Sherry Robinson 2021
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 8/30/21
Local governments grapple with cannabis ordinances
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
During the long drive to Denver a few years ago, I stopped to stretch my legs in Trinidad. I like to walk around the old city’s downtown area. The first people I saw sported more facial hardware than you normally see in rural Colorado. I soon realized I’d stopped near a cannabis dispensary, located just outside downtown. Parking was tight and business was hopping with customers from I-25.
Now that cannabis is legal in New Mexico, local governments are in tall weeds, so to speak, in deciding how this new agribusiness/ industry should fit into their communities, according to local newspapers. While the state has overall authority, municipalities and counties can decide the when, where and how of operations.
The law allows for adults to consume cannabis in private or in a shop’s “cannabis consumption area” and to possess up to two ounces. Adults can grow up to six plants per person for their own use (maximum of 12 plants per household). Commercial operations require a license. The start date is Sept. 1.
New ordinances must align with the law. Local governments cannot prohibit cannabis growing, possession, product manufacturing, sale or consumption. But they can prescribe distances from schools, limit the number of shops, and prevent a grouping of cannabis operations – within reason.
The state Regulation and Licensing Department has been meeting with and training local officials.
Taos County commissioners are contemplating an appropriate distance from places of worship and wonder if sales should be allowed on Sundays and Christmas day. They want to keep cannabis operations out of residential areas. In the rural areas, some residents are talking about growing cannabis and selling it. Should the county specify a business’s distance from county roadways?
One county employee observed, it’s not like growing “a traditional field of frijoles or something.”
Smoking weed in public is illegal, but the Belen City Council learned that it can limit consumption to indoor areas, and the businesses must comply with state ventilation rules. Councilors also learned their city has no restrictions on distances from a school or day care center; the state says it must be at least 300 feet. Under state law, retailers must be 600 feet apart and 300 feet from residential areas. Liquor dealers aren’t allowed to sell cannabis too.
Farmington’s city council talked about keeping its downtown tourist- and family-friendly and protecting its newly refurbished Main Street. But Farmington is no stranger to industrial risk. While some local governments might be wary of the cannabis oil extraction process, which involves butane or alcohol, Farmington talks about locating these operations in industrial zones.
Santa Fe, with many medical cannabis provisions already in its zoning code, is ahead of the game. The city plans to apply many of the medical cannabis rules in its zoning approvals to recreational cannabis, at least initially.
Rules for cannabis consumption areas will look like those for bars. However, the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce said dispensaries should be treated like pharmacies, not bars.
Santa Fe County has specified that cannabis businesses be no closer to each other than 200 feet. The county talked about requiring personal cannabis growing to be indoors, but several commissioners, observing that the county’s extensive rural areas are distant from the city, thought that was unnecessarily restrictive.
Grant County wants to require residents of villages to grow cannabis indoors and take measures to discourage theft.
The Eddy County Board of Commissioners is interested in having a registry of all cannabis businesses within the unincorporated areas, something like the county’s RV and Work Force Camp ordinances.
Regardless of what local governments decide, they’ll probably be revising their ordinances as they see how the new rules and this new economic activity pan out. Because New Mexico waited on legalization, there’s ample information from other states.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 8/23/21
Making sure small cannabis growers get to play on a lopsided field
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Would-be backyard growers who aim to cash in on the cannabis wave in New Mexico may stumble on water rights.
So you own a well and want to water six backyard plants? Fine. You want to water a field of cannabis? Whoa, not so fast.
When the Cannabis Regulation Act became law, the State Engineer’s Office, which regulates water use, started getting calls – dozens a day. In June the State Regulation and Licensing Department published proposed regulations and held hearings in July, sparking more discussion. If the Cannabis Advisory Committee approves the rules, the state could start issuing licenses on Sept. 1.
The New Mexico Acequia Association fears that because decision makers want a fast start for the industry (and its revenues), the new law won’t adequately protect water.
The association and other groups lobbied to require applicants for a cannabis license to prove they held valid water rights or legal access to water with documentation from the State Engineer.
However, proposed rules provide a variance that would lead to applicants getting licensed without proving they have water rights because the State Engineer is so understaffed it can’t properly verify and monitor applications, opponents say.
Rosalie Flores and Louis Head, of the New Mexico Cannabis Justice Project, argue that the state’s domestic rural water systems have already shown they can’t keep medical cannabis grow operations from violating the water systems’ membership agreements or permitted use. The medical cannabis growers have yet to prove they have water rights for commercial cannabis production. And the State Engineer is simply too understaffed to provide oversight.
The acequia association wants strict water reporting requirements for cannabis growers.
The State Engineer has a Q & A on its website that explains the intricacies of cannabis watering. If you own a well and aspire to commercial operation, you must have valid irrigation rights for outdoor cultivation. Otherwise, you must acquire those rights and transfer them to your well, but first you need a permit and will be required to install meters and report usage.
Buying water rights from an acequia member is tricky because some systems prohibit transfers outside the system. Transferring water outside a basin is also complicated.
Doing much of anything in the State Engineer’s Office will be a slog because there are more than 500 non-cannabis related water applications ahead of you with an average wait time of eight to 10 months. If a neighbor challenges that transfer, add a year or two to your time table.
The situation is different if you’re in a warehouse using municipal water. Then you only need a commercial water right from the municipality.
We have an old saying here that water flows uphill to the highest bidder. Big, out-of-state companies with lawyers can and will find and acquire water rights, and this alone could squeeze out small operations.
Let’s say you’re worried about the impact of a transfer. You can file a protest with the state and argue that the transaction will impair your water rights, but by current practice the State Engineer will allow the pumping to continue until the case is resolved, after a year or so.
“In many ways, traditional water rights farmers are currently engaged in a war of attrition against commercial interests with a lot of financial resources and absolutely no respect for traditional culture,” wrote Poki Piottin, commissioner of the Vado de Juan Paiz Ditch Association on the Pecos River.
He notes that if water rights for a piece of farmland are sold, the farmland is retired, a practice that’s “further deteriorating the fabric of rural New Mexico by destroying what’s left of an agricultural tradition.”
Becoming a pot grower in New Mexico could be a contest between big and small growers, and that’s just one reason to pay attention to regulations.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 8/16/21
Cabinet turnover isn't hard to understand
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Two years ago, when the governor fired her first education secretary, some questioned the governor’s leadership and predicted instability in the cabinet.
More cabinet secretaries have hit the road since, and we hear the same accusations. If only it were that simple.
We know by now that the governor expects her appointees to approach their work with the same intensity and urgency she does. That’s one factor, but I would argue that the political climate, the intense scrutiny, and the escalating difficulties of public administration are bigger.
Take two of the most recent departures, for example.
Ryan Stewart, a product of the Harvard School of Education and a former teacher, had done inspired work in Philadelphia as regional director of the nonprofit Partners in Innovation. Brian Blalock, an attorney, was law and policy director at Tipping Point Community, a Bay Area nonprofit, and co-founder and co-director of a $100 million initiative targeting youth homelessness.
Both had impressive backgrounds. But that’s not the same as heading a state government agency with hundreds of employees, zillion-dollar budgets, and long-standing issues – and legislators, interest groups, constituents, and media watching your every move.
Both men might have risen to the challenges, but in these times there’s no grace period, no time to grow into the job. Our favorite expectation is to “hit the ground running.” Stewart visited 28 schools in 12 districts during his first month, but he had the double whammy of the pandemic and the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit.
Management students will see another quandary here and that’s whether to hire from within or “bring in outside talent,” as the textbooks say. It’s notable that the governor reached for outside talent but replaced them with New Mexicans. Stewart’s successor is Kurt Steinhaus, retired superintendent of Los Alamos Public Schools, former deputy public education secretary, and a teacher in Alamogordo for 12 years. Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Vigil will take over from Blalock.
Stewart and Blalock may likely be relieved to return to familiar turf.
That’s a sentiment they share with former Gov. Lew Wallace, who could hardly wait to get out of New Mexico and go home to Indiana. In 1881 he penned the famous line, “All calculations based on our experiences elsewhere fail in New Mexico.''
Wallace’s discouraging words have been proven again and again. We really are different here.
Let’s not forget plain old burnout and the emphasis on personal and family well being, which have all accelerated during the pandemic. Fewer people are willing to sacrifice everything and work themselves to death, as Sen. Pete Domenici, House Speaker Ben Luján, and others have done. And Covid itself looms large.
In the resignation of Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel was the inhuman pressure of the pandemic. Her successor, Tracie Collins put in a hard eight months before returning to academic life.
John Salazar stepped down as IT Secretary after his wife, the primary caregiver for both of their mothers, was injured. His agency scrambled to enable thousands of state employees to work from home during the pandemic. Bill McCamley, as we now know, left the Workforce Solutions Department because of Covid-related threats.
The final question is how long a governor supports a cabinet member who’s become “embattled,” another popular term. Should they be loyal to these folks or put them out of our misery?
Former Gov. Susana Martinez wrote that chapter of the playbook. She spent two terms backing an education secretary who, without classroom experience, was never going to be accepted here. And then there was the malignant, four-year presence of Sidonie Squier, who devastated the state’s behavioral health system.
