Sherry Robinson 2021
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 2/15/21
Tampering with complex energy bill would do more harm than good
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Several bills in this legislative session try to “improve” on the hard-won compromise of the past. They don’t. Recently, one such bill died justifiably.
SB 155, a reworking of the Energy Transition Act, was so bad it was tabled in committee on a bipartisan vote. It was so bad it drew opposition from both an electric utility AND the Sierra Club.
The sponsors are Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, the Energizer Bunny of the left, and Rep. Bill Tallman, both Albuquerque Democrats.
Two years ago, Democrats moved heaven and earth to pass the landmark Energy Transition Act, or ETA. It called for 100% carbon-free energy by 2045, took steps to give San Juan County a softer landing after Public Service Company of New Mexico closed its San Juan Generating Station, allowed PNM to recover investments by selling bonds that would be retired through a charge to customers, and provided money to retrain power plant workers.
It also handcuffed the Public Regulation Commission, which legislators regarded as an impediment.
SB 155 would have restored the PRC’s regulatory authority to refuse or allow PNM’s investment or decommissioning costs. (Disclosure: I was a PNM employee from 1978 to 1980. I’m not a shareholder.)
In the legislative analysis, the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department wrote that SB 155’s changes “are unnecessary and detrimental” to the ETA, which the department said was “working as designed.” Tampering with the ETA could hinder the bond sale necessary for consumer savings.
The New Mexico Chamber of Commerce, formerly the Association of Commerce and Industry, was more pointed: “SB 155 unravels and undermines the climate actions taken to ensure our carbon-emissions free future in a fair and responsible way… It also confirms the negative narrative about our state’s unstable regulatory environment by continuing to pick apart established policy and signaling developers to stay away.”
The bill’s sponsors and supporters want PNM to take the hit.
During debate on the bill in the Senate Conservation Committee, Sen. Steve Neville, R-Farmington, argued wisely that in 1970 coal was the cheapest and best energy source, and nobody could foresee the day when it would be undesirable. He doesn’t oppose the conversion to renewable, “but if we want to have wind and solar, we have to pay the tab.” Regulated entities have a right to recover their costs, but the PRC historically has allowed only 50% recovery.
Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, spoke a long time and dug deep.
As chairman of Senate Conservation in 2018, he halted the ETA bill because he believed it needed more scrutiny. When it returned in 2019, he said, it was “an extraordinarily complicated piece of legislation,” and there was much disagreement. He asked the PRC for input, but the commission waffled.
“It made it hard for me,” he said. “We didn’t get guidance.”
Since then, voters decided to return the selection of public regulation commissioners to the governor to assure technical expertise.
Referring to supporters who seemed to think removing commissioners from the ETA was an oversight, Cervantes said: “We knew damn well we were taking the PRC out of the process. “We knew it, we debated it, we discussed it a great length.”
Cervantes then raised a bigger concern, that when legislators debate questions as complicated as community solar or fracking, he wondered if they really know what they’re doing.
“We’ve gotta change the way we do our jobs – modernize the way we do business,” he said.
He makes an important point. Few legislators are engineers. How do they grapple with technical subject matter?
I sat through the often emotional debate over ETA in 2019 and wondered if the ambitious, idealistic ETA could work. The answer seems to be, so far so good. Lawmakers should leave it be.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 2/8/21
Bills moving through legislative session could benefit rural areas
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
In this legislative session, Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, is proposing a constitutional amendment that would allow counties to secede from the state and form a new state or join an adjacent state. Pirtle told the Santa Fe New Mexican that “Santa Fe doesn’t really listen to the rural parts of the state… The people who are creating the fiber, the food and the fuel aren’t being taken seriously and respected.”
Pirtle knows that his joint resolution’s chances of passage are slim to none. He’s making a statement.
His immediate grievances are state health orders related to COVID-19 and attacks on the oil and gas industry. It doesn’t help that Democrats control the executive and legislative branches of state government. The election left raw feelings on both sides.
I will agree with Pirtle that oil and gas is picked on in this session, but I doubt the most harmful bills will survive. The sponsor of some of those bills is Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, the declared enemy of fossil fuels. She represents a liberal district in Albuquerque so she can afford to be impractical. Every session she runs extreme bills that typically go nowhere.
I disagree that there’s any bias against agriculture. Both sides value the state’s agricultural communities, and rural legislators have never been shy about introducing bills.
