Sherry Robinson 2018
© 2019 New Mexico News Services 12-31-18
FCC should look into rural internet outages as it examines CenturyLink
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Last week’s internet outage had its lighter moments – people had to talk face to face and not Facebook to Facebook – but we were confronted with our huge dependence on the net and our helplessness without it.
The Federal Communications Commission promises an investigation. CenturyLink’s outage affected multiple states and interfered with healthcare, banking and business operations. Worst of all, some customers couldn’t make 911 calls.
The public will expect CenturyLink to be pounded. That’s not enough. A real investigation would examine not only this event but years of such outages.
Like the one in November, when somebody cut a fiber-optic cable near Laguna Pueblo and shut down internet and phone service in the Gallup-Grants area for a day. Or a similar incident in March that disrupted service in northern New Mexico. Or an outage in 2013 caused by a beaver chewing into a line. Seriously.
Rural areas are much more likely to feel these disruptions than the cities because there’s often only one line in and out – no backup, or “redundancy,” as techies call it.
When rural systems do go down, they may take longer to repair. During the March outage, the damaged cable was so remote that CenturyLink crews couldn’t find it, so repairs dragged on. However, in Taos, Kit Carson Electric Cooperative was able to restore service because it had a second line from Colorado.
After a big outage in 2015 caused by vandalism, the Associated Press found that phone lines are regulated but not the internet. The federal government and states have generally taken a hands-off approach to the net and allowed companies to make their own decisions about network reliability. As a result, they don’t build in redundancy unless it’s worthwhile financially. So cities usually have backup systems but not rural areas.
Another challenge is physical. The cable is a bundle of fibers, and companies often lease space. That’s why one outage will also cause problems for customers of other providers.
Companies usually bury their fiberoptic lines along existing rights of way for highways, railroads or pipelines, which limits their routes.
All of this concentrates routes and makes redundancy more difficult.
Experts have been warning about these vulnerabilities for more than two decades, but federal and state governments haven’t required Internet companies to have backup systems because lawmakers worried that such mandates would lead to higher Internet and phone bills.
The federal government has provided subsidies to expand broadband Internet into unserved areas but hasn’t required redundancy on these projects.
As I wrote this column, GeekWire.com reported that last week’s outage was caused by a faulty network management card at the CenturyLink data center in Colorado that forced the company to reboot much of its networking equipment. Obviously this isn’t the same problem as a cut (or chewed) cable, but they should all be studied.
While the FCC investigates, customers might want to rethink their own redundancies.
At my house last week, we were annoyed and inconvenienced by the outage but not distraught. We’re Verizon customers, so our cell phones stopped working. In news coverage of the event, somebody said, “Nobody has land lines anymore.”
We do. Our CenturyLink land line was working, and we learned from a newspaper about the widespread outage. Because I get my news from print and online sources, I notice that print is often first with the latest news, probably because online providers rely on print sources.
Sometimes redundancy is within reach simply by being a slow adopter.
When lawmakers understand the whole story of the latest outage, they will need to respond with a carrot and stick – both funding and requirements for backup systems.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 12-24-18
Chevel Shepherd, winning “The Voice,” made New Mexico proud
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Chevel Shepherd just became New Mexico’s favorite daughter and is likely to hold our affections until she’s an old lady.
If you happen to be the one person who wasn’t watching “The Voice” last week, the pretty Farmington teen won the vocal competition in a field of very talented contestants.
Judges described her remarkable voice as “classic country.” Think Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton, only Chevel’s voice is entirely her own. If you like country – and I do – it was a bonus that three of the four finalists were country singers.
At a time when we’re making our lists and checking them twice, when the news is mostly dreary, Chevel gave us something else to think about. The show itself tells us something about ourselves.
We’ve always had talent shows on TV. I remember my parents watching “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour.” These pageants have plucked any number of unknowns from the crowd of aspiring stars. Chevel’s coach, singer Kelly Clarkson, was herself the winner of “American Idol” in 2002. The shows and their trappings have gotten ever more elaborate, but the object is still the same – to crown the next musical king or queen.
Clarkson, personable and funny, made a good coach, but her frequent references to Chevel as “my Tinkerbell,” were annoying. After too many comments about Chevel’s height (she’s 4 feet 10 inches), judge and performer Jennifer Hudson cast some disapproving looks and probably said something to her fellow judges. After that they all focused on Chevel’s performance.
In some ways, though, the show was about size.
We tuned in as ten finalists were winnowed to six. Two of the six were X-sized women who had fabulous voices. Two of the men were overweight but not obese. I wondered, how is this going to work? Most of our entertainers must spend hours in the gym to get their sculpted bodies. Will Hollywood vote for people who don’t meet that physical ideal?
The answer was yes and no. The show has five stages. During the first performance, the judges can’t see the individual; they go entirely by the voice. Judges make the decisions in several more stages. Then voting shifts to the television audience, who make their preferences known by electronically and through iTunes purchases.
The two big ladies didn’t make the cut, but Chris Kroeze and Kirk Jay, the two chunky men, did.
For two nights, we watched the four perform for hours. It was great entertainment, with the added dash of anticipation, although the glitz, the lights and the dancers were sometimes so overwhelming it was hard to see the contestants.
Chevel performed flawlessly. We marveled at the stage presence of our 16-year-old. The others also turned in excellent performances, particularly the other teen, Kennedy Holmes.
In her final live performance, Kennedy, who just turned 14, hit one out of the park. I worried. I didn’t need to. Realistically, they both have a career waiting, and both will face the enviable problem of how to be teenagers after Lady Success has come calling.
On Tuesday night, Dec. 18, the four stood on stage awaiting host Carson Daly’s announcement. Chevel grabbed Kennedy’s hand, and there they stood, a white girl and a black girl, awaiting the decision that would change their lives.
In the end, Chevel had beauty, talent, and star quality. And she had us. “The Voice” had 9.8 million viewers that night, and its highest measurable viewership was in Albuquerque, which means that darn near all of New Mexico was tuned in.
We watched “A Star Is Born,” only it wasn’t a movie – it was the real thing.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 12-17-18
New approach uses data to get a handle on crime in New Mexico
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
After years of mostly partisan debates on how to reduce crime in the state, public opinion is lining up with a new approach.
New Mexico is just beginning its participation in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which 35 other states have used to spend their corrections dollars productively and use the savings for programs that reduce recidivism and increase public safety.
Advanced by the Council of State Governments, the initiative is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and The Pew Charitable Trusts. The state’s new Justice Reinvestment Working Group will study data to understand trends in crime, recidivism, behavioral health and corrections spending
The initiative started in 2007 with Texas, where state officials projected spending $2 billion by 2012 to add prison beds. Legislative leaders objected and instead chose a data-driven justice reinvestment approach. The Lone Star State increased substance addiction and mental health treatment capacity in the prison system and expanded probation and parole diversion. The savings: $1.5 billion in construction costs and $340 million in operating costs, according to the Council of State Governments. Since then, Texas has closed three prisons and reduced recidivism. Crime rates are at historic lows.
For New Mexico, here are the “before” numbers: In 2017, we had the nation’s highest violent crime rate and property crime rate, and violent crime was at a 10-year high for the state. We were 12th highest in drug overdose deaths. And in the last 10 years, the state’s prison population has grown 11 percent and is trending upward.
At the same time, 58 percent of state prison inmates and 63 percent of jail prisoners are drug abusers or addicts, and a large number are mentally ill.
It’s not unreasonable to expect much better “after” numbers. Between 2010 and 2016, savings for other states were north of $1.1 billion, and they reinvested $441 million from 2010 to 2017, with nearly a quarter of those dollars going to community-based treatment and services, as crime rates dropped.
The Justice Reinvestment Working Group just held its first meeting. Members are legislators, the attorney general, cabinet secretaries, and representatives from the Navajo Nation, local government, law enforcement and public interest groups. It will make proposals during the next legislative session.
The public, meanwhile, supports more treatment and rehabilitation.
According to a recent poll by New Mexico SAFE, 60 percent of New Mexicans say they or people in their immediate circle have been crime victims. Most respondents think the criminal justice system is broken, but putting more people in jail isn’t their idea of reform. In fact, 70 percent would like to see fewer people in jail, and a whopping 85 percent prefer treatment for criminals with mental health problems and 72 percent prefer treatment for drug-addicted law breakers.
And they will vote for elected officials who feel the same way.
The poll’s biggest surprise is that crime victims and non-victims support lower numbers of prisoners in nearly equal proportions (69 percent to 70 percent) and similarly believe addicts should be in rehab and not prison (73 percent to 75 percent). Crime victims are more likely than non-victims to believe that imprisoning addicts instead of treating them makes communities less safe because prison doesn’t address the root cause of the crime. And they’re more likely to think that keeping people locked up who no longer pose a threat is a waste of taxpayer dollars (78 percent to 75 percent).
The guardrails of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative coupled with public opinion might spare the Legislature (and us) the familiar debates between tough-on-crime supporters and prevention advocates. The experience of other states should make it clear what works and what doesn’t.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 12-10-18
Despite threats, insults, news people still have a job to do
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
News people aren’t generally given to navel gazing about their own work, mostly because there’s so much of it and so few of us, and the deadline always hovers.
Last week, the Santa Fe Council on International Relations hosted a three-day meeting, “Journalism Under Fire,” and gathered journalists from around the globe to talk about reporting and the state of our industry.
The question posed by the council: Are we free without a free press? The answer should be obvious, I hope.
You might think this was one long complaint about the Tweeter-in-Chief, who calls us enemies of the people, but it wasn’t. Shrinking news operations, the rise of social media, and the parasites called fake news preceded the Great Tweeter, and still represent the real threat.
From New Mexico journalists, I heard more talk about access than I have before at similar meetings. After eight years of Gov. Susana Martinez, the least transparent executive in memory despite her campaign promises, all of us have beaten our heads against the great information wall – the unhelpful public information officer (PIO) and the thousands of unreturned phone calls followed by the all-purpose “so-and-so couldn’t be reached for comment.”
It cheats the public of public information, and keeps us from doing our jobs.
PIOs came in for sharp criticism. Julie Ann Grimm, editor of the Santa Fe Reporter, said: “Many PIOs see their role not as a gate opener but as gate keeper. ‘You have to go through me.’” They’ve made themselves the arbiters of which stories and which reporters are worthy.
“It’s a serious problem,” Grimm said. “The governor’s office gets away with that, and the county and city follow suit.”
So do the tribes.
Communications then are reduced to waiting for somebody to issue a statement, which is invariably crafted to say nothing. Phill Casaus, editor of the New Mexican, called the ubiquitous “statement” a finely edited piece of self-serving garbage. Which we mostly don’t use. “If we run it verbatim, we deserve what we get,” he said.
Editors of large and small papers talked about the tide of anger that swamps our public discourse, that complicates news coverage, that makes life difficult for editors trying harder and harder to balance their opinion pages.
“We have officials who don’t want to tell us things,” said D’Val Westphal, editorial page editor at the Albuquerque Journal. “In the last year and a-half or so, we have readers who don’t want to be told things. Now it’s on steroids.”
This tide of anger produced the first mass shooting at a newspaper. Now newspapers too are getting active shooter training. But in a discussion of that incident, Casaus put it in perspective: “I think about it, and then I go to work.”
Which pretty much says it all.
Our challenges in the United States, however, pale compared with those of journalists in third-world countries. Two panels of young professionals were awe-inspiring for their enthusiasm, their resilience and their courage.
Fake news is far more serious for them. (Fake news, by the way, is deliberate misinformation intended to mislead. It’s not just news you don’t agree with or a story with an error in it.) Panelists said opposing religious groups and rival politicians use Facebook to spread rumors about each other, sometimes with violent outcomes.
There is much that they simply can’t write about. So if they can’t write about the military, they write about public safety. If they can’t write about government, they write about health.
Asked what inspires them, what keeps them going, one young man says, “Social service.” Another says, “The poor have no voice, and that’s why they need the media.”
In some ways, they and we aren’t so different. There are stories to be told. We will tell them.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 12-3-18
New governor must overhaul New Mexico’s child protection system
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Two years ago, a TV reporter talked to an experienced social worker who left the Children, Youth and Families Department. She said employees were doing their best to help the state’s struggling families, but "it's asking for the impossible."
As Governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham’s transition team begins to roll, CYFD will be high on the priority list. Many people call for reform. What would that mean?
It means a hard look at the agency, the system, and the laws. What we’ll probably find is that they all evolved to address garden variety neglect and substance abuse and not parents who have fried their brains on meth, not households with a psychopathic boyfriend or girlfriend.
We’ll find a system with emphasis on returning kids to their parents, a practice supported by studies and now written in federal law. But no study ever envisioned Cynthia Varela, mother of Omaree. Studies and practice would provide treatment to addicted parents, but what treatment was possible for stepdad Thomas Ferguson, who tortured young Jeremiah Valencia?
Some families are a child’s worst nightmare.
We’ll find the lie of “small government” that started in 2011. Gov. Susana Martinez embraced the idea of shrinking state government, without considering what each employee was doing. Numbers fell. Budgets tightened. Children died. A smaller CYFD was not a better CYFD. With the horrifying child deaths in the last few years was the news that vacancy rates at CYFD were as high as 26 percent.
Understaffing means fewer people share the work, and remaining employees shoulder bigger case loads. So instead of having the recommended 12 cases, a social worker has 20 or more stressful cases in which each decision could be life or death. Morale plunges. Overwhelmed employees burn out and leave, handing off their cases to their over-extended co-workers. Cases – children – fall through the cracks. Accountability slips.
Now we know that the unsupervised foster care system that receives these poor little souls is also a shambles. Children may find themselves in situations as bad or worse than their desperate homes.
And yet, in 2016, CYFD kicked off Martinez’s $2.7 million “PullTogether” campaign to “make New Mexico the best place to be a kid.” Archbishop John C. Wester said instead of singing a jingle, the state’s leaders should spend money for state-assisted child care and food stamps.
Understaffing and turnover explain, in part, why most of these kids were well known to teachers, cops and CYFD itself and yet they remained for years in dreadful situations. Lujan Grisham wrote in an op-ed, “It is outrageous, unacceptable and disturbing that … the system created to help these children and others just like them failed.”
“The fact that they were left to endure years of preventable trauma raises alarming concerns about the state of this critical agency and the systems and processes that should have prevented these horrific events,” she wrote. “The failure in communication between authorities that could have stopped this abuse is unconscionable, and what happened to these children is inexcusable.”
Lujan Grisham promised to “build a vigilant CYFD focused on preventing tragedies rather than reacting to them, comprised of qualified, trained and committed staff working to ensure the safety, stability and prosperity of our most vulnerable children.”
Her fix would involve “hiring, training and retaining skilled social workers and leaders,” as well as overhauling reporting and auditing processes. And she would resurrect the Children’s Cabinet, an initiative of former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish to encourage collaboration by the helping agencies.
The new governor’s first step should be to hire a seasoned professional as CYFD secretary. That choice will signal her intentions.
Here’s another item for the to-do list: Listen to CYFD employees – the people who, despite bad publicity, inexperienced management, and ridiculous case loads, stayed and tried to help.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 11-26-18
It’s not hard to understand why teachers are leaving
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
New Mexico is short of teachers – about 740, according to NMSU’s College of Education. Vacancies are up by 264 from last year. Add in counselors, librarians and nurses, and we’re short 1,173 skilled professionals.
Some 53,455 students are being taught by substitutes.
Understanding why isn’t too hard. It’s pay, job insecurity related to testing, and the lack of respect for teachers, according to NMSU’s survey of teachers and comments from union representatives. Half of 1,900 survey respondents would not recommend a career in education.
These shortages didn’t just sneak up on us. The warnings began in 2012.
During the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, when 23.2 percent of teachers left, New Mexico had the nation’s second highest rate of teacher turnover, according to the Learning Policy Institute, a California think tank. Only Arizona was worse, at 23.6 percent.
Remember that in 2012, Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera imposed by administrative order a teacher evaluation so reliant on standardized test scores that teachers found it unfair, punitive and demoralizing. Some kids come to school with issues a teacher can’t fix during the school day, they said. They preferred evaluations based on classroom observations.
In 2015, Charles Goodmacher, of the National Education Association, said: “The policies of the current PED and governor denigrate the education professions, while also keeping pay very low compared to other professions. This is driving away current and future teachers in every New Mexico ZIP Code.”
During the 2015-16 school year, the number of New Mexico teachers leaving jumped by 27 percent, according to the Legislative Finance Committee. Two-thirds resigned; of that number, 36 percent left to teach somewhere else.
In 2016 NMSU reported 600 vacancies, most of them in teaching. That year, New Mexico ranked 43rd in the nation for teacher pay, and a study ranked New Mexico sixth for “testing-related job insecurity” after 20 percent of New Mexico teachers “strongly agreed” that test scores could negatively affect their employment.
PED responded that New Mexico had raised starting salaries twice and offered financial rewards for high performing teachers. Skandera said resolving teacher turnover was just a matter of matching teachers with the right jobs.
Cash for so-called high performing teachers has been another irritant. If a class of poor kids doesn’t match test scores with a class of rich kids, should one teacher be punished and the other rewarded?
During the 2017 legislative session, several bipartisan bills took on teacher evaluations. One, called the “Teachers Are Human Too” bill would have let teachers use all ten of their allowed sick days without being penalized on their evaluations. It passed both houses nearly unanimously, but the governor vetoed it, arguing that teacher attendance had improved, and the bill would cost districts more for substitutes. After the session, the governor announced that teachers would be allowed six sick days instead of three before they’re penalized, standardized test scores would be 35 percent of the evaluation instead of 50 percent, and classroom observation would also be 35 percent.
This year, the state has a teacher attractiveness rating of 2.18 on a scale of one to five, based on compensation, working conditions, teacher qualifications, and teacher turnover, according to NMSU. And 32 percent of the state’s teachers feel insecure about their jobs because of standardized testing, compared with the national average of 12 percent.
And yet PED, claiming New Mexico is “on the rise,” cites the same hated teacher evaluation program, along with stipends for highly rated teachers. In May the department said it would make $1 million available to districts for recruiting, but that’s divided among 89 districts and 90-plus charter schools.
For eight years, we’ve had top-down “education reform,” teacher bashing, and political games. The wonder is not that teachers are leaving but that many stay.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 11-19-18
What if treated oilfield water could be used to relieve drought?
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
State and federal regulators recently released a white paper about the possibilities of using “produced water” from the oil and natural gas industry.
Scientists have been studying this for years, and the 39-page report didn’t contain anything particularly scary, but in the current atmosphere of mistrust, this response was circulating on the net: “The Fracking Industry Wants To Use New Mexico As A Sacrifice Zone For Their Waste Water & They Want Us To Be Their Lab Rats.”
The paper does several things. It clarifies the regulatory spider web of three state agencies and the federal Environmental Protection Agency that govern water used, reused and disposed of by oil and gas. It also describes current uses and poses tantalizing possibilities about how produced water might be used if it’s properly cleaned up.
Note that it’s not a proposal or draft legislation.
State and federal regulations cover every detail of taking a drop of water from the ground and doing anything with it. The only missing piece is ownership. In this intriguing gap is the opportunity for breakthrough science and with it the likelihood of more available water. And there’s money to be made, not that this is a bad thing.
First, a little story.
Back when I was writing about uranium mines, the biggest challenge was groundwater that would have filled the tunnels and caverns without constant pumping. I asked, “What do you do with all this water?” The mine manager answered, “We reinject it. It’s not ours.”
This has been the situation for years, so you might ask, why are four agencies (the EPA and the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, Environment Department and State Engineer) raising questions now? Well, (in this case, a VERY deep subject) New Mexico has become the nation’s third largest oil producer. Oil and natural gas wells bring up massive amounts of water, called produced water, during extraction – four or five barrels of water for every barrel of oil. Increasing quantities of water and the seriousness of drought and climate change raise the question: What else might be done with produced water?