Stability is still the goal, but the game has changed.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 8/9/21
Original spaceport booster: ‘New Mexico can pull this off’
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Now that the hoopla has died down about Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and its race with Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, we can reflect on what it all means.
The media had fun with the billionaires, but think past the billionaires. Spaceport America just got a blast of international attention, and the commercial world is learning that New Mexico is a good place for their space-based businesses.
This has always been a good place for space work. Both of our national labs have had parts or systems on pioneering space flights. We’re thousands of feet higher in elevation than competing installations, which saves on fuel, and we have miles of open country, clear weather, and White Sands Missile Range.
The idea of a spaceport got off the ground around 1990. I started writing about it in 1995 when the New Mexico Spaceport Commission was entertaining representatives of McDonnell-Douglas, Rockwell International, and Lockheed Martin, hoping to snag their interest. NASA was then planning to spend $650 million to develop a reusable launch vehicle (RLV).
“I think New Mexico and the region have a good chance of pulling this off,” said Jack Burns, chairman of the Southwest Regional Space Task Force, a citizens group and chairman of New Mexico State University’s astronomy department.
By 1997 the Southwest Regional Space Task Force wanted to create a space industry in the state, not just a launch pad. “Our push is to put together everything you want to know if you want to come here with an RLV,” said task force chairman Ben Boykin, who worked for AlliedSignal at White Sands. “This thing’s going to go.”
Task force members saw the same kind of opportunity that air transport presented after World War II, and it continued a tradition that began with Robert Goddard firing rockets in the desert outside Roswell.
After three studies funded by NASA, the Air Force, and the Army, the Upham site – 27 sections of sand and rock between Truth or Consequences – emerged as the favored site despite competition from other locations because it had transportation access, plenty of room, and access to the Missile Range.
Former Gov. Bruce King dragged his feet and nearly shot it down. King thought the idea was a bunch of hooey. Then his people announced the choice of a site before clearing anticipated land swaps with the state or federal government. Former Gov. Gary Johnson liked the idea and contacted two potential tenants to assure them of his support. He created the Office of Space Commercialization and in 1998 he included in $380,000 for it in his legislative call; lawmakers trimmed the amount to $350,000 and passed it.
A second measure set aside $8.6 million to attract matching federal funds. Rep. Bill Porter, D-Las Cruces, and Art Guenther, vice chairman of the New Mexico Space Commission, assured everyone that they wouldn’t spend a dime until there was solid commitment from a user.
“We haven’t been pouring money into roads to nowhere until we find out if we’re in the game,” Guenther said.
In 2005, then Gov. Bill Richardson proposed spending $100 million to build the nation’s first commercial spaceport, a $225 million project. The state had a paying customer; Richard Branson was ready to sign a 20-year lease.
On July 11 Richardson and his economic development secretary got credit (or blame) for the spaceport (it was never without controversy), but they stand on the shoulders of Jack Burns, Art Guenther, Ben Boykin, Commission Chairman Averett Tombes, Bill Porter, Gary Johnson, and early directors of the state Office of Space Commercialization George Harris, Lance Grace and Hanson Scott, among others.
Before Richardson, before Branson, somebody had the vision, and many others kept it alive for three decades.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 8/2/21
AG documents incriminate legislative, education leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
In October 2008, former Senate President Manny Aragon pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy charges for his part in a scheme to steal $4.4 million from the state during construction of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Courthouse. The sordid scandal shocked the state and sent one of its most powerful men to prison.
At the time, Aragon’s fellow Albuquerque Democrat, Sheryl Williams Stapleton, was running for re-election and scored an easy win. She was then a rising star. The first African American woman elected to the state House, Stapleton had served 14 years, was House Majority Whip, and had chaired the New Mexico Democratic Party.
In 1999 she and Aragon carried a bill that created the state Office of African American Affairs.
As Aragon was trading his suits for a prison uniform, Stapleton was reportedly laying the foundation of her own scheme.
Since 1984 she had risen through the ranks of Albuquerque Public Schools to become director of career and technical education. According to the state Attorney General’s search warrant affidavit, Stapleton was involved in the creation of a sketchy company called Robotics Management Learning Systems, which provided software to APS on a sole-source, no-bid contract. Its first invoice to APS was March 6, 2006.
In the 2007 legislative session, she procured money for the state Office of African American Affairs to buy and equip vans for the performing arts center that was later named for her. That year, she started S. Williams & Associates, the affidavit said.
In 2008 Stapleton introduced a bill to provide $25,000 to the performing arts center for educational programs and web-based resources. She also got state vehicles transferred to Robotics and a nonprofit organization she controlled; the Attorney General later investigated the move as a possible violation of the state’s anti-donation clause.
Over the years, Stapleton introduced many bills related to education – for public benefit or her own? Investigators are still working that out.
One public flap in 2011, when Stapleton called then Gov. Susana Martinez “the Mexican on the fourth floor” deserves another look. The conservative Capitol Report New Mexico wrote that during a break of the Legislative Education Study Committee, Stapleton angrily confronted Rep. Nora Espinoza, R-Roswell, who had previously commented that APS’s practice of paying Stapleton while she was in legislative sessions was corrupt.
“You said I’m corrupt,” Stapleton said. “Prove it!” She accused Espinoza of carrying water for “the Mexican on the fourth floor.” Stapleton believed the governor was behind Espinoza’s allegation.
For this outburst, Stapleton had to step down as Democratic Whip. Looking back, maybe there was more to Stapleton’s touchiness around corruption.
In 2015 Stapleton was again Democratic Whip when Secretary of State Dianna Duran, a Republican, resigned after a charge of diverting campaign money to support her gambling habit. She went to jail for 30 days. The same year, Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, resigned from the Senate over a real estate deal and served time.
Stapleton became House Majority Leader in 2016; it’s the chamber’s second most powerful position and allegedly used her political muscle to protect the Robotics contract.
The AG writes that APS paid Robotics more than $5 million from 2006 to June 23, 2021, and two businesses and two nonprofits controlled by Stapleton received nearly $1 million from the company. Stapleton also sent money to an off-shore account. This would still be going on except that APS procurement officer Rennette Apodaca was doing her job, and the new APS Superintendent Scott Elder backed her up.
At this point, the Attorney General, the FBI, and the IRS are all investigating, as are the Legislature and APS. Yes, she’s innocent until proven guilty, but if you read the search warrant affidavit you’ll see that whatever you’ve read in the news about this sorry business just scratches the surface.
We’ve all been played.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 7/26/21
State makes substantial, if slow, response to Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Last winter, legislators steered an eye-popping amount of money toward fixing some long-standing imbalances in education funding. It included an adjustment of the once sacred state funding formula.
That money and other revenue streams address the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, the landmark 2014 case that concluded New Mexico was failing its constitutional duty to educate poor children, Native American children, Spanish speakers, and other at-risk students. Reformers heralded the decision as a wake-up call, but recently, a leader of that effort, former Cochiti Pueblo Gov. Regis Pecos, blasted the state for its poor progress.
Pecos is correct in part but not entirely fair if you look at the big picture.
Last winter, legislators passed a monumental bill to end another long-standing and unfair practice. The federal government compensates districts that have a lot of federal land, like military bases and Indian reservations, for their lack of taxable property. It’s called impact aid. However, the state for many years has taken credit for 75 percent of impact aid and reduced state funding to the affected schools by that amount. So some districts lose funding but have no ability to tax property to make up their loss.
HB 6 ended the state’s treatment of impact aid and called for districts to prioritize spending on Native American education, at-risk students, and capital outlay. Schools must report spending and outcomes.
Lawmakers for years had tried to fix the impact aid problem but ran into fierce resistance because more money for Native American schools meant less money for everyone else. HB 6 protected the budgets of other school districts.
HB 6 provided $83 million to schools; of that $67 million would go to impact aid districts. One of the bill’s drivers was the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit.
This was a huge win in Indian Country that got scant coverage anywhere else.
Its primary sponsor was Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, who is painfully aware of education inequities affecting her local schools. She also chairs the Legislative Finance Committee, which recently heard Regis Pecos’s criticisms.
Legislators this year also passed four bills developed by the Tribal Education Alliance in response to the lawsuit. Primarily sponsored by Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, they help recruit and train Native American teachers and support tribes to provide language education, culturally relevant curricula, and improved internet access, among other things.
During the 2020 session, the Legislature added $217 million to the public school budget (following a $500 million increase in 2019). And it increased school district capital outlay and at-risk money for districts with small property-tax bases. The latter was a direct response to the lawsuit.
Add to this the substantial efforts around early childhood education, better teacher pay, and other measures, and you can see that lawmakers weren’t exactly sitting on their hands.
Pecos complained that it was impossible to see if that money was sifting down to classrooms and students. He was also dissatisfied that the state doled out education dollars to tribes through grants, which undermines permanence.
Eyes are now on the state Public Education Department. The news organization Searchlight New Mexico has suggested that PED “has not only resisted deep institutional self-reflection but also exhaustive and inclusive transformation.”