One of my favorites so far is Senate Bill 193 by two freshman legislators. Sens. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, and Siah Correa Hemphill, D-Silver City, ask the state to employ a rural equity ombudsman in the Local Government Division to work on rural issues with the governor’s office, the Legislature, state and federal agencies, and local governments. This person would be a helper, advocate, and mediator.
Estimated cost of the position is $90,000.
At least 19 states have statewide ombudsman offices or other ways of investigating and mediating complaints, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but how many specialize in rural equity issues is unknown. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality employs a rural ombudsman who is the liaison with rural communities.
“It’s important because rural New Mexico communities are often underserved or unserved,” Hemphill said during a meeting of the Senate Indian, Rural and Cultural Affairs.
Diamond said, “I represent the boot heel of New Mexico. The impact on rural areas is often ignored, not intentionally. This would give a voice to rural New Mexico.”
One of the points they were making was about the lack of rural broadband. Just then the system crashed, interrupting their presentation and making the larger point that even in the Roundhouse, we lack the broadband we need.
A similar bill is SB 172, by Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi. She proposes that the state Indian Affairs Department receive $50,000 to hire a tribal natural resources specialist. Natural resources are important to tribal economic development and for climate work, but tribes, which are also rural communities, don’t have that kind of expertise.
Committee members told Pinto she low-balled her request and needs to ask for more money.
Another bill moving through the session is HB 48, by Rep. Martin Zamora, R-Clovis, to increase the number of rain gauges to improve the accuracy of rainfall data. Among other things, this makes a difference to farmers and ranchers who apply for drought relief. New Mexico has 26. Oklahoma has 120. The cost for 111 new weather stations: $3.5 million. They would update weather data every five minutes and monitor high winds and hail.
When you have a problem, you can either complain about it or you can come out and say what you need. The direct approach will probably work better.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 2/1/21
Let independents vote in primaries
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
If you look out at the political landscape and see mostly the wacky right and the wacky left and not much in between, you should get behind House Bill 79.
The bipartisan measure would open primary elections to all registered voters and not just those affiliated with the major political parties. Independents and members of minority parties could ask the Democrat, Republican, or Libertarian parties for a ballot without having to change their registrations. Democrats couldn’t vote in the Republican primary and vice versa.
This could expand New Mexico’s primary participation substantially. Independents number 299,000, or 23.4% of registered voters. This up from 7% in 1982. Only 9 states don’t have open primaries.
Last week the bill, which has been through the legislative hammermill before, came up in the House State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee. Listening to the debate, I could hear a lot of reasons for opening the process and no substantive reasons not to.
“This is all about democracy,” said Bob Perls, founder of New Mexico Open Elections. “Political parties aren’t mentioned in the New Mexico or the U. S. constitutions. We shouldn’t have a system requiring somebody to join a party to vote in the primary. It allows political parties to control who can vote. They shouldn’t be setting the rules. It excludes 60% of millennials who don’t declare a party.”
John House, president of the nonprofit Represent Us New Mexico, said that many registered voters identify as independents. The outcome of the general election is decided by the results of the primary, and yet a large number of registered voters are unable to vote. “It’s dominated by voters on the political extremes and contributes directly to division.”
Albuquerque attorney Jay Edward Hollington, who filed the lawsuit in 2014 to allow independents to vote in primaries, said, “This is an opportunity for the Legislature to defer to the right to vote,” he said.
Committee Republicans Greg Nibert of Alamogordo and Bill Rehm of Albuquerque argued that independents have the option of changing their party registration before the primary and then changing it back again.
“Should we be forcing people to do that?” asked Perls, who is a former legislator.
Rehm also said opening the process would increase a candidate’s cost of campaigning.
HB 79 passed 6 to 3, with same Republicans as last year in opposition. It’s headed to the House Judiciary Committee, where last year’s bill died.
This isn’t necessarily a partisan issue. There are Democrats who don’t like the idea either. Party diehards tend to see the primaries as their turf. If you want to play, you have to join the club.
Maybe the discomfort stems from the increasing numbers of independents and their potential influence in choosing centrist candidates.
We talk a lot about involving young people in the political process, but they aren’t enamored of either major party. Liam Paul, of the UNM College Democrats, said he does voter registration work, and most young people are independents. He testified that the bill would increase participation among younger people.
