evaluation system by administrative order, and it’s been controversial ever since. Teachers and their unions have complained that it relies too heavily on standardized test scores and that it’s unfair, punitive and demoralizing.
            Teachers explain again and again that not all students are the product of a stable home life and that kids come to school with issues beyond what a teacher can fix during the school day. That’s why they preferred evaluations based on classroom observations.
            During the regular legislative session, several of the evaluation bills rocked along with bipartisan support. The “teachers are human too bill,” with two Republican sponsors, would have let teachers use all ten of their allowed sick days without penalty. After passing both houses nearly unanimously, it was felled by a veto; the Senate voted to override but not the House.
          In her veto message, the governor said teacher attendance had improved, and the bill would cost districts more for substitutes. Teachers said it felt like a slap in the face.
            After the session ended and lawmakers were back home, the governor announced changes in the teacher evaluation system suggested by TeachPlus, a nonprofit group of 15 teachers from around the state who had polled their peers. Teachers would now be allowed six sick days instead of three before they’re penalized in their evaluations, standardized test scores would be 35 percent of the evaluation, down from 50 percent, and classroom observation would also be 35 percent.
          “Our teachers have spoken, and we’ve listened,” the governor said in April. “These changes are for teachers and by teachers, and I know they’ll help build on the success we’re seeing in the classroom.”
          “The Department was glad to work with and listen to teachers across the state,” said PED Secretary Hanna Skandera.
            But then PED held a hearing on the changes on May 26, the last mandatory work day in many districts. The attendance: seven people. A union president said the hearing was “just a show, so they can say they had a public hearing on it.”
            PED’s spokesperson responded characteristically by attacking the union official personally instead of explaining how the department selected the hearing date.
            Tom Sullivan, superintendent of the Moriarty-Edgewood School District, sent PED a scathing email about “this totally flawed process,” which he called disingenuous at best “if not outright unethical.” He said the April announcement presented the changes as a done deal. “This was a predetermined outcome and I think it is disrespectful,” he wrote.
            The TeachPlus group came up with a pretty good compromise. It balances the demand for no test scores in the evaluation with PED’s reliance on test scores. It bumped up sick days but acknowledged that kids do better with their own teachers and not subs. It gives PED the accountability it wanted and gives teachers more fairness.
            Most importantly, the changes came from teachers.
            Had PED held a credible, well attended public hearing, we could all feel confident that at least one troublesome piece of education reform was resolved, or at least less punitive. Instead PED shot itself in the foot. Maybe PED chose the date carelessly. Maybe it didn’t have confidence in the results. Either way, it’s one more example of the administration’s difficult relationship with transparency.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 5-29-17
Do you want tax reform? Muzzle the governor and make it bipartisan
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
          Republicans are discouraged that instead of getting a gross receipts tax overhaul, we’re getting a $400,000 study. But realistically, their 430-page baby was way too much for a two-day special legislative session. The good news is that tax reform is on everybody’s radar, and I see the political will to get it done. What I don’t see, yet, is the necessary bipartisan cooperation.
            Sitting through the long hearing for the bill, I heard strengths as well as unfinished business.
            Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, deserves our thanks for taking on this monster. Harper told the House Labor and Economic Development Committee that he tried hard to be nonpartisan. “It's not a far right solution or a far left solution,” he said. “We met in the middle of the road.”
          The bill would have removed most GRT exemptions, deductions and credits and applied the savings to reduce the rate from 7 percent to 6 percent. It also remedied a host of other problems with the tax, including its name, which is scary to outside companies thinking about moving here.
          “Names really mean something,” Harper said.
          The bill would also have taxed internet sales, healthcare providers and nonprofits and increased the motor vehicle sales tax and the healthcare premium tax.
          “You'll love 80 percent of the bill and hate 20 percent, and depending on where you sit on the political spectrum, the part you love will be different,” Harper said.
          Public comment indicated that the bill would cause big problems for healthcare providers, especially hospitals. Healthcare representatives argued that the state gives healthcare providers tax breaks for a reason: We still have shortages, it’s not easy getting providers in rural areas, and rural hospitals already operate on a wing and a prayer.
          Others complained about a lack of data on the reform’s impacts. Harper disagreed, saying he worked closely with state number crunchers. A couple of lawmakers thought it could hurt the poor. Harper is certain it wouldn’t. “There was a time when I was on government programs with a very young family,” he said. “I believe in the safety net.”
          Committee chairman Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, said he liked the overall concept but faulted various numbers and said the reform could leave the state deeper in the hole.
          Hence, the study. As Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, said, the study is needed “because we don’t know what we don’t know.” And as Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, noted, in the state’s current condition there is no margin for error.
          Harper put his finger on the real problem: “I'm grateful for the governor's support, but it's a two-edged sword. I worry it will turn into a partisan debate.”
          It’s already a partisan debate, which was clear in the party-line vote to table. Harper himself, as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee during the short-lived Republican reign in the House, created friction, leaving Dems wary. And after this year’s veto tantrums, Dems aren’t moved to help the governor with her legacy.
          Since then, partisan rhetoric went overboard. House Democrats in a news release called the bill a “tax plan favoring the well connected” and said it “balances the budget on the backs of the poor.”
          Harper said in a statement, “I am disappointed that the Democrats have chosen to continue their dithering while New Mexico’s private sector collapses.”
          Wrong and wrong.
          If gross receipts tax reform is to succeed, it has to become a bipartisan effort and not just Harper’s crusade. Harper may need to hand the baton to someone else, and the Democrats should tap a business-friendly moderate. Then both sides have to plunge in, not to score political points, but for the good of the state.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 5-22-17
Rep. Steve Pearce two-steps to a different beat on healthcare, Trump
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
          Political pundits are talking lately about a possible run for governor by Congressman Steve Pearce. If that’s true, he has a strange way of endearing himself to New Mexico voters.
          Pearce was one of the Republicans to sign the American Healthcare Act. And while other Rs look for cover as the president’s controversies deepen, Pearce goes out on a limb to defend him.
          The current version of the House healthcare bill isn’t likely to survive the Senate makeover, but it’s instructive to look at what Pearce thinks is appropriate for us.
          The AHCA would repeal Obamacare, phase out increased federal funding for low-income people who got coverage through the 2014 Medicaid expansion. It would instead make Medicaid a cheaper block grant program. Millions of people would lose their coverage in the next ten years.
          In New Mexico that translates to more than 265,000 people of the 900,000 currently on Medicaid, according to an analysis by economist Kelly O’Donnell, of UNM’s Robert Wood Johnson Center for Health Policy. It would also affect the children, seniors and disabled people who traditionally qualified. New Mexico would have to come up with an additional $427 million a year or reduce coverage.
          Because healthcare has been a growth sector in the state’s economy, the economic impacts would be huge. New Mexico could lose $11.4 billion in federal revenue, 31,800 jobs, and $759 million in state revenues by 2026, according to the analysis.
          O’Donnell concludes the measure would “drastically increase both the number of uninsured New Mexicans and the burden of uncompensated care borne by the state’s healthcare providers.”
          We’d be back where we started before Obamacare, in other words.
          The GOP bill also includes an $883 billion tax cut, with $274 billion going to the richest 2 percent, and it allows states to decide if insurers can deny coverage for pre-existing conditions. These two pieces of the bill have been fodder for internet and town hall rants.
          Pearce faced hundreds of angry constituents in a March town hall in Las Cruces. Many worried about the repeal of Obamacare. Pearce, according to KRWG, suggested that some people would have to wait until age 65 when they could get Medicare coverage. The crowd chanted, “Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!”
          Pearce insists this is a better bill than the earlier version that he didn’t support and will deliver lower rates. He told the Albuquerque Journal that essential health benefits, such as vaccines and maternity care, were mandated under Obamacare, but under AHCA states would decide essential health benefits.
          Pearce, the former businessman, doesn’t get that healthcare costs are a bigger hit on businesses than taxes, which is why Warren Buffett says “medical costs are the tapeworm of American economic competitiveness.” Chuck Collins, of the Institute for Policy Studies, notes that U. S. firms compete against countries whose healthcare systems reduce those costs for companies. Healthcare costs here consume 17 percent of the economy but far less in Germany, Japan, Britain and China.
            The congressman has also protested the storm of controversy related to the president and Russia as a “total assault” by Democrats and the media, forgetting that prominent members of his own party also have problems with apparent Russian meddling in our election and suspected influence in the White House.
          Pearce complained that “we’re going to keep finding stuff until we find something that will get to the level we want it to.”
            Investigators investigate. They may or may not find anything. Investigations in the Clinton era turned up a blue dress but not the corruption they were searching for. This time we’re talking about national security. Shouldn’t we know, one way or another, if there’s fire behind that smoke?
            Rep. Pearce needs to visit his district more often – all of it.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 5-15-17
Communities rally deep support for their national monuments
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            If Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke does more than a cursory study of New Mexico’s two recently created national monuments, he’ll be surprised at their broad and passionate support. They were not just a gleam in some bureaucrat’s eye.