PED Secretary Ryan Stewart said his agency has had “a mindset shift.” His predecessors spent a lot of time and money fighting the lawsuit. LFC members questioned turnover among Stewart’s lieutenants, but it’s possible that some departing staffers were holdovers from the previous administration. With this changing of the guard, Stewart has an opportunity to hire or promote teammates with a like mindset.
I learned years ago, as a contractor working on an education-reform project, that these changes take years. We’ve made a good start, but Covid knocked the system on its ear. We need to give Stewart, PED, and the schools some time for the process to work.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 7/19/21
Employers speak out about their need for Dreamers
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
At a time of labor shortages that started before Covid, Texas and eight other states ignored business leaders and their own economic self-interest to strike at DACA. A federal judge in Texas ruled recently that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which prevents deportation of people brought here illegally as children, is unconstitutional.
There are no winners in this decision – not in politics and certainly not in the economy – but it might force Congress to act. The judge all but demanded it.
Eighty percent of Americans support the Dreamers, who are American in everything but the paperwork.
Republican strategist Karl Rove told the Austin American Statesman a few months ago that Republican opposition to protecting Dreamers “puts us on the wrong side of an issue that we ought to be for." DACA recipients "do not deserve to be given the back of our hand and told to get lost and return to a country that in many cases they have no memory of whatsoever. If we can't solve the things that are most obvious and have the clearest and broadest mandate to resolve, then how are we going to resolve these other thorny problems in our immigration system?”
The Texas attorney general and his fellow travelers argued that it was costing their states to provide education, police protection and healthcare to undocumented immigrants. But the Corporate Roundtable for the New American Workforce has said Dreamers contribute $433 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product, have a $60 billion fiscal impact, and pay $12.3 billion in taxes.
Wal-Mart, a co-chair of the group, said in an open letter it values the Dreamers and “supports legislative solutions that avoid disrupting these families, our communities and the economy.” Other signers were Best Buy, Cummins, Lyft, Marriott, Target, Tyson Foods, and Uber.
The cost to employers of replacing them, according to the conservative Cato Institute, would be $6.3 billion in recruiting, hiring, and training.
In New Mexico, we don’t know what the Dreamers are costing us, but we do know what the loss would be if we lost them. According to a University of Southern California study in 2019, 7,400 Dreamers in the 1st Congressional District paid $38 million in federal taxes and $21.8 million in state taxes and wield $174 million in spending power. In CD2 6,500 Dreamers paid $36 million in federal and $20 million in state taxes and had $165 million in spending power. In CD 3 were 3,900 Dreamers paying $23 million federal and $12 million in state taxes and spending $96 million.
Clearly, the politicians behind this lawsuit haven’t given a thought to the labor pool, but employers have. Businesses large and small have been vocal for some time about the need to preserve DACA.
For the venerable Business Roundtable, the Dreamers “are employees, friends, and colleagues — part of the teams that allow our companies to compete on a global basis and create jobs for Americans,” the group said. “Deporting Dreamers would be a terrible mistake with devastating consequences not only for these young people, but also for America’s economic health.”
In February, Texas business leaders started the Texas Opportunity Coalition to push for federal legislation to preserve DACA. Supporters include The Hunt Companies (a major Republican donor), the Texas Business Leadership Council, the Texas Association of Business, and multiple chambers of commerce.
The coalition has the support of U. S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who has said: “These young people are vital parts of our communities. They’ve grown up with our kids, attended the same churches, shopped at the same grocery stores and in some cases defended our freedoms in the United States military.”
Dreamers might provide the first shove in breaking the immigration logjam.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 7/12/21
National parks shouldn’t be Disneyland: balancing conservation with economic input
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
My dad was a New Yorker who loved the West. He was an enthusiastic consumer of scenery and wanted us to see everything we could reasonably reach by car. So after a good many are-we-there-yet drives, his children marveled at places like Carlsbad Caverns, where the sheer splendor of the place banished any lingering boredom.
For many years, tourists like us were guaranteed a memorable experience because visitation hadn’t yet exploded. Now, the competition is fierce for a night in a campground, and we’ve seen lines of cars waiting to enter the more popular sites.
So when the National Park Service reported that visitation numbers plummeted in 2020, it wasn’t entirely bad news.
Nationally, visitation to parks and monuments was 237 million, down 28% from 2019 – a 40-year low – and spending plummeted 31% to $14.5 billion.
Obviously Covid was a factor – 66 parks were closed for two months or more – but fires and hurricanes also had an impact.
In New Mexico in 2020, 1.5 million visitors spent some $85.2 million during their visits, supporting 1,230 jobs, down from 1,790 in 2019. The economic value added (visitor dollars in the regional economy) was $58.7 million, compared with nearly $90 million the year before.
Economic output, a measure of the value of goods and services supported by visitor spending, was $106 million, down from $155 million in 2019.
In New Mexico our big five are White Sands National Park, with 415,383 visitors; Petroglyph National Monument, with 356,493; Carlsbad Caverns National Park, with 183,835; El Malpais National Monument, with 139, 336; and Bandelier National Monument, with 94,948.
If you were one of those visitors, you probably had a better experience because you had more of the place to yourself. In some quarters it’s become an earnest debate whether the NPS should concern itself more with a quality visitor experience and less with packing ‘em in like Disneyland.
Travel writers now warn about crowds, trash, crime, noise, and air pollution. Add to that erosion, trampled vegetation, wildlife road kill, and overflowing toilets. It gives a whole new meaning to “getting away from it all.”
NPS personnel in 2019 had the second worst morale in the federal government (the prize for worst went to the Bureau of Indian Affairs) because funding from Congress doesn’t match the rising visitation. Salaries are low, housing is substandard, and many parks are understaffed and overrun. And things were as bad under Obama as they were under Trump.
A writer in Harper’s Magazine suggested recently that we need to rethink what author Wallace Stegner once called “America’s best idea.” Driven by climate change, that may be happening.
In May the NPS published new guidance for park managers that directs them to decide what species and landscapes they want to preserve and what they will let go. The document says that “it will not be possible to safeguard all park resources, processes, assets, and values in their current form or context over the long term.”
In the Southwest, for example, wildfires may eliminate up to 30 percent of forests because a warming climate favors shrubs or grasslands.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and other groups have called on the Biden administration to ban sales of single-use plastic water bottles in national parks. The ubiquitous plastic bottle is the single biggest component in park waste – up to half in some parks.
All this presents an opportunity to New Mexico and its tourism promotion. Our great outdoors and wide open spaces are still just that, and except for certain state parks on July 4, you really can get away from crowds.
As NPS adjusts its expectations, we’ll have to adjust ours. Your grandparents’ national parks really won’t be your children’s parks and maybe not even yours.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 7/5/21
Pay our wildland firefighters a decent wage for risking their lives
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Did you know that the starting wage for federal wildland firefighters is $13.45 an hour? They can make as much working in McDonald’s without putting their lives on the line.
Their ranks are thinning as the West enters one of the worst fire seasons ever. So it’s good news that the president plans to take action. During a recent virtual meeting with western governors, he said, “We can’t cut corners when it comes to managing our wildfires or supporting our firefighters.”
Jonathon Golden, a firefighter for 11 years, wrote recently in Writers on the Range that federal firefighters are leaving because federal agencies can’t offer competitive pay and benefits just as agencies are trying to ramp up for a fire season aggravated by record drought across the West.
These workers must travel anywhere on short notice. Although the fire season is nearly year-round, they’re considered transient workers. To advance, they must gain qualifications by moving to other duty stations. It’s difficult for them to find affordable housing, and federal agencies have revoked the transfer-of-station stipend, which helped offset the cost of moving. And a national forest supervisor revoked a boot stipend that was important.
“When you’re in the firefighting business, boots tough enough to save your life can easily cost you $500,” Golden wrote.
Golden has held a variety of assignments, including recruiting. “I know how hard it is for hiring managers to make 2,000 hours of grueling work, crammed into six exhausting months, sound appealing when the pay is $13.45 an hour. The pay doesn’t come close to matching the true demands or everyday dangers of the job.”
Wildland firefighters’ suicide rate is 30 times higher than the average, according to the advocacy group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. And they have a high incidence of cardiovascular disease and lung cancer.
During his meeting with governors, the president said we must have enough firefighters trained, ready, and on call. He’ll use bonuses and incentives to bring firefighter pay to $15 an hour and allow agencies to employ them longer. Permanent firefighters on the frontlines will get up to 10 percent retention bonus. Temporary workers who stay all season will get $1,000.
OK, who’s ready to face a hellish inferno for $15?
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., pointed out that this proposal raises firefighters from $28,078 to $31,200. In California, a state firefighter starts at $58,668. The president understands the proposed increases aren’t enough and promises to work with Congress to get federal firefighters a better deal.
California and Washington have taken steps to fund firefighting positions and bolster state firefighting capabilities. Utah has appropriated funding for wildfire suppression and a study of firefighter pay.
New Mexico hasn’t addressed firefighter pay, but several new laws passed this year will improve land management and equipment.