Another trend is defecting Republicans. Recently The Hill, an online news site, reported that more than 30,000 registered Republicans changed their voter registration in the weeks after a mob of Trump supporters attacked the Capitol. And those numbers come only from the few states that report voter registrations weekly. The Hill thought those numbers were the tip of the iceberg. About a third register as Democrats, but most become independents. Democrats have also lost members but in smaller numbers.
On the national news, I heard one lawmaker describe himself as “happily tribeless.”
About a quarter of registered voters in New Mexico are also happily tribeless, and they have no say in their representation under current laws.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 1/25/21
The elephant in the room
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Democrats and Republicans spent four hours arguing about rules governing how the House will operate during this legislative session. After four hours of testy exchanges, the Dems prevailed in an 11-5 party line vote. This gives you an idea how the session will go.
The issue was, ostensibly, transparency, but the elephant in the room was, uh, the elephant in the room. The Rs in the House Rules and Order of Business Committee were expecting to debate rules as if Jan. 6 and the events of the past year never happened.
Before we take a closer look at this initial skirmish, let me say that good government in New Mexico and the nation requires the Republican Party. No single party has all the answers, and we have always needed one party to counter the excesses of the other. That the Republicans are crumbling before our eyes should be as worrisome to Democrats as it is to loyal Republicans who remember better days.
So the question before the committee was: How do we meet, debate, and vote without exposing ourselves needlessly to the virus? How do we filter the process through Zoom and still allow the public to see what we’re doing and participate?
House Minority Leader James Townsend, of Artesia, threw down the first challenge by asking why all the members had to speak through Zoom, as Democrats proposed, if they were seated on the chamber floor. The answer, Townsend said, was that Dems didn’t like the optics of Republicans debating on the floor as Democrats debated over Zoom from their offices.
“That is the real issue,” he said.
Do Townsend’s constituents really want to see him on the floor? After 400,000-plus U. S. deaths, the Democrats’ constituents and probably some Republicans understand the risks and hazards of COVID-19 and hope they will act accordingly. Townsend enjoys needling House Speaker Brian Egolf, but it’s Egolf’s duty to protect the health of all members in the chamber.
Most of us are aware by now that the virus, especially the new more contagious variant, sees any group of people as lunch. I don’t want to harp on this – OK, maybe I do want to harp on it – but as of Sunday, we’ve lost 3,115 New Mexicans. The plague will not somehow pass over the Roundhouse in biblical fashion.
That is the real issue. How is it that informed people can choose to behave like they’re uninformed? How can they debate when debates rely on facts and not “alternative facts,” as the former president’s spokeswoman so artfully put it?
Republicans entered the session with a credibility problem. The Party of Lincoln has become the Party of Lemmings, and the Lemming-in-chief took a leap on Jan. 6. New Mexico’s Republican Party chairman issued a tepid statement about not condoning violence.
Meanwhile, Democrats have gleefully sent daily news releases about how many days have passed without the state’s Republican leaders condemning the Capitol riot. Beneath this crust of awkward silence is the cavernous Big Lie about “rigged elections” that precipitated the riot.
How does that square with transparency?
Newly elected Rep. Yvette Herrell is still silent on her Cowboys for Trump pal Couy Griffin, who’s in jail in Washington, D. C., for promising that blood would run from the Capitol on Inauguration Day. The Las Cruces Sun-News reported that Herrell’s Facebook page has been quietly scrubbed of all mentions of Griffin. She has yet to explain how she won but Trump lost in New Mexico.
Yes, legislative transparency is a concern, and we should hold lawmakers accountable for operating in the open and making sure members of the public get their say. But in light of the shocking events this month (and the shocks are still coming), the Republicans should demonstrate transparency beginning with themselves.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 1/18/21
Cannabis entrepreneur sees New Mexico as a major producer
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
As the legislative session gets rolling, one of the big questions is whether any of the dozen or so marijuana legalization bills will pass this year.
Duke Rodriguez, president and CEO of Ultra Health, the state’s largest medical marijuana provider, is banking on it. He’s dangled retail sales of more than $800 million and tax revenues of $120 million a year before lawmakers in committee hearings. And during a recent talk he made a strong case for marijuana as a cash crop.
It wouldn’t match oil and gas, he told New Mexico Press Women, but it would be larger than green chile, peanuts, and alfalfa combined.
“Cannabis cannot be successfully grown everywhere in the country,” he said. “I think New Mexico will be among the top three producers.”