          The Río Grande del Norte National Monument, designated in 2013, was a natural for Taos County, where tourism IS the economy. Their tourist literature and websites feature the 240,000-acre monument like a bright star in a constellation of attractions. A year after the designation, Taos logged a 40 percent increase in visitors and a 21 percent increase in lodgers’ tax revenue.
          That doesn’t mean it was an easy sell.
           A story in the High Country News describes a typical environmental campaign started by outside groups, which could easily have failed in northern New Mexico. Then-Congressman Bill Richardson introduced a bill in the 1990s to create a national conservation area, but “many rural Hispanics felt that mainstream environmental groups had done little for their communities except restrict their access to critical resources on public land.”
            In 2007, when then-Sen. Jeff Bingaman took up the cause, resistance hardened over concerns about restrictions on grazing and gathering of firewood and piñon. Conservationists took a deep breath and began listening to locals. The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance helped Bingaman’s office add to legislation the recognition of land-grant rights and protection of historic uses. And the alliance wisely hired John Olivas, a local hunting and fishing guide, as its community organizer.
           In the end, years of public discussion produced a solid coalition of business people, chambers of commerce, sportsmen, ranchers, elected officials, Hispanic organizations, and Taos Pueblo.
            With the recent executive order directing Zinke to review and possibly rescind President Obama’s monument designations, supporters are coming forward.
           Mark Gallegos, Taos County Commissioner and Questa Mayor, “There was, and continues to be, strong support for our Río Grande del Norte National Monument. Our community depends on our national monument, and people choose to visit and live here because of it.”
            Down south in Las Cruces, the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument enjoys the same kind of sweeping support, although you’d never know that to listen to U. S. Rep. Steve Pearce.
            In Doña Ana County conservationists began organizing to protect public lands in the early 1970s. Sen. Pete Domenici introduced the first legislation in 2005; bills followed and failed until the 2014 designation. In the following year, tourism doubled, and Las Cruces was listed in Lonely Planet’s “Top 10 Places to Visit.”
            A whopping 83 percent of locals support the monument.
            Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagashima says the 496,000-acre monument helped put his city on the map. “It would be tremendously shortsighted to undermine our national monument,” he said.
          In an op ed, executives of the local convention and visitors bureau, the green chamber of commerce and a tourism business wrote, “After our community’s hard work and successes, we found recent calls from Utah Congressman Rob Bishop to take away our national monuments to be shocking, upsetting and completely against our community’s interest.”
           Pearce, who predicted in 2014 that the monument would depress the local economy, still thinks 60,000 acres is plenty. But supporters wanted protection not just for the scenic Organ Mountains but for cultural and historical resources in the Sierra de Las Uvas and the Doña, Robledo and Potrillo mountains and drew the boundaries accordingly.
          Gabe Vasquez, former director of the Las Cruces Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and currently Southern New Mexico coordinator for the Wildlife Federation, wrote that Pearce needs reminding “that he also represents the rest of Southern New Mexico.”
          Nick Streit, proprietor of the Taos Fly Shop, speaks for many when he says: “Thanks to the national monument, we have seen our tourism and outdoor recreation sectors flourish… Why would you want to destroy that?”

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 5-8-17
Funding and experience improve the outlook for fire season
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Driving across the high plains recently, we spotted a fire stretched out across a field and thought somebody was burning weeds until we saw the fire truck speeding down the road from Fort Sumner.
          It’s that time of year when we scan the horizon, a little anxiously. Recent rains have spared us the usual bad news. As I write this, there was a small fire in the Gila National Forest and a larger fire across the line in Arizona.
            So we have the luxury of thinking about readiness, which means spending.
            In the much anticipated appropriations bill, Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich helped snag $4.2 billion for wildland fire management by the U. S. Forest Service and U. S. Interior Department. This includes $2.05 billion the agencies can use to respond to forest fires; with carryover balances, they should have enough money for expected firefighting.
          Udall got $407 million in emergency funding so the agencies don’t have to borrow from non-fire accounts. This is significant. What’s happened in the last few years is that Congress cut the Forest Service and Interior to the nub at the same time severe wildfires increased. Then the agencies had to tap funding they would have used for restoration and forest health, so preventive work didn’t get done. And that in turn leads to charges of mismanagement by the agencies.
          “We need to end this cycle of 'fire borrowing' for the sake of our communities' safety and our forests' health and the protection of the watersheds that sustain our communities,” Udall said.
          This is a short-term fix. Udall continues to call for a permanent solution – namely, treating the worst of the West’s wildfires like other natural disasters, paid for by federal emergency funding.
          State funding for fire departments, often the first responders to wildfires, looks problematic at first pass, but it will be there.
          The online New Mexico Political Report last week said fire departments around the state are seeing the end of the fiscal year around the corner (June 30) and wondering when they’ll get funding. Early in the session, the Legislature approved a solvency bill that reverts money from several funds, including two fire funds, to the general fund, and the governor signed it.
          This was some accounting sleight of hand. The Insurance Operations Fund, Fire Protection Fund, Fire Protection Grant Fund, and Law Enforcement Protection Fund normally collect revenues a year ahead to meet expenses. Budget cutters shifted accounting methods to allow the state to take those revenues to pump up the general fund.
          Fire departments will  get their funding throughout the year as revenue is collected instead of at the end of the fiscal year. The change and reversion are one-time events.
          Fire chiefs argued last winter that the annual payments gave them predictability and stability. Local governments wondered aloud whether they’d be able to meet expenses. Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, argued that this was more than an accounting change and could jeopardize emergency services, especially in smaller rural communities.  
          Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup and chair of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said the one-time change wouldn’t jeopardize funding for fire and police departments and amended the bill to ensure adequate funding. After the accounting transition, things will return to normal, she said.
          The Public Regulation Commission, which oversees the state fire marshal, said it’s working on a distribution schedule.
          At this writing, the Forest Service is conducting a prescribed burn in the Lincoln National Forest, and fire chiefs in Colfax County have banned fires. Fire professionals are bracing themselves.
          We can hope that after some disastrous big burns, we’ve learned and are better prepared. Like the ad says, “We’ve learned a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.”

© 2017 New Mexico News Services  5-1-17
We need state tax reform but let’s be clear that it won’t be easy
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Many of us cheered Rep. Jason Harper’s tax reform bill in the recent legislative session. The Rio Rancho Republican, an engineer, had taken on the state’s knotty gross receipts tax, a burden to business, consumers and economic development.
          Harper proposed to dump most gross receipts tax breaks and levy one fair tax on everyone. It was significant that two Democratic heavyweights, the chair and vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee, signed on as sponsors.
          But complicated bills face an uphill struggle in Santa Fe, and this one was no exception. Majority Dems incorporated pieces of the Harper bill and proposed a multi-year phase-in.
          Now the governor has seized on tax reform as a way to balance the budget – and salvage her legacy.
          The governor has been on the road bashing Dems for passing tax increases. She took another swing at them during the nonpartisan New Mexico Tax Research Institute’s annual conference when she called legislators childish. This from an executive who vetoed the entire higher education budget.
          One of the first lessons you learn in mediation and negotiation is to treat all the parties with respect and get them to understand that each side in a dispute has a valid point of view that reflects their experience and values. Once they listen to each other, once they HEAR each other, compromise is possible. There is even an entire neutral language used in mediations to avoid giving offense.
          These days, most lawyers are familiar with the basics of mediation and negotiation, so what happened with our DA-turned-governor? Her approach for six years has been to insult and bludgeon the opposition and then expect them to go along with her. How’s that working?
          Democrats aren’t necessarily opposed, but they’re concerned that Harper’s tax reform proposal is too complex for a special session, which typically lasts a day or so. To avoid wasting time and taxpayer money, the administration and the Legislature would have to reach an agreement quickly; higher ed and legislative funding are set to expire on June 30.
          Harper’s co-sponsors, Sens. John Arthur Smith of Deming and Carlos Cisneros of Questa, worry about unintended consequences. They want a phased-in reform. However, a business view articulated by the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce countered: “The reality is this kind of reform can only be done as a comprehensive package. If it’s cut into smaller pieces, it falls apart.”
          Budget negotiations must either raise new revenues (tax increases) or cut the already tattered budget. Harper himself has said that the goal of his bill was not necessarily to raise revenues (although he’s not opposed) but to make the tax more fair.
          Nobody knows how much the reform will raise and how much it will cost, as a memo from Legislative Finance Committee economists made clear a couple of weeks ago.
          Then there is the reform itself. This governor has stuck like flypaper to her no-new-taxes pledge. Does she understand that removing a hundred or more loopholes will raise taxes for a host of nonprofits and companies? In one hearing Harper sat through four hours of objections to his bill.
          Some companies were lured here with the promise of gross receipts tax breaks. And a new expense could be devastating to rural hospitals, many of which are struggling now.