The bipartisan House Bill 57, establishes a standard of liability for private landowners who conduct prescribed burns, a process federal agencies have used to reduce the intensity of wildfires by removing excess vegetation. The law makes insurance more available and affordable and establishes a prescribed burn manager training program.
Senate Bill 256 enables local fire departments to access money in the state Fire Protection Fund. Previously, state law required that 60 percent of the money had to revert back to the General Fund. Dozens of fire departments, especially in rural areas, couldn’t get what they needed. Now the money can be used for essential equipment like water tanks, fire trucks, and protective equipment.
Grassroots Wildland Firefighters wants to see pay parity with state and local fire protection agencies and programs for firefighters’ physical and mental health.
New Mexico should get on the pay bandwagon. For the people working in unbelievable conditions to save our forests, range and homes, decent pay is the least we can do.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 6/28/21
Dark legacy of Indian schools reaches into today
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
After Canadians found hundreds of unmarked graves at the sites of former Indian schools, U. S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced an investigation into this country’s former Indian schools.
Is there any reason to think American Indian schools did any better? No, there isn’t, and it’s appropriate to investigate. Consider what happened at the Mescalero Apache Reservation, which mirrored events on other reservations.
After the first school opened in 1880, Indian agent Fletcher Cowart pressured chiefs and head men to send their own children to the agency boarding school and to produce other students. When chiefs declared there were no other children in their camps, Cowart sent the tribal police 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.
At school, the children’s dark hair was shorn, and they were “stripped of their Indian garb, thoroughly washed, and clad in civilized clothing,” Cowart wrote. They got new Anglo names. The agent didn’t allow them to go home, but parents could visit. If attendance flagged, Cowart withheld rations and used force. He fired any tribal policeman who was reluctant to round up children. Parents resorted to hiding their children or marrying off their young girls; some children faked insanity or sickness.
One good thing about school: Apache children suddenly had enough to eat.
After 1882 agents also sent children to schools in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Colorado, Kansas and Pennsylvania.
Another agent, V. E. Stottler, got all the children in school through “firmness and a judicious use of the guardhouse and starvation of the parents… If then (the children) 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.”
Periodically, children escaped.
In February 1891, Chief Natzili’s children, Len and Lucy Smith, fled a boarding school in Kansas, where they were mistreated.
Natzili, leader of a band of plains Apaches closely related to the Mescaleros, brought his people to Mescalero in 1877. They could no longer hunt buffalo, and soldiers seemed to be everywhere. He believed the old ways were at an end and willingly sent his children to school, cut his hair, and wore the white man’s clothes.
Natzili still didn’t know where his children were when he told the agent that he preferred having his children attend school at home. He also said, “People have been displeased because instead of being taught to read and write, the children (were used for) menial labor.” The small children, he added, should be left with their mothers.
Joseph Blazer, a white man who lived with permission on the reservation, found Len Smith dying of tuberculosis and brought him in.
The first Apache student died of tuberculosis in 1888, and losses rose steadily, particularly at the reservation’s own crowded, unventilated dormitories.
When James Carroll became agent in 1903, he wrote that the school’s dormitory, dining hall, kitchen, and laundry – the pride of his predecessors – “are, without doubt, the most wretched, uninviting and uninhabitable to be found through the service.” The agency doctor blamed the deaths of twelve boys on “the lamentable condition of the dormitory” and proposed burning it down. An Indian inspector subsequently condemned the buildings.
But attendance was 100 percent, Carroll wrote, not due to “a thirst for knowledge, but rather to a longing for something to eat and wear. The Indians have been on a starvation basis for years.”
In time, conditions in the schools improved, and education became a useful tool in the Apaches’ entry to modern life.
Why revisit all this misery, you might ask. History examines past events, however painful, to learn, to acknowledge mistakes, and to avoid repeating them.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 6/21/21
State will open up again on July 1, but that doesn’t end Covid or its ripple effects
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
A man brings his father into the emergency room at a small-town hospital in New Mexico. The elderly man is gasping for breath. The doctor asks if he’d gotten his Covid vaccination. He hasn’t. Nobody in the family had.
“He’ll be OK won’t he?” the man asks.
A test confirms the old man has Covid, and the doctor informs the family that he probably won’t survive. They move him into an ambulance for the trip to the nearest hub hospital, but he dies before the ambulance leaves the parking lot.
Another true story:
A popular, family-owned restaurant with a loyal clientele posts a sign on the door that they will close at 3 p.m. on Saturdays until further notice because they don’t have the staffing to stay open for Saturday nights.
The governor has announced that New Mexico will fully reopen on July 1, but Covid and its ripple effects will be with us for a while. The numbers are trending gradually downward, but the disease is still killing people – the new Delta variant is spreading and killing faster – and the job market has changed profoundly.
As I write this, I’m reminded that a recent study reports that most journalists have been cautious – sometimes overly cautious – in covering the pandemic. Nobody wants to do any reporting that results in harm or inadvertently encourages irresponsible behavior.
And as I write this, it’s Father’s Day. The reason my own father isn’t here to celebrate is because he succumbed to a fatal lung disease that resulted from work-related toxic exposure. I watched him die – an otherwise strong, healthy man lying in a hospital bed with ruined lungs. His own father died of tuberculosis contracted in the unhealthy workplaces of his day.
I take lung ailments very, very seriously. And I have close family members who work in healthcare in vulnerable positions. Some readers have politicized my comments, but I said from the outset that this is personal for me. I can’t, I won’t be cavalier about this pandemic.
So you don’t want to take advice from politicians? Talk to doctors about what they’re seeing.
As for the labor market, it’s interesting that the folks who normally champion supply and demand are burned up about being on the wrong end of the equation.
The boilerplate argument is that inflated unemployment benefits are encouraging workers to sit on their duffs. It’s not that simple.
For many people, Covid-related layoffs forced a reckoning. They decided to go back to school and transition to work in some less vulnerable sector than, say, restaurants. Or they learned to like working from home. Or they have kids and want jobs with more flexibility. Or they decided it was finally time to retire. Or they decided they don’t want to return to the same dead-end, low-wage job, or they don’t want to work two or three jobs to pay the rent. They’re looking around, and well they should because employers are offering more pay and better benefits.
Another problem is demographic – the supply of people in certain age groups is tapering off. So the labor pool, which was shrinking even before the pandemic, can’t meet demand.
“Managers who could take their pick of the crop simply don’t know how to handle being on the other side,” wrote a Forbes columnist. “That may explain why some of the worst shortages are in industries like restaurants and construction known for uncertain pay, harsh conditions, and low job security.”
Bottom line: People are making choices – something we say we support until it inconveniences us in some way. It’s not a calamity, it’s a business cycle. Business models are going to be different.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 6/14/21
Renters, landlords can get help
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
An elderly couple finds it’s time to downsize and move into a smaller home, maybe a townhouse. Instead of selling their house, they decide to rent it. That way, they have some income and can still leave the house to their children when they pass on.
Enter Covid and the freeze on evictions for nonpayment of rent. When the federal government acted to protect unemployed renters who can’t pay their rent, it was necessary and well intended. Nobody wanted to see people thrown on the streets on top of the economic mayhem already unfolding.
New Mexico got $170 million to fund its Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which can provide up to 12 months of rent and utility payments for people slammed by Covid. This includes current and future rent as well as back rent. (See www.renthelpnm.org or call 1-833-485-1334.) By last week, the program had paid out nearly $3 million.
Applicants must prove they’re renters with either a lease agreement, a letter from the landlord, bank statements or canceled checks. They must demonstrate financial hardship because of Covid. If they’re applying for help with back rent, they must document the amount they’re behind. They must verify income or unemployment status for adult household members, as well as total household income for 2020 or current monthly household income. They must prove their risk of homelessness with a notice of delinquency, notice of termination, eviction notice or signed self-certification.
For some people, this is too much trouble.
An unintended consequence of renter protection is that some renters, armed with the knowledge that they can’t be evicted, simply stopped paying rent. The owner is still on the hook for property repairs and maintenance, taxes, mortgage payments, and utilities. If they go to court to get an eviction, that’s another expense. Whether they’re individuals with one property or companies with hundreds of units, nobody can stay afloat with no revenue coming in.
Ten percent of tenants aren’t paying rent even though they’re able, according to Chuck Sheldon, a corporate owner in Albuquerque. In an op ed he complains that judges have handed down decisions favoring renters, who can walk away without paying.
Another landlord, a retiree with two units that he depends on for income, reported that the governor’s eviction protection applied to renters who were already behind in their rent when the pandemic began. To receive help, they must apply.
“My tenants are not interested in applying and will simply leave when the eviction moratorium is lifted,” he wrote.
Landlords, like their tenants, may not understand the whole picture. According to the program website, owners can apply for help on behalf of their tenants. Money is paid directly to landlords, but they must submit a W9 to the state Department of Finance and Administration. Program managers have said that a frequent holdup is that landlords haven’t completed their part of the application.
Some landlords apparently think the money is only available for tenants receiving a writ, and judges are reluctant to grant a writ, but the website clarifies what documentation is required.