Produced water comes with chemicals, metals and dissolved solids, so currently it’s considered waste. Industry reuses some and transports the rest to reinjection wells for disposal. With treatment, the water could be cleaned up enough to become a resource. Depending on the degree of purification, it could be used to water parks and baseball diamonds, irrigate fields, and conceivably become drinking water.
Yes, the paper recognizes the health and environmental implications of using treated water; the conversation is taking place on a national stage. Meanwhile, say the authors, we should clarify the regulatory framework and any gaps.
Here’s a fact that will jump off the page for anybody familiar with New Mexico water law: Produced water is not subject to appropriation by a permit from the State Engineer. “One cannot obtain a water right for the disposition or use of produced water in New Mexico.”
So who owns this water? If the state begins awarding permits, it would also confer ownership. With value and scarcity come incentive to treat the water and sell it.
The skeptics believe we’ll all die from drinking fracking waste, but water-treatment technology already exists. In Albuquerque, MIOX Corp., using technology developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, is already doing work like this, and they’re not alone. Demand and money would encourage more development.
Environmental groups complain the agencies didn’t include the public in the process, but the white paper is simply a roundup of what’s known and what’s possible. The agencies are asking for public input through Dec. 10. Find the paper at http://www.emnrd.state.nm.us/wastewater/index.html and offer the state your comments.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 11-19-18
Red and blue don’t tell us everything in elections
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Red states, blue states, red counties, blue counties.
A few elections ago, a TV station began using red and blue to indicate voting patterns on a map, a decision driven solely by graphic design. It stuck, and now it’s an emblem of political identity.
On maps the day after Election Day, the colors defined divisions between one county and the next, between rural and urban, and between regions of the state.
Like many other states, the cities here voted blue, but unlike other states, the rural areas were both blue and red. This rural-urban divide was most visible as the state’s second largest city, Las Cruces, flexed its muscles, swinging the vote for Xochitl Torres Small despite solid support for Yvette Harrell in the massive 2nd District’s red counties. The reliably blue north preserves Ben Ray Lujan’s 3rd District seat each cycle. And the blue and very urban 1st District is sending Deb Haaland, of Laguna Pueblo, to Congress.
While the anticipated “Blue Wave” fell short nationally, it was a reality here, sweeping Democrats into all the statewide offices.
If Republicans are crying into their beer as Democrats pop champagne corks, keep in mind that just four years ago the opposite was true. Republicans seized the state House of Representatives for the first time in six decades, and Democratic Party leaders were hanging their heads.
Political pundit Joe Scarborough observed a year ago that political alignments once lasted decades, but beginning in 2004, the political balance has shifted back and forth from Karl Rove’s “permanent Republican majority” to Barack Obama’s triumph, from the rise of the tea party to the rise of Nancy Pelosi, and finally to Trump. He concluded, “American politics are a disaster.”
In New Mexico during the same period, our governors changed from Gary Johnson to Bill Richardson to Susanna Martinez to Michelle Lujan Grisham. And with each swing of the political pendulum, a new administration likes to begin with a clean slate but throws out some institutional memory.
Lujan Grisham has suggested that political winners aim for more continuity. In that spirit, she’s willing to consider holdovers from the Martinez administration, she says. (Here’s my nominee for holdover: Nick Maniatis, of the New Mexico Film Office, who is energetic, knowledgeable and well connected in the industry.)
Colors don’t tell the whole story, however. If you look at the numbers, no county is simply red or blue. The reddest counties have stubborn populations of Democrats and vice versa.
Sometimes the colors are meaningless. Socorro County, officially blue, has for years sent Republicans to the Legislature. This year blue Guadalupe County divided its vote so closely between the Democratic incumbent George Dodge and Republican challenger Ruben Zamora that it might require a recount.
Some counties – Colfax, Valencia, Sandoval, and Luna – are divided evenly enough between parties to call them purple.
As much as numbers of Ds and Rs, turnout matters, and this election, we heard a lot about voter turnout. The statewide average was 55 percent, according to the Secretary of State’s Office, up from 40 percent in 2014 – better but still pathetic.
Los Alamos County gets a gold star for voter turnout, at 72.3 percent, followed by Harding, 68.6 percent; Santa Fe, 66.97 percent; Catron, 64.51 percent; and Mora, 64.35 percent.
On the other end of the scale, Lea County gets a stale donut for the state’s worst voter turnout, 40.64 percent, followed by McKinley County, 43.5 percent; Curry County, 44.28 percent; Roosevelt County, 46.13 percent; and San Miguel, 49.07 percent.
In the breather before the next campaigns, here’s my modest proposal: Forget about red and blue. Focus instead on what we share.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 11-12-18
New State Land Commissioner can compensate for personal deficiencies with hires
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Campaigns for State Land Commissioner became a tug-of-war between environmentalists and the oil and gas industry, but it’s about so much more.
At this writing, we don’t know the outcome of this close race, but voters lacked a good choice. What can salvage the office now is outside scrutiny and strong staffing.
The State Land Office manages 9 million acres of surface land and 13 million acres of mineral rights. Land use – leases, grazing and royalties – funds such beneficiaries as the public schools and universities.
The two major party candidates: Democrat Stephanie Garcia Richard, an educator who’s been a smart, hard working legislator for three terms but doesn’t know the commissioner’s job, and Republican Pat Lyons, a former commissioner who does know the job but is ethically challenged.
Outgoing Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, a Republican turned Libertarian, told the news website New Mexico In Depth that he wasn’t happy with either candidate.
Campaign rhetoric focused on who would be friendlier to renewable energy projects or oil and gas. Scare ads made Garcia Richard look like somebody who would undermine our latest oil boom, but as chair of the House Education Committee, she understands better than most what happens to schools when oil revenues wane.
In the same way, Lyons was painted as somebody who will just roll over for “Big Oil” and turn his back on renewables. Lyons has said he would support renewable and reminds us that he issued the first wind lease. But campaign watchdogs reported money pouring into Lyons’ campaign from the oil and gas industry.
Dunn said: “I held [oil and gas] accountable, and I’m not sure Pat will, and I’m not sure Stephanie knows how.”
In just the past month alone, Lyons raised $137,705, largely from oil and gas. He raised upwards of $300,000 during his campaign, and a political action committee spent a half million dollars to help him. After Chevron gave $2 million to the PAC, environmentalists called for a boycott of Chevron.
In 2006, when the Lyons campaign was also flush, I wrote, “Lyons gets along with oil and gas, ranchers and developers, but $488,000 in campaign contributions is a lot of getting along.”
I’m not saying industry is wrong to support a candidate (I’m really sick of the ads portraying Big Oil as evil), but when you have so much money flowing towards a candidate from ANY source, voters should wonder about the candidate’s loyalties.
Lyons has been dogged by the White Peak land swap, halted in 2010 by the state Supreme Court for violating state bidding process. It started with hunters raising the roof over loss of prime hunting lands to two land owners who were sole bidders in separate deals. Lyons defended the swaps as good land management.
And there was a developer’s $20,000 contribution to Lyons’ 2006 campaign just months before Lyons signed a lease with the developer.
Recently Lyons sent a fundraising letter to ranchers who lease land from the state. “”Let’s make sure agriculture has a voice in the Land Office,” he wrote. This was cause for a debate about ethics and optics. The consensus was that the ask might not be illegal, but it looks bad. Lyons said the letter didn’t work anyway, as if that’s justification.
No wonder the state’s largest newspapers have strained to come up with endorsements. The Las Cruces Sun-News endorsed Garcia Richard, primarily for her stand on animal and wildlife protections and environmental stewardship. The Santa Fe New Mexican surprised its readers by endorsing Lyons for his land management experience.
If Garcia Richard wins, I hope she surrounds herself with experienced people. If Lyons wins, I hope at least one seasoned employee has a working ethical compass. Either one needs watching.
(c) 2018 New Mexico News Services 10-29-18
Congressional caucus affiliations speak volumes about candidates for governor
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
For the past six weeks I've focused on the campaigns for governor because it's so important to choose a leader who will pull New Mexico out of its deep hole and bring us together.
As the campaign ads have gotten more inflammatory and more inaccurate, I've focused on data and voting records. My object was to look more deeply into the two candidates' actions.
Remember, watch what they do, not what they say.
For weeks, the candidates and their tiresome ads have thrown around the word “corruption.” Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham’s ties to Delta Consulting have been investigated multiple times, and so have Republican Steve Pearce’s investments in energy-related companies. There’s nothing to report, although Pearce didn’t do himself any favors by releasing incomplete tax records for one year, while Lujan Grisham published five years of complete records.
Let’s move on to two other affiliations: Pearce’s membership in the House Freedom Caucus and Lujan Grisham’s leadership of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
In January 2015 the Freedom Caucus broke away from the conservative Republican Study Committee because Freedom Caucus founders thought the larger group had strayed too far from conservative principles. The Freedom Caucus is an invitation-only group of about 36. Membership isn’t publicized, although several studies list members, and meetings aren’t open to the public. Its first action was to force House Speaker John Boehner to resign. Paul Ryan won the post after gaining caucus support.
According to the Pew Research Center, Steve Pearce is the least conservative Freedom Caucus member, but he’s more conservative than the average House Republican. Members are white men except for one Hispanic and one female and tend to come from the South. Most are skeptical of climate change.
A POLITICO analysis showed that caucus members have drawn massive donations from the Club for Growth, a free-enterprise advocacy group, and Koch Industries. And from those two sources, Steve Pearce was the biggest recipient in the caucus at $347,867 from the Club for Growth and $86,000 from Koch over his political career.
The Freedom Caucus chairman is Mark Meadows, of North Carolina, who engineered the 2013 government shutdown, which Pearce supported.
In news reports the group is called uncompromising and hard-right. They’re also called a force to be reckoned with. They’re not afraid to tangle with Republican leaders, and they’ve gained power by voting as a bloc.
In action, they’ve tried repeatedly to kill Obamacare and made their mark on Republican healthcare bills by demanding an end to most regulations, including protections for people with pre-existing conditions. They’ve called for tighter restrictions on immigration and refugees and less regulation of federal lands.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, founded in 1976, is a legislative service organization of the House of Representatives, according to its website. It has 31 members (all Democrats), operates in the open, and addresses issues that affect the Hispanic community. Lujan Grisham became chair in 2016. Last year, it refused to admit a Florida Republican to the group.
In June Lujan Grisham and four other caucus members stood in a hallway with signs andconfronted the president about family separations at the border. In September Lujan Grisham turned down an invitation to a White House reception honoring Hispanic Heritage Month, saying in her letter to the president: “(Y)ou demonized and dehumanized the Hispanic community and spread fear and untruths. You have… compared immigration to an infestation and attacked a judge because of his Hispanic heritage."
The Hispanic Caucus has criticized ICE for deportations but opposes legislation to abolish ICE. It has also criticized the border wall, advocated for Puerto Rico, demanded protection for Dreamers, opposed Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and called for increased funding for computer science.
If actions speak louder than words, who has acted in the best interests of New Mexico?
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 10-22-18
Pearce wants to fix the hostility to business in state government
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
It was Republican Congressman Steve Pearce’s turn to stand before Albuquerque’s business leaders and talk about what he would do as the state’s chief executive officer.
Economic Forum, with its membership of decision makers, has been a place I could take the pulse of movers and shakers when I was a business writer. I wanted to hear what both candidates for governor had to say to them and watch the response.
The turnout was about half of what Democratic candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham got a week earlier – maybe because it was an odd meeting day, chosen to fit Pearce’s busy schedule, maybe it was a measure of member enthusiasm. The reception and applause were polite.
Pearce, friendly and personable, is charismatic when he speaks. He leads with his rags-to-riches story and talks about his first paycheck as a kid. He says he understands what it is to be poor and what it takes to claw your way out of poverty. He went to Congress a wealthy man after years in the oil-field services business. He still has two companies.
That was Pearce’s lead-in to a discussion of the “power of earned success,” the payoff for hard work, and how entitlement programs like Medicaid “take that away from the poor.” He supports a work requirement for Medicaid recipients, and he calls for help to get those people back into the workforce.
With just weeks left in the campaign, all the candidates are running out of steam. They’ve told the same anecdotes and trotted out the same slogans a hundred times. Specifics are in short supply. Pearce is no exception.
“I want to be a governor for all the cities of New Mexico.”
“We can’t return to the past.”
Pearce admitted being alarmed when the president said he would get rid of NAFTA. “We have good trade partners in Mexico,” he said. “He came back with a new agreement that opens stunning new opportunities to us.”
The new trade agreement requires more U. S.-produced steel in cars, and wages for Mexican workers of at least $16 an hour. It deprives Mexico of its low-wage advantage and is bound to send some manufacturing back across the border, he said.
Like other candidates, Pearce talks about New Mexico’s assets: “We have a bilingual workforce, affordable land and a lot of it, and sunshine.” He touted the state’s low-priced renewable energy as a draw to manufacturing. “We have everything it takes to succeed, but we haven’t had the vision and leadership to make it happen.”
Pearce said state agencies aren’t working because “corruption breeds incompetence.” As corrupt managers surround themselves with people they can manipulate, and there’s no consequence for their actions, other employees stop caring. He wants to clean up nepotism and pay-to-play.
An obstacle Pearce often mentions is the state’s “hostility to business.”
In Jal, he said, three companies were ready to build but because of permitting and regulatory issues, they went south to Kermit, Texas. “I would fix the hostility against business,” he said. “If we do, business would want to be here.”
I asked him how, exactly, he would do that. The answer: through leadership, management and discussion of attitudes. An example is a bureaucratic obstacle to building apartments in Carlsbad, where people are sleeping in their trucks. “We need to get whoever made the decision” to the site for problem solving.
“Hands-on management. That’s what I do,” he said.
Lujan Grisham emphasized a nonpartisan approach to governing and promised to reach out to both parties on day one. Pearce didn’t. Nor did he address the Democratic majorities he might face in both chambers of the Legislature and how to avoid eight more years of gridlock.
He says simply, “I’ve got the vision, the dedication, and the commitment.”
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 10-15-18
Lujan Grisham pitches bipartisanship to business leaders
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Michelle Lujan Grisham, Democratic candidate for governor, addressed Albuquerque’s captains of industry last week, as Republican candidate Steve Pearce campaigned in southern New Mexico.
Lujan Grisham’s audience at Economic Forum was largely chief executives in mature business sectors. It’s a mixed group politically. And because business people tend to be pragmatic, there are no ideological firebrands here.
This crowd of several hundred wanted to know what to expect, given the fact that Lujan Grisham is the frontrunner. She had 20 minutes to give her speech, and they listened attentively.
The congresswoman was her usual ebullient, fire cracker self. (I’ve imagined her at home in her off hours with her finger in an electrical outlet to recharge her batteries.)
She had two major messages: New Mexico needs to get its groove back, and bipartisanship is the only way to solve problems.
Lujan Grisham didn’t put a name to the widespread sense of futility out there as we’ve watched the states around us race ahead, but she’s surely heard it on the campaign trail.
One of the governor’s jobs is to be an advocate for the state, she said.
“That enthusiasm makes a difference in our success. We almost lost that. New Mexico lost its hustle factor,” she said. “Our challenges are significant (but) when we let our challenges outweigh our opportunities, we’re getting it wrong.”
In the past, I’ve said the governor should be our head cheerleader. We haven’t had one of these in a long time.
Talking about the need to focus on our strengths, Lujan Grisham reminded me of Monique Jacobson. The former Tourism Department secretary used to speak with such contagious enthusiasm about New Mexico’s wonders that listeners were ready to book reservations on the spot. Jacobson is sadly misplaced, running the Children, Youth and Families Department.
Lujan Grisham has spent enough time in Washington, D. C., to be personally fed up with partisan fights. “We broke the farm bill because we made it partisan. I’ve seen decisions made in anger. I’ve seen everyone circle the wagons.”
“I think about ways to be nonpartisan,” she said. Instead of electing chief executives who spend their time undoing what their predecessor did, “we should be building a widespread collaboration that works through two election cycles.”
Should Lujan Grisham prevail on Nov. 6, she would “bring together leadership of both parties” on Nov. 7 to set an agenda. And she issued an invitation to legislators: “Bring every bill that was vetoed that’s still relevant and doesn’t break the bank. Bring it to me and I will sign it. Good ideas are not partisan.”
Asked if she had a plan to address the state’s gross receipts tax, universally regarded as a burden to business and an obstacle to economic development, Lujan Grisham said that, if elected, she would convene a bipartisan tax commission before the next legislative session with a goal of simplifying the tax system and making it more fair.
This particular audience has heard tax reform promises before. The Legislature assembled a task force during Gary Johnson’s administration, and Johnson himself was the biggest obstacle. Gov. Bill Richardson convened a task force on taxes. He grabbed the easiest recommendation and ran with it. It didn’t do much. Most recently, House Republicans, during their short-lived majority, pushed their own reform bill. Without bipartisan support it was doomed.
The members of Economic Forum want to believe. If they could have responded with one voice, I think they would say: Show us.
It’s also safe to say that we’re all sick of the partisan paralysis in Congress and, at times, the Legislature. We’re very ready for someone to bring us together. That may be one reason Lujan Grisham got a standing ovation.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 10-8-18
Lujan Grisham’s positions on education track her statements and votes over time
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Democratic Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham and other lawmakers have written to U. S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos frequently as DeVos unwinds programs and protections.
On August 28, House Democrats pleaded with DeVos to not spend federal education money on guns for school employees. Other letters have asked the controversial education secretary to not weaken protections for student loan borrowers, not unravel the civil rights of students, and not retreat from educational equity for English learners.
Last summer, Lujan Grisham, as chair of the House Hispanic Caucus, met with DeVos to discuss a growing list of concerns. The meeting didn’t go well. Afterward, Lujan Grisham vented her frustration with DeVos’s proposals to cut billions from after-school, early-education, and teacher-training programs and to roll back civil rights and loan servicing protections for students.
“Most troubling is her support for diverting public funds to cover voucher programs that undermine the public school system,” Lujan Grisham said.
So it goes for the minority party in Congress, but Lujan Grisham doesn’t let up.
On education issues, her positions as a candidate for governor line up with her actions as a U. S. representative, and both are consistent over time. (Last week’s column looked at the mismatch between Republican Steve Pearce’s campaign positions and his voting record.)
Lujan Grisham supports better pay for educators, more pre-K programs, and apprenticeships. She would use Permanent Fund money for early childhood education, with voter approval, and improve graduation rates by hiring more dropout coaches, adding career academies, and strengthening the early warning system.
She would end PARCC exams, the school grading system, and the current teacher evaluations. She would freeze the number of charter schools pending an evaluation of their effectiveness.
On the ruling of a recent landmark education lawsuit, Lujan Grisham called on the governor to not appeal the decision. Pearce has expressed no opinion. The judge agreed with plaintiffs that insufficient funding has created inequities that fall more heavily on Native Americans, English learners, disabled students and poor students.
What does her voting record look like?
College affordability and mounting debt for students have been ongoing priorities for Lujan Grisham. This year, she introduced her Education for Jobs Act, a bill aimed at making school more affordable to working people. It expands eligibility in the federal student loan program to include students enrolled in a degree or certificate program who have worked full time for 10 years.
In 2018, Lujan Grisham and Pearce both voted to reauthorize the grant program for school security. It passed the House. And she co-sponsored a bill allowing tribes to administer federal programs that provide free meals to school.
In 2015 she voted for the Every Student Succeeds Act that repealed No Child Left Behind. It promised a good education to all students, provided funding for teachers’ professional development, expanded access to preschool, and gave states and schools more flexibility in spending. It was signed into law.