          That said, we do need tax reform, but let’s not kid ourselves that it will be easy.
          I was originally going to argue on the side of caution and time, as the sensible Sen. Smith has done, and then two more sets of dreadful statistics and rankings came out.
          We have reached the point that it’s time to do something, even if it’s wrong.

 

 

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 4-24-17
New Mexico’s dependence on government began in 1846
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Return with me now to a time when New Mexico depended on the federal government and didn’t want to pay taxes.
            In 1850 Congress created the new Territory of New Mexico, which then included a big chunk of what would become Arizona. The president appointed James Silas Calhoun as governor, and he began organizing a civil government. The following year, the War Department sent Col. Edwin Sumner to take command of troops in New Mexico.
            Sumner’s orders were to reform what Washington saw as a demoralized military presence and “reduce the enormous expenditures of the Army in New Mexico.”
          Within days, Sumner began closing posts in the towns and relocating them closer to hostile tribes and away from the debilitating influence of the saloons and gambling halls. The Secretary of War had also suggested reducing the number of civilians employed by the army and reducing rations.
          Sumner embraced his task.
          “My first step was to break up the post at Santa Fe, that sink of vice and of extravagance, and to remove the troops and public property” to a new headquarters at Fort Union, 21 miles northeast of Las Vegas on the Mora River.
          He also broke up posts at Las Vegas, Rayado, Albuquerque, Abiquiu, Taos and Socorro. He fired 134 civilian employees in Santa Fe and kept only a few needed to move supply trains, plus a few quartermaster clerks.
          The impact was instantly devastating to local economies. Sales plunged by half. Large numbers of teamsters and mechanics were now out of work. Some formed themselves into a band of robbers, and citizens feared more crime, “as men will not starve,” one resident wrote.
          Anxious citizens wrote letters and sent petitions to Gov. Calhoun or Col. Sumner to protest and also predicted that removing soldiers invited Indian attack and endangered lives. Sumner dismissed the complaints, saying locals had been living on “the extravagant expenditures of the Government.” Most troops had become “in a high degree demoralized” by the “vicious associations in those towns.”
          At the new forts he created, Sumner ordered soldiers to do the building instead of hiring skilled workers, as the army had done previously. Most soldiers weren’t carpenters or masons. That and the haste Sumner urged resulted in shoddy structures built without foundations using green lumber. They soon needed repairs.
          Sumner was also economizing on corn, which he thought was too expensive to feed to horses. When half-starved horses were too weak to do the work required of them, Sumner argued for fewer horses and more infantry. Anybody on the frontier knew that foot soldiers were useless in “checking Indians who are well mounted and whose animals are in the best order,” as Gov. Calhoun complained to Washington.
          And the bad influences of drink, cards, and loose women simply followed the soldiers to new locations on the frontier.
            Calhoun and the fledgling Legislature labored to create a new government, and while their first efforts were admirable, legislators were reluctant to tax. New Mexico had been governed by the military for five years. It was good for contracts and good for business, and nobody had to pay taxes. Lawmakers passed only a tax on merchants, which merchants refused to pay. So the territorial treasury was empty. With no money to feed the territory’s prisoners, Calhoun released them and pleaded with Washington to pay its appointees.
          As I write this, New Mexico again leads the nation in unemployment, the governor plans to furlough employees, and our leaders wrestle with the budget. We often wonder how we came to be so dependent on the federal government, and this is part of the story. We should also learn from the penny-wise-pound-foolish decisions of Edwin Sumner.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 4-17-17
Talking about accountability is easier than being accountable
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
          My assignment was to photograph the governor signing a bill important to Gallup with two legislators and the mayor at her side. On the way in to her conference room, a young aide appeared and told me I could take the photo but I couldn’t ask the governor any questions.
          I tried to imagine her predecessors making that demand. Bill Richardson, Gary Johnson, Garrey Carruthers, Bruce King, Toney Anaya, Jerry Apodaca? Not a chance. As I recall, each one accepted that reporters come with the office, like ants at a picnic. They understood that the news isn’t always good, but they never passed up a chance to explain their positions.
          At the bill signing, it was clear that this governor enjoys the ceremonial part of the job and the occasions when she can deliver good news. She meets and greets with enthusiasm and does a lot of hugging. The rest of the job has apparently grown tiresome.
          At the time of the photo, the governor was a couple of weeks away from trial on the Santa Fe Reporter’s lawsuit against her for refusing to respond to questions and violating the public records act following its critical 2012 story about the administration using private emails to conduct state business.
          During the three-day trial, Paul Kennedy, the governor’s contract lawyer, repeatedly referred to journalism as a “racket” as he attacked the newspaper’s credibility. And the governor’s spokesmen made it clear that the big media get first priority – something that many of us in the small media suspected – and saw their jobs not as providing information to the public but as representing the governor’s views.
          Gov. Susana Martinez has also tangled with the Associated Press and the New Mexican over public records. In general, we can no longer get an official on the phone; instead we might get a call back from a spokesperson, if we're lucky.
          And yet, on her website the governor devotes a page to transparency, saying: “We must operate state government in an open and transparent manner. That is why I have opened up the books of state government by making it easier to access public information. My administration will not use executive privilege to unjustifiably block public access to the activities of state government, as has been done in the past.”
          In the recent legislative session, the governor vetoed a bipartisan bill to require more public disclosure about dark money, the big dollars flowing to political campaigns through PACs.
          Legislators have their own hang-ups with transparency, which is why so many ethics bills have died. This year's much-lauded, bipartisan bill to create an ethics commission had transparency language stripped out. And a Republican bill to make public the spending from the governor’s contingency fund passed the Senate but died in the House.
          On the other hand, the Senate took a huge step forward in deciding to record and archive committee meetings and floor sessions. What this means is that you can now watch a video on the legislative website and see exactly what happened to a certain bill and who said what.
          This builds on a decision a few years ago to webcast hearings; the House went first, and the Senate followed. The governor sent her own people to videotape hearings and floor sessions and maintain an archive. At first legislators resented it; then they got used to it. This year the governor stopped the practice.
          Other states have had archived video for years. It took a change of Senate leadership to make this happen. Unlike his predecessor, Majority Leader Peter Wirth is a transparency advocate.
          Transparency shouldn’t be an arcane issue of interest only to journalists and good-government groups. What you don’t know can hurt you.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 4-10-17
Governor’s storm of vetoes defies logic
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            On the floor of the Senate one day, Sen. Bill Payne, an Albuquerque Republican, said that when he goes home, he hears people say, “You guys did this, and you guys did that.” The fact is, he said, every bill that comes forward during a legislative session is one requested by somebody – a constituent, an interest group, or another branch of government.
            Sometimes there’s a broad push from several sectors. Often the studies by interim committees, meeting between sessions, produce legislation.
            Regardless of the source, each bill and its sponsor run a gauntlet of committees whose members ask hard questions and often put the bill out of our misery. Floor debates can be brutal.
            The process is designed to give everybody a voice and see that each proposal is thoroughly studied. Out of more than 1,000 bills introduced, just 277 reached the governor’s desk. Each one carries with it hundreds of hours of work and hard compromise by supporters, opponents and sponsors.
            That’s why a veto is such a big deal. It’s why some vetoes provoke howls of rage and why this year’s tide of vetoes – more than half all bills passed – is unheard of.
          Look at each bill and who wanted it, and you see that some vetoes are predictable – they were Democratic measures opposed by Republicans. That’s politics.
          But look at other bills, and you’ll see that Gov. Susana Martinez thumbed her nose at her own party and at sectors like business and education that she claims to support. There is an angry, adolescent tinge to her storm of vetoes that stuns veteran Roundhouse watchers.
          Here are just three of many examples.
          Taxing Airbnb was a matter of fairness. Individuals with spare rooms or casitas who sign up with Airbnb now have nearly 9,300 accommodations in New Mexico – the equivalent of 50 La Fondas, according to the lodging industry. Hotels have big fixed costs and pay taxes; why should individual providers get a pass?
          The bill had support from the hospitality and lodging industries, local governments and tourism groups. But the governor reasoned, if I can use that word, that Airbnb brings more people to the state and offers consumers a choice.
          Similarly, in vetoing the revenue bill, she shot down a bipartisan proposal to eliminate the exemption for online sellers, mostly Amazon, even though 41 states have already taken this path. Like hotels, our brick-and-mortar stores have fixed costs that their online competitors don’t, and it’s a matter of fairness.
          Both of these measures would have generated much needed revenue.
          One of the most mystifying vetoes killed a bill to let schools count computer science as either a math or science credit toward high school graduation. The president of the New Mexico Technology Council said it was critical to open a pipeline of computer students to support the state’s tech companies. Currently we have more than 1,500 unfilled computing jobs.
          The bill had broad bipartisan support that included the state Public Education Department, teachers’ unions and business. The governor offered no explanation whatever for this veto.