On June 30 the moratorium ends, and Sheldon fears “tenants will be evicted at alarming rates, courts will become overwhelmed and owners will continue fighting to hold onto their maltreated properties.”
Any renter who’s burned a landlord by willfully not paying rent is hurting themselves and other renters. Available rentals are already tight in many areas. Owners could add qualifications for prospective renters and even raise rents to make up for losses. Our elderly couple could decide that being a landlord is more trouble than it’s worth and sell their home. The supply of housing could shrink.
Tenants and owners should take advantage of this funding.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 6/7/21
Joking aside, isn’t it time we understand UFO reports?
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
On the morning of May 16, a man on his way to work in Belen saw “a big silver metal sphere in the sky not moving.” He pulled over to take pictures. “I could see it clear as day,” he said. The object didn’t rotate or move. He continued on to work but an hour later asked his girlfriend to see if it was still there. It wasn’t.
On May 14 in the early evening, a Los Alamos resident spotted a “bright gold ball low in the sky” just above the trees moving slowly in a straight line from east to west. Suddenly it was gone. The resident didn’t think it was a satellite because it was so big and so low and made no sound.
These are the two most recent New Mexico reports at this writing from the website of The National UFO Reporting Center (http://www.nuforc.org/webreports/ndxlNM.html), which is “Dedicated to the Collection and Dissemination of Objective UFO Data.” The site allows people around the world to post what they’ve seen. The center’s volunteer operators do their best to flag satellite sightings – Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites are the source of many reports – and sift out crank calls, but they admit their increasing workload doesn’t allow them to check out each report.
When it comes to UFOs, we think of Roswell, but New Mexico’s reports come from around the state. A year ago, a Hobbs man recorded a flying object accompanied by streaks of light that he posted on YouTube. And a Carlsbad resident saw a light that was too bright to be a star moving slowly across the sky until it disappeared.
Granted, some sightings can be explained as satellites or weather balloons, but not all. Recently the Navy issued a report about unexplained phenomena witnessed by its pilots. Officials said they have no evidence the objects are UFOs but said they’re not U. S. government technology. An insider said it could be Chinese or Russian technology. But nobody can explain the objects’ acceleration, ability to change direction, and sudden disappearance. The military doesn’t rule out alien spacecraft.
The final report, according to news accounts, will have a classified index that’s not available for public consumption. This only fuels more speculation.
The Pentagon has collected reports since 2007 through its Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, now called the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force, including radar data, video footage and eye-witness accounts of Navy pilots and senior officers. Military brass say they want to identify threats to national security and encourage service members to report without fear of stigma.
Sen. Martin Heinrich recently told news outlet TMZ: “I think we need to get to the bottom of it. It’s pretty intriguing. I don’t know what it is, but anytime you have legitimate pilots describing something that doesn’t seem to conform to the laws of physics that govern aviation and is in the U. S. air space, I think it’s something we need to get to the bottom of.”
Heinrich, an engineer by training, is a no-nonsense kind of guy. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, New Mexico’s senior senator supported a provision in the Intelligence Authorization Act for fiscal 2021 calling for the task force and the Office of Naval Intelligence to standardize the collection and reporting of UFO data. It also called for the unclassified report, due out this month.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and former Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, probably don’t agree on much, but both support more UFO research.
I’ve bought my share of funny merchandise in Roswell but credit the International UFO Museum and Research Center with a serious presentation. Wouldn’t it be nice to stop joking and learn more about what’s in our skies?
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 5/3121
Navigating the maze of PIOs and data to understand Covid impacts
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Dr. David Scrase has often talked up the state’s data experts during Covid briefings, and the good doctor himself, who is secretary of the Human Services Department, is no slouch when it comes to numbers.
So when I got blowback from readers over a comparison of data between New Mexico and Texas, I wanted to talk to one of our experts. It’s not an unreasonable request, but I ran into a wall of resistance from state public information officers.
As a PIO myself back in the day, I routinely connected journalists with in-house experts. Now the PIOs see themselves as the firewall between reporters and state employees.
I started with Scrase’s agency and Jodi McGinnis-Porter, who was out of the office and referred me to Matt Bieber at the Department of Health. Bieber said DOH staff wouldn’t have information on other states – this despite many such comparisons during briefings – and offered a generic comment about New Mexico’s large senior population and high rates of pre-existing conditions but no data. I said I’d like to talk to somebody who can speak knowledgeably about New Mexico. Then he just blew me off.
Foraging through DOH contacts, I next reached David Morgan. He provided a precise link to the CDC for some data but still wouldn’t make any staffers available.
In my search, I learned the state has two layers of PIOs. McGinnis-Porter and Bieber are executive appointments, while Morgan is a state employee. Bieber carries the title of communications director, and Morgan’s title is media and social media manager. In referring calls to Bieber, McGinnis-Porter was following chain of command.
Hmmmm… I tried to find out what exactly Bieber does and why a department needs an appointed PIO if it already has a staff PIO. I never got an answer, but Nora Sackett in the Governor’s Office said state government has both exempt and nonexempt PIOs, and they all strive to keep the public informed. I would add that they don’t all have the same work ethic.
Now for the data. Two weeks ago, I tried to respond to Sen. Cliff Pirtle’s assertion that DOH can’t explain why Florida and Texas, which were not locked down, had lower Covid fatality rates than New Mexico. Some of you disagreed. So let’s try another data dive.
An alert reader steered me to Becker’s Hospital Review. On May 28, it posted 203 deaths per 100,000 for New Mexico, 178 deaths for Texas, 171 for Florida, and 242 for Arizona.
However, Florida began fudging its numbers in April. Becker’s reported that the medical examiners’ count of Covid deaths was 10% higher than the state’s health department’s, so state officials held up medical examiners’ reports for a few weeks before releasing redacted numbers.
The New York Times shows the two states neck and neck for average daily deaths – 0.15 per 100,000 for New Mexico and 0.14 for Texas. According to the CDC, Texas had a higher average from July through early December last year; since then New Mexico has had the higher average.
But there’s a second set of important numbers, given New Mexico’s thin healthcare resources. As of May 28, New Mexico had average daily hospitalizations of 7 per 100,000, compared with 17 for Texas, according to the New York Times.
For New Mexico, this is the crux. Even at its lower level, New Mexico hospitals were swamped with Covid patients from November to February, according to the CDC. New Mexico in 2018 had 2.2 ICU beds per 10,000 people; Texas had 2.6, said HSD.
Texas can treat its masses. We struggle.
Why? The Census Bureau tells us that in 2019 19.2% of New Mexico adults had disabilities, compared with 14% for Texas. And 18% of our population is 65 and over, compared with 12.9% for Texas.
“One thing is clear,” Morgan said. “New Mexico’s COVID-19 public health orders were much more comprehensive, and thankfully so, or we might have had even more serious illnesses and death related to the virus.”
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 5/24/21
Former cabinet member cautions about hot words and threats
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
We’ve seen the back of Bill McCamley’s shaved head for the last time, and that’s not a good thing.
McCamley announced his resignation as secretary of the state Workforce Solutions Department in April. Recently, we learned that the department overpaid jobless benefits by $250 million, but connecting the two is wrong, it turns out.
In a series of tweets, McCamley spelled out the reasons for his departure:
“I left the position for no other reason than the safety of myself and my family. Starting with the pandemic, threats made to the department by phone were pretty common. People would show up at the office and try to start fights with security guards.”
Windows were broken. A fire bomb destroyed a state car at the Las Cruces office.
In March he got a call saying that a man with a history of instability was angry about his wife's unemployment issues and wanted to know where McCamley lived and when he was at home.
“In April, an unemployment claimant sent a letter to my home. It wasn't threatening, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that it was only a matter of time before my home address and other personal information was shared on social media, getting into the hands of people who do wish violence.”
Five days later a letter was sent to his mother's address.
“I have received threats before as a public official, but this time seems different.” His counterparts in other states have needed police protection. Then there were the threats to Michigan’s governor and Arizona’s secretary of state, along with the Jan. 6th insurrection.
“It has become painfully obvious that at this time in history certain people are willing to express their anger in violent ways. For me this reached a point where I firmly believe that if I stayed I would be putting my life and the lives of people I care about in jeopardy.”
It’s hard to imagine a tougher job than leading Workforce Solutions. Like other state labor departments, it faced a tidal wave of unemployment applications the likes of which no agency had ever seen. It ramped up as fast as possible, but government doesn’t turn on a dime. People were understandably frustrated.
McCamley gets that. He believes public officials should be accountable, but violence and threats shouldn’t be part of the job.
He said he’s “immensely proud of the work accomplished by the department in the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, and Gov. Lujan Grisham and her whole team have been nothing but supportive, classy, and understanding.”
McCamley is leaving New Mexico, a difficult decision, he said. Before he was a cabinet secretary, he was an energetic, animated state representative for Las Cruces, and before that he was a county commissioner. We just lost a dedicated public servant.
He asks the media and public to “think strongly about their tone as these issues of great importance are discussed. The more we inflame issues the more situations like the ones above become common and acceptable. And they shouldn't be.”