In 2013 she co-sponsored the Student Loan Fairness Act to forgive loans to borrowers who have made 120 monthly payments in the previous 10 years. It also capped the interest rate on new loans at 3.4 percent. The bill failed. That year, the parties also clashed over the federal loan program for students. Democrats wanted to extend the 3.4 percent rate for another year or two; Republicans objected. The final compromise bill tied student loan rates to markets but provided rate caps. Lujan Grisham voted in favor of and Pearce voted against. It was signed into law.
Overall, Lujan Grisham’s votes place her in the middle of the pack among Democrats, according to the website GovTrack, while Pearce’s votes place him on the far right of Republicans.
For her education voting record, Lujan Grisham gets a 100 percent from the National Education Association but low scores from conservative groups.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 10-1-18
Steve Pearce talks like a moderate on education but votes consistently conservative
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Steve Pearce is taking such a sensible, middle of the road approach to education that political pundits and Democrats wonder what happened to the old Steve Pearce.
In interviews, speeches, and his website, the Republican candidate for governor lays out his education blueprint. (Next week’s column will look at his opponent, Michelle Lujan Grisham.)
He would suspend the teacher evaluation system immediately and hand that and the standardized testing questions to educators. “The reforming of the public education system in New Mexico must be informed and led by New Mexican educators,” says his website.
He would decentralize decision making and give superintendents and teachers more say. He would offer apprentice programs to kids who don’t go to college. Pearce even supports programs that would increase costs, like having specialists deal with problem behavior and truancy.
Pearce told the online news website New Mexico In Depth that he supports behavioral health care in community schools. “We used to have mental health in almost all of the rural communities,” but “when we outsourced mental health to Arizona, we lost them all. We’re going to have to rebuild that, because every school system, no matter how small, report some very difficult circumstances.”
Pearce would transform the state Public Education Department from enforcer to resource provider.
“We’re seeing constant friction between PED and the educators,” Pearce said in Socorro. “This antagonism in the system creates bad outcomes.”
Education finance is another sore subject. “Fund operations equitably on a per pupil unit basis so that funding is adequate in all districts. We need to stop the practice of district superintendents jumping through hoops to get ‘below the line money.’” (This refers to money doled out by PED and not allocated by legislators.)
Pearce goes out of his way to distance himself from the education policies of Gov. Susana Martinez. “While many politicians tend to go for photo ops while reading to kids, I go and take questions from the students. You can learn far more by listening to their questions than by giving them pep talks or speeches.”
Pearce has for years championed school vouchers, but doesn’t mention them on his campaign website. Instead, he says: “New Mexico should embrace all forms of education that give every family a choice in how to educate their child. Charter schools, magnet schools, e-schools and home schooling have a place in meeting the needs of some students.”
Teachers and parents might like the 2018 model Steve Pearce, but what about the 2017 model?
Last year, Pearce voted for an appropriations bill with steep cuts to public education funding. It eliminated Title II funding for professional development and class-size reduction. The bill passed. He voted against an appropriations amendment to restore funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers after-school programs. The amendment passed. And he voted to repeal a rule requiring the U. S. Department of Education to monitor low-performing schools. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 29 other organizations supported the rule, arguing that federal oversight is necessary to assure that schools meet their obligations to marginalized students. The rule died.
In 2015, Pearce voted for a budget resolution with multiple impacts, including the repeal of Obamacare, cutbacks to Medicaid and food stamps, freezing Pell grants for college students for 10 years, and voucherizing Medicare. It passed the House but not the Senate. He also voted to restart and expand a failed private school voucher program in Washington, D. C. The bill passed the House but not the Senate.
In 2013 he co-sponsored a bill to spend $110 million a year on teaching sexual abstinence to teenagers. It failed.
The National Education Association has given Pearce an F in recent years, but he scores high with conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 9-24-18
Candidates for governor agree on the wall, differ on Dreamers and immigration reforms
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Our two candidates for governor agree that the immigration system is broken and that a border wall is a waste of money. On border issues, that’s where agreement ends for the two, who are currently congressional representatives.
Governors don’t have a lot of direct impact on immigration, but New Mexico voters have strong opinions, and border issues weigh heavily.
Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham has been highly visible and vocal, championing Dreamers and visiting border detention camps. Republican Steve Pearce is low profile, but he has advanced his own version of compromise.
To compare records with minimal political static, I gathered information from nonpartisan sources, the media, and their own news releases. The emerging picture: Lujan Grisham shares her party’s positions but pointedly departed from the liberal wing in upholding ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Pearce normally takes the conservative position but not always.
June was a watershed month for immigration bills before Congress.
Pearce co-sponsored a conservative bill that would have authorized wall construction, modernized ports of entry, funded 10,000 border agents, withheld federal grants from sanctuary cities, given Dreamers a 3-year renewable status, ended family (also called chain) migration and the Diversity Visa program, increased green cards for skilled workers, created an agricultural guest worker program, and required employers to use a federal data base in hiring.
It failed 193 to 231.
This must have been a big disappointment to Pearce. For years, he’s advocated a guest worker program that allows undocumented immigrants to work here without receiving citizenship, but hardliners in his own party were opposed. In this bill, Republicans finally embraced guest workers.
Lujan Grisham said it offered too little protection to Dreamers, failed to end family separation, provided billions for the wall, and imposed a costly, burdensome verification system on employers. She tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill with a new pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.
Republicans came back with a more moderate bill that would have provided nearly $25 billion to build the wall, required a biometric entry-exit program to discourage visa overstays, ended the visa lottery, reduced overall immigration numbers, shifted to a merit-based system, and given Dreamers a 6-year renewable status. Pearce voted for, Lujan Grisham, against. It failed 121 to 301.
Early this year, Lujan Grisham signed onto a bipartisan bill championed by Sen. John McCain to give Dreamers a 10-year “conditional protected status” and a chance at permanent legal status if they meet certain requirements. The bill would also strengthen border security through technology and improvements at ports of entry.
Pearce said most New Mexicans would oppose allowing Dreamers to jump to the front of the citizenship line. He introduced his own bill to give Dreamers a 10-year renewable status, calling it a compromise between Democrats, who want to give Dreamers permanent legal status, and the Trump administration’s end of the program. This was a shift toward the center for Pearce.
Lujan Grisham has tried to block construction of the wall. Pearce has said he opposes the wall and prefers using technology but voted twice for bills to fund the wall.
In 2016 they both voted against an amendment to the defense budget bill to keep Dreamers out of the military. The bill failed 211 to 210. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus called it an “attack on the immigrant community” that would also weaken national security.
In 2013, Pearce voted for an amendment to the Homeland Security appropriations bill to block President Obama’s moratorium on deporting Dreamers. The amendment passed but the bill died.
Who’s closer to voters on immigration? Two-thirds of New Mexico voters oppose the wall, according to a recent Albuquerque Journal poll, and two-thirds favor allowing Dreamers to remain. Last year, a national poll showed that 91 percent of Hispanics support Dreamers.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 9-17-18
Support parks and recreation by renewing Land and Water Conservation Fund
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Have you ever noticed that in many public parks, the picnic tables are made of an indestructible plastic composite and anchored to the ground? A state park ranger once complained to me about campers chopping up the park’s picnic tables to use as firewood. The added cost of idiot-and-vandal proofing our public facilities stretches budgets for local, state and federal governments.
That’s just one small reason why Congress should save the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which will sunset on Sept. 30 without a vote. A bigger reason: New Mexico can count $316 million in 1,200 projects since the fund was created in 1965. And it hasn’t cost taxpayers a dime because it’s supported by a small percentage of off-shore oil and gas drilling royalties.
Supporters usually cite the big projects – well known national parks and monuments, the big state parks – but virtually every community in New Mexico has a park, facility or improvement that wouldn’t be there without the fund.
Here are just a few from a very long list: a swimming pool in Lovington, a 4H-FFA fairground in Española, a softball complex in Roswell, park sprinklers in Eunice, softball fields and tennis courts in Hobbs, a shooting range in Carlsbad, a sports complex in Dexter, outdoor play areas in Los Alamos, and tennis courts in Gallup.
I doubt you could name a park in any community that hasn’t benefitted from fund dollars.
However, this too is political, like everything else these days. The fund has had bipartisan support over the years, but Rep. Steve Pearce and some other conservatives argue that government has used the money to add to its land base when it can’t effectively manage the land it already owns.
Some of New Mexico’s projects involved land acquisitions, but a look through a database established by InvestigateWest indicates that land acquisitions typically were just big enough for community parks – not the massive purchases that critics argue against. Between 2003 and 2009 the state spent less than four-tenths of one percent of the $316 million (about $1.18 million) on land acquisitions for state parks. Not exactly big bucks.
The most expensive project between 1965 and 2011 was the acquisition and development of Eagle Nest Lake in Colfax County, at $2.1 million in 2003. The second was Elephant Butte’s South Monticello Recreation Area development, at $890,189 in 2002, followed by construction of Living Desert State Park in Carlsbad, at $865,572 in 1971.
Can anybody find fault with these projects? Some readers may recall that the ranching family that owned Eagle Nest Lake wanted to sell it to the state for public use, but the state didn’t have the money. Developers would have jumped at the chance, but that’s not what the owners had in mind, and every angler and boater at the lake would agree.
The conservative Heritage Foundation has argued that funding projects like swimming pools and softball fields has “no place within the constitutional functions of the federal government. Townships and municipalities have a number of financing mechanisms at their disposal to pay for outdoor recreation.”
From the testimony I’ve heard for years in the Legislature, local governments would love to hear about all those “financing mechanisms,” especially after the governor vetoes their playground equipment. Most are doing their best to pay for streets and public safety and rarely have money left over for park improvements.
The state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, which administers the program, says, “LWCF has provided a permanent legacy of parks, facilities and open space statewide.”
Our congressional delegation, except for Pearce, supports the fund. He would reauthorize the fund but not permanently. In 2016 he voted against fully funding it and voted twice to take funds away. Maybe as a candidate for governor he’ll have a change of heart.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 9-1o-18
Three words for lawmakers on spending new money: Roads, roads roads
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Thanks mostly to oil and gas, legislators will have $1.2 billion or more in new money to divvy up in the next session.
After the bruising budget cutting of just a couple of years ago, it’s enough to make legislative finance people giddy. But they’re not giddy. They and we have gotten a lot more realistic about the cycles of state revenues.
There’s much talk about salting money away in reserves and a newly created rainy day fund, and that’s prudent. Beyond that, lawmakers will be awash in suggestions. Of course, that never stopped a red-blooded opinion columnist.
With the ups and down of our revenues, budgeters will have to be very careful of committing money to recurring programs – even such favorites as early childhood education – because the funding might not be there in the future.
However, this is a fine opportunity to make some one-time expenditures, and they should begin with roads.
In January, TRIP, a transportation research group, released its yearly report. Of our major roads, 27 percent are in poor condition, 20 percent mediocre, 12 percent fair, and 41 percent good. Of rural roads, 28 percent are poor, 25 percent mediocre, 13 percent fair, and 34 percent good.
Such numbers mostly argue for spending on roads, but the trouble with percentages like these is that if the roads in your county are good, you assume everybody has a good road and that the need is less urgent. If your local roads are lousy, it’s your daily experience, it interferes with your local economy, and it’s dangerous.
For example, the last time I passed over U. S. 82, between Lovington and Artesia, I was shocked at the condition of this tiny, patched-up road through the oil patch and the heavy (literally) traffic it carries. With no turn lanes and no shoulders, it has chalked up more than its share of accidents. U. S. 82 is getting belated attention, but we should wonder at the neglect of a road serving the state’s golden goose.
Recently, Steve Pearce, the Republican candidate for governor, proposed a system of toll roads in southeastern New Mexico to serve the booming oil industry. Private companies would finance and own the roads with the goal of relieving traffic bottlenecks in the oil-rich Delaware Basin.
“We have all heard the tragic stories of accidents on our highways in southeastern New Mexico,” Pearce said in a statement. “The roads are overcrowded and stressed beyond capacity, creating an unsafe situation for our New Mexico families and workers.
“People have observed correctly that the state should bear the cost of these roads, but the reality is that the political environment is weighted to the large population centers, and the problem is so severe we cannot wait the years that would be required to solve the problem with public funds.”
This is an intriguing idea. Some states have had public toll roads for many years, but New Mexicans have never liked the idea. Private toll roads are a different animal and need study. As Pearce explained it recently, the heaviest users would pay for the roads, and take some commercial traffic off public roads.
Democratic candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham’s spokesman panned the toll road idea as an “out of touch plan” and said she has plans to rebuild infrastructure, but I didn’t find those plans on her campaign website. Matter of fact, both candidates’ websites are broad, generic and lacking in detail.
This year, lawmakers did a lot of backfilling after emptying every pot of money they could find the year before. In the next session they will use new money to leave the state better prepared to weather future downturns. Spending money on roads represents another kind of preparation that would also make the state safer and more prosperous.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 9-3-18
Gary Johnson’s PR doesn’t match his track record
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
And he’s back.
Former Gov. Gary Johnson resurfaced as the Libertarian Party candidate in the Senate race, hoping to slow incumbent Sen. Martin Heinrich’s sprint to the finish line.
Johnson always jazzes things up, and his willingness to share his thoughts frankly is refreshing. But he also causes amnesia about who he is, what he’s done, and what he believes.
The commotion straight out of the chute was typical. Johnson supporters tried to pressure Republican candidate Mick Rich to leave the race so Johnson would have a better chance, as if a Libertarian platform is interchangeable with a Republican platform. It’s not. And Rich has a right to run his own race representing Republicans.
Libertarians may include refugees of the two major parties, but they aren’t just a meld of those parties – they have distinctive beliefs that may or may not resonate with yours.
Johnson is a fan of small government, a balanced budget, lower taxes, and the free market. He wants to curtail the growth of Medicaid and other entitlement programs. He would probably vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice. But he thinks the current approach to the border is all wrong – the wall and National Guard troops are a waste of money, and we need work visas. Abortion, he says, should be a woman’s decision. And as the whole world knows, he would legalize marijuana.
As for Johnson himself, we’re hearing endlessly about his veto of 742 bills while he was governor. Stephen Despin, a supporter, recently wrote in an op ed that they were “wasteful spending bills… that would’ve harmed our economy, ultimately hurting the citizens of New Mexico.”
No, they weren’t.
Just a few of many examples: His first year he vetoed a bill, pushed by First Lady Dee Johnson, to waive college tuition for some young people in foster care. In 1998 he vetoed a bill to start a pilot program for state employees that would provide coverage for mental illnesses on par with coverage for physical illness. It had heavy bipartisan support and a congressional champion in Sen. Pete Domenici. In 2001 he vetoed an omnibus education reform package, two years in the making, that had broad bipartisan support. In 2002 he vetoed a bill to curb high-speed police chases.
Despin wrote that Johnson “cares what the citizens have to say” and “wants to hear their concerns… He displayed this as governor.”
“The single biggest thing said about Gary Johnson is, ‘He doesn’t listen,’” a source told me in 1995. In its annual report card, the Association of Commerce and Industry said he needed improvement in the areas of access and willingness to listen.
ACI said calls to Johnson or his staff aren’t returned. “The governor was elected to run state government like a business, which includes answering and returning telephone calls,” the ACI report said.
Despin wrote that Johnson isn’t left or right and is fiercely independent. “We need a guy like Gary in the middle.” Johnson has never been in the middle.
Former Gov. Garrey Carruthers, said in 2002, as Johnson was leaving office: “He’s an independent cuss – there’s no question about it. I think the Capitol would have collapsed from shock if Johnson ever uttered the word ‘compromise.’”
Notoriously ignorant about the government he ran, he once questioned the value of the Mexico Trade Office. His own economic development people said for the state’s $228,000, the office in one year generated $11.2 million in trade. This carelessness with details cost him credibility in his last presidential run, when he famously asked, “What’s Aleppo?”
Johnson presents himself as a swing vote and an alternative. If you want to vote for him, make sure you’re clear on his position.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 8-27-18
Verizon “throttling” and doublespeak endanger firefighters and residents
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Some of us have anxiously followed the California fires as a preview of what might happen here. (There by the grace of God…) And we’ve learned new vocabulary words. One is “behavior,” and another is “throttling.”
Fire behavior is changing. Once limited to forest or plain, fires have spread into what experts call the WUI (wildland-urban interface) – the homes people build near tourist towns or away from cities. This year and last, fires have raced from the WUI to cities whose residents thought they were safe.
Now there’s corporate fire behavior, which brings us to “throttling.”
The telecom giant Verizon throttled (drastically reduced) data service of the Santa Clara County Fire Department as it fought the 406,000-acre Mendocino fire, the biggest in California history. Verizon crimped data flow to 1/200th of its usual speed because the department had exceeded its monthly allotment of 22 gigabytes.
The department’s command vehicle coordinates thousands of personnel and hundreds of fire engines, plus aircraft and bulldozers, said Fire Chief Anthony Bowden in court documents. When the department lost live video streaming, strategic plan communications, and other capabilities, including the ability to notify both firefighters and residents to abandon an area, it became dangerous.
The department’s tech staff asked Verizon to stop throttling for public safety reasons. Verizon took its time responding and then said the department would have to switch to a data plan more than twice the original cost. Temporarily the department employed a workaround using other providers, but Verizon’s throttling didn’t cease until the fire department coughed up more money.
It wasn’t the first time Verizon throttled service; the Santa Clara County firefighters also experienced throttling in 2017 and June fires.
On June 29 a fire captain emailed Verizon about throttling, only to be told by San Francisco accounts manager Silas Buss that the department should upgrade from the $37.99 plan to the $39.99 plan to get data speeds restored, according to court documents. On July 30, three days after the Mendocino fire began and as the department pleaded with him to stop throttling, Buss said it would cost $99.99. This despite being reminded by a fire official that Verizon had promised to never throttle public safety communications.
Initially, none of this appeared in news reports. Instead it cropped up in a federal lawsuit by 22 states, including New Mexico, against the Federal Communications Commission over net neutrality.
Verizon has apologized and lifted data caps on emergency first responders, but a California legislative hearing revealed that the company had no policy to protect service for first responders, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Legislators also learned that when difficulties arise, firefighters had no recourse other than calling customer service. We know how that goes.
The company explained that while the fire department plan was “unlimited,” it included a provision for throttling when the department reached its allotment. So it wasn’t unlimited. Verizon admitted that its sales people hadn’t adequately explained that. It said company policy was to cancel throttling in emergencies, and it’s done so in the past, but that didn’t happen in this case.
“This was a customer support mistake,” Verizon said. The company rolled out new policies and promised it won’t happen again.
If all goes as usual, Verizon will throw Silas Buss under the bus and wipe its hands. But California’s experience goes beyond one zealous salesman. Verizon needs to take a hard look at the internal culture that encouraged his behavior – think Wells Fargo – and beyond that to whether its employees blindly follow company policy or exercise some judgment.
The damning emails are now part of a court case against the FCC and the public debate over net neutrality. They’re must reading for public officials. New Mexico firefighters, do you know what’s in your plan?
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 8-20-18
Alice in cannabis land
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
When in Colorado…
Last week, I got some insight into legalized marijuana. Let me say up front that I made a really stupid decision and won’t do it again.
In a tourist town, my brother and I visited one of Colorado’s pot shops. He was interested in pain relief for severe back problems. Neither of us had been in one of these places before. At the entrance a large, cheerful man, who functioned as both greeter and bouncer, checked our ID, offered us bottled water, and directed us upstairs, where the “bud tender” checked our ID again.