          These and others among her 125 vetoes pale against her line-item vetoes in the budget bill that would eliminate higher education in the state as well as the state Legislature. While the veto of the revenue package and its tax increases was no surprise, the budget action was so over the top, it defies explanation.
          It was also unnecessary. Lawmakers know they’ll have to produce a revised budget in a special session. What good does it do to deliberately provoke people heading into negotiations?
          During Martinez’s first legislative session, I watched her go out of her way to pick fights with the Legislature and wrote that it’s hard to shake hands when you’ve always got your dukes up. Six years later, nothing has changed.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 4-3-17
Judge Gorsuch rates applause for decisions in Indian Country
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Indian Country, surprisingly, supports the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the U. S. Supreme Court.
          The Native American Rights Fund and the National Congress of American Indians recently endorsed the nominee. NARF, in case you haven’t heard of it, has been at the forefront of Indian law for nearly a half century.
          "Judge Gorsuch has significantly more experience with Indian law cases than any other recent Supreme Court nominee," NARF informed tribal leaders recently.
          That high praise and a number of tribal endorsements (including the Navajo Nation), have transformed Gorsuch into something of a hero among Native American rights advocates, but it may be premature.
          During his years on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Gorsuch has participated in 39 Indian cases, of which 28 involved significant questions of Indian law. Out of those 28 cases, tribal interests won 16, or 57 percent, NARF said.
          The late Justice Antonin Scalia routinely opposed tribal interests, and the rest of the Supremes haven’t been receptive to tribal arguments, so Gorsuch compares favorably.
          Most important to tribes is the concept of tribal sovereignty.
          Tribal sovereignty is one of those concepts that freshman legislators and lawyers new to the Southwest trip over once. After being hit upside the head, they learn that federal courts view tribes as sovereigns with certain rights that include government-to-government relations.
          Gorsuch, a Coloradoan, is clear on tribal sovereignty and, in fact, ruled with tribes on five of six such cases, NARF said. That’s extraordinary, said Thomas W. Fredericks, an attorney for the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. He wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Gorsuch has experience in "living in and working in a circuit which has Indian Country and strong tribal governments." New Mexico is in the 10th District.
            Tribes were cheered by Gorsuch’s opinion in 2015 that favored the Utes in a decades-long legal battle with the town of Myton, Utah. Gorsuch and his fellow jurists bashed the state of Utah and three counties for refusing to accept previous rulings and instead trying to relitigate them.
          Gorsuch wrote that state court prosecutions of tribal members for offenses committed on tribal lands "strongly suggest" county officials were trying to undo tribal boundaries settled in the 1990s by the high court, the Deseret News reported. "Indeed, the harm to tribal sovereignty in this case is perhaps as serious as any to come our way in a long time," Gorsuch wrote.
          The court threatened sanctions if Uintah County didn’t get the message and even reassigned the case to a different district court judge after expressing its dissatisfaction with one judge’s actions since 1978. 
          In a 2014 case, Gorsuch ruled that Wyoming prison officials couldn’t deny Andrew Yellowbear, a Northern Arapahoe, access to a sweat lodge. Tribes have taken this ruling as support of Indian rights.
            Experts note that Gorsuch hasn’t had to rule on issues of tribal civil jurisdiction over non-Indians or the types of novel issues that end up before the Supreme Court. So the jury is out, you might say.
            Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are planning to vote against his confirmation. When I emailed Udall, ranking Democrat on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, to learn if it makes any difference that Indian Country is supporting the nomination, he responded: "Absolutely it matters, and I hope that Judge Gorsuch will continue to be a judge who understands and respects the U.S. government's trust responsibilities with regard to Indian Country. But that doesn't outweigh the fact that Judge Gorsuch failed to convince me that he could be the kind of independent jurist we need at this time” when the president’s actions, campaign and businesses may be matters before the Supreme Court. “It's more important now than ever before that we have neutral clear-minded justices sitting on the bench."

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 3-27-17
When legislators tackle big reforms, movement translates as progress
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
          Lawmakers this year took on some major reforms of old issues hovering over the state like turkey vultures waiting for road kill. 
          Interest groups ranging from Common Cause to the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce proclaimed progress. Maybe not as much as we hoped, but progress.
          The big reform bills were ethics, campaign finance, capital outlay, payday lending and taxes. Many were bipartisan.
          Years in the making, the ethics bill began bravely by standing up an independent ethics commission with subpoena power, protected by the Constitution. When it emerged after pummeling in various hearings, it was missing language that required complaints and hearings to be public, and the Legislature, not the law, will determine the commission’s powers and rules.
          Changes reflect legislators’ residual fear that the commission could become a political weapon.
          So voters in November 2018 will decide on a constitutional amendment creating an independent ethics commission.
          Common Cause and business groups cheered. New Mexico Ethics Watch booed, saying lawmakers gutted a strong bill.
          Kudos to Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, who patiently listened to input and welcomed suggestions. The hearings themselves were a marvel. Instead of trying to kill the bill, lawmakers worked with Dines to fine tune the bill.
            Campaign finance bills are on the governor’s desk. One would address the avalanche of spending by independent groups after the 2010 Citizens United court decision. It’s aimed at “dark money” coming from nonprofits spending serious money on negative ads. Large independent donors would have to report the source of their money, but contribution limits would double to $5,000. A second bill would improve accountability from candidates using the state’s public financing system.
            Kudos to Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, a longtime champion of campaign finance reform, and to Rep. Jim Smith, R-Albuquerque.
            Speaking of turkey vultures, storefront lenders had their wings clipped. This reform eliminates some of the worst abuses by capping interest at 175 percent and ending payday loans, among other things. Consumer advocates like Prosperity Works wanted a 36 percent cap, but sponsors wanted to make sure lenders could keep their doors open to meet the needs of folks who aren’t bankable.
            Kudos to Reps. Patty Lundstrom and Debbie Rodella, Democrats from Gallup and Española.
            Capital outlay reform got thoroughly watered down and then died on adjournment. This was the year, we thought, that New Mexico’s goofy process of funding public projects would be overhauled. One bill bravely called for a legislative committee to rank and prioritize projects. That wasn’t acceptable, so the sponsor changed his bill to say an interim committee would study the system for three years and make recommendations.
          New Mexico is the only state in which individual lawmakers decide projects. It’s been called one of the worst systems in the nation. The rub, still, is rural legislators’ fear that a committee won’t understand the needs of their districts.
            Kudos to Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, for trying.
            Finally, Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, riding his tax reform charger, made quite a valiant advance on the fortified position of the status quo before being unhorsed. Harper’s bill would have dismantled most gross receipts tax breaks to simplify the system and deliver a lower overall rate. The Senate watered the bill down so much that business groups backing the bill now want the governor to veto it.
          We haven’t seen the last of this one; it may be part of budget discussions between the governor and the Legislature before a special session. Realistically, this complicated 347-page measure will require study between sessions. As one Senate Finance Committee member told me, “We don’t know what’s in it.”
            So there you have it. In the legislative polka, we took a few steps forward, a few steps back, a few steps to the side. It’s movement.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 3-20-17
State evaluation policy punishes teachers for taking more than three days of sick leave
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            House Bill 241 was a bill with heart.
          It would have allowed teachers to use up to 10 sick days, compared with three currently, before they were penalized in performance evaluations. Its sponsors initially were two Republicans; two Democrats and a third Republican later signed on. It had solid support in both chambers.
          Supporters made the point that three sick days were simply not enough. What is a teacher to do if her kids get sick? Or if she is sick more than the allotted three days?
          Three years ago, I became a volunteer elementary school tutor. That doesn’t make me an education expert, but I am an expert on being sick. Last year I was down with a series of bugs due to my limited exposure to the germy little darlings.
          Last week, when I told one of my tutor kids she sounded like she had a cold, she said, “I’m sick.” Her parents and siblings all worked and couldn’t stay home with her. Now multiply that by 25 or 30 in a classroom.
          “Teachers Are Humans Too” is the name of the bill introduced by Republican Reps. Jason Harper, of Rio Rancho, and Dennis Roch, a school superintendent in Logan.
          Attendance accounts for 10 points out of 200 in a teacher’s evaluation. They can take three sick days of their contracted ten, but if they take four or more, they lose points.
          The Public Education Department has said this “incentive” saved $3.6 million on substitutes last year and increased teacher time in the classroom. Harper noticed his kids’ teachers working sick because they worried about their evaluations.
          Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed the bill, which had passed the Senate unanimously and the House 64 to 3.
          “I believe in the importance of having our full-time teachers, not short-term or long-term substitutes, in our classrooms with the students who depend on their expertise,” Martinez wrote in an executive message.
          She added that the bill would increase the costs for substitutes and noted that since 2012 the number of teachers missing ten or more days declined from 47 percent to 12 percent in 2016.
          In the same message, Martinez chided legislators for blocking a bill that would allow qualified professionals to earn teaching licenses, a hint that she was feeling peckish that day.