I agree. For a recent column comparing Texas and New Mexico Covid data, I got a 204-word boldface rant with no punctuation assailing my intelligence, facts, grasp of science, presumed political persuasion, and adding, “I can’t stand you.”
A couple of others simply questioned my data and conclusion that Texas is worse off than New Mexico.
It’s obvious this is a political argument. Some people need to believe that incautious, wide-open Texas is faring better in the Covid siege, but my data hunt still doesn’t substantiate that.
We can argue data all day. Each organization parses the numbers a little differently, and I don’t have space here to explain it all, but I’m pursuing new data and a better explanation.
In September, the respected publication Scientific American reported: “While Arizona and Texas…loosened activity and business restrictions and then experienced alarming increases in COVID-19 numbers, New Mexico kept a tighter grip on the spread of the contagion.”
Right now, both states’ numbers are trending downward.
The question remains: How do you adjust for an older, sicker population and weaker healthcare system? Texas can afford to be footloose. New Mexico can’t.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 5/17/21
New Mexico is still one of the safest places to be during the pandemic
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
I can hug my grandson again. I can enjoy a normal family get-together because we’re all vaccinated.
On May 13, the CDC said fully vaccinated people can stop wearing masks indoors and outdoors, and the state fell in line a day later.
The announcement came after the venerable Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was bashed by prominent epidemiologists and the New York Times for being slow to respond to evidence that the virus almost never spreads outdoors and that fully vaccinated people have little to no risk of getting really sick or transmitting it to someone else.
However, the unvaccinated, who can still contract and spread the virus, must still be masked, and it’s all on an honor system, so the person behind you in the grocery line may or may not have their shots. And kids and many teens are still unvaccinated. Businesses and institutions must decide how to protect employees and customers.
Two days after the CDC announcement I was at an outdoor event where everyone was masked. The prevailing attitude seems to be better safe than sorry.
Speaking of bashing, the governor has come in for her share – not from epidemiologists but from Republicans.
Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, wrote in an op ed that the state Department of Health “cannot explain why Florida and Texas, which are not locked down, have lower Covid fatality rates than New Mexico.”
He doesn’t say where he got that information, but that’s not what I find. As of May 16, New Mexico’s average daily death rate per 100,000 is 0.10. For Texas it’s 0.16 – 60% higher – according to the New York Times’ daily tracker.
Remember that New Mexico has an older, sicker population and that the virus has been particularly devastating on Indian reservations. Texas has no reservations except a tiny reserve near El Paso. Oklahoma, which has a large Native American population, has a rate of 0.17.
Arizona has been stupid about Covid restrictions, and yet its death rate is the same as New Mexico’s. Without a doubt that’s because of strict lockdowns on the Navajo Reservation.
Colorado, where restrictions have been lax, has a death rate of 0.23 per 100,000. Florida, which is wide open, is at 0.24.
Pirtle and the Republicans want us to be incensed about “the governor’s draconian restrictions.” If you want to see draconian restrictions, look at Australia, which closed everything for months. The Aussies have had 910 deaths total. New Mexico alone has had more than 4,000 deaths.
In February, a WalletHub.com survey ranked New Mexico the 13th safest state during the pandemic. Texas was 45th and also had one of the nation’s highest hospitalization rates. In March, the Texas governor lifted the mask mandate and opened businesses. Maybe that’s one reason why the moment actor Matthew McConaughey announced he was thinking about running for governor, polls gave him a double-digit lead.
The debate over restrictions is really about your tolerance of sickness and fatalities. Open a little, the rate goes up. Open a lot, hospitalizations and fatalities spiral. How many dead people are too many?
The governor has insisted that one death is too many, and Pirtle worried that the governor wouldn’t lift restrictions until there is zero risk. But the governor has promised that at a 60% vaccination rate she’ll remove restrictions on businesses.
Polls support the governor’s actions, so I don’t think the Rs will get much traction with this complaint.
Last winter, during a House discussion of economic harm wrought by covid restrictions, Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, observed that the restrictions had been tough on his community too.
“A lot of people haven’t been able to work,” he said, “but at least they’re alive.”
Want this to be over? Get vaccinated.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 5/10/21
Timing and policy are right for economic diversification
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
When the good times are rolling, and energy revenues prop up the state, we haven’t been inclined to think ahead to the next bust.
But we’re in an interesting time right now, with an oil boom this year but oil busts in recent memory. For a change, our elected leaders are serious about spreading New Mexico’s reliance more evenly across economic segments.
To her credit, the governor is targeting multiple industries, and her budget reflected that: tourism, outdoor recreation, film, aerospace, and renewable energy. That’s good, but let’s think bigger: high tech and manufacturing.
Here’s an example: Last fall, New Mexico Tech student Joshua Benavidez started a new company, ORC Tech. The private New Mexico Startup Factory helped him launch the company and license technology from NASA. Sandia National Laboratories will help him design a prototype through its Small Business Assistance Program. When Benavidez has a prototype, he’ll start operating in an industrial park at Ohkay Owingeh; the pueblo north of Española has invested in the company.
Reading about ORC in the Albuquerque Journal, I was excited. I’ve written about economic development for decades. New Mexico always had assets – smart people, the labs, and potential for tech transfer – but the obstacles were formidable. Tech entrepreneurs aren’t just born – they need guidance. The startups need nurturing and capital. New Mexico was short on both. ORC demonstrates that the support exists to birth these companies, and not just in the cities.
There’s more good news.
With Intel’s payroll shrinking steadily in recent years, it seemed the corporate giant didn’t love New Mexico any more. This month Intel announced a $3.5 billion investment to make its Rio Rancho facility the global hub of a new technology. Intel put us on the map when it opened here in 1980. This keeps us on the map.
The economic development arena as a whole has been lively.
Site Selection magazine recognized the state in its Top 20 Deals in North America for the $150 million Netflix expansion, the first time New Mexico made the list. The expansion is good for 1,000 production jobs and 1,467 construction jobs, new stages, post-production services, training facilities, and a commissary to provide meals and craft services. The studio will lease 130 acres from the State Land Office, generating about $24 million.
Intel and Netflix are in the Albuquerque orbit, but as I’ve said before, having your kids working in Albuquerque beats Dallas or Denver.
Small business is having its day too.
Recently, the state Economic Development Department awarded a grant to the Capitol Bar & Brewery to expand and add a coffee shop. The Capitol Bar, an institution in Socorro, has been owned and operated by the same family for nearly 50 years. The building on the town’s plaza dates to 1896.
The department also made a $250,000 grant to Beck & Bulow, a Santa Fe meat operation that raises its animals in San Miguel County. (You haven’t lived until you’ve eaten Beck & Bulow’s wild boar bacon.) The company will also receive $50,000 from the city of Santa Fe, and train workers through the department’s Job Training Incentive Program. Instead of processing in Colorado, the company can butcher and manufacture in New Mexico.
We need more of this type of value-added agriculture in the state.
I’ve got to give a shout out to the state’s Economic Development Department, now headed and staffed by skilled professionals. I’ve been impressed that during the pandemic, EDD bent over backwards to get information out to the state’s struggling businesses, and the department hasn’t missed a beat in the recruiting and retention part of their mission.
If you despair over the economy after more than a year of pandemic shutdowns, remember that these new developments will create momentum that speeds recovery.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 5/3/21
As drought settles in, public officials focus on little stuff
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
When the governor addressed the Economic Forum, a business group, one inevitable question was about water. A developer didn’t think the Legislature had done anything for water, and nothing happens without water, he said. The governor referred vaguely to options, but she didn’t really answer the question.
Considering how grim the news is – the paltry snowpack, the shrinking reservoirs, the dire predictions – we might have seen some thoughtful new policy or creative legislation this year, but we didn’t. Water was an afterthought.
The only water bill passed and signed was HB 200. It does an about face on the controversial Gila River diversion project and invests the remaining $80 million in water infrastructure projects for southwestern New Mexico.
This has been a hot subject for 15 years, with water experts on both sides arguing either that it’s worth the money or that it’s a waste of money to divert the Gila. Bill sponsors think the money is better used on other work to secure long-term water supplies. HB 200 had the support of environmental groups.
Three bills, which all died, sought changes in the State Engineer’s Office.
HB 30 focused on water leasing. New Mexico water law requires that an application for a water lease jump through established hoops – public notice, opportunity for protest, and a public hearing on a protested application. In recent years, the State Engineer has issued preliminary approvals of water lease applications that short circuit the usual steps.
HB 30 would have clarified that a water lease doesn’t take effect until after the scrutiny takes place.
The New Mexico Acequia Association maintained that the preliminary approvals are unlawful and allowed applicants to begin using the water right before those affected could protest to the State Engineer. If somebody upstream proposed a new use of water or a change in use, it could affect users downstream and impair existing rights, the association said.
For example, when the State Engineer approved Ruidoso’s application to pump upstream, acequias in Lincoln County didn’t get a public hearing. And the State Engineer authorized Intrepid Potash to lease more than 5,000 acre feet of water on the Lower Pecos River despite potential negative impacts to downstream irrigators.