New Mexico has the climate, land, and water. Cannabis consumes one-third less water than other crops, he said, and energy needs would be modest. “We can run a greenhouse for $50,000 a year,” he said. “Denver can spend $50,000 in a month.”
He sees the potential to establish a brand here like Hatch chile. “You will want to get your legal grass from New Mexico,” he said.
But are there that many pot smokers in New Mexico? Maybe. “We have one of the most envious positions. We have contiguous borders with the second most populous state.” He predicts 40 to 42% of purchasers will come from Texas. “We have the opportunity, before Texas wakes up.”
Currently, 15 states have legalized recreational marijuana, and 35 have medical marijuana.
Ultra Health has purchased land in Tularosa with 1,000 acre-feet of secure water rights. He believes that every producer should have legitimate water rights.
The industry gained good experience with medical marijuana, but even medical marijuana regulation needs “a few more fixes,” Rodriguez said.
He wants people to know that the state’s medical cannabis bill passed in 2007, but sat idle for years because former Gov. Susana Martinez made a campaign promise to dismantle the medical cannabis program. “We had eight years with Susana when we had real limits on programs. Despite her opposition we managed to work around it using the courts to build a robust model,” he said.
Now there are 101,000 card holders, or 5% of adults, and 123 dispensaries statewide. The cities have plenty of outlets but not the rural areas, and that too is changing. Medical marijuana is now a $200 million industry with 34 licensed producers.
Ultra Health, which covers seeds to sales, employs 250 people statewide, and with legalization that could jump ten-fold. Legalized recreational marijuana could create “15,000 new good paying jobs.”
Rodriguez said he’s not favoring any particular bill, but the major considerations are taxation, social justice, licensing, and timing. And the medical program must be protected.
Medical marijuana still bumps up against the state’s limit on plants, and those limits would likewise constrain recreational marijuana. “We have to grow more plants,” he said. “New Mexico is the most restrictive state in the country in the number of plants allowed.” Limited production drives up the price and sends customers to Colorado.
Pricing will also depend on taxation. Legalization presents the opportunity to tax and regulate cannabis, but taxes can’t be so high that legal products can’t compete with the illegal market. Rodriguez also wants the state Department of Agriculture to be involved. “They’ve done a good job with hemp,” he said.
We’ve kicked this ball around the field for years and examined every side of the issue. Repeated polls make it clear the public supports legalization. Colorado just reported $2 billion in revenues last year. Instead of resisting, why not learn from other states and craft the best bill possible?
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 1/11/21
Disinformation campaigns spark Capitol riot and tear Republicans apart
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
On Jan. 6, before all hell broke loose in Washington, D. C., I had a dental appointment. When I asked my dentist if he was taking new patients, he said, “Yes, if they’re nice.”
When the virus struck, dentists, who get closer to us and our germs, were at high risk. My dentist set up the protocols I’ve seen across medical practices: Patients wait in their cars to be called in, have their temperatures taken, answer questions about travel, and get a squirt of hand sanitizer. Dental patients remain masked until the hygienist, wearing full face protection and gloves, is ready to begin.
This has become standard, but some patients were so nasty to him and his staff that he wrote a letter to all his patients saying, politely, that if they had a problem with the new protocol they could take their business elsewhere.
So if patients respect this dentist enough to seek his services, why would they object to measures that he, as a healthcare professional, thinks are necessary? If he finds a cavity, will they dismiss that too as a hoax?
It’s a tip of the information conundrum we find ourselves in. The United States has distinguished itself by having the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths by far in the world because the president and millions of people have blown off the advice of medical experts.
Just as he undermined the medical community, the president undermined the credibility of the election process by falsely claiming the election was stolen. With the near hypnotic power of social media, some people believe the virus is a hoax and think widespread election fraud changed the outcome. All it took was the president’s speech to light the fuse. We all watched mob violence at the nation’s capitol that turned the United States into a banana republic for a day and shocked the world.
As Congress dusted itself off and reconvened, eyes turned to the Republican Party. The most remarkable speech of the night came from Sen. Lindsay Graham, the president’s close ally and golf buddy. He questioned allegations of fraud: “They said there’s 66,000 people in Georgia under 18 (who) voted. How many people believe that? I asked, ‘Give me 10,’ and had one. They said 8,000 felons in prison in Arizona voted. ‘Give me 10.’ I got one…”
Graham agreed with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul that if “you’re a conservative, this is the most offensive concept in the world that a single person could disenfranchise 155 million people… To the conservatives who believe in the Constitution, now’s your chance to stand up and be counted.”