          The governor returned from a Utah ski trip, bashed lawmakers for not getting enough done, and then vetoed the sick leave bill.
          It was unusual, to say the least, when a Republican co-sponsor of the bill successfully led a veto override in the Senate. Sen. Craig Brandt, of Rio Rancho, wasn’t happy about overriding the Republican governor’s veto, but he felt strongly about it. Brandt told me his email and Facebook page had exploded after the veto. With no discussion on the floor, Brandt got more than the two-thirds majority that he needed.
            Not so in the House. Despite a spirited debate about how teachers felt the policy was punitive, about how the veto was a slap in the face, about how this wasn’t politics but human need, the override failed. Harper and Roch voted against their own bill.
            Rep. Bobby Gonzales, D-Taos, made a good point. Gonzales, a former superintendent, said that before the Martinez administration established the evaluation system by rule, sick leave was set in contracts between districts and teachers. Some districts have sick leave banks in which teachers can donate time for others who may need it. Gonzales is still troubled by the memory of a teacher who died on the job and asks himself if it could have been prevented.
            Much about education these days is controversial and hard to grasp. This isn’t hard to understand. As Gonzales said, “When you’re sick, you’re sick.”

 

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 3-13-17
Budget cuts: How low can we go?
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            What were you doing Saturday night at 9 o’clock? Whatever the answer, it was probably more fun than floor hearings and committee meetings. That’s where your legislators were.
            At this writing, we’re heading into the final days of the 60-day session. After weeks of long days, legislators are tired and a bit irritable. Their speech is slower, their voices hoarse. Committee chairs have trouble hanging on to a quorum as members dash in and out to appear before other committees and keep their bills moving. Doing the dance, they call it.
            So when political blogger Joe Monahan on the left and Gov. Susana Martinez on the right blasted the Legislature for wasting time on bills to designate the state hamburger and state dance, they’re off the mark.
            More than a thousand bills are being heard. They want to fuss over two?
            Let them have their gag bills. It’s comic relief.
            In a year of financial misery, legislators pounded out budget and revenue bills intended to stave off disaster. Remarkably, they’ve driven legislation addressing such big issues and long-standing problems as ethics, payday lending, tax reform, rural dental care, and minimum wages.
            When the Senate voted Saturday on a flat budget and assorted tax measures, it was with resignation, as if taking medicine. House Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said that in his 33 years in the Senate, he could recall financial trouble five or six times.
          “The decisions always involve revenue,” he said. “That’s what keeps the state running. We’ve made some hard decisions here.”
          The two finance committees had slogged through weeks of hearings in which every line in the budget bill was contested.
            Rep. Patty Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat, took the wheel of the powerful House Appropriations and Finance Committee this year with a looming deficit that would be illegal and cash reserves at record lows.
          “What can be cut? It isn't easy,” she told me. “The advocacy groups talk about needs, and it's all real stuff -- clean water, health, education, roads. Who can we cut?”
          Her budget bill went to the Senate Finance Committee, where long time Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, had been warning for weeks, “We are facing a significant crisis.”
           On Saturday a few senators poked half-heartedly at the bill, but there wasn’t a single detail that hadn’t already been examined, and they knew it. When Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said they should have worked harder to fund education, he was informed that 44 percent of the budget goes to K-12. Add in higher education, and it’s 57 percent.
          The last scene of this long drama hasn’t played out yet. The Democrats have their budget and tax bills, and the Republican governor, who has been strangely detached from this session, keeps saying she will veto tax increases.
          (One of the complaints I’ve heard is that the governor doesn’t work with legislators; she just waits for them come up with plans, which she shoots down.)
          If she looks at the revenue bill she would notice that the increases aren’t all that painful. If she reads the newspaper, she would see that school superintendents all over the state are howling about education budgets.
          The handy thing about ideology is that you don’t have to think. Never mind the scary predictions about classrooms, Medicaid, courts, public safety and highways, and the possibility of another bond downgrade, the governor has promised to not give an inch.
          Normally, at this point in a session, the governor and legislators would be negotiating a final package, and reportedly that’s happening. But when one party doesn’t budge, it ceases to be a negotiation.
          Our Legislature is known to have blow-ups in the final days of a session when the stakes were much smaller. The governor has to decide between her legacy and her resume.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 3-6-17
Bill tackles a stubborn problem in trying to curb truancy
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Legislators are trying to get their arms around truancy in the state. Discussion about the most promising bill, the bipartisan HB 437, illustrates just how complicated the problem is.
            We have 54,000 kids who are habitually truant, which means they have 10 or more unexcused absences in a school year. That should take your breath away.
            Studies and common sense tell us that these kids are most likely to drop out.
            Four lawmakers whose political coloration ranges from conservative to liberal have teamed up to carry the bill: Reps. Patricio Ruiloba, D-Albuquerque; Jimmie Hall, R-Albuquerque, James Townsend, R-Artesia, and Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales. On Saturday, the most conservative, Townsend, and most liberal, Ruilobo, sat together to sell their bill to the House Education Committee.
            HB 437 calls for earlier and more intensive interventions. It requires schools to have a family resources program, work with agencies and community organizations, and notify parents. It would suspend drivers licenses.
            Legislators used as models successful programs in Carlsbad and Albuquerque’s Atrisco Heritage High School.
          In Carlsbad, at the third unexcused absence, a Community Truancy Action Committee swings into action to address underlying causes. It includes the state Children, Youth and Families Department, juvenile probation, police, anti-drug and alcohol groups, United Way, and local charities. A fifth absence means Truancy Intervention Court, where the organizations help students and their families stay on track.
            The drivers license piece ran into the same objections here that it has before: Some students hold jobs to help out their families. They need to drive. But those jobs may be the source of the absences. On the other hand, the license can be a powerful motivator, which is why 27 states tie attendance and performance with driving privileges.
            Committee members liked the bill but had a few reservations.
            One teacher recalled that a student was always late to his first period class and took off before the last class ended. His janitorial job was the reason. A school official spoke to the student and the employer and got some adjustments in his schedule.
            Another teacher complained that some parents think they can bring their kids to school whenever they want.
            We tend to think of teenagers as truant, but the Public Education Department says that in the 2014-2015 school year, the truancy rate was 11.9 percent for elementary students, 10.3 percent for middle school, and 19.9 percent for high school. That’s 14.29 percent overall. In fiscal 2016 it rose to 16.3 percent.
            Several committee members thought the bill was more punitive than necessary.
            Townsend explained that the bill isn’t intended to be punitive but to direct help to students and families.
            Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, objected that her parents caught and punished her for skipping school. That’s the role of parents, she said. Townsend pointed out that not all parents are as vigilant as hers. He’s right about that. For a variety of reasons, a lot of kids have to get themselves to school.
            Other committee members worried about the expense to schools and thought the bill was overly prescriptive.
            Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, is the superintendent of a 200-student district. When kids cut class, they often fetch up at the Subway. The restaurant then calls Roch to find out if it’s OK. Because small districts don’t have the truancy problems of bigger districts, he asked for some flexibility in the bill’s language.
            The bill has support from schools and their administrators. A few modifications should take it to the finish line. Kudos to its sponsors for tackling a knotty problem.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 2-27-17
The case of Gov. Susana Martinez vs. New Mexico courts
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            What’s up with the governor and the state’s judicial system?
            As she directed some of her angrier vetoes to the courts in the last few years, we had to wonder. This year, State Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels said the courts are “on life support.”
            Remember that our founding New Mexico fathers intended the three branches of government – executive, legislative and judicial – to be on an equal footing.
            Let’s look at a timeline.
            Jan. 22, 2011: Daniels told legislators the judiciary had cut to the bone, closing some magistrate courts, reducing expenses, freezing hiring and leaving vacancies unfilled, even as workload increased because of the economic downturn.
            Jan. 25, 2011: Daniels ruled against Gov. Susana Martinez, who tried to keep two environmental regulations from taking effect. “No one is above the law,” Daniels said.
            Also in 2011 District Judge Sarah Singleton in Santa Fe ruled against Martinez’s attempt to have the Motor Vehicle Department verify the residency status of foreign nationals with New Mexico driver’s licenses.
            2012: A judge in the Second Judicial District ordered Martinez to remove the names of most people on the state’s payroll information from the Sunshine Portal. She published the names elsewhere.
            2013: The Associated Press sued Martinez and two agencies in state court for refusing to release records about her work and travel schedules, cellphone calls, and expenses of the security officers who travel with the governor. After two years, Martinez agreed to release monthly reports that detail spending on the security officers. Separately, a state district judge said the governor’s calendars were not public records.
            2014: Martinez vetoed the continuance of a $4 court fee approved by the Legislature, which gouged the court’s budget. After the legislative session, a group of judges challenged her decision to strike down an 8 percent pay raise for judges. (Our judges are among the lowest paid in the country.) The Supreme Court partly overruled the veto and directed the state to provide the judicial pay raise in question.