The New Mexico Chamber of Commerce said the bill would have added wasteful and inefficient regulatory requirements.
The state Department of Transportation said the bill would have delayed contractors’ ability to use leased water on highway improvement projects, potentially resulting in project delays, increased project costs, or even a loss of federal funding.
HB 95, tabled by the House Agriculture and Water Committee, would have required the State Engineer to weigh climate change implications in making water rights decisions. It also required the agency to develop climate change impact rules, according to the online New Mexico Political Report.
State Engineer John D’Antonio called the rulemaking provision an unfunded mandate. Besides, he said, the governor’s 50-year state water plan addresses scarcity, and the best way to address climate change is on a broad scale, not bill by bill.
Business and agriculture groups opposed the bill because it could slow permitting and open the process to litigation.
HB 197 would have kept district courts from ordering the State Engineer to pay the litigation costs of other parties in appeal cases. The costs come out of the agency budget and affect its work.
This year, legislators concerned themselves with old law, existing policy, and bureaucratic process. Meanwhile, farmers on tractors massed in Los Lunas to protest Facebook’s planned expansion. As it happens, the company is using far less than it’s allowed and doesn’t plan on using more, but people are nervous.
We have ample data and don’t need more studies. Where are the big proposals, the latest thinking on storage, evaporation, irrigation, and reuse? Where is the long-term plan?
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 4/26/21
State prepares the way for its future as outdoor recreation mecca
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
It’s time to get outside. Burn off the body upholstery layered on during the pandemic, and support New Mexico’s outdoor recreation industry.
The state’s Outdoor Recreation Division is busy making sure that happens for New Mexicans and tourists. The Legislature provided funding for projects and heard several natural resource bills this year.
One bill aimed to modernize wildlife management but ran counter to the state’s drive to support outdoor recreation businesses.
SB 312 would have changed the name of the state Game and Fish Department to the Department of Wildlife Conservation; the State Game Commission would have become the State Wildlife Conservation Commission. The distribution of hunting tags would have changed from 84 percent for residents, 10 percent for outfitters, and 6 percent for nonresidents to 90 percent for residents, 10 percent for nonresidents, and none for outfitters. Cutting outfitters, they reasoned, gave more tags to New Mexicans.
The bill would have required farmers, ranchers, and other landowners to consult the department before killing wildlife on their property and called for new rules about when and if wildlife could be killed to prevent property damage. Currently, landowners can kill wildlife that’s damaging their crops, fencing, or other property. They can also kill elk and antelope because of perceived threats.
Proponents said the bill would conserve wildlife as a resource for the equitable use of all New Mexicans.
Guides and outfitters said the changes would put them out of business, and the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce agreed, saying the state would lose $300,000 in gross receipts taxes.
When this bill was before the Senate Conservation Committee, thousands of calls poured in, for and against. Chairwoman Liz Stefanics, D-Santa Fe, said she has six rural counties in her district and had to stand with her constituents. The bill died in her committee, as she voted with Republicans to table the bill.
A second bill over trapping generated far more emotional discussion. SB 32 bans the use of traps, snares and poison on public lands but not on private or tribal lands. It makes exceptions for ecosystem management; cage traps to protect property, crops or livestock; and Native American use for ceremonial purposes.
After hours of heated debate, it passed the House by one vote and was signed by the governor.
I’m not going to rehash this much-discussed bill, but I’ve written before that we have invited New Mexicans and visitors to recreate here, and with the state promoting outdoor recreation we owe them a safe experience for their children and pets. Trappers argue that most operate carefully within regulations, but clearly not all do. Otherwise people with terrible experiences wouldn’t crowd Zoom hearings.
Something everyone can agree on is the benefit of getting more people into the great outdoors. In a year with a lot of one-time money, one good use of it is hiking trails.
The Outdoor Recreation Division budget includes $100,000 for the Outdoor Equity Fund, plus additional money in the junior budget bill, SB 377.
Created in 2019, the fund provides grants to help low-income kids experience the outdoors. Late last year, the division made its first round of grants for 25 programs all over the state, chosen from 84 applicants.
A second initiative is the Great New Mexico Trails Package to match federal funding with the Land and Water Conservation Fund to create more than 150 miles of new trails in 23 counties. The division received one-time funding of $500,000. That’s not the $3.2 million it asked for, but it’s a start.
The beauty of the outdoor recreation industry is that it’s open to all, it’s rural, and the state is providing new tools for entry.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 4/19/21
Beef up New Mexico’s food supply chain with local processing
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
For the past year, I’ve been buying excellent beef directly from a New Mexico rancher, who’s become a regular vendor among vegetable sellers at a local growers market. From her I’ve learned about the trials ranchers face in selling their products.
Her immediate concern is the state’s shortage of meat processors. She has to take her animals to Colorado.
The pandemic has shown us the weaknesses in the supply chain and reoriented consumer demand. Consumers nationwide depend on four big meat packing companies, and when plants closed over COVID-19 outbreaks, grocery store shelves emptied. That spurred consumer interest in buying local meat; there’s also growing enthusiasm for organic, grass-fed beef.
Ranchers are captives of an unfair market that rewards retailers and packing plants but not the people raising the livestock. They’re more than willing to sell directly, but there’s a bottleneck at the state’s few processors.
How did we get here?
In 2007, the U. S. Department of Agriculture admitted that for 30 years it wasn’t performing daily inspections as the law required. Hundreds of small meat processors located a long distance from the inspector’s base got a visit twice a week or every two weeks, according to a Reuters story.
That year, the USDA launched a new inspection system focused on facilities’ safety records and risk. The agency reasoned that this would send inspectors where they were most needed. But industry and consumer groups sharply criticized the agency because it lacked meaningful scientific data and had no objective way to weigh risk, according to the Center for Infectious Disease and Research Policy. The Consumer Federation of America said the Bush administration was simply trying to cut meat inspection costs.
With that backdrop, the USDA in July 2007 pulled the plug on New Mexico’s meat inspections, which had been performed by the state Livestock Board, after federal inspectors reported compliance issues. Then-Gov. Bill Richardson reshuffled the leadership of the Livestock Board, which tried for 18 months to placate the federal agency. The USDA gave Richardson several choices that included letting the USDA take over the program. He reluctantly agreed because he didn’t have a choice, a member of the Livestock Board told the Albuquerque Journal.
Until then, the Livestock Board had inspected about 30 meat processors. (They could sell only in New Mexico; USDA-inspected processors could sell out of state.) Many of the small processors didn’t survive the transition. Critics believed that was the point of the crackdown; the agency no longer had to spread inspectors among small, distant processors.
The industry nationwide was consolidating, with the blessing of the USDA. What’s left was fewer, larger, plants.
Today, New Mexico ranchers can expect a six-month wait before they get a slot at the remaining processors. This is a problem nationally.
States are taking steps to stabilize small processors. Pennsylvania offers grants to small meat processors to help them meet federal standards. Montana and North Carolina provide grants to help small and medium-sized processors expand, according to the website FoodPrint, devoted to sustainable food production. A federal bill stalled after opposition by what’s known as the Big Meat lobby.
New Mexico plans to restore state meat inspections. Legislation this year will provide $150,000 to the state Agriculture Department to help small processors open or expand and connect consumers and ranchers. However, the state Agriculture Department has estimated that a state meat inspection program would cost $1.6 million a year, and it’s not yet clear who would bear the cost. To date, 27 states manage their own meat inspection programs.
Making it possible for New Mexico companies to process New Mexico meat falls under the heading of value-added economic development. And it just makes sense.
I’ve long thought that the state’s consumers would like to be eating New Mexico burgers and steaks. Local inspections bridge that gap.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 4/12/21
Veto kills real police reform for another year
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Out of all the police reform legislation that rumbled through the Roundhouse recently, only one bill would have made a significant difference and the governor vetoed it.
The problem is, after a police shooting or excessive-use-of-force incident, the state’s investigation takes so long that a bad officer can resign from one department and get hired by another. The backlog of cases goes back two to three years.
SB 375 would have shaken up the Law Enforcement Academy Board and changed its duties. Created in 1969, the board sets requirements for hiring and certification, investigates officer misconduct, prescribes discipline, and oversees training. The bill would have given the board responsibility for new and better training and shifted the badly backlogged disciplinary and certification process to a new, independent board.
It called for new training in crisis management and intervention, mental health issues, methods of de-escalation, peer-to-peer intervention, stress management, racial sensitivity, reality-based situational training, and use-of-force training. It banned choke holds.
And it mandated creation of a database of excessive use-of-force incidents that could be shared among agencies.
SB 375, a bipartisan bill by Sens. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, and Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, was the only police reform bill supported by law enforcement. While other bills were punitive, this one gave them the tools they need.
The New Mexico Municipal League said the board’s backlog “makes it near-impossible to remove the type of law enforcement officer who subjects the public to risk.” SB 375 addressed the backlog and offered “solutions to what ails the law enforcement community,” such as hiring the best applicants, providing better training, and holding bad cops accountable.