The bud tenders are highly trained in their many products. There are tidy jars of dried marijuana with colorful names. One called “Cookie” used to be called “Girl Scout Cookie” until the Girl Scouts took issue.
“Their lawyer sent us a letter, and they were really nasty about it,” said the bud tender.
There are rows of colorful packages, vials and containers with oils, candies, salves, and lotions – each with a different effect. The bud tender answered questions and made suggestions. She did have a salve that had worked effectively for her own post-injury pain. My brother got a jar.
We kept asking questions. What’s this? What does it do? Do you have chocolate? We came away with a small bag of stuff. By that time a line had formed behind us. It’s a very happy business. Everyone leaves with a smile.
Back in our rented quarters, we examined our purchases. On impulse, I tried a small gummy candy. My 20-year-old self was egging me on; my mature self was oddly silent. I was expecting the kind of giggly high with munchies that I’d experienced many (many!) years ago. For an hour or so, it was something like that.
Then a wave of nausea throttled me. “I don’t feel good,” I told the group. I passed out. And threw up. In a restaurant. I came to in an emergency vehicle with young firemen ministering to me. Their team leader insisted I stay awake.
In the small hospital’s emergency room, I learned that two things put me there – dehydration and the candy, which they termed an “edible.”
Said the doctor, the medical tech, and the firemen: “We see this ALL the time.”
Tourists come to Colorado, decide to try dancing with Mary Jane, and get themselves in trouble. The edibles are riskier, explained a doctor, because you can’t control your dosage. If you smoke the marijuana, you know right away how high you are and can stop; the edibles just keep on coming. Like a runaway bus.
So just one aspect of legalizing recreational pot, noted my brother (whose job before he retired was insurance consulting) is a hidden healthcare and insurance cost. And first responders will be busier.
In fact, the number of marijuana-related visits to emergency departments in Colorado doubled after legalization, according to the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy. Typically, patients are kids eating candies because their idiot parents left bags sitting out, people like me consuming edibles, and heavy users experiencing consequences.
Is this an argument against legalization? Not necessarily. There’s a learning curve. As it is with liquor, people must learn their limits. I think the bud tender could have done some cautionary explaining, since we were obvious novices, and the candy maker could have indicated its potency.
These were our conclusions the next day. My brother talked about how the money rolling into Colorado from weed sales is funneled to the schools. Imagine that tide lifting our schools or paying for early childhood education.
I won’t touch the stuff again, but I know it will be around, legal or not. Our lawmakers need to make the decision with their eyes open.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 8-13-18
State’s biggest water grab tests laws, regulators and residents
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
The case of Augustin Plains Ranch LLC versus just about everybody else hit another rock early this month, when the State Engineer turned down – for the third time – the ranch’s application for a breathtaking amount of water.
Speculative, said the hearing officer. Which is something opponents have said from the beginning. Opponents are so numerous the hearing officer had to designate who would speak or they would probably still be there testifying.
The latest application faced opposition by groups that normally don’t sit on the same side of the table: the Catron County Commission, agricultural organizations, tribes, residents and environmentalists.
Augustin Plains Ranch (APR) proposed to appropriate 54,000 acre-feet a year of groundwater from 37 wells for “municipal purposes and commercial sales” to parts of Catron, Sierra, Socorro, Valencia, Bernalillo, Sandoval, and Santa Fe counties.
But APR doesn’t say who exactly will be the customer or how water will be used – information it also left out of previous applications. Without a user or a contract, it’s impossible to evaluate the application. APR claimed that New Mexico law doesn’t require it to have a contract.
“This is a fundamental misapprehension of New Mexico law with respect to the evaluation of an application for a permit for a new appropriation of water, and raises the question of speculation,” wrote hearing examiner Uday V. Joshi, who concluded that facts and the law “support the conclusion that APR’s Corrected Application is speculative and should be denied.”
That’s exactly what State Engineer Tom Blaine did, which is something of a relief.
When Blaine opened the hearing process last year, he seemed a little too willing to entertain APR’s proposal. In comments to the San Augustin Water Coalition he was vague on the question of speculation and denied that the project would impair the wells of other users.
“Water is a market-driven resource,” Blaine said. Agriculture 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.”
In the end the application fell on a basic tenet of New Mexico water law called “beneficial use.” That’s the requirement that water in our desert state must be used wisely and not wasted. Approving APR’s application would “deprive the public of its right to appropriate water for beneficial use,” wrote the hearing officer.
Michel Jichlinski, APR project director, panned the decision as ignorant, short-sighted, politically expedient, and driven by a “small group of dedicated opponents.” Small group? Seriously? He refers to the state’s water plan and says that only APR intends to do something with its water.
Maybe because Jichlinski is Swiss and hasn’t grown up in an arid place, the project makes sense to him. APR considers its project visionary and likes to compare it to the San Juan-Chama project, which delivers river water to the Rio Grande. But the San-Juan Chama is surface water, which is renewable (mostly), while APR wants to pump groundwater, which is finite. Do they not understand the difference, or do they think we don’t? APR has convinced itself but nobody else that the aquifer will recharge. Most of us know that requires rain.
This controversy has been useful in certain ways.
The hearing officer points to a legal gap the Legislature needs to address. New Mexico and Colorado water laws are similar, but Colorado has gone the extra mile with an “anti-speculation doctrine.” It prescribes how to evaluate applications that may be speculative. New Mexico needs a way to test for speculative applications.
This case has also been a caution to everyone to pay attention to your water. It’s no longer paranoid to think others have designs on it.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 8-6-18
As tariffs slam NM businesses, where’s Steve Pearce?
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Back in a dreary economics class, I learned that tariffs were bad. Then it was a concept. Now it’s for real.
Repercussions of the Trump administration’s trade tariffs have reached New Mexico, and they’re surprisingly widespread: the newspaper you hold in your hands, the cheese on your pizza, the lumber for your next project, the parts for your car. Add to this list cotton, mattresses, vegetables and fruit. Even salsa.
Jeopardized trade in the state totals $76 million, says the U. S. Chamber of Commerce.
We’re relearning that the government can slap a tariff on something to protect a U. S. company or industry, but other countries can retaliate. Nobody wins. A tariff is basically a tax that we all pay. Unintended consequences are lost jobs, increased prices and scrambled supply chains.
Let’s start with an industry close to my heart. The state’s newspapers have been socked with higher prices for newsprint, a critical commodity, and supplies are very tight. Now their costs will rise more with a tariff, all because the Trump administration responded to the complaint of ONE hedge-fund-owned paper company that complained Canadian competitors were selling newsprint at unfairly low prices. Four other American newsprint companies oppose the tariffs.
Also hard hit is the dairy industry, which recently wrote the president asking him to suspend tariffs on Mexican products. In a letter signed by a long list of organizations and producers (including Select Milk Producers of Artesia) they said trade relations with Mexico were so good that they’ve become Mexico’s biggest foreign dairy supplier. They worry that competitors in the European Union will take advantage of the interruption to gain market share at their expense.
Last year, with no tariff under the North American Free Trade Agreement, New Mexico dairy producers exported more than $13 million in cheese to Mexico. In the absence of NAFTA, the tariff on cheese is 20 to 25 percent, and the loss for New Mexico dairies could be ruinous, according to Dairy Producers of New Mexico. They want the administration to get busy on a new trade agreement.
Home builders in the state are staggering under skyrocketing lumber costs. Natural disasters increased demand. Then the Trump administration hit builders with a 20 percent tariff on framing lumber from Canada to discourage home builders from buying Canadian lumber. But the domestic industry can’t supply enough, according to the National Association of Home Builders. The group calculated that tariffs have bumped up the cost of a new home by $6,388 – enough to keep some first-time buyers in their apartments.
Then there’s steel. Tariffs on imported steel and aluminum have caused steel prices to spike more than 40 percent for the Santa Teresa companies making parts for cars and appliances. Rising steel costs will also balloon the price tag on pipelines under construction.
Finally, the 30 percent tariffs on imported solar panels have been a dark cloud to the solar energy industry. U. S. solar panel makers plan $1 billion in new spending, but more than $2.5 billion in large installations were cancelled. Tariffs are not the answer, argues the Solar Energy Industries Association, because domestic panel makers still can’t meet demand. The tariff has cost thousands of jobs in the industry.
And where are our candidates for governor, who still wear congressional hats? Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, said, “The president has an obligation to uphold fair trade policies, but threatening trade wars against our allies is dangerous, short-sighted, and will make it harder for U.S. businesses to compete abroad.”
Steve Pearce, a Republican, said of tariffs, “I will not support putting our businesses at a disadvantage and raising prices on our consumers.” He promised to be “a vocal advocate” for New Mexico businesses.
Where is that vocal advocate?
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 7-30-18
Remember chronic pain patients when ramping up anti-opioid campaigns
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
We can all agree that we have an opioid problem in the state and the nation, but can we be sensible about solutions?
Recently Dr. Richard Larson, executive vice chancellor of the UNM Health Sciences Center, recommended government-regulated restrictions on prescribing. In an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal, he argued that “without strict government regulation, it won’t be solved.” His prescription? A three-day limit on outpatient prescriptions for acute pain and no opioids for adolescents.
Do we really want a distant bureaucrat overruling the judgment of our doctors?
The following week, the New Mexico Medical Board revoked the license of Dr. Walter Seidel Jr., forcing him to close his family practice in Ruidoso. The board took issue with the way he prescribed controlled substances and said he refused to cooperate with the board’s investigation. They declared him a danger to the public.
Maybe the board had good reason to end Seidel’s practice – I don’t know the details of the investigation – but his comment to the Albuquerque Journal was one I’ve heard before: “Look at all the patients in New Mexico who have chronic pain and are not being treated appropriately by their doctors because those physicians are afraid of the medical board.”
That brings us to the people with chronic pain.
If you break your leg. It will hurt like crazy for a brief period, and you may want some short-term pain relief. However, if you’re in a car crash, and your leg is crushed, it could hurt severely for the rest of your life. If you want to have a life, you may need strong, long-term relief in the form of opioids.
Woven into the furor over the “opioid epidemic” is the occasional plea from chronic pain sufferers like the woman who wrote a letter to the editor saying she needs relief for severe arthritis in her back and hands and complications from joint replacements but can’t take NSAIDs (ibuprofen, aspirin and the like) because of an ulcer. She wrote, “Please tell me what a person in pain is supposed to do for pain remedy?”
Between 2000 and 2008 I covered the ordeal of a conscientious pain doctor and her patients. Two observations that trouble me to this day were the helplessness of chronic pain patients, who have nobody to speak for them, and the railroading of pain doctors by the medical board and the federal government.
These patients had a variety of conditions. One had survived a plane crash, others had conditions like diabetes or arthritis or scoliosis, and some had complications from cancer treatment. Theirs were lives of overwhelming pain. If they sought relief, they were treated like drug seekers or hypochondriacs. If they were very, very lucky, they found a doctor who listened to them and prescribed the medication that returned them to a more normal life.
The only person besides their persecuted doctor to take them seriously was Sioban Reynolds, founder of the Pain Relief Network. Because she advocated for doctors and pain patients, the Drug Enforcement Agency and prosecutors hounded and ultimately bankrupted her. She died in a plane crash in 2012.
Ten years later, here we are again. Doctors are still afraid of the medical board. Dr. Robert Gardner, of Rio Rancho, wrote recently: “The collateral damage of the opioid crisis is irresponsible, inexcusable, inhuman and dangerous medical practices toward people with true chronic pain.”
Last week the governor and the state Department of Health announced a more reasonable path – a campaign called “There Is Another Way,” to educate patients and caregivers about safer options and alternative strategies.
Armed with knowledge, more people, like a former co-worker facing a medical procedure can use their heads instead of relying on regulators to just say no.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 7-23-18
Yes, we should save 300 jobs and assure humane conditions in private prisons
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, said what anyone in his position would say: “The village of Milan is really small, and economically we are really hurting. We have to figure out a way to keep people employed and alive.”
The subject was private prisons – namely, the two in Cibola and Otero counties – and their mistreatment of immigrants detained at the border. Legislators at a recent hearing not only examined the housing of immigrants but reopened the debate on private prisons.
Alcon’s statement placed him in editorial crosshairs.
“Oppressive systems survive by enticing us to put our self-interests above what’s right,” wrote Heath Haussamen, of the online news source NMPolitics.net. He took Alcon and Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich to task.
I know and like Haussamen, but I respectfully disagree.
In the 1990s, after the area’s uranium mines and mills had shut down one by one, people packed their belongings, and Grants and Milan were becoming ghost towns. At the time, the state proposed a new prison, but the chosen community didn’t want it. Cibola County leaders drove to Santa Fe to say, in a chorus, we want it.
That was the beginning of a new industry for the area. Today, three prisons (one state and two private) operate in the county.
Prisons weren’t the original goal. In the 1980s, Cibola County’s prominent business people organized and funded an economic development group. For years, there was no community in the state more aggressive in its recruiting. They won some and lost some and learned that for small towns, creating jobs is a steep climb.
Cibola County Correctional Center opened in 1993 as a county prison with capacity for state prisoners; in 1998 it was acquired by Corrections Corporation of America, now called CoreCivic. Two years ago, the Federal Bureau of Prisons declined to renew its contract, saying private prisons were less safe and less effective and hadn’t shown much savings. The facility was also cited in investigations for medical neglect. In one case, an inmate bled to death over a seven-hour period.
Corrections Corporation said the facility’s 1,200 minimum-security inmates would be relocated, and 300 locals would lose their jobs.
That would be a big hit even in Albuquerque, but if you live in a small community it would affect pretty much everybody you know. The county’s movers and shakers scrambled to save the facility. CoreCivic snagged a new federal contract to hold detainees for U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Terms: $150 million for five years, according to the Criminal Justice Project of the Asian American Journalists Association. The group also revealed that in 2015 New Mexico held 42 percent of its prisoners in private prisons – the nation’s highest rate.
At last week’s hearing, members of the legislative Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee heard complaints from former detainees about poor treatment inside the two jails, and that discussion became part of the larger debate over immigration.
“New Mexico could have taken a stand against the private prison industry’s profiting off the detention of immigrants,” Haussamen wrote. “Instead, we chose jobs.”
While some legislators, along with Haussamen, would like to shut down these facilities and drive a stake into the heart of private prisons, this is not necessarily an either-or decision.
Alcon is not wrong to want to preserve those jobs. Immigrant advocates and some legislators are not wrong to be concerned about conditions inside the two facilities. Committee discussion indicated that some legislators want to see more control by the state over private prisons. Good.
Nobody expects CoreCivic to provide a resort, but the company has shown that it won’t live up to its responsibilities, and the contractor, ICE, doesn’t care. The state should step in to assure humane conditions – and to save jobs.
Letter to the editor
Private prisons are bad for employees, inmates, taxpayers
There are two items which greater oversight of private prisons will never fix.
One is that it is contrary to their business model to have people get it together and become contributing citizens. The more people fail, the bigger their customer base. So even when they are "required" to have rehab services, they are as ineffective as they can get away with.
Years ago, I interviewed with the one in Estancia for a job teaching ABE. The job listing said that teachers had to be certified to teach ABE, so I tried to find out what it would entail for me to get that certification. UNM didn't know. CNM didn't know. The NM Dept. of Ed. didn't know. I brought it up during the interview, and what I was told was that they gave names of their employees to the NM Dept. of Ed., and those people were then sent "certifications." So, under that procedure, a high school dropout could get "certified" by the state to teach ABE. They also were only offering $10 an hour to staff that job. Does that look like "rehabilitation" to you?
The other problem with those companies is that they treat their employees like crap. They are supposed to have a certain minimum number of people on staff for any given shift. They force their employees to work many hours of overtime, rather than hiring enough people. The employees have to work 12-hour shifts, with no breaks. They have to eat any food they brought on the run. So, people are not at their best when dealing with the inmates, especially after working 72-80 hours in a week. Their pay is around $9.15 an hour.
With private prisons, you are always vulnerable to extortion. CoreCivic pulled out of Estancia because when they tried to raise their prices, the state refused to pay the increase. CoreCivic wants a guaranteed profit margin, either by housing a minimum number of prisoners or by the state making up the difference financially. With a state-run prison system, you will never have that problem.
Both CoreCivic and Geo funnel huge amounts of money to Republican candidates and causes. The Republican worldview, which says that there should be no safety net and no prevention, only punishment when people screw up, is obviously great for their business model.
As a Democrat, I object to my tax money going to a business which is antithetical to my worldview, which says that prevention is cheaper in the long run. Not only do you save money on incarceration, but when people succeed and become contributing citizens, the tax base increases.
So, just from a purely political standpoint, I am against private prisons. Forcing me to pay money to them feels like forcing me to pay churches' property taxes.
The jobs would still be there if the state took the prison system over and got rid of CoreCivic. Supposedly it would cost more, and it might, upfront, but the long-term benefit to society would outweigh the cost, since there could be a real emphasis on rehabilitation, which you will never get from a private company. We need to look at corrections from an investment standpoint, not just immediate bottom line. Private prisons are poison.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 7-16-18
Lesson of education reform: Pick a system and stick with it
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
New Mexico’s PARCC scores are out, and as usual, Los Alamos schools lead the pack by large percentages. The lesson here must be that every student should have parents who are lab scientists.
The scores for everybody else are nothing to write home about, although they have edged up steadily since the state Public Education Department began using this particular standardized test in 2015. Also, fewer students are opting out, which indicates a grudging acceptance of the controversial test.
Last week PED threw a party at an Albuquerque charter school, complete with balloons, loud music and dancing kids to announce that the gains were larger than they’ve been previously.
This year, 31.1 percent of New Mexico students in grades 3 through 11 are proficient in language arts, up from 26.4 percent in 2015, and 21.6 percent are proficient in math, up from 17.4 percent, according to PED data.
So one in three kids can read at grade level, and one in five can do math at grade level. Which is pretty dreadful.
No wonder the governor and PED Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski chose to emphasize percentages of improvement, along with absolute numbers: 11,012 more students are doing math at grade-level and 13,308 more students are proficient in reading since the first PARCC test in 2015.
Let’s not dismiss improvement. As several educators pointed out, they get students who don’t perform well, so every student they can bring along is important. If thousands more students are up to speed, that’s cause for celebration.
However, the question is still whether a different kind of education reform and a different test would show better results. We’ve been debating this since Ruszkowski’s predecessor, Hannah Skandera, arrived to muscle the state’s schools into shape.
In April, Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, called for an end to PARCC tests. Morales, an educator who is running for lieutenant governor, said the tests were “a colossal and expensive failure for our state.” He called for the next governor to “change the state’s education policy to return to sensible assessment and teaching practices, and do away with this gold-plated experiment that has damaged our system of education.”
Morales argued that the millions spent on private companies associated with the test would have been better spent on such proven methods as smaller class sizes, professional development for teachers, and books.
“The Martinez administration and Skandera promised that PARCC and Common Core just needed implementation time to turn around student achievement. They told us that evaluation of teachers by student test scores would result in better teaching, which in turn would close the achievement gap between well-off and poor children in our state. They were wrong.”
Schools and parents object that the PARCC test takes too long – most of a month, actually, accompanied by a lot of disruption. Teachers say, “I could have been teaching.”
The governor and PED are hanging their hats on these small percentages of improvement as evidence that their ideas work.
Two school districts handpicked to appear at the PARCC party would bear this out. In the last year, the Farmington Municipal Schools and the Gallup-McKinley School District not only embraced PARCC and Common Core, they tapped PED for as many programs as possible. Farmington rose to become the second highest-performing large district after Los Alamos, and Gallup-McKinley’s improved proficiency numbers were among the state’s best.
Reading between the lines, I could hear these superintendents and charter executives asking next year’s administration to not throw out a system they’ve learned to use.