            2015: Drug courts got an additional $627,700, but Martinez line-item vetoed $750,000 to fund Magistrate Courts for the rest of the fiscal year. These 48 courts are where DWI, misdemeanor and traffic cases are heard. The court administrator predicted disrupted services and delayed lease payments. Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, observed that the governor’s line-item vetoes appeared to be “jabs” at the judicial branch.
          The governor also vetoed an uncontroversial bill to improve court interpreter services. She vetoed the same bill again in 2016. As a district attorney in 2000, Martinez tried to disqualify non-English speakers from jury service and took her case to the state Supreme Court. Because the state Constitution protects English and Spanish speakers, the decision went against her.
          2016: In the public works bill, Martinez vetoed money for improvements, systems or repairs at courts in Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Rio Arriba, Guadalupe and Doña Ana – and an entire complex in Cibola County that’s under construction. But she approved a judicial complex in Lea County.
          2017: In finance committees, judges described high vacancy rates, a dangerous lack of security, and a backlog of paperwork. Employees are buying their own pens. One district has no robes to offer new judges. The governor vetoed two attempts by legislators to provide relief, claiming lawmakers hadn’t properly vetted court expenses and agreed to just enough funding so the courts can hold jury trials and the Supreme Court can avoid furloughs.
          By the numbers, the courts receive 2.58 percent of the state’s general fund budget; the national benchmark is 3 percent. Since 2009, the courts have lost 6.17 percent of their funding, even as the state’s general fund budget grew 6.24 percent.
            Is the governor a budget hawk or just vindictive? You be the judge.           

 © 2017 New Mexico News Services 2-20-17
Finally, a real tax reform bill maps a road to the future
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Lawmakers have more tax measures moving along than I can remember in a single session. And it’s not just the usual furniture rearranging. One is bona fide tax reform, two more are mini-reforms, and others tackle individual challenges like roads.
            HB 412 is the creation of Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, an engineer with three patents. Our taxes are so complex it takes somebody like that to wrestle with them. His co-sponsors are Democratic Sens. John Arthur Smith and Carlos Cisneros, the chair and vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee.
            Tax experts think our gross receipts tax is one of the nation’s worst. It chews on every step of production, becoming a tax on a tax called pyramiding. The GRT started out decades ago at 2 percent; in some communities it’s now over 10 percent. It’s not only complex, it scares away potential relocations.
            It’s such a bad tax that we lure new companies and placate existing companies by giving them a credit or deduction or exemption. We’ve handed out so many of these that we’ve reduced the tax-paying base, so it falls more heavily on individuals and remaining companies.
            Harper’s bill is intended to fit the modern economy, improve the stability of revenues, restore uniformity and fairness, increase transparency, broaden the base and reduce rates. The bill has been called hard to understand, but it’s not.
            HB 412 would remove nearly all exemptions, deductions and credits; eliminate the worst kinds of pyramiding; tax internet sales; take away exemptions from nonprofits; and treat nonprofit and for-profit medical providers and national lab managers the same.
            Doing all this could deliver a gross receipts tax of 2.7 percent, maybe less.
            However, it would reimpose the tax on food and healthcare practitioners, and even though the rate is lower and food-stamp recipients are exempted, this is a deal breaker for some lawmakers.
            Harper doesn’t stop there. He would steer more of the liquor excise tax and motor vehicle excise tax back to programs instead of the general fund. Personal and corporate income taxes would have a single 5 percent bracket, like Utah. And he removes the provisions that strike property owners with “tax lightning” when assessments rise after a change of ownership.
            Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, is a businessman and former mayor, which gives him a valuable perspective. His SB 343 would increase the motor vehicle excise tax and levy a new real estate transfer tax but cut the corporate income tax rate to 3 percent and eliminate taxes on interest and dividends for seniors.
          It would impose a 3.75 percent tax on food and a 2 percent tax on medical services and direct the revenues to cities and counties, but would eliminate hold-harmless money given to cities for the loss of the food tax years ago. Low-income residents would get a tax credit.
            A legislative analysis says Griggs’ “mini tax reform” contains more decreases than increases, which the state can’t afford right now. Griggs says he wants to start a conversation.
            Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, is carrying SB 123, which would reduce the rate of the gross receipts and compensating taxes, mandate a 2.5 percent income tax above certain levels, and repeal the corporate income tax, the estate tax, the motor vehicle excise tax, and others.
          Individual bills would raise the gasoline tax, capture Airbnb rentals with a new tax, and tax online retailers.
            Some of the tax bills this year are for budget balancing, but Harper, Griggs and Sharer want to right the ship going forward. High fives to them for starting the conversation. I haven’t always agreed with Harper, but this bill is a brave, thoughtful piece of work. Or should I say, engineering.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 2-13-17
Familiar complaints about drilling have an easy solution
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Outside a packed legislative hearing room, activists were handing out circular tags declaring the wearer a "water protector," a term borrowed from the Standing Rock Sioux protest in North Dakota. When a woman offered one of the tags to Daniel Tso, he respectfully declined.
            Tso was the articulate expert witness for a measure to relieve a lit fuse in northwestern New Mexico over drilling near Chaco Canyon National Monument.
          This year, a freshman legislator, Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, introduced as his first action House Joint Memorial 5.
            It asked the federal Bureau of Land Management to issue a temporary moratorium on oil and gas lease sales involving drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the greater Chaco area until the agency can complete its amended Resource Management Plan.
            Lente said the memorial wasn’t intended as an affront to the oil and gas industry. It was a point others made as well. “This is not an anti-industry thing,” said one resident. “It’s a pro-community thing.”
            In a hearing before the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee, Tso and other residents talked about what it's like living in the checkerboard area, a patchwork of public, private and tribal lands. When it comes to road maintenance or school bus routes, “nobody wants to take ownership,” Tso said.
            Speaker after speaker described dirt roads torn up by the drillers’ heavy equipment to the point that recently, an ambulance trying to reach a heart-attack victim got stuck twice. A clergyman trying to get food and water to families found the road impassable and said company drivers have run locals off the road. School buses and residents must navigate roads with ruts two feet deep. Then there was the explosion and four-day fire in July.
            Finally, there's the smell. Residents complained about a pervasive odor that some can smell inside their homes.
            On the other side of the scale, representatives of San Juan County shudder to think of any more bites into the local economy, and industry organizations argued that additional regulations or a moratorium would hurt state revenues. They believe the 34,000-acre monument is well protected and point out that the BLM has stopped leasing land within 10 miles of the park, although if companies already hold leases they can drill.
          They also question the extent of "the Greater Chaco Canyon" area, which could be up to 100,000 acres. In January the BLM auctioned drilling rights on four parcels totaling 843 acres in Rio Arriba and Sandoval counties, the smallest number in years.
            The thing about this whole scenario is that it's too familiar. We've been here before. And it has a relatively simple solution.
            Companies operating in the checkerboard need to be better neighbors and better corporate citizens. How hard would it be for the companies to blade those roads? (I’m not picking on the county here because counties are strapped.) Deal with the roads and you’ve gone a long way toward addressing complaints.
            One chapter official complained, "My community, we get zero from this.”
            Maybe companies can’t get rid of the smell, but what if they did a few things to help the Navajo chapters near where they’re drilling? I bring this up because a Lea County rancher told me once the oil companies gave him a length of pipe he needed; he had no complaints about drilling. 
            Lente’s bill failed on a tie vote along party lines, but it’s a short-lived victory for the industry. Lente has promised that he’ll be back, and Chaco residents are joining coalitions that are empowered by Standing Rock.
            The industry can circle the wagons (and drill rigs), or it can reach out to these communities. Lente himself has offered to mediate. Finding the middle ground will make everybody happier than more legislation and lawsuits.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 2-6-17
Jobs bills are moving despite partisan wrangling
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Lawmakers are more focused on job creation in this legislative session, but jobs bills still get high-centered on ideological speed bumps.
            The Democrats this year offered a six-part plan that’s a shade better than their past packages. They would spend $63 million in capital outlay on infrastructure repairs and improvements, pass a modest minimum wage increase, increase broadband access, allow industrial hemp research, and try to open economic development incentives to home-grown businesses.
            Of the bunch, only broadband would be a home run.
            This year’s capital outlay has already seen partisan wrangling. A Republican lawmaker proposed giving up capital outlay to help stanch red ink, an interesting idea considering the problems with our capital outlay process. Democrats refused, and the governor bashed them for refusing.
            Capital outlay is a different creature in the rural areas. While the cities might forego their public works money for a year, smaller communities rely on it for needed projects. And the spending is a form of stimulus. Just ask the state’s construction companies.
            A minimum wage increase isn’t economic development, but it needs to happen. Our current rate is $7.50, and lots of states are higher.  