Local governments have asked for these changes for years, and law enforcement agencies have asked repeatedly for better training, said A. J. Forte, executive director of the Municipal League, during one hearing. “We want to make sure officers don’t quit one department and move to the one in the town next door.”
Attorney General Hector Balderas has called the board a train wreck, and he serves as its chair.
The bill passed both chambers unanimously.
The hitch was over who would serve on the academy board.
Initially, it would have included the attorney general, the director of the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy, directors of satellite law enforcement academies, and seven governor appointees: a lawyer from a district attorney’s office, a lawyer from the Public Defender Department, one police chief, two adult education specialists, and two citizen members with no connection to law enforcement.
A House floor amendment did away with the seven governor’s appointees. The Senate concurred.
In her veto message – against the backdrop of the Minneapolis cop trial – the governor objected to eliminating the seven board members, particularly the two citizen members.
“Eliminating these members would insulate the board from any civilian oversight, a necessary accountability measure,” she wrote. “While I support many of the other proposed amendments, I cannot support SB 375 due to this provision. The board must continue to have civilian oversight.”
Either the executive wasn’t communicating with lawmakers or they weren’t listening. Either way, this bill died for a pretty flimsy reason. Civilian board members could have been added next year. Now, the entire reform will have to wait a year, and it will take some time to get it up and running.
What we got instead was the Civil Rights Act, which makes local governments liable for civil rights violations committed by police and other public employees. It eliminates qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that protects government employees from personal liability. This might give people some reassurance and make a lot of lawyers happy, but it’s a long, slow road. It won’t deliver the immediate impact of SB 375.
We’re still waiting for real police reform.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 4/5/21
Bad behavior sullies predatory lending debate and kills bill
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Predatory lending was back on the agenda during the regular legislative session. Despite the usual horror stories presented in testimony, efforts to scale annual interest rates back from 175 percent fell short.
Officially the story is that the Senate and House couldn’t agree, but there’s more to it.
Through the years various legislators have gone to the mat against storefront lenders. This year, Sens. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, and Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, and Reps. Susan Herrera, D-Española, and Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, carried SB 66. It would have cut the interest rate from 175 percent to 36 percent, a level the federal government set years ago for loans to military members.
Think New Mexico, a nonpartisan think tank, published a study last fall saying, among other things, that New Mexicans paid more than $220 million just in interest and fees to storefront lenders in 2019.
SB 66 bill had the governor’s backing and support from the Navajo Nation, the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, and AARP.
A new player this year was credit unions. They not only testified for the bill – some are making these small, unsecured loans that banks.
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, we heard familiar stories. An elderly veteran living in his vehicle borrowed money for a medical emergency. Within a month the loan went from $382 to $4,000. A man borrowed money to buy his kid a computer and wound up losing his truck.
Karen Meyers, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Initiative for the city of Albuquerque, said the lenders make loans to people who can’t afford them. Borrowers take out second and third loans to pay off the first, a process called stacking, and wind up crushed by debt. The lenders’ business model relies on repeated refinancing.
“It’s the new debt trap with a similar name,” she said.
Meyers, serving as an expert for bill sponsors, weathered repeated interruptions, rude comments, and aggressive lawyering from Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque. It foreshadowed the headlines of bullying he would earn a few weeks later for doing the same thing to Senate President Mimi Stewart.
Lobbyists and some lenders said bad actors should be reined in, but 36 percent isn’t workable. Lenders would close, and borrowers would turn to online and unregulated lenders. A few said credit unions wouldn’t take up the slack.
Several credit union officers said they’re already making small-dollar, unsecured loans.
Paul Stull, of the Credit Union Association of New Mexico, said, “We see problems with payday lending each and every day. We are concerned about the debt trap our members can fall into. Credit unions and other agencies are ready to make these loans,” he said.
This is major, and it’s the first time credit unions have stepped forward.
The bill passed the Senate, but late in the session, the House Judiciary Committee increased the rate to 99 percent on loans under $1,100 after Herrera and four other female House Democrats offered a compromise. They were concerned that the rapid decrease would make small loans harder to get. One of the four was Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, who had carried earlier payday lending bills.
“For an industry like that it was too big a change and too quick,” Lundstrom told me. “We don’t have a handle on internet lending. My attitude was it was moving too fast.”
Lundstrom added that she didn’t care for the way Soules had treated Herrera. “I’ve made the comment before that the House is not the Senate’s little sister. Some of the men didn’t treat the women very well, and I don’t like it.”
Soules recommended that the Senate not concur; Herrera did the same in the House.
That’s how it died.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 3/29/21
Business to lawmakers: We’re in a world of hurt
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
In the regular legislative session, we saw a lot of magical thinking.
Among Democrats, it was, “Yes, we know business is strapped, but let’s add some taxes and employee benefits.” Among Republicans, it was, “Let’s welcome the public back to the Roundhouse during a deadly pandemic.”
It was one of those sessions that kept business lobbyists hopping.
On the plus side was significant COVID relief. The governor signed bills to deliver $200 million in grants to businesses, with the hardest hit businesses getting priority, and offer long-term, low-interest loans up to $150,000.
Business groups pushed for both bills. The no votes came from Republicans who argued the relief would be unnecessary if the governor would just reopen the state. Magical thinking.
On the minus side, business fended off a slew of harmful bills. They ranged from attempts to stop oil and gas in its tracks to the well intentioned but ill-timed wish to help employees.
A bill to undo the hard-won minimum wage compromise of 2019 and raise the wage died in committee.
Then there was the tax increase adventure. One bill would have increased the corporate income tax rate, created a new tax bracket for corporations with taxable income over $1 million, and reduced the gross receipts tax rate. New Mexico has changed the corporate tax rate 10 times in the last 13 years, according to legislative analysis. Both business and the state Economic Development Department said it sends a terrible message at a time when we need new companies to relocate.
That bill stalled, but the corporate income tax piece was loaded into another bill to expand the Working Families Tax Credit and the Low Income Comprehensive Tax Rebate. It would also have raised income taxes on individuals earning more than $75,000 and reduced the capital gain exclusion.
If the idea was to soak the rich, it would also have soaked the middle class, along with doctors and medical professionals, who are in short supply. The Senate Finance Committee pruned the tax increases and the bill passed.
I’ve complained for years that governors and lawmakers keep trying to pass off tinkering and meddling as reform, and that’s what this was.
Senate Finance Chairman George Muñoz, D-Gallup, agreed that corporate tax increases and frequent changes send a poor message. He sees a need to restructure taxes and promises work in the interim. Maybe there’s hope.
The paid sick leave bill provoked hours of furious debate that lasted until the last minutes of the session. Sponsors argued that nobody should have to go to work sick; businesses argued that they can’t afford it. The bill requires businesses to offer paid sick leave starting in July 2022, when Dems optimistically assume economic recovery even though experts predict recovery will take longer. Magical thinking.
It’s now before the governor.
Last week, Rob Black, president and CEO of the New Mexico Chamber, was hard pressed to sound optimistic during a Zoom address to the Economic Forum. More than one-third of small businesses have closed.
“We are not working in a particularly business friendly environment,” especially compared to the states around us, he said.
The first challenge is increasing the state’s working-age population. That group is shrinking, while the over-50 set is increasing. “That’s not a pattern for success,” he said.
Black urged the business community to think differently, focus on equality, build non-traditional alliances, and “learn to negotiate in a blue-state environment.”
An example of nontraditional alliances is that business and unions both testified for Muñoz’s economic development bill to encourage big projects to come to the state. It’s gotten no attention but is on the governor’s call for the special session.
We don’t have time to dither, Black said. “We were, and are, in a world of hurt right now.”
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 3/22/21
Lawmakers pride themselves on tackling reforms; that should include the Legislature itself
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Last week, floor sessions in the House and Senate ended in the wee hours. The next day, groggy, grumpy, sleep-deprived legislators trapped in this endurance test were more or less functional.
As legislative sessions rumble to a close, I’ve often thought, this is no way to run a railroad. New Mexico simply has too many complex issues to cram into alternating 60-day and 30-day sessions. Who in 1912 could have imagined broadband, the education funding formula, or police reform?
So it’s good to see our hardworking lawmakers thinking about modernizing the process. And “modernizing” is a good word. Roundhouse sausage-making hasn’t changed much in decades.
House Joint Resolution 13 proposed to extend the session to 45 days from 30 days during even-numbered years and keep the 60-day length for odd-numbered years. The shorter session would no longer be limited to budget-related bills and governors’ requests, and it would start later in the year to accommodate the budget process.
It passed the House and died on the Senate floor calendar for lack of time. That alone is an argument for the measure.
Cynics may not like the idea of giving legislators more time, but every year hundreds of bills die because the clock runs out. Many are good bills, carefully vetted in committee with bipartisan agreement. Many would make a material difference to education or business. Because of restrictions on short sessions, meaningful reforms can only occur during long sessions, so any pressing need is put off for two years.
The lead sponsor, House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, argued in Judiciary Committee that the 30-day sessions are bad for the minority party because their bills just don’t get heard. Also, House budgeters don’t receive new revenue numbers until the session is almost over. Democrats chimed in that the short sessions are hard on everyone.
Watching them