In her first vote in the House, freshman Rep. Yvette Herrell objected to the certification.
The next day, Steve Pearce, chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, said the party recognized the certification of electoral votes by Congress but continued to insist that “there are still too many unanswered questions.” He claims “there have been anomalies and issues that were never addressed that should have been.”
As usual, the allegations aren’t supported by evidence. And New Mexico’s paper ballots can be recounted if Pearce wants to pay for it.
Political pundits keep probing the Republican Party’s divisions, with some even predicting its demise. I wouldn’t go that far, but the numbers reflect profound divisions. According to a YouGov Direct poll, 93% of Democrats, 55% of Independents, and just 27% of Republicans consider the storming of the Capitol a threat to democracy. Republicans were about evenly divided in supporting (45%) or opposing (43%) the violence at the Capitol.
Our democracy depends on an exchange of ideas and flow of valid information. If citizens doubt what they hear from medical professionals and from election officials of their own party, the healthy debate ends and chaos takes its place.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 1/4/21
Present looks dismal but New Mexico’s future is better
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
For the first column in 2021, I wanted to look ahead and not just dwell on the losses, serious as they are, of 2020.
All year long, we’ve had some bright spots buried in the bad news – namely, the steady pace of new developments and expansions in the state. I don’t recall seeing this in the Great Recession. And all of them signal that economic diversification everybody keeps talking about.
For example, there’s Netflix expanding its footprint in Albuquerque, and Ascent Aviation Services’ landing in Roswell. Ascent plans to hire 360 employees for airplane repair and maintenance services in the next five years. Santa Teresa continues to draw companies.
And there are dozens of projects seeded by the state Economic Development Department.
The 48-year-old Job Training Incentive Program, or JTIP, is probably the best incentive New Mexico lawmakers ever created and one embraced by both parties, as well as business and labor. JTIP reimburses more than half of employee wages for classroom and on-the-job training in new jobs for up to 6 months.
In 2020 75 businesses, rural and urban, received grants to support 2,380 jobs with an average wage of $18.61 an hour. This is up from 2,100 jobs at 71 companies in 2019.
LEDA (the Local Economic Development Act) money helped 18 companies that will invest $761 million in the state over 10 years and create 2,500 jobs. This too is up from 11 companies set to spend $740.6 million in 2019.
One of the better lemonade-from-lemons stories is in Gallup. There LEDA funding helped the McKinley Paper Company survive after the Escalante Generating Station closed. Because the paper company relied on the power plant for steam, it too was facing closure. LEDA money will enable McKinley Paper to install new equipment and keep 125 jobs in McKinley and Cibola counties.
The new Outdoor Recreation Division saw its first year of operation, investing in trails and outdoor infrastructure and teaching new outdoor entrepreneurs how to grow their businesses. The Outdoor Equity Fund made grants to 25 applicants.
Now for the bad news. We already know that the hospitality industry took a huge hit, along with oil and gas. Hardly any sector was untouched.
Altogether, the state’s gross receipts increased a scant 1% ($228 million) between the last quarter of fiscal 2020 and the first quarter of 2021 (July, August, and September 2020), but over the year, gross receipts declined 9%, according to the Economic Development Department’s quarterly report.
“The three months making up FY21 Q1 were the worst three months of the state’s economic impact from COVID-19,” wrote department economists on Dec. 18. “The impacts were significantly worse due to lapsing federal support and no new federal aid package. Importantly, the federal bonus for unemployment benefits of an additional $600 per week expired, reducing consumer spending power.”
Arts, entertainment, and recreation plunged 57% over the year (72% in Santa Fe), and oil and gas dropped 47%. Healthcare and transportation were both down 30%. However, retail trade was up $262 million, the department said, and 14 counties posted gains.
Secretary Alicia Keyes and her people deserve a shout out for data like this to help us navigate and for their steady supply of helpful information to the state’s businesses.
Another agency that gets a shout out is the New Mexico Finance Authority, which wasted no time putting $100 million in Small Business CARES Relief Grants in the hands of 6,642 of the state’s small businesses. Sadly, they had 14,125 applications.
The first set of numbers represent the future, while the second set represent the past. Without minimizing our current doldrums, it’s possible to remind ourselves of the companies that want to be here and the future jobs they represent.