            LEDA and JTIP have been much discussed. Legislative budgeters struggled to keep funding for the two programs intact but decided that everybody should share the pain. LEDA (Local Economic Development Act), a closing fund that offsets a company’s costs for roads and utility lines, was slated for a small cut. JTIP (Jobs Training Incentive Program) supports training costs for expanding companies. Economic developers and Republicans wanted full funding, which the governor accomplished with a line-item veto.
          Hemp is a low-water crop that’s used in products ranging from cloth and paper to bio-fuels. Thirty states have pilot studies or production. It’s related to marijuana but lacks the properties that produce a high. The governor has vetoed hemp legislation in the past.
            The biggie this year is broadband. This refers to high-speed internet access, and it’s as essential to today’s business operations as electricity was in the last century. New Mexico ranks 46th in broadband connectivity, and 68 percent of people in rural areas lack broadband access. Lawmakers have tried repeatedly to get broadband legislation through.
          The bill with the most traction is HB 60, which makes broadband projects eligible for LEDA funding. It passed the House unanimously last week. Economic developers and the business community enthusiastically support the bill.
            SB 143, the New Mexico Infrastructure Act, would allow state and local governments to partner with private industry on broadband projects.
           A third telecom bill would make a big difference here, but it could succumb to ideological harangues.
          SB 53 would modernize the Telecommunications Act of 1985, written when everybody had a wired telephone and made long-distance calls. The bill would cast the same regulatory net over all telecom providers. Supporters expect this to encourage investment in broadband networks. Despite the endorsement of business, labor and the legislative Jobs Council, the bill has critics.
          During a hearing last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I listened to some depressingly old thinking from a couple of senators, as well as two members of the state Public Regulation Commission, who have a deep fear of doing anything that might benefit CenturyLink (gasp!) or weaken regulatory authority.
           Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, who didn’t know the difference between CenturyLink and Ma Bell, called it another deregulation bill. The sponsor, Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, explained that it’s not a deregulation bill but would level the playing field and preserve regulatory authority. McSorley and Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, voted against it. The bill passed.
          It’s encouraging that broadband has a champion in Padilla, who is Senate Majority Whip. It’s discouraging that even Padilla can’t get through to his party’s die-hards.

 © 2017 New Mexico News Services 1-30-17
Two New Mexico cities put values on display
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            How do you want people to think about your community?
            If you live in Carlsbad, the nation currently knows your town through a Facebook post. If you live in Santa Fe, the nation has heard about Santa Fe’s declaration as a sanctuary city.
           In case you were abducted by aliens, Carlsbad City Councilor J. R. Doporto said on Facebook: “Just want to give a heads up to the women! You have rights! A right to cook and a right to clean. Today is Sunday and the NFL playoffs our (sic) on! I suggest you stop your b!tch!ng/protesting during this time. Because you also have a right to get slapped!”
          For that, he lost his job.
            Doporto has said he was just joking and claims his right to freedom of speech has been violated. His wife says he’s a good husband and father.
            I’m not going to rant about the post – plenty of other people have done that. My concern – and I write about this periodically – is how New Mexico is perceived on the outside.
            Doporto’s post made news all over New Mexico and, after Cox Media Group and the Huffington Post picked it up, across the nation. For a community that’s dependent in part on tourists, this isn’t healthy.
            In an interview with KOB-TV, the councilman asked, “What is appropriate today as an elected official? I mean, you see Donald Trump tweeting every day. If I offended somebody I’m sorry.”
            The rules for public servants don’t change, regardless of behavior in the Oval Office. The moment you take an oath of office, you represent your constituents, and your rights to personal expression take a back seat.
          Which is why Mayor Dale Janway had to say Doporto’s comments, serious or not, don’t reflect his views or the views of Carlsbad. “We want to stress that the City of Carlsbad does not, in any way, condone domestic violence or disrespect toward women,” he said.
            Notice that Doporto mentions Donald Trump and his tweets. Because the leader of the land tweets whatever crosses his mind – good, bad and bizarre – it’s had the effect of confusing some public officials about what’s appropriate.
            Meanwhile, up north, Santa Fe also rocketed into the news when Mayor Javier Gonzales stood firm on his city’s status as a sanctuary city after Trump signed an executive order threatening to cut federal funding to sanctuary cities. Some news outlets even called Gonzales the face of the sanctuary movement. Gonzales has said it’s a key value for the city.
            Long before Trump won the election, sanctuary cities were controversial, and bills were introduced in Congress to block federal funding to cities and counties that don’t cooperate with federal authorities.
            We know some immigrants commit crimes, but there’s no good data showing whether immigrants commit more crimes than Americans. Opponents of sanctuary cities argue that immigration agents can’t patrol the streets, so they depend on local law enforcement to identify criminals. Supporters say the sanctuary status gives immigrants the comfort level to report crime and be witnesses. Las Cruces Police Chief Jaime Montoya said Trump’s policy could harm relations between police and the immigrant community.
            Santa Fe has plenty of company – an estimated 300 jurisdictions, including Tucson, Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
          People who feel strongly about undocumented immigrants could avoid Santa Fe as a tourist destination, just as people who were offended by Doporto’s post might not visit Carlsbad. That’s hard to measure, but in general tourist destinations like to maintain a good public image.
          The difference is that Gonzales upheld a value his town embraces, while in Carlsbad, Doporto blasted out a value his town didn’t share and publicly repudiated. It’s a lesson for public officials everywhere.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 1-23-17
How poor do we want to be?
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Three little words will generate a lot of heated words during this legislative session: To be determined.
            This is how the Legislative Finance Committee, meeting between April and December, indicates the source of money to help balance the budget in fiscal 2018. “To be determined” is shorthand for more cuts on top of cuts already made or new revenue in the form of tax increases.
            Before you jump to a conclusion about that choice, take a minute to grasp where we are. The choices made in this session will decide how poor New Mexico will be in coming years.
          All the usual clichés about “belt tightening,” “trimming the fat,” “low hanging fruit” and “right-sizing” no longer apply. In previous years, the governor and Legislature have made across-the-board cuts to state agencies, and those cuts continue. This year, they have to decide who gets hurt.
          The proposed victims, according to proposals from the executive and legislative branches, are schools, higher education (big time), courts, fire departments, law enforcement, economic development, water, tribes, local communities, state employees and teachers, and wildlife.
          Let’s see, did they miss anybody? Our unpaid legislators even cut their own feed bill, which funds the current session.
            During a hearing last week, LFC Director David Abbey described possible sources of new revenue.
One is to begin collecting gross receipts taxes from online retailers.
          “This is a level-playing-field issue,” Abbey said, referring to the unfair advantage online retailers have over brick-and-mortar stores. “It’s probably worth $15 to $20 million, and that may be conservative.”
          Two other possibilities are raising gasoline sales taxes and excise taxes on the sale of vehicles.
          The gasoline tax was last raised in 1993, from 16 cents to 22 cents, and then reduced twice to its current rate. Last year, when an increase was proposed, New Mexico had the sixth lowest gasoline tax in the nation. Gasoline taxes and other fees ranged from a high of 50.5 cents a gallon in Pennsylvania to 11.3 cents in Alaska. New Mexico’s 18.88 cents is far below the national average of 29.89 cents and lower than our neighbors: Arizona, 19 cents; Colorado, 22 cents; Texas, 20 cents; Utah, 24.5 cents.
          This tax has come up repeatedly as a way to boost the state’s road fund and improve maintenance. This year one bill would do that but others would siphon off the tax to the general fund for budget balancing.
New Mexico’s motor vehicle excise tax is 3 percent.    “Every state around us is 8 percent,” Abbey said.
He didn’t mention “sin taxes” on liquor and cigarettes. The state’s brewing industry foamed at the mouth over a liquor tax. Abbey also didn’t mention another proposal to tax junk food or to reinstate a tax on groceries.
          Abbey did say his staff is now looking hard at specific targets, like museums and parks with low visitation and empty prisons.
          Abbey discouraged looking at state employees as a possible target. State employment is down 3,000 jobs in the last seven years, he said.
          “This is not the overweight bureaucracy of years past,” he said. And raises have become so small and infrequent that it’s become difficult to recruit and retain employees.
          Which is one more reason the Democratic House and Senate will resist the Republican governor’s plan to make state employees and teachers put more into their retirement and take home smaller paychecks.
          So, how much are we willing to take from our schools? How many cops and teachers, how much road equipment are we willing to do without? How much do we want to short the incentives our economic developers use to bring new jobs? How poor do we want to be?
          There are only painful choices this year. “To be determined” is a mouthful.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 1-16-17
Dogpaddling in the economic toilet bowl
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Grants Mayor Martin Hicks told a legislative interim committee last summer that the only remaining coal mine had laid off 150 people, the population has dropped to 8,500 from 18,500 when he was growing up in the town, and there are 22 empty buildings on the main drag.
          But Cibola County has some possibilities in tourism and logging.