A lesson I learned covering education reform is that it’s a slow process. It can take 20 years, and yet New Mexico abandons its systems with each new administration. Maybe the lesson here is that we should pick a system and stick with it.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 7-9-18
Reforming state’s liquor laws means reinventing the wheel
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Three years ago, Vic’s Bar in Española sold its liquor license to the corporate owner of Chili’s Bar and Grill for use in Santa Fe. The sale price was $340,000. Española’s mayor was pleased. Española has too many liquor licenses, he said, and liquor is the source of too many of the city’s problems. Sentiments are similar in Gallup.
That one transaction embodies all the problems of New Mexico’s arcane system of liquor laws, and illustrates the hurdles legislators face in reforming the system. The legislative Economic and Rural Development Committee signaled recently that it will be looking at liquor laws and liquor licenses with an eye toward reviving downtowns in smaller communities.
The state’s system of liquor licenses hasn’t been overhauled since 1981, and the success of New Mexico boutique breweries and distilleries presents an opportunity. But legislators will find that reform is a real cactus patch, and they face the same issues that complicated reform before.
By the 1980s, the quota system limiting the number of liquor licenses issued by the state had caused them to skyrocket in value, pricing small businesses out of the action and discouraging commercial development in some places. But getting rid of the quota system meant values of licenses would crater, and their owners were opposed.
In 1981 Gov. Bruce King signed a new law that capped licenses at one for every 2,000 people but imposed the same quota for the state as a whole, which meant licenses could be transferred between counties. This opened the door to concentrating licenses in the bigger cities. The act created beer and wine licenses not subject to quota. And after 10 years the state would own all licenses; license holders would be compensated with a tax credit up to $30,000 a year. King later signed making the licenses private again.
“It was the only really unethical thing I ever saw him do,” wrote former state Liquor Director Jim Baca.
Today liquor licenses are too pricey for restaurants and other small businesses, which becomes an obstacle to commercial development in some places. Liquor license holders are still touchy about the value of their licenses. And the quota system is still the root of all evils.
The Economic and Rural Development Committee wants to make full dispenser licenses, concentrated in the largest cities, more accessible in the hinterland and generally ease regulations that hamper our home-grown brewers, wineries and distilleries. But worries about alcohol abuse and DWI factor into any increase of licenses.
In 2013 a bill would have allowed rural restaurants (those not in Bernalillo, Doña Ana, Sandoval and Santa Fe) to receive nontransferable, yearly liquor licenses that couldn’t be used for package sales. The state Regulation and Licensing Department said it would be a driver of rural economic development.
The New Mexico Restaurant Association was divided. Licenses in rural areas are scarce, executive director Carol Wight told me, but among her members “we have people who have benefitted by having the only license in a county. For the state to issue more licenses would devalue the licenses they own.”
The bill died in committee.
Over the last eight years, bills with an economic stimulation flavor aimed at the liquor industry usually fail. Two succeeded. One allows the transfer of liquor licenses from communities where the dispenser isn’t viable. The other lets small brewers and winegrowers have an interest in a restaurant or a dispenser’s license. It was intended to encourage microbreweries to expand into packaging and wholesale.
So, yes, let’s raise a glass to change and hope legislators can get it right this time.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 7-2-18
New Mexico is last on Kids Count report but Texas, Arizona also lag
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
New Mexico media reported last week that the state is “dead last” on the annual Kids Count study that ranks child well-being.
Yes, it’s alarming, but what exactly does it mean?
Every year since 1990 the Annie E. Casey Foundation has published its report, and in all but six years we’ve hugged the bottom, trading places at times with Mississippi and Louisiana. We’ve been 50th in just one other year, 2013.
There are several things to understand about this study.
The Kids Count report is basically a measure of children living in poverty. That’s one category, but other categories are related: children without health insurance, children whose parents lack secure jobs, children in single-parent families.
New Mexico has a high percentage of poor people, so it follows that we will have a high percentage of children living in poverty.
“When you have a lot of poverty, you have a lot of bad outcomes,” said a report author in 2006.
Kids Count is also a measure of how we’re doing compared to other states. We may do better or worse than we have in the past in one of 16 categories, but the study doesn’t compare us to ourselves. Another state may excel in a category because of a new program, or it may plunge because of a regional economic downturn. So, whether we’re doing better or worse is relative.
However, the data generated allow us to see trends or patterns, like the impact of the recession and our painfully slow climb out.
Between 2008 and 2016, as the downturn deepened, the percentage of kids whose parents didn’t have secure jobs ranged from a low of 30 percent in 2008 to a high of 37 percent in 2010 and 2011; in 2016 it was still 36 percent. Kids with at least one unemployed parent ranged from a low of 5 percent in 2008 to 11 percent in 2010 before declining to 7 percent in 2016.
Here’s a revealing number: Low-income working families represent 29 percent of the workforce, and that number fluctuates little over the last ten years.
The 2018 report tells us New Mexico’s child poverty rate increased from 29 percent last year to 30 percent, which means that 4,000 more kids live below the 2016 federal poverty line ($24,339 for a family of four). And yet the national child poverty rate decreased 2 percent. Kids with parents who don’t have a full-time, year-round job increased 2 percent.
News stories invariably report states on the bottom three rungs, but look a few rungs higher: Texas, at 43; Oklahoma, 44; Arizona, 45; Alaska, 46; and Nevada, 47.
I think Texas, with its roaring economy, should be more embarrassed at being 43rd than we are at being last. In Texas, 1.6 million kids live in poverty, for a rank of 37th in that category.
Texas is 48th in the percentage of children without health insurance. New Mexico was 33rd.
One regrettable aspect of reports like these is that they become fodder for every political agenda. You can count on hearing candidates claim the reports prove one side or another has been wrong for years, even though the results haven’t varied much from one administration to another. And I’ve seen one vacuous source claim, based on the report, that New Mexico is a terrible place for a kid to grow up.
New Mexico Voices for Children, which released Kids Count, uses the report to criticize the many tax breaks since 2008 as handouts to corporations and argue for spending on kids’ programs.
The organization isn’t entirely wrong, but if we want to help kids, we have to help parents. Which comes back to job creation. Are the tax breaks are wasted? We don’t know because legislators and the administration won’t ask.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 6-25-18
Pearce and public differ on immigration
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Immigration has been among the top issues for voters, but now the furor over immigrant children has made it the top issue, according to a Pew Research Center poll. That will be a headache for Republican Steve Pearce in his campaign for governor against Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham.
In a comparison of Pearce’s positions and public sentiment, measured by polls, he’s often on the unpopular side of immigration issues. He’s also the only member of our congressional delegation who hasn’t visited one of the holding facilities for immigrant children, and he was slow to speak against separating immigrant children from their parents.
A recent Gallup poll tells us that a record-high 75 percent of Americans think immigration is a good thing for the United States. Just 19 percent of the public considers immigration a bad thing. Currently, 85 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners and 65 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners see immigration in a positive light.
This has been true every year but one since 2001, Gallup said, and the one departure was the year of 9-11 .
A related question found that 29 percent, the lowest since 1965, think the nation should reduce immigration, while 39 percent think it should remain at the present level. And astounding 84 percent think “legal immigration” is a good thing for the nation.
And yet, Pearce just voted for a bill that would have curbed legal immigration and bolstered border security. The bill failed on the opposition of Democrats and 41 Republicans.
A second bill would slash the number of green cards being issued and award visas based on merit. The president endorsed the bill. Pearce opposes it, saying he would rather increase the number of work visas for guest workers.
Multiple pollsters recorded strong opposition to separating families at the border. A CBS News Poll in mid-June found that 90 percent of Democrats, 66 percent of Independents and 39 percent of Republicans found it unacceptable to separate parents and children.
A new Quinnipiac University poll said that two-thirds of Americans oppose separating immigrant children from their families, but 55 percent of Republicans support the policy. Every other demographic – political party, gender, education, age or racial group – opposes the policy.
Look at the numbers here: Most Republicans – Pearce’s base – are OK with the child separations, but independents are not, and he’ll need independents and some Dems to win.
DACA recipients are another big issue. A CBS News Poll this month said 80 percent of Americans wanted to continue the DACA program, which allows immigrants brought here as children to remain as long if they’re students, serve in the military, and have a high school diploma and no criminal record.
In a Quinnipiac poll 79 percent think DACA recipients should be allowed to remain and eventually apply for citizenship. A Pew Research Center poll found 73 percent in favor.
Pearce, however, opposed the original Dreamer bill. In 2013 he voted to deny Dreamers protections from deportation. By way of compromise, he introduced a bill last year to let Dreamers apply for a 10-year amnesty that could be renewed as they pursue legal citizenship, but he stopped short of offering citizenship. Lujan Grisham wants an expedited path to citizenship.
A bill to be decided this week includes a path to citizenship for Dreamers and their parents, $24 billion for Trump’s border wall, an end to the diversity lottery program, and limited family-based immigration.
Polls show that people still don’t like the wall. Three different organizations measured opposition at 56 to 59 percent. Pearce has said he opposes the wall.
We still have months to go, but if immigration stays in the public eye, Republican candidates have some difficult decisions ahead.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 6-18-18
Separating children from their parents: We’ve done it many times before
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Screaming children torn from the arms of their weeping mothers. It’s the latest haunting image from the border. On the Internet, it sparks comparisons to Nazi Germany, but the Nazis murdered the children they caught.
For a more apt comparison, look at what we did to our indigenous people, here and across the nation. This is the experience of one New Mexico reservation. You can multiply the stories across all the tribes.
When the Indian wars ended, and people settled at the Mescalero Apache Reservation in the 1880s, the Indian agents pressured chiefs and head men to send their own children to the agency boarding school and to round up other children. If the chiefs said there were no suitable children in their camps, the agent sent the Indian police on surprise raids to snatch children away from their parents. Some people hid their children “and the police had to chase and capture them like so many wild rabbits,” the agent wrote. “This unusual proceeding created quite an outcry. The men were sullen and muttering, the women loud in their lamentations, and the children almost out of their wits with fright.”
If tribal police showed any reluctance to round up children, they were fired. The agent also withheld rations.
At the agency boarding school, employees cut the children’s hair, and they were “stripped of their Indian garb, thoroughly washed, and clad in civilized clothing,” reported the agent. They weren’t allowed to go home. And they got new non-Indian names. The one good thing about school was that Apache children suddenly had enough to eat.
Agents also sent children to schools in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, as well as Colorado, Kansas and Pennsylvania, where they were often used as free menial labor. Cases of appalling abuse later came to light. Periodically, children escaped. Chief Natzili told the agent: “We are in favor of sending our children to school, all who are of school age, but the little ones should be left with their mothers.”
Joseph Blazer, an Anglo who lived with permission on the reservation, found Natzili’s own son dying of tuberculosis; the boy got sick at school and was sent alone to make his way home. This dismal event further inflamed the Apaches’ resistance to boarding schools.
All of the schools were disease incubators, especially the reservation’s crowded, ramshackle dormitories.
The agents were relentless and ruthless. One wrote in 1894: “I do not think it good policy to take their children by force and put them in the school,” but if they enrolled with their parents’ consent, he sent the Indian police after them if they ran away. Another wrote in 1896 that he overcame their resistance through “firmness and a judicious use of the guardhouse and starvation of the parents. If then they can not be taught to be industrious and have all the warpath spanked out of them, it were high time to give up the effort.”
A third agent wrote in 1899 that he had 100 percent of the children in school. “We use compulsion in maintaining this high percent of attendance,” he wrote. “We simply place the parents in the guardhouse till the child is brought into school.” A few years later the agency doctor blamed the deaths of twelve boys on “the lamentable condition of the dormitory” and proposed burning it down. An inspector subsequently condemned the buildings.
I’ve heard Native American grandmas and grandpas talk tearfully about their boarding school experience, about their separation from families, and it’s appallingly similar to what’s going on now at the border. Historians and social workers have documented the pain and trauma to Native people. Now the authorities feel justified in doing it again to another group. It reflects on us all as Americans.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 6-11-18
Election system favors political extremes, discourages moderates
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
If you’re a political moderate and feel your choices in the coming election are pretty darn limited, a lot of people feel your pain.
The recent primaries bestowed victories on women. (Hurray!) They also blessed progressives and conservatives and left moderates in the dust.
In the much-watched Congressional District 1 race, progressive Deb Haaland trounced Damon Martinez, a moderate and former U. S. Attorney.
For State Land Commissioner, Stephanie Garcia Richard, another progressive, surged ahead of her opponents. George Muñoz, a businessman and moderate Democrat from Gallup, ran third, but the good news is he’ll still be in the state Senate.
In Northern New Mexico, Rep. Debbie Rodella, a moderate who served 25 years, lost to a progressive newcomer, Susan Herrera. Rodella, chair of the Business and Industry Committee, had campaign money; Herrera had volunteers and shoe leather.
On the Public Regulation Commission, moderate Dem Sandy Jones lost to progressive Steve Fischmann, a former Las Cruces legislator. And Lynda Lovejoy lost to Theresa Becenti-Aguilar, who previously held the seat. These two races were affected in part by a backlash against an industry super PAC donations to both.
One caveat: None of these elections was black and white. In Rodella’s case, voters were ready for a change. Lovejoy’s loss may have more to do with Navajo Nation politics. But overall, it wasn’t a good outcome for moderates.
A newspaper reader commented: “When the majority of the country is in the middle, and elections are supposed to be about giving people a choice, those of us in the middle have fewer and fewer choices. Our America has been hijacked and stolen by the extremes of the party elites dictating what candidates we can vote for.”
Cue Bob Perls and his New Mexico Open Primaries (nmopenprimaries.org).
Perls, a former legislator, writes: “Americans are deeply frustrated with partisan politics, gridlock and lack of cooperation to solve problems. Forty-two percent of Americans are independents. Why? Because they have come to believe that the two major parties no longer can govern effectively.” Party regulars, generally on the far right and left, choose the primary winners who run in general elections, and those candidates float in a reservoir of special interest money. Closed primaries are at the heart “of our polarized, dysfunctional political system.”
The solution, he says, is an open primary that allows everyone to vote regardless of party. Currently, you can only vote in a primary if you’re a registered member of one of the three major political parties. That disenfranchises 283,481 unaffiliated voters.
Last week Perls gained support from Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, who wrote, “It’s difficult to say that we have a fair and equal voting process when a large segment of the voting population isn’t allowed to have a say in who the general election candidates will be.”
She advocates an open primary in New Mexico as a way to force candidates to listen to all voters, not just party diehards.
Another development is the growth of centrist groups, such as No Labels (nolabels.org), the Bipartisan Policy Center, and The New Center. They decry the endless partisan carping and try to bring Rs and Ds together to address national problems.
No Labels raised its flag here for the first time. Backed by a bipartisan group of billionaires, No Labels spends money to help elect moderates and defeat obstructionists. Its PAC, Forward Not Back, ran ads for Damon Martinez, prompting complaints from Deb Haaland’s campaign and the Republican Party chair about outside money, even though they’re all raking in outside donations.
In this primary, voters didn’t lack choices. In some races we had too many good candidates. The big question, given the lopsided process in place, is which candidate will represent everybody?
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 6-4-18
School lessons for adults who want to help
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
When I started as a volunteer tutor four years ago, I wondered if I had the know-how to help a first grader catch up with his peers in reading. When school ended this year, I wondered if I’d need to throw myself on top of my student in the event of an active shooter.
The answers are yes and not yet. The program prepared us for one but not the other.
When I started, I, like all the other school volunteers, simply wanted to help. But I also wanted to learn because schools are much in the news, and I write about them. It’s been a fine adventure.
I learned that one little guy who doesn’t like reading but does like sports overcame his reluctance to read when offered books about sports at his reading level. Books like these are somewhat scarce, and for Hispanic athletes, they’re nonexistent, so at times I just wrote my own stories from web information about the lives of athletes. I leave in the hard stuff like divorce and poverty because my students experience both.
Once when my little sports fan was having a bad day, I happened to have a book about the baseball player Jackie Robinson. The book didn’t varnish the difficulties Robinson faced on and off the field, and it seemed to lift my young reader out of his own situation.
I learned that a third grade girl was already aware of herself as a person of color. Given the opportunity to choose a book from a box that happened to be sitting in the tutor room, she picked one about a minority girl who becomes a doctor. I started looking for books about Hispanic girls and, except for Dora the Explorer, those too were in short supply.
In great supply are books about little blond kids in two-parent families living in decent homes and doing wonderful things. I learned to avoid these because my readers can’t relate and lose interest. They enjoy books with some familiarity. I embraced animal books because kids like animals, and talking animals can have adventures and learn lessons without crossing ethnic lines.
Some of us have lost students because they were absent so often we couldn’t spend enough time with them to make a difference.
Four years in, I was surprised to discover that I volunteer in a failing school. From the hallway and classroom discipline I’ve seen, the caring teachers, two astute principals and an army of volunteers I would never have guessed. My son, a former teacher, says school grades are only a measure of parental income.
I can certainly see that in the difference between my grandson’s school and the school where I volunteer. My grandson has two educated parents who stay on top of his homework and reading. He reads (and tests) like a champ and, not surprisingly, attends an A school. My tutor student gets nothing at home, says his teacher.
“What’s wrong with them?” asks my husband. Well, some parents aren’t educated or didn’t like school themselves or work two jobs to pay the rent. Or they’re captives of drugs, alcohol or jail.
One day my student said the school had been on lockdown because a “bad guy” was spotted nearby. Another time, a teacher told me a student’s dad got out of jail and came to the school to see his kid; the secretary (!) told him he couldn’t enter because he was wearing gang attire.
After the latest school shooting, the principal instructed tutors what to do in the event of an active shooter. It wasn’t reassuring. This school and everyone in it are frighteningly vulnerable.
So, I return to my search for new learning activities and the morbid contemplation of my own actions in a worst-case scenario.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 5-21-18
Rules for predatory lenders must reflect letter, spirit of law
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
An elderly woman got a small loan from a storefront lender and couldn’t understand why she could never manage to pay off the loan even though she made payments.
Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, explained the basics of principal and interest and renewal language in the loan agreement. Once she understood, she cried inconsolably.
Last year, when the Legislature finally reformed laws governing storefront lenders – also called predatory lenders or payday lenders – there was a sense of accomplishment that they had dispatched a nagging problem after years of complaints.
A recent hearing in Gallup made it clear there’s still work to do. Gorman blamed the lenders’ deliberately confusing communications for financial burdens on Navajos, but the small lenders trap Indian and non-Indian people alike.
This is one reason New Mexico is poor. Thousands of people can’t get out from under these debts with their spiraling interest rates, so they don’t participate fully in the economy.
During the 2017 legislative session, HB 347 passed. It made loans of $5,000 or less subject to the Small Loan Act, eliminated processing and handling fees, and capped APR at 175 percent. It banned payday loans, loans for less than four months, single payment loans, and balloon payments. However, it exempted tax refund anticipation loans and raised delinquent fees from 5 cents to 10 cents per dollar loaned. The law also mandated clear information for borrowers.
In February, the state Financial Institutions Division released its regulations for the law. Last week the agency held a hearing in Gallup, which has the state’s highest concentration of storefront lenders (50 serving a population of fewer than 23,000) in the state’s poorest county.
Consumer advocates, like the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and Prosperity Works, said HB 347 was progress. Eliminating payday loans was a big step, and interest of 175 percent beats 1,500 percent. But the cap is still too high, the terms of the loans are still unclear, and lenders need to do a better job of informing borrowers.
One of the nastier snares of the small loan business is the rollover. Can’t make a payment? No problem! Just roll it over and pay a higher interest rate and fees. Because borrowers often can’t repay the loan within the short term limit, after a rollover or two they’re in hock indefinitely with no end in sight.