            On the East Side, tiny Anton Chico has an old school building with a functional gym and kitchen that could be used to house small businesses. And the economic development group would like to take over a meat processing company, but the processor’s building is held by the bank. The organization needs help to enter e-commerce and find markets for area farm products.
            All either town needs from the state is a little help – money and knowhow.
            And so it goes.
            We may continue to dogpaddle in the economic toilet bowl, but in pretty much any community in the state, there are possibilities. And, surprisingly, hope.
            So what do we hear from our leaders?
            The state’s chief executive offers a package of get-tough DWI bills. And in testy language, she defended her budget and picked a fight with the Legislative Finance Committee over their budget.
          The governor would raid the school districts’ reserves to help balance the budget, calling the reserves a “slush fund.” The schools call it their emergency money. She called the LFC budget, which is substantially like her own, a “copout” because it proposes raising some money by cutting or tax increases.
          On the subject of tax increases, even the conservative Albuquerque Journal indicated it could live with an increased gasoline tax or liquor tax.
          The Democrats, flush with success at the polls, have said job creation will be a priority, and announced a listening tour around the state in December. They’re still sifting the results, but several bills, some from last year’s jobs package, have been pre-introduced: a set-aside for businesses that want state contracts (bipartisan), an increased minimum wage, broadband infrastructure development, extended solar market tax credit (bipartisan), use of $7 billion for economic stimulus programs, and legalization of marijuana.
          The latter may actually happen this year because at least one measure is written as a resolution and doesn’t require the governor’s signature. Our governor and DA-for-life is opposed, but polls indicate public support. Who doesn’t envy Colorado its weed riches?
          Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, who chaired the interim Revenue Stabilization and Tax Policy Committee, has come up with a plan to overhaul the state’s tax code for goods and services and begin collecting gross receipts taxes from online retailers. The idea is not to require the tax but to encourage online retailers to pay taxes. Utah struck a similar deal with Amazon.
          Lately, we’ve seen retailers close their doors because they can’t compete with online sellers, and taxes are one more bump in the playing field. Harper’s bill could allow brick-and-mortar stores to compete a little more evenly with online stores. And the state would see additional revenues.
          The governor, of course, is opposed because it doesn’t meet her boilerplate resolution to not raise taxes, and yet fellow Republicans don’t see it as a tax increase but rather collection of taxes the state should have been getting all along.
          Harper is also the wizard behind the curtain of a larger tax reform bill – the one knowledgeable people have wanted for years. It would close more than 100 loopholes in our porous tax code and reduce the burdensome gross receipts tax. Harper hasn’t yet revealed his creation.
          Writing before the gavel opens the next session, we hear the usual combative rhetoric, along with the whisper of possibilities and hope.

© 2017 New Mexico News Services 1-9-17
Proposal to replace education secretary with school board is short-sighted
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            We’ve heard some interesting educational proposals lately, but one would be a giant step backward.
            Sen. Michael Padilla wants to eliminate the position of education secretary and return education governance to a state board of education. We tried this. It didn’t work. That’s why education reformers years ago scrutinized the position and made a change.
           Accountability – holding teachers and schools accountable – was a centerpiece of reforms initiated in 2000. In 2001 Think New Mexico proposed replacing the elected state school board with an appointed, cabinet-level secretary. Although it was one among many proposals that year for education reform, this step alone had long been sought by previous governors and business people.
           In the old elected-versus-appointed argument, supporters of an appointed secretary say that many qualified individuals wouldn’t want the hassle and expense of running for office.  The  argument in New Mexico that carried the day is that governors can set goals and hold their cabinet secretaries accountable.
          Supporters of an elected school board say it’s more democratic and encourages more citizen interest in schools. A second argument is that an elected board is shielded from politics – or at least less political – and can act independently. Third, an appointed secretary, protected by a governor, can implement unpopular policies.
            In 2003 legislators passed the Public School Reforms Act, which had broad support from educators and business groups. The package included standards-based performance tests, a new three-tiered system of teacher licensure, and more authority for local schools.
           In September that year, voters approved an amendment to create an appointed Secretary of Education. Then Gov. Bill Richardson appointed educator Veronica Garcia as secretary of the newly created Department of Public Education.
            New Mexico got high praise for its reforms in the 2006 Thomas B. Fordham Foundation’s analysis of education reform. In particular, the report applauded Richardson’s move to replace the state board of education and replace it with an education secretary who answers to him.
          “It was a bold move that let the state’s leaders and citizens know that education was a priority,” said the report, which also reported that Richardson directed Garcia to launch education reform quickly.
          Nobody wanted to turn back the clock during Garcia’s tenure, but after six years with Hanna Skandera, the idea has legs.
          Padilla, an Albuquerque Democrat, says this change would “take politics out of public education in New Mexico” by returning to a state board of education that would create and hire a state superintendent of public education. And he thinks this won’t be political?      
          Anybody who’s sat through even one legislative hearing can see that education is as polarized as it can be. Skandera, in aggressively pushing her agenda, deserves part of the blame, but we have to assume a state superintendent would also be on the firing line.
          There is also the issue of credibility. One argument for appointed positions is that the governor can select the most accomplished candidate in the pool, but in this case the governor chose a person who, as teachers often point out, has no classroom experience.
          In his announcement Padilla said that public education in the state can change every time a new governor is elected, pulling students and teachers in dramatically different directions. You could say that for all of state government, but we’ve learned to function in four-year election cycles.
          If this is about getting rid of Skandera – and that’s how it looks – it’s short-sighted. Regardless of what the education secretary does, some will like it and some won’t. Keep in mind that Skandera has her supporters. But all of that is beside the point.
          Cabinet secretaries are hired to carry out policy. Don’t like the policy? Appeal to or change the executive who ordered it. We can’t change the system every time power brokers disagree.

© New Mexico News Services 2017   1-2-17
Circus surrounding UNM president’s departure will cost taxpayers
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Another one bites the dust.
            Bob Frank, who became UNM’s 21st president in 2012, expected to serve a second five-year term but left after a surprise resignation and a standoff with regents.
            News coverage left the big question unanswered: Why did he step down before his first term ended?
            After two really bad presidential hires, whose exits were broadly cheered, UNM seemed to right itself by appointing Frank, a former Lobo swimmer and an academic with solid administrative experience. His tenure was punctuated with the usual number of controversies, including a U. S. Justice Department investigation into UNM’s handling of sexual misconduct. But only one blow-up had the voltage to do damage. That was Frank’s role in a move structured and kept under wraps by Regents President Rob Doughty to bring the Health Sciences Center – and its hospital fund – into the orbit (and control) of the president’s office.
            Even so, Frank hadn’t been socked with a faculty vote of no confidence like his predecessor. In fact, the Faculty Senate president noted increased graduation rates, new hires and successful ties to Albuquerque’s economic development under Frank.
            So it was a stunner when Frank announced in September that he wouldn’t continue as president but would become director of the Center of Innovation in Health and Education at the Health Sciences Center, a new position, at a salary of $350,000, nearly as much as he made as president ($362,136). He didn’t say why he was stepping down.
          Regents said they were “grateful” for Frank’s efforts and would begin a search soon. Some legislators observed that there was no overt reason for him to step down. Lawmakers, members of the public and the media all questioned his new big-dollar job at HSC.
            While some suspected Frank was leaving because of higher education’s current tight budgets and the certain prospect of more cuts, that doesn’t strike me as the deciding factor. He’d already been through a round of cuts, and in this climate, shrinking budgets are part of the job.
          It’s telling that his exit agreement required Frank and the regents to not criticize one another. In other words, there was friction.
            Conveniently, the regents then revealed a report, which someone (wink, wink) leaked to the media, claiming “shades of a hostile working environment.” The report described a man who was usually pleasant but could be sarcastic and rude. Not exactly firing offenses and not exactly unexpected in a high-pressure position.
          The report also cited “perceived unprofessional communication with the Governor and her chief of staff.” Now there’s a firing offense. The governor appointed Doughty, whose law firm has made more than $1.3 million from state contracts under this administration, according to several media accounts, so we assume he’s eager to please the executive. So, while Frank and Doughty may have been in league on the HSC takeover, they apparently weren’t afterward. And if the regents could fire Frank, UNM would avoid the cost of the unpopular golden parachute.
            Former regent Mel Eaves told the Albuquerque Journal that Frank was “under the complete control of the governor and her regent appointees.”
            Doughty and the regents dangled the sword of Frank’s alleged dirty laundry over his head for an unseemly three weeks during which Frank demanded to know who leaked the report and threatened to sue. He settled to avoid the headache of litigation and stepped down Dec. 31. It’s clear the regents’ – especially Doughty’s – hands are dirty.
            Next, keep an eye on the hospital fund, which could be used to stanch the state’s red ink, to the detriment of the patients around the state who count on UNM.
            And watch the head hunting. With this clumsy and unseemly purge, UNM will find it harder to recruit good candidates. Any with sense will demand an even bigger golden parachute.