Incredibly, the state’s new regulations don’t cover loan renewals. And they don’t require lenders to be clear about terms and costs.
“It is all too common in the industry for storefront lenders to mislead borrowers about the true cost of small loans through confusing contract terms, expensive and often useless add-on products, and by marketing loans that conceal long term costs,” says the Center on Law and Poverty. “Because of this intentional subterfuge, it is often difficult or impossible for consumers to calculate the true costs of their loans.”
Those of us with credit can borrow from a bank or credit union and come away with a clear understanding of the interest rate we will pay and the amount of time we have to repay. The law assures us the interest rate will be reasonable. The poorest among us don’t have the same understanding or assurance.
Gorman said, “We have the right to understand what we’re committing to when it comes to loan documents and legal documents.”
One bright spot in this dark picture is the rise of alternative lenders. A number of local governments now offer their employees small loans with moderate interest rates. They repay through payroll deductions.
The Financial Institutions Division needs to step up and make sure its regulations match the letter of the law. From the lenders and the government, words matter.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 5-14-18
Interim nuclear waste? Not so fast
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
In a contest between New Mexico and Nevada over which state has the most real estate described as the middle of nowhere, it would probably be a draw.
That middle-of-nowhere quality made Nevada attractive for a permanent nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain and New Mexico a site for not just the Waste Isolation Pilot Project but a proposed interim project on a thousand-acre tract between Carlsbad and Hobbs.
The arguments for and against are old and well familiar. They boil down to economic development vs. safety and environmental impact. We need to dig deeper.
Holtec International proposes to build an interim high-level nuclear waste storage facility that would hold 100,000 metric tons of spent fuel from the nation’s commercial nuclear reactors. It’s asking for a 40-year license from the U. S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Supporters see the project as a source of steady jobs that aren’t vulnerable to boom and bust cycles and a good fit with existing industry. The governor and cities and counties in the region support the project.
The NRC under the Obama administration concluded that storing spent fuel in pools and casks is safe and secure. Nuclear plants have been storing this waste for decades, writes James Conca, the nuclear expert at Forbes magazine. He adds that “none of the waste is volatile, there are no free liquids to leak, we’ve been disposing of nuclear waste in New Mexico since 1999 (some of it very high activity), and we have transported many thousands of tons of nuclear waste, nuclear weapons and spent nuclear fuel over millions of miles of roadways – with no problems.”
Well, not exactly no problems, as we know from the last incident at WIPP.
On the other hand, at a recent hearing in Roswell, both ranchers and dairy operators said they’re uneasy about the project’s impacts on agriculture. Contamination of air or water could ruin them both.
Fasken Oil Company and others in the business object to building a waste site on top of the ever so busy Delaware Basin and its frenetic boom.
What many New Mexicans may not know is that another company, Waste Management Specialists, has also applied to build an interim facility at Andrews, Texas, just across the state line from Eunice. WCS is partnering with Orano, a French energy firm with a long track record of managing and storing nuclear waste in France.
Last week the U. S. House voted to revive the long-stalled Yucca Mountain project, even though that state’s Republican governor and legislators of both parties don’t want it. The same bill would create an interim storage site to hold the waste before sending it to Nevada.
How long might it take to open Yucca Mountain? Possibly decades, says the nuclear industry. If it does open, will the containers be stable enough to ship? If it doesn’t open, New Mexico could become the permanent site.
Either option involves a lot of transportation. The Dallas, Midland and San Antonio city councils have passed resolutions prohibiting railcars of nuclear waste from rolling through their cities.
There are still some nagging questions about these projects. Namely, if Nevadans of both parties are dead set against Yucca Mountain, which has been stalled for years, then where does that leave us?
When state and local governments (i. e. taxpayers) are stuck fixing a sinkhole in Carlsbad left by a private company that no longer exists and we’re still trying to clean up uranium sites on the Navajo Reservation, how confident are we that Holtec will be around to manage waste that will still be hot in a million years?
Finally, when low-level waste at WIPP made an unexpected mess that required months to remedy, is the process as simple and scientific as we want to believe?
Let’s not hurry this decision.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 5-7-18
Silver lining possible in another downhill water case with Texas
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
New Mexico’s latest water standoff with Texas isn’t going well, and the only way you’d know that is if you’ve been reading Laura Paskus.
Paskus, writing for the online publications New Mexico Political Report and New Mexico In Depth, has covered water so doggedly she deserves an award, if such an award existed. Instead, she gets this salute from a fellow writer.
In 2013 Texas sued New Mexico and Colorado over agricultural pumping from wells near the river in southern New Mexico, arguing that New Mexico wasn’t sending its mandated share of water downstream. If Texas wins, New Mexico could owe upwards of $1 billion in damages and be forced to curtail groundwater pumping in the Mesilla Valley.
From the outset, the case has been fraught with poor judgment.
In 2008 the Elephant Butte Irrigation District and El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 agreed to share water during dry years and signed a new agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which delivers water to farmers in both states from Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs.
Three years later, Gary King, then Attorney General, sued the federal government and the two districts, claiming the bureau was giving too much water to Texas. King should have thought twice about disturbing this sleeping bear. The last time we tangled with Texas, over Pecos River water, we lost. In 2013 Texas responded to King’s litigation with the current lawsuit.
In January, the U. S. Supreme Court heard arguments about whether the federal government should be allowed to intervene and pursue claims under the Rio Grande Compact. The government argued that New Mexico was hurting the bureau’s ability to deliver water under the compact and its treaty with Mexico.
For their court date, Texas and Colorado sent their big guns, Paskus reported – their solicitors general. New Mexico sent a private attorney, the only one there. Marcus Rael Jr. isn’t a water attorney and lacked experience before the high court, but he was Attorney General Hector Balderas’s former law partner.
In early March, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the United States to intervene. This was a big plus for Texas. “Texas has the federal government on its side,” reported a Texas newspaper.
Paskus reported on April 30 that the Texas representative on the Rio Grande Compact Commission, Patrick Gordon, took the unusual step of writing to our State Engineer Tom Blaine. Gordon warned Blaine that if he approves a copper company’s plan to pump water, New Mexico would be on the hook for even greater damages if Texas prevails in the case.
New Mexico Copper Co. wanted to reopen an abandoned copper mine near Hillsboro and pump more than a billion gallons of groundwater a year. Last year, a state judge ruled that most of the company’s water rights are invalid. The company appealed and filed a new application with the State Engineer to pump 5,234 acre-feet a year. It proposes to lease water from the Jicarilla Apache Nation to replace lost river water. Grossly inadequate, says Gordon.
The project has also drawn opposition from some local residents, as well as the Elephant Butte Irrigation District and the New Mexico Pecan Growers because the mine’s pumping could affect members’ water rights.
Gordon told Paskus that Texas isn’t trying to take New Mexico’s water. It wants New Mexico to manage its groundwater to not affect deliveries of surface water to Texas.
If there’s a silver lining in this darkening cloud, it’s the Lone Star State’s new appreciation for controls on pumping. We know that for decades along the state’s East Side, Texas farmers have pumped aggressively, to the detriment of New Mexico’s farmers. If Texas wins the current case, New Mexico has an argument – or a new case.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 4-30-18
ENMU’s library morphs into costly “student success center”
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
This summer the venerable but run down Golden Library at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales will finish molting into the new Golden Student Success Center.
And what, exactly, is a student success center? Good question, but apparently it doesn’t involve books. The architects’ drawings show a spacious, modern facility with nary a book in sight.
This is a cautionary tale for institutions and communities contemplating a revamp of their libraries.
Golden Library, opened in 1952, was badly in need of renovation. The state passed two bond issues to fund the re-do, but state officials told the school’s administration that a “library” would get pocket change, while a “student success center” would be fully funded, according to a letter written by librarian Gene Bundy to the board of the Historical Society of New Mexico.
Librarians were ordered to winnow the library’s holdings – first by 50 percent, then more and more until they reached 80 percent.
During construction, the librarians relocated to another building, and the remaining books were stored in the basement of the Campus Union Building over the librarians’ objections. In December, a pipe burst above the collections and flooded the basement.
Hardest hit was Special Collections. Typically, this includes old and rare books, papers of prominent individuals and other records. Golden’s Special Collections also included ENMU’s own archives, state history, oral histories, and photographs, plus its prized Jack Williamson Science Fiction Library, one of the largest collections of its kind, Bundy said, and the only complete set of the student newspapers beginning in 1934.
This is literally the stuff of history and the material that historians, scholars and genealogists rely on for their work. Much of it is irreplaceable.
Adding insult to injury, the project architects, Improve Group in Albuquerque, gave little thought to books in the facility’s planning and design. “They never once asked what the collections were, how we operated, what we would like or need in the new iteration,” Bundy wrote.
“When we got the plans for Special Collections, we discovered, to our amazement, that to these architects, books are books. No more was there a Science Fiction Library and a New Mexico history area. All the books get shelved together! All the rare books get shelved together, the 3/4-inch book and the 26-pound book. No difference.”
On its website ENMU promises: “The Golden Student Success Center will house traditional library holdings and resources for on-campus and online students (and) will be a destination for social and intellectual interaction” featuring a commons area, café, study spaces, wi-fi, and after-hours help with registration, financial aid, advising, and counseling.
How is this different from the Campus Union Building?
ENMU may not be the only library with no stacks. A few other institutions are winnowing their collections to save money and space and trying to offer more online resources. At a Pennsylvania university, the faculty was alarmed to learn the library would discard up to one-third of books. The University of Texas eliminated 60 percent of materials at its fine arts library and was poised to store the rest off campus when an uprising by students, faculty and alumni halted the plan. As one student argued, “A library without books is not a library.”
I can understand the need to update libraries and accommodate expanded online research, but I have to wonder about Golden’s transformation. In my college days, student housing was noisy and distracting. For serious studying, we headed to the library. There’s nothing quite like a mass of books plus quiet to reinforce good intentions. Some things don’t change.
Maybe the $26 million Student Success Center will be a success. Maybe ENMU is chasing an expensive fad. Either way, it’s hard to imagine a campus without a library.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 4-23-18
Construction, deployment demonstrate there’s nothing new along the border
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
As the chief executive’s “big beautiful wall” goes up, beginning in Santa Teresa, one question is what to call it.
To the U. S. Border Patrol, as of April 9, it’s not just a wall, but “the president’s wall.” Before April 9, it was a fence. In recent years, it’s been a barrier, which sounds more impressive.
Over the next year, taxpayers will spend $73.3 million to replace 20 miles of vehicle barriers – three-to-four-foot posts and a taller mesh fence – with steel posts called bollards that are 18 to 30 feet tall. A five-foot anti-scaling plate at the top makes it harder to get over.
This is not one of the pricy prototypes erected in San Diego but a continuation of the fence already in place along one-third of the border. The old bollard fence “works for us,” said Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Hull during the April 9 groundbreaking.
The Border Patrol decided to start at Santa Teresa because it’s one of the busiest crossing points in the El Paso sector, which stretches from West Texas to the Arizona line. In fiscal 2017 agents apprehended more than 25,000 undocumented immigrants and seized more than 34,000 pounds of marijuana and 140 pounds of cocaine.
Not only do we have a new, uh, barrier, we have soldiers. Reportedly alarmed by a Fox News report of an immigrant caravan moving north through Mexico (it stopped in Mexico City), the tweeter in chief ordered troops to the border.
Like the bollard fence, past presidents have also used Guardsmen to help out along the border. Former President George W. Bush deployed 6,000 National Guard members in 2006 during “Operation Jump Start” at a cost $1.2 billion. They helped in some 176,000 apprehensions and seizure of more than 316,000 pounds of marijuana and 5,224 pounds of cocaine.
In 2010, during “Operation Phalanx” former President Barack Obama sent 1,200 National Guard troops to the border during a spike in cartel activity. They helped in nearly 18,000 apprehensions and the seizure of more than 56,000 pounds of marijuana during the first year. The cost was $110 million for that first year.
This year, the Border Patrol Academy in Artesia has doubled its 66-day training, increasing the hours in nearly every discipline and integrating Spanish language into the curriculum.
So the prospect of another National Guard deployment was greeted with mild enthusiasm, probably because apprehensions in the El Paso sector have plunged nearly 67 percent over the past decade.
Clint McDonald, executive director of the Southwest Border Sheriffs’ Coalition, said, “I don’t see a crisis as Washington says there’s a crisis.”
Police Chief Javier Guerra, of Sunland Park, can see the border fence from his office. His town is the second safest city in New Mexico. He’s said that he needs resources but not to combat border crime – his small force is busier trying to contain interstate crime.
Doña Ana County Sheriff Enrique Vigil said he’d prefer to use technology instead of a wall.
Vigil says publicly what Border Patrol officials and agents have said privately. According to a recent study by Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, the Border Patrol publicly supports the fence/wall/barrier but say privately that what they really want are more personnel and technology.
Bottom line: A 67 percent reduction is not a 100 percent reduction. But former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said: “No level of border security, no wall, doubling the size of the border patrol, all these things will not stop the illegal migration from countries as long as a 7-year-old is desperate enough to flee on her own and travel the entire length of Mexico because of the poverty and the violence in her country.”
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 4-16-18
Here’s what it will take to get serious about DWI
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Ever wonder why DWI deaths in New Mexico just go on and on? Why DWI offenders can rack up a dozen arrests, get out of jail, and do it again?
It’s not hard to understand.
Combating DWI has four parts, says Linda Atkinson, executive director of the DWI Resource Center in Albuquerque: prevention, cops, courts, and treatment. All four have to be strong and work together, but instead of a chain, we have rusty bailing wire.
Prevention can include media campaigns, but the single most effective deterrent is the expectation of swift, sure punishment, Atkinson said while speaking recently to New Mexico Press Women.
Law enforcement has used such strategies as DWI checkpoints and saturation patrols, but our agencies are widely under-staffed, which means fewer arrests.
The weakest link in the chain is the judicial system, where the DWI conviction rate is 50 percent. The criminal justice system is broken, Atkinson says. DWI cases are pleaded down. Passing tougher DWI laws is pointless because the courts don’t prosecute to the full extent of the law. Two years ago, in an interview, Atkinson facetiously suggested to me that lawmakers should “legislate tougher judges and tougher prosecutors.”
At the time, Sen. Joseph Cervantes (currently a candidate for governor) said: “I’ve probably prosecuted 300 DWI cases, and I’ve never seen a judge give a maximum sentence. We can raise penalties through the roof,” and it won’t make any difference.
In January, Atkinson wrote in her blog: “Too many judges are politically disinclined to step out of the box to address the issue in their courts.”
To be fair, the courts, district attorneys and public defenders are so understaffed and the case load so high that the priority is to just get cases adjudicated, to keep the assembly line moving. Dismiss it on a technicality. Plead it down. So a repeat offender’s eighth DWI gets pleaded down to one.
“I’m not against plea agreements, but I am against giving the farm away,” Atkinson says. “We see offenders who’ve never been held accountable. We need meaningful sanctions.”
The fourth link, treatment, is either not used or used ineffectively. “Treatment is a primary intervention opportunity. It will work if it’s completed, but too many times it’s not ordered or not completed,” she says.
And treatment suffered a blow as the governor dismantled the behavioral health system. “It’s been huge,” she said.
Atkinson has spent decades studying DWI data and trends, crash statistics, and court outcomes.
Here’s a statistic the DWI Resource Center released in December: DWI crash deaths declined after 1983 but increased beginning in 2011 under Gov. Susana Martinez.
Gov. Toney Anaya began revoking drivers’ licenses, doing breath-alcohol tests and increasing DWI enforcement, which reduced DWI crash deaths from 69.8 percent of all traffic fatalities to 59.9 percent and saved 672 lives. The crash-death rates declined somewhat under Govs. Garrey Carruthers and Bruce King but took another dive when Gov. Gary Johnson closed drive-up windows and expanded DWI checkpoints, saving 873 lives and reducing deaths to 45.6 percent. Gov. Bill Richardson appointed a DWI czar and expanded State Police DWI enforcement; this saved 238 lives and reduced the rate to 41.8 percent. Gov. Susana Martinez reduced State Police DWI enforcement; the rate rose to 42.5 percent and cost 13 lives.
If we’re looking for states to model ourselves after, we don’t have to look far; Arizona, Colorado and Texas all have better laws, programs and enforcement than we do and the political leadership to make it happen.
Atkinson has worked with governors since the 1980s, but in Martinez’s first year in office, Atkinson criticized a pocket veto of a victims’ rights bill. Martinez reamed her during a private meeting and told agencies to not work with her.
Maybe the next governor will get serious about DWI.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 4-9-18
#MeToo complicates workplace interactions between men and women
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
In my husband’s workplace, years ago, a woman who was clueless about appropriate professional attire showed up day after day in tube tops. Men in the office begged female co-workers to take her aside and ask her to stop wearing the clingy apparel because it was distracting. Maybe for the wearer, that was the point. Nobody worked up the courage to speak, so her daily display continued.
(Laugh if you want at Hillary’s pantsuits, but for women of a certain age, the pantsuit solved a lot of problems.)
The tube top episode shows that most men in the workplace are decent people, and men and women work together just fine as long as everybody observes common sense codes of behavior. It’s something to remember as we navigate the turbulent waters of #MeToo.
After taking down some big players in entertainment, politics and media, the MeToo movement has paused. I’m hearing two parallel debates. A few brave feminists are starting to question the treatment of men in some of these cases – not all piggish behavior is equal – and some men, especially older men, are feeling uncomfortable and unsure of themselves in workplace interactions.
For a lot of women, myself included, it’s been high-five exhilarating to see years of abuse and bullying exposed and men held accountable who thought they were untouchable. We haven’t had any Harvey Weinsteins in New Mexico, but we’ve seen a few heads roll, plus a new system for complaints at the Legislature.
Leaders of feminist thought are starting to examine the movement itself. In a Harper’s Magazine essay last month, Katie Roiphe, a New York journalism educator, acknowledged “the sense of great, unmanageable anger” that’s understandable but “can also lead to an alarming lack of proportion.”
There’s a difference between a guy staring at a woman’s chest and an assault; one’s annoying, the other’s criminal, but women are currently angry about both. In the feminist Twitterverse, there’s no difference, which is why Roiphe argues that this chatter is bad for the movement and for women. She also takes issue with the resignation of a prominent editor over sketchy accusations.
Which brings us to male discomfort and the day-to-day social minefield of the workplace.
In a poll released last week by the Pew Research Center, 51 percent of Americans think it’s become more difficult for men to know how to interact with women in the workplace. That percentage rises to 66 percent among people over 65 and 64 percent among Republicans. Younger men and Democrats were in the 40 percent range – still substantial.
Even so, half of Americans see as a major problem men getting away with sexual harassment or assault, along with women not being believed. Just 34 percent thought firings of accused men before having all the facts was a major problem, and even fewer, 31 percent, are worried about false accusations by women.
Personal experience colors our views, so it’s notable that 59 percent of women (63 percent of white women and 50 percent of Hispanic and Black women) and 27 percent of men (34 percent of Hispanic men, 25 percent of white men and 22 percent of Black men) have been subjected to unwanted sexual advances or harassment at work or outside of work, and 55 percent of women say it’s happened in both settings.
Women and Democrats are more concerned than men and Republicans about sexual harassment going unpunished and victims not being believed.
We live in a heady time when undesirable old behavior is no longer tolerated. It will leave a lot of people feeling unbalanced for a time. And we’re weathering the early stage of a movement that’s still in need of a real process, not just Twitter rumors, to go with its overdue reckoning.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 4-1-18
Voters aren’t happy, but will they crack down on campaign spending?
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
At a candidate event last weekend, the questions quickly turned from the usual issues to fund-raising. How was she raising money? Who was an acceptable donor and who wasn’t? In other words, whose pocket would she be in?
The candidate explained carefully that most of her donations were from individuals, that she would accept donations from organizational Political Action Committees (PACs) as long as she already espoused their cause, and that she would not accept money from corporate PACs.
Normally, certain issues dominate during an election year, but I don’t remember such a focus on money. It’s because even less informed constituents are uncomfortably aware that the deluge of cash in election campaigns has delivered results we don’t like, both here and in Washington.
Last week Common Cause New Mexico released the results of its annual poll. Not only are voters in all demographics unhappy with the state’s direction, they want to see election reforms. The results were a surprise to pundits and to Viki Harrison, Common Cause executive director.
The big numbers show support of campaign reform:
90 percent would require all large political contributions from individuals, corporations, PACs, non-profits and unions to be made public; of those 78 percent are in strong support.
91 percent would require registered lobbyists to make public the bills or issues they’re hired to push.
86 percent would prevent former legislators from lobbying for at least two years after their term ends; 68 percent were in strong support.
70 percent support an independent commission redrawing legislative districts rather than legislators.
84 percent would forbid legislators from voting on bills that would benefit them financially.
Voters were more divided on the impact of PACs. When they learned that during the last election, PACs spent more money on political ads in some races than the candidates did themselves, 48 percent said they believe the PAC ads had a large impact on New Mexico races.
And 61 percent of voters (67 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of independents and 53 percent of Republicans) believe that limiting the amount of campaign contributions to candidates helps to prevent corruption.
The poll also plumbed voter unhappiness and found that 52 percent of voters (62 percent of Independents, 49 percent of Democrats and 48 percent of Republicans) believe the state is headed in the wrong direction. A slim 24 percent think it’s moving in the right direction.
In 2014, by comparison, 41 percent liked the direction and 38 percent didn’t.
Dissatisfaction varied in different locations: 61 percent, Albuquerque; 38 percent, northwest; 46, north central; 44 percent, south; 47 percent, East Side. The dissatisfied numbers were 55 percent for women, 48 percent for men; Hispanic and Anglos were both 52 percent; and age groups ranged from 58 percent to 46 percent with young people the most dissatisfied.
Common Cause this year asked specific questions about the Legislature. Remarkably, 65 percent want to extend the length of the legislative session, which meets for 30 days in even numbered years and 60 days in odd numbered years. This is an interesting idea. Our current timeframes give the sessions a breathless, marathon quality that doesn’t lend itself to good deliberation.
And 54 would pay legislators a yearly salary equivalent to the average New Mexico household. New Mexico is the last state with an unpaid legislature. This would increase the candidate pool. Right now we’re limited to the people who can afford to serve. In rural areas, the numbers may be small.
This year, you too can question candidates about their financial support. Some candidates will pick and choose their donors, and some will fill their baskets with anybody’s handout. In a hard fight, will principled candidates lower their standards?
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 3-26-18
Taking the 30,000-foot view of public education
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Tom Jennings, a petroleum landman in Roswell, is busier than he ever dreamed possible. That’s because New Mexico’s Permian Basin is not just booming again, it’s exploding, and that’s good for state revenues, the state permanent fund, and all the worthy programs supported by tax dollars.
Including early childhood education.
“I want to take care of children,” said Jennings, a Democrat and former Roswell mayor. “There’s nothing more important than education. But Democrats want to raid the permanent fund, and raiding the permanent fund now is crazy. If we hold steady for a while, if we’re patient, the permanent fund will get a lot of money. I think it’s the dark before the light.”
Paying for early childhood education is the issue that won’t go away. For eight years in a row, legislators have introduced measures to increase early childhood education and home visitation and pay for it by drawing money from the state’s permanent funds.
This year’s measure, House Joint Resolution 1, would have amended the state Constitution to spend an additional 1 percent from the $17 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood programs. Had the Legislature approved, voters would have decided the question in November.
After lengthy and emotional debate, it died in the Senate because Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, refused to hear it. The Conference of Catholic Bishops of New Mexico called Smith and other opponents racists. The church in turn drew flak for meddling in politics.
Let’s take a deep breath here. The good senator from Deming is not a racist. He is cautious about using the state’s money, and he should be. Opponents aren’t racists either. They believe in preserving the funds for future use – for our grandchildren, as they like to say.
And yet Archbishop John C. Wester is correct when he writes, “We cannot call 32 percent of children receiving pre-K a full effort. We cannot call fewer than 5 percent receiving home visiting a full effort.” He also points out, as others have, that “36 percent of our children under the age of 5 live in poverty while the state accumulates a Land Grant Permanent Fund of $17.2 billion.”
The archbishop calls the condition of our children “the true doomsday,” and adds: “Adverse childhood experiences are at epidemic proportions in New Mexico. If we calculate the hardship and cost to society for crime, educational remediation and an unprepared workforce, this is the doomsday scenario playing out right in front of us.”
No argument here, but we need to zoom out and take a 30,000-foot view. After writing about these issues for decades, I can tell you that the right and the left tend to stake out a position and fight for it madly even when the battle has moved on.
The governor and Republicans have wasted eight years trying to hold back third graders who aren’t reading at grade level. The battle cry is, “End social promotion!” Research shows that holding a kid back does more harm than good, and better schools have solved the problem in other ways.
Meanwhile, Democrats have seized on early childhood education as the silver bullet. Common sense and research tell us it would help, but is it the big solution it’s portrayed to be?
If we listen to educators – and we should do more of this – we would learn that our schools need help at all levels, that each school is different, that we have chasms between urban and rural schools and between reservation and non-reservation schools.
We’re about to change governors. It’s a good time to examine education from top to bottom, listen to teachers, and make a new plan – before we reach into the permanent funds. If we do, when the money begins rolling in as Jennings predicts, we’ll have an intelligent response.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 3-19-18
Business needs, transparency rules find delicate balance at spaceport
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
The spaceport finally caught a break after years of flak. Three breaks, in fact.
Even so, Spaceport America was in the crosshairs of a sustained transparency debate in the recent legislative session.
As media and watchdog organizations like to remind you, transparency and open records in government are vital to a healthy democracy. But as an old business reporter, I also understand how cautious and downright paranoid high tech companies are about their internal information. They’re secretive for a reason.
So when headline writers at the New Mexican exclaim, “Transparency takes hit,” after the passage of a bill protecting customer information at the spaceport, I’m afraid I can’t agree.
The bipartisan Senate Bill 98, called the Commercial Aerospace Protection Act, started out exempting Spaceport client information from the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act unless the company waives confidentiality. IPRA is the sacred cow of New Mexico journalists.
The state Spaceport Authority for several years has argued the need to provide some degree of confidentiality to high-tech aerospace companies, potential customers of the $220 million facility near Truth or Consequences. Spaceport Authority CEO Dan Hicks has said potential customers were apprehensive about competitors gaining access to plans and trade secrets under the state’s transparency law.
Some of the nation’s dozen spaceports offer such protections, and we’re competing against them in the $339 billion commercial space market.
“We have such an investment there that I think we need to do everything we can to make the Spaceport successful,” Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, told the Albuquerque Journal. “We’re trying to make sure we don’t damage our opportunity to be competitive and win.” Papen and Republican Reps. William Burt, of Alamogordo, and Rebecca Dow, of T or C, were co-sponsors.
Media and the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (FOG) maintain that because the spaceport owes its existence to taxpayers, its records should be open. FOG has noted that Spaceport officials have in the past withheld records that should be public.
A similar bill last year died in a committee.
In a compromise worked out by House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, and FOG, the bill was narrowed to exempt “proprietary technical or business information” as well as “information that is related to the possible relocation, expansion or operations of aerospace customers.” This would include security manuals, computer systems, visitor logs, security videos, data storage systems, advanced instruments and Spaceport facility technology. Companies would have to demonstrate “that disclosure of the information would cause substantial harm.”
The governor signed SB 98 and also approved $10 million for a new hangar and an increased operating budget.
After years of painting the spaceport as a money pit and boondoggle, legislators seemed to have a change of heart. Some credit Dan Hicks, who took over the controls in late 2016. It helped that the spaceport logged its busiest year on record last year.
Thankfully, we’ve gotten beyond griping about whether the state should have built the spaceport in the first place. It’s built. It’s there. It has assets that will help it succeed, but it won’t be a quick success. And it has needs for confidentiality like those of economic developers.
I believe in my colleagues’ (and my own) right to know, but I also think we must acknowledge that when we decided to open for business, to become a player in the commercial space industry, we also committed to business rules.
As Gentry said, it’s a delicate balance. We probably haven’t heard the end of this debate.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 3-12-18
Pork project vetoes hit poor counties, Dem counties hardest
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Capital outlay – state spending on public projects – is “wasteful pork” if it’s somebody else’s project, but if it’s yours, it’s community development.
Our Republican governor, year after year, has found more “wasteful pork” in blue counties than in red counties, even though their requests are pretty much alike – water projects, police cars, street improvements, senior centers, and the like.
Gov. Susana Martinez is particularly heavy handed in her treatment of the state’s poorest counties.
This year, the governor wrote that the capital outlay bill, HB 306, contained pork instead of projects that “create jobs, address critical infrastructure needs, and have a long-term positive economic impact.” She criticized projects unlikely to be completed because they’re under-funded, poorly planned, or not well vetted. She blasted legislators once again for not reforming the capital outlay system.
McKinley County, the poorest county in the second poorest state, took a beating. The governor vetoed 55 percent of requests worth more than $1 million in capital outlay projects – about the same dollar total she vetoed in Santa Fe County, which is far richer and more populated. Fifteen requests got the ax: a Gallup senior center, and for Navajo chapters, a Head Start building, a warehouse, power lines, road improvements, vehicles, and a backhoe.
Guadalupe County, also among the poorest counties, lost $243,000, more than half of its requests, for improvements to its Pecos Theatre in Santa Rosa and upgrades to a water system in Anton Chico. You might argue that a theatre doesn’t sound urgent, but then you could say the same of $240,000 in playground shade structures approved for Alamogordo.
Cibola County, nearly bankrupt, lost $25,000 for a community park and $5,000 for telecom and information technology system improvements, both at Acoma Pueblo. But dozens of similar projects were funded elsewhere.
Looking at political leanings, the governor had a light touch when vetoing Republican county capital outlay: Chaves County lost $337,493 in projects; Eddy, $100,000; Lea, $200,000; and Lincoln, $95,000. Otero lost nothing. Compare this with Democratic counties: Santa Fe, $1,097,900; McKinley, $1,025,000; San Miguel $285,381; Taos $270,000; and Guadalupe, $243,000.
Notice that vetoed projects in Santa Fe County are three times the amount vetoed in Doña Ana County, home of the state’s second biggest city.
Does it matter that the Democratic chair and vice chair of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, Patty Lundstrom and George Dodge, hail from McKinley and Guadalupe counties? Or that the House Speaker and Senate Floor Leader represent Santa Fe County?
The numbers say yes. It’s telling that San Juan County, a red county with the same demographics as blue McKinley, lost just $186,157 to vetoes.
The governor took a second swipe at McKinley and other blue counties in SB 94. During even-numbered years, the Legislature designates projects funded by general obligation bonds that must be approved by voters in the fall. Here the governor vetoed $5 million to build the Center for Career and Technical Education at the University of New Mexico-Gallup, so voters don’t get to decide, and it’ll be another two years before McKinley can try again.
She vetoed four other GO bond projects: infrastructure improvements and code compliance at Luna Community College in Las Vegas; renovations of the Joseph M. Montoya Building of the Northern New Mexico College in Española, $1.275 million; and infrastructure improvements at UNM-Los Alamos, $750,000. There was no explanation.
And yet, she approved the renovation of an automotive welding building at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell, $3 million; infrastructure improvements at New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs, $2.5 million; a science building at ENMU in Portales, $8 million; a math and science building at Dine College in Shoprock (San Juan County), $5 million; and a campus career center at UNM-Taos, $4.3 million.
The sad part is that each dead project would have created instant, if short term, construction jobs, and in our struggling economy, that counts.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 3-5-18
Annual debate over permanent funds’ use reveal fears and hopes
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
One of the Legislature’s big arguments for the past eight years is whether to dip into the Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for early childhood education and services.
Most legislators agree that early childhood education is effective and desirable, and the state has, in fact, invested more in it each year. What they don’t agree on is how to pay for it. The debate over the permanent fund and our youngest citizens goes deeper than partisan politics and says a lot about our expectations for the future.
This year’s measure, House Joint Resolution 1, would have amended the state Constitution to spend an additional 1 percent, about $150 million a year, from the $17 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood programs. Had the Legislature approved, voters would have decided the question in November.
After animated debate, it narrowly passed the House and died in the Senate because Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, refused to hear it.
The Land Grant Permanent Fund dates to statehood in 1912. Language in the enabling act instructed the new state to hold funds in trust for the benefit of public schools, universities, and other institutions, and 85 percent of its distribution goes to public schools; universities and hospitals also receive funding. More than 90 percent of the fund is courtesy of oil and gas. It’s the second largest such fund in the nation.
Voters have only approved two increases in the distribution – one in 1996 and one in 2003. The last increase passed narrowly, with most support coming from cities and most opposition from rural areas.
Supporters of HJR 1 said that, according to studies, early childhood education increases kids’ readiness for school and improves reading proficiency. Long term, it increases the number of college graduates and decreases the number of prison inmates and teen mothers. It would, they said, close the achievement gap between minority and Anglo kids.
Opponents argued that the fund is our cushion when we run out of oil, gas, coal and other mineral resources; increasing the distribution from 5 to 6 percent starting in fiscal 2020 would begin to reduce the corpus of the fund. A rule of thumb for financial advisors is to not exceed 5 percent.
That’s an argument I can buy. Another is that we don’t know how exactly this revenue stream would be used or even if we have qualified personnel for these programs.
One of the sillier arguments during the session turned on what the fund MIGHT do. One proponent argued that the fund will grow so much, we can afford the additional percentage. One opponent argued that the fund grew 150 percent in the last ten years and isn’t likely to do so well in the future; therefore, we should hang on to every dollar. Neither person owns a crystal ball.
The worst argument I heard (repeatedly) was that if we hadn’t increased the distribution in 2003, we would have $1.5 billion more in the fund. The money supposedly disappeared into education reform, and there was no accountability.
That’s not what happened. The new revenues went into creating the three-tiered salary system for teachers that was part of education reform. New Mexico teachers’ salaries were among the nation’s lowest, and we had a serious teacher shortage. If we hadn’t spent that money, the public schools would be in even worse shape.
I sympathize with those who would preserve the fund and understand their position, but they assume we’ll have nothing but oil and gas buoying the economy into the distant future. If we’re willing to keep losing kids to ignorance and hopelessness, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. An investment in early childhood education, on the other hand, is an affirmation that a better future lies ahead.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 2-26-18
School security vs. school “hardening” and armed teachers
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Sen. George Muñoz got a bill passed in February to provide $40 million for school security. This was before the Florida school shooting that’s again heated up public debate.
Mind you, school security is a far cry from the school “hardening” advocated in a speech by NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and (within hours and using the same words) the president. LaPierre’s idea is to arm teachers and transform our schools from "wide open, soft targets for anyone bent on mass murder."
Arming teachers has gotten little traction. Other than the rare former cop or war veteran, it’s hard to imagine a teacher in a gunfight, especially taking on an intruder armed with an assault rifle.
Then there’s hardening. Next time you’re in Albuquerque take a look at the federal courthouse downtown. Built after the terrorist bombing of the Oklahoma courthouse, the New Mexico structure is a fortress of stone and concrete with barriers that would keep bomb-carrying vehicles at a relatively safe distance.
We have many more schools than federal courthouses.
Lawmakers had an eye-opening discussion of school security, occasioned by Muñoz’s bill. The Gallup Democrat said that the day a school shooting took the lives of two students in Aztec, he had a conversation about security with Tommy Turner, superintendent of the tiny Mosquero School District in northeastern New Mexico. (Muñoz, a candidate for State Land Commissioner, had been on the campaign trail.)
For his schools, Turner had in mind a card-swipe system, a camera and 3M Safety and Security Window Film, which is bullet resistant and “buys time for law enforcement.” Cost: $200,000 in his small district alone, and $17 million statewide.
“It’s a shame we have to make a choice between roof leaks and security upgrades,” Turner said during a Senate committee hearing.
Muñoz introduced SB 239 to allow the Public School Capital Outlay Council to spend up to $10 million a year for four years on school security. It passed both houses unanimously and awaits the governor’s signature.
Superintendent Ann Lynn McIlroy, of the Loving Municipal School District, said her schools had aging security equipment.
“In our community we have 8,000 to 9,000 trucks running 100 yards east of the high school on highway 285. That’s a lot of traffic. I have no way to identify someone entering the building and no way to stop them. The school secretary is pretty vigilant, but we need film, key cards and an upgraded security system. We need another set of doors inside.”
A re-do of the front entrance would cost $1 million, she said, and that’s more than the district’s bonding capacity. “We would like the ability to buzz someone in.”
While small districts struggle with costs, some of the larger districts have addressed security. Stan Rounds, former superintendent of Las Cruces schools, said Las Cruces High School, which is new, has 100 cameras and a vestibule. Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, said that in her city almost every building was secured. Munoz said Santa Fe schools used bonds to pay for safety costs. Gallup High School found a low-cost solution in having one access point with a security guard.
Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, summed up the realities. “This bill is about priorities,” she said. And whatever the state spends on security will be deducted from other needs.
(Pause here for a long sigh from teachers.)
Teachers across the country reacted strongly to the armed-teacher proposal. The #ArmMeWith campaign on social media is a view into their world: Arm me with books, school supplies, smaller classes, time, social workers, they ask. Arm me with snacks to feed hungry students who can’t focus. Arm me with a working heater in my classroom. Arm me with mental health services. Arm me with a drinking fountain that works. Arm me with mold-free classrooms. Arm me with extra clothes for kids who don’t have any clean ones.
As Sen. Rodriguez said, this is about priorities. What are our priorities?
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 2-19-18
Legislators: We don’t want to be Congress
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Last year was about digging holes. This year’s recently completed legislative session was about filling holes – literally, figuratively and financially.
It was also about working together. “We don’t want to be Congress,” they said again and again.
During the 2017 session, budgeters frantically emptied the state’s reserves, school balances and other funds to fill a deficit caused by plunging oil and gas tax revenues. It was an unforgiving process.
In recent weeks, they’ve talked about “backfilling,” replenishing reserves and fund balances and restoring agency budgets.
Two of the big issues were crime and the unstable, man-made cavity beneath Carlsbad. Lawmakers finally stopped talking and approved funding to remediate the Carlsbad Brine Well. Even then I heard griping: Why should it be the state’s responsibility? Well, we’ve harvested boatloads of taxes from the industry for decades. We can’t suddenly wash our hands of its impacts. (Footnote: Debates about over-regulation suddenly fall flat when we have a spectacular failure of regulation, and in this case it was a failure of state regulation.)
Citizens of Albuquerque feel as strongly about their crime problem as citizens of Eddy County do about their hole in the ground, but it was a much harder sell. Although the governor supported Albuquerque’s plea for lots more money for the district attorney, the response was, everybody’s D. A is under-funded, as are the courts, jails and public defenders.
All the complaints are valid. But Albuquerque experiences its cavern as bullet holes, knife wounds, the vacuum where your car used to be, and a prevailing sense of vulnerability. The city has struggled to recover from the recession because companies are reluctant to locate in a high-crime city. In the end, Albuquerque got some relief.
What’s notable is legislators did their hole filling in a spirit that went beyond bipartisanship. Here’s an example.
During a committee meeting, Rep. James Townsend presented a bill to tax fuels at the rack or fuel terminal instead of taxing the distributor. However, it would have phased out an agreement the tribes and state negotiated in 1999. The state gives tribes a tax deduction for gasoline sold on Indian reservations; this allows tribes to tax it at the same rate as the state. The federal Department of Transportation calls the agreement “tax peace.” It gives tribes a source of revenue, but it’s tax revenue the state doesn’t receive.
Townsend found himself in a roomful of tribal leaders who opposed his bill. It would devastate tribal economies across the state, they argued. They use the tax to fund roads and, in some cases, police and fire protection.
Rep. Derrick Lente, a Democrat, is a young freshman legislator from Sandia Pueblo.
“You had a similar bill in 2017,” Lente said. “What’s the motivation for you to make changes?”
The grey-haired Townsend, an Artesia Republican, explained that he was trying to achieve efficiency by taxing a few points at the rack rather than many points of distribution.
“We have a roomful of tribal officers who can show they’ve used the tax efficiently,” Lente said. Some tribes have leveraged their tax revenues to receive loans from the state Mortgage Finance Authority.
Townsend said, “This bill needs a lot of work. The tribal deal has operated to the detriment of state roads.”
Lente said he appreciated Townsend’s honesty. The bill was tabled, but Townsend and Lente agreed to come back to the table in the future.
Townsend and Lente listened to each other and to tribal leaders. Townsend understood that the situation is more complicated than he expected, but both see room for negotiation.
We call it bipartanship when members of opposing parties agree on a bill. This was better. Each man left with a better understanding of the other’s position and a willingness to keep working.
If only Congress could do the same.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 2-12-18
Kids like Jeremiah need long-term care, not feel-good legislation
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
They’re called “throwaway kids.”
This is a term I heard from juvenile probation officers, and I met these kids myself doing volunteer work. They are the kids who come in last for parents on drugs, on alcohol and for single moms or dads whose life is about partying or the latest boyfriend or girlfriend. These are the kids who don’t have anybody who cares about them. They don’t stand a chance.
The latest sweet face to haunt us belongs to 13-year-old Jeremiah Valencia. He’s been in regular attendance at this year’s legislative session.
What we know from news reports is that his father is a career criminal, and his junkie mother hooked up with a sadistic monster who allegedly tortured and killed the boy.
Legislators are trying to mend situations like this by passing laws.
HB 100 expands Baby Brianna’s law to make intentional child abuse leading to death punishable by life imprisonment regardless of the age of the child. Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, argued that “we need to do more to hold the most violent perpetrators accountable for taking the life of a child.”
Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, used Jeremiah to justify a return of the death penalty.
The first bill, at this writing, passed the House; the second died in committee.
Stricter laws won’t make any difference to somebody acting in a drug-addled rage or a demented fit, but they make some people feel better.
If we’re serious about helping these kids, we need to dig deeper. Two measures come to mind. One is House Minority Leader Nate Gentry’s three-strikes bill, and the other is the early childhood education bill.
Gentry, R-Albuquerque, argued that after three convictions, the offender has demonstrated a pattern and should stay in jail. “The deterrent here is that they’re in jail,” he said.
Gentry’s bill died on arguments that we already have a three-strikes bill that’s never been used in sentencing and that any such bill is watered down in plea bargains.
The monster boyfriend had a long record of violent offenses. Would Gentry’s three-strikes bill have kept him in jail? If the laws we have aren’t working, what good is it to pile on new ones? Shouldn’t we be talking about judicial reform?
The other bill, HJR 1, would peel off more money from the permanent fund for early childhood education and services. Everybody agrees on the need, but they don’t agree on the source of funding.
There’s a bigger discussion we need to have. One refrain I’ve heard is, the family needs to step up. I’m happy that in somebody else’s world there is a family to step up. Too often, the family can’t or won’t step up or there is no family, so we expect cops, schools or social workers – the government – to bridge this gap.
Look at the debates that dominated this session: Law enforcement, education, corrections, and the judicial system are underfunded and under-staffed. We don’t have enough foster parents or social workers.
The thing I like about HJR 1 is the early childhood services people it would send into the community. Along with the help they could provide to young families, they would be another set of eyes. If we’ve learned anything in these wretched cases, it’s that we need more eyes.
It’s not reasonable to expect cops, schools and social workers to fill in for families. Let’s just admit that drugs, alcohol and modern living have torn through our communities the way epidemics and wars once did. We need long-term solutions like state-sanctioned, nonprofit group homes or some other form of care. Even an orphanage would have been preferable for Jeremiah and his sister.
The first step is acknowledging the extent of the problem. The second is deciding the throwaway kid is worth saving. The rest will follow.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 2-5-18
Imminent collapse in Carlsbad gets pointy elbows instead of soft shoulders
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Imagine that you have a very real, very imminent disaster in the making that could swallow a chunk of your town in a sinkhole. Imagine that people with the power to do something about it are jawboning about who’s at fault, who has the biggest problems, who’s responsible, who should pay, and where the money should come from.
Imagine you live in Carlsbad, where new surface fractures and subsidence have appeared over the Carlsbad Brine Well, a man-made underground cavity created during 30 years’ use in oilfield operations. Two similar structures caused massive sinkholes. Experts predict a collapse within five years.
A sinkhole would take out U. S. 285, an irrigation canal, a mobile home park, railroad track, a church, many businesses and homes, and 25,000 acres of farmland. It would also contaminate an aquifer above the cavern.
Area lawmakers have a package of bills seeking money from various state funds for reclamation. A recent legislative hearing showcased public officials at their best and their worst.
“Right now there’s no more serious risk in New Mexico than the brine well in Carlsbad,” said Sen. Carroll Leavell, R-Jal. Along with the loss of life, the economic impact could reach $750 million. “This is a ticking time bomb. Delay is not an option.”
John Heaton, chairman of the Carlsbad Brine Well Remediation Advisory Authority, said the group developed a plan, issued requests for proposals and got bidders. The contract will provide a firm estimate. The missing piece, he said, is a funding source. The authority examined all possible sources of money, and the state is its best (and only) hope.
“We’re racing against time and gravity,” Heaton said.
A Carlsbad resident argued that the state of New Mexico permitted the brine well and regulated it, so the state is responsible. It can also be argued, correctly, that the state benefited from the industry so it should step up. And the industry paid into various remediation accounts for years to address such problems.
This is where the discussion gets interesting.
Two cabinet secretaries then explained that they can’t help because the remediation project would do to their funds what the sinkhole would do to Carlsbad. Ken McQueen, secretary of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, said the Carlsbad brine well tops its list of orphan wells, but the department also uses its reclamation fund to pay salaries.
Environment Department Secretary Butch Tongate said his corrective action fund was swept last year to balance the state’s budget, limiting the projects it can address.
State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn has hundreds of orphan wells that need to be plugged.
The message from them all: Find another source of money. Said Heaton, we’ve looked everywhere.
In this discussion, Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Espanola, gets the Apples and Oranges Award for complaining that people in his district die every day because of drug abuse. “Nobody says put $35 million into my district.”
Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, gets the Beating a Dead Horse Award for demanding to know, repeatedly, what industry was doing. Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, answered repeatedly that industry had paid into these funds.
Martinez and Soules would be singing a different tune if chunks of their cities were about to disappear into a sinkhole.
Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, wants to see a firm end date for remediation. Other senators want to see more from the city of Carlsbad and Eddy County, like condemnation proceedings and bonding.
What we have here is state agencies pared to the bone and funds siphoned for other uses, leaving little recourse for real emergencies.
Still to come is a bill that would raise money from a gasoline tax. Expect a new round of jawboning about whether we can use a tax to stave off a disaster.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 1-29-18
Justice: You get what you pay for
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Curry County, in the 9th Judicial District, has four judges, but its handsome WPA-vintage courthouse was built for one judge. One courtroom, sitting outside the building in a parking lot, is a security nightmare, said Chief Judge Drew Tatum, especially when as many as 60 people may be waiting.
“We’ve had fights break out between litigants,” he said.
Once a woman stood outside a judge’s office insisting that she needed to see him right away. She was armed with a bowie knife.
In the 6th Judicial District, Judge Jennifer Delaney had a man walk into her office in Deming right after she’d written a restraining order against him. She was able to talk the man into leaving. “It scared me to death,” she said. The court’s 11-year-old security system is obsolete, and yet “there are disgruntled people in court day in and day out, and they have access to staff.”
Judge Albert Mitchell Jr., of the 10th District in Tucumcari, said: “I need some security. My car’s been shot twice in the last 60 days, and I live in a nice safe little town.” Other vehicles in the courthouse parking lot have also been shot.
“On a typical day, there is no law enforcement in the building. My sheriff tries, but it’s a small force” with many other duties, he said.
This is a bit of the testimony before the Legislature’s two finance committees in the last two weeks. Years of budget cuts have left the state’s third branch of government, the judiciary, with high vacancy rates and thin or nonexistent security. The vacancy rates are, in part, the courts’ way of staying within tight budgets, but the vacancy rates also telegraph that they’re having trouble keeping or replacing experienced employees, including judges.
The minuscule budget increases recommended by the other two government branches, the Legislature and the administration, won’t help much.
By the numbers: Vacancies are 14 percent statewide; turnover is 35 percent (50 percent for lower level positions); civil cases, which are more complicated, are nearly three-fourths of caseload; more than half of civil litigants represent themselves; and judges’ pay is the lowest in the nation. Even Supreme Court judges make 40 percent less than the average lawyer.
In county after county, when a judgeship opens up, the one or two applications come from assistant district attorneys or public defenders – people with no experience in civil cases, and yet most cases before the court are civil. Judges worry about who will replace them.
“The people who elect us and come before us have crises, but the people who will give them answers will be the bottom one-fourth of lawyers,” Mitchell said. “We’re trying to get our best and brightest from the bottom one-fourth. District attorneys and public defenders are even farther down.”
Even if a jurisdiction, like District 5 in southeastern New Mexico, doesn’t have a high vacancy rate, the caseload is still high and most clerks are working second jobs, and that’s not unusual either.
Courts have felt the economic downturn in two ways – smaller budgets from the state and an avalanche in pro se cases (parties representing themselves). Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, asked several judges what the common denominator is in these cases. The answer was: People can’t afford a lawyer, people lack the wherewithal, people are poor.
Often those cases are foreclosures or collections that follow job losses or disastrous medical expenses, but increasingly they’re domestic relations. Even though most districts offer free clinics for self-litigants, they still bog down the system. “When pro se parties are in the courtroom, everything grinds to a halt,” Mitchell said, because the judge must to so much explaining.
People who stand before a judge have a right to expect wisdom, knowledge and experience. Do we tell them we can’t afford it?
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 1-22-18
Eight years of guv’s speeches: Rosy glasses and black eyes
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Gov. Susana Martinez just gave her eighth and final state-of-the-state speech. I’ve covered them all. She’s given pretty much the same speech year after year, and in her consistencies are strengths and weaknesses.
The first year her priorities were education reform, corruption, and repeal of the law allowing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. In succeeding years she added increased penalties for child abuse, economic development, “job-creating infrastructure projects” like water and road projects, pre-K expansion, higher salaries for starting teachers, and tougher penalties for repeat DWI and violent crime.
Her education reform platform has had different planks, but in her first seven years it included ending social promotion (passing third graders who can’t read at grade level), curbing school administration spending, and raising pay for new teachers and “exemplary” teachers.
In her first year, she proposed and got letter grades for schools, calling it a “system that is uniquely our own” and a way to identify struggling schools. Educators call it demoralizing and ineffective.
After delivering campaign speeches for her first two State-of-the-State speeches, Martinez in 2013 turned her attention to the economy. After that, no matter how dreadful the news, she took the rosy view, leading Democrats to joke about her alternate reality. That year she began talking about diversifying the state’s economy. This would morph into claims in every speech that she had fought for diversification from Day One.
In 2013, Martinez bravely committed to Medicaid expansion, saying, “I didn’t support Obamacare, but it’s the law of the land… My job is not to play party politics but to implement this law in a way that best serves New Mexico.”
In Year 4, 2014, she said the focus must be on jobs and education. She wanted to make the Job Training Incentive Program permanent. That proposal is decades old. It’s still not a budget item because lawmakers like passing the popular JTIP bill every year to say they support economic development.
In education, she demanded reform over the status quo. By “reform” she meant her administration’s ideas; the “status quo” was anybody else’s ideas. Teachers’ unions are the villain in her play.
In 2014, Martinez said nothing about the Human Services Department, which had shut down 15 behavioral health providers based on questionable audits and accusations, later refuted, and replaced them with Arizona providers who mostly departed.
In Year 5, 2015, Republicans took the House for the first time in decades. Voters, she said, “chose progress over politics." That year, her theme was children, although she didn’t mention our usual dismal ratings from the Kids Count report.
The following year, her priorities were violent crime, education, and jobs. “Our laws are too lax, our justice system too weak – particularly when it comes to violent, dangerous offenders,” she said.
Martinez claimed in 2016 that behavioral health services had increased “to the highest level in state history,” even though a legislative interim subcommittee concluded a month before that behavioral health was still in crisis.
In Year 7, 2017, oil and gas revenues tanked, the state faced a $600 million shortfall, and Democrats took back the House. The governor chose to push get-tough crime bills and picked a fight with Dems for their budget proposals.
Last week, the governor offered her usual rosy appraisal of the state’s economy, even though recovery is still out of sight. She again pushed crime, education reform and jobs.
Eight years of speeches have common elements – consistency coupled with her habitual combativeness and the former prosecutor’s need for an adversary. Martinez has spoken often of “cooperation” and “bipartisanship,” but in seven years the governor has never summoned legislative leaders to discuss common ground, to ask, what can we get done for the state?
That’s what pundits will find when they look for her legacy.
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 1-8-18
New study: Like it or not, ACA is working
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Few subjects have been more controversial than the Affordable Care Act, dubbed Obamacare by its friends and enemies. Republicans last year did their best to dismantle it. Improbably, it hangs on – because a lot of people need it. In New Mexico signups during the recent open enrollment topped 50,000.
As the year opens, it’s useful to assess what it is that one party is trying to kill and the other is trying to save. Numbers help filter out political noise.
The Commonwealth Fund, a private, nonprofit foundation supporting independent research on health policy reform, published a study in December that measured the impact of Obamacare between 2013 and 2016.
The takeaway: The number of uninsured adults fell by 17.8 million, or at least 5 percent, in 47 states. New Mexico was first with a plunge from 28 to 13 percent. Twelve other states, including Arizona, saw double-digit drops.
The study sifted data for different groups and found:
In 2013 at least one of five working-age adults was uninsured in 22 states; by 2016 this was true only for Texas and Oklahoma.
The uninsured rate for children under 19 dropped in most states. While the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and higher income eligibility levels for Medicaid helped, ACA brought it down at least 2 percent more in two-thirds of states.
The number of adults who go without care because of its cost is down 5 percent, from 18 to 13 percent in New Mexico, and 2 percent or more in most states.
The percentage of at-risk adults without a recent routine checkup and individuals spending a lot out of pocket on medical care declined by at least 2 percent in more than half of states.
Few states have improved access to dental care for adults.
States like New Mexico that expanded Medicaid have had the best results. Washington, D. C., and 32 states chose the expansion; another six states took an alternate route to expansion. Maine’s elected officials refused the expansion, but in November, Maine voters approved a citizen-initiated ballot referendum, a move we may see in other states.
Despite public demand and indications that ACA, flawed as it is, has worked, Republicans are still trying to do it in. The administration chopped funding for outreach during the recent open enrollment period and disrupted markets by refusing to pay insurers for providing reduced-cost plans. The unpopular tax bill carried a provision to repeal individual mandate penalties paid by those without health insurance, which could reduce the number of people with health insurance and increase premiums. (The Commonwealth Fund calculated that the premium increase for a 40-year-old in New Mexico would be $419 in 2019 and $200 by 2027.)
Four years ago conservative scholar J. D. Kleinke, of the American Enterprise Institute, predicted that Republicans would be unable to come up with anything better because Obamacare was nearly identical to Republican Gov. Mitt Romney’s legislation in Massachusetts. ACA’s tenets – the pro-marketplace health insurance exchange, accountability, personal responsibility – were conservative tenets. Its only problem, Kleinke wrote, was that President Obama would get credit for it.
Kleinke’s fellow conservatives trashed his analysis, but in five years nobody has come forward with an acceptable replacement. The obvious question is, why don’t they fix Obamacare? We all know the answer to that: Problem solving is frozen in Washington’s partisan paralysis.
What’s it worth to us as a society to have millions more people covered by insurance? We don’t know, exactly, but the potential loss of coverage to all those people was enough to kill the Republicans’ much touted “repeal and replace.”
© 2018 New Mexico News Services 1-1-18
Time to ask: “How is UNM athletics paying for itself and helping the university?”
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
In 2017, the University of New Mexico got itself a new president, a new athletic director and a new athletic financial officer. They have their work cut out.
UNM athletics is such a mess that former State Auditor Tim Keller called the athletics department and its fundraising arms “an ungovernable ball of organizations.” A special audit noted nearly $700,000 in missing revenues, perks for insiders, mixing of public and private money, and years of blown budgets.
What other college sports program has drawn its own investigative journalist and a website devoted to its excesses? For about a year, Daniel Libit and his “NM Fishbowl,” instead of the usual fawning Lobo coverage, has scrutinized the program and demanded accountability. Now Libit, turning to other pursuits, calls on New Mexico journalists to stop acting like stenographers and step up to the plate. College sports should be covered like a public institution and not entertainment, he told the online NM Political Report. Students and taxpayers should hold the department to higher standards.
UNM also suffers, as I’ve often noted, from the last two governors’ use of UNM to reward political operatives with a soft landing, creating what some critics call a culture of cronyism. A house cleaning is in order, beginning with Executive Vice President David Harris, who was once Bill Richardson’s chief of staff. Harris has miraculously held forth since 2004 despite a faculty vote of no-confidence in 2009 along with then-president David Schmidly for a bloated, top-heavy administration. How is it that the university’s chief financial officer bears no responsibility for the current athletics scandal?
Libit suggests that colleges reevaluate athletic programs and their value to the institution and the community.
Architect John Hooker asks similar questions. (Hooker has a unique UNM pedigree: He’s an alumnus and the son of former UNM Architect Van Dorn Hooker.) He doesn’t propose doing away with sports but argues that the athletics program is not only expensive but competes with other academic programs that define a university.
“UNM’s reputation as a top-tier research institution is already weakened by the poor press of flat faculty salaries, controversial leaders, declining enrollments, the audit, and the ongoing doldrums in our… athletic conference, in that order,” he writes. “How is UNM athletics paying for itself and helping the university?”
“Why does UNM force every student from their first year through their doctorate, architectural, legal, medical and other professional degree to subsidize this program through mandatory ‘student fees’?” And, what is the benefit to UNM and its students from the programs and their well paid coaches? Are they intended to build pride within the university? Hooker would like to see a shift to competitive events that give more students an opportunity.
He thinks the new president and athletics director should ask students, faculty and staff for their opinions. Does the Lobos’ win-loss record last year make a difference to parents thinking about sending their children to UNM for a degree in biology or English or education?
“Perhaps UNM athletics is simply a delightful private club that benefits the coaches, their families and friends, and lucky fans who enjoy the games – as the recent state audit suggests,” Hooker writes.
In March, Garnett Stokes will take her place as the 22nd president and the first woman in the position. In a letter to alumni, she wrote about “the importance of building relationships with the citizens whom the institution serves.” She promised “a transition plan based on active listening, campus collaboration and a mutual expectation of excellence.”
Stokes comes here with valuable experience leading the University of Missouri through a turbulent time of racial unrest, budget cuts and plummeting enrollment. She will need all those skills and more. We wish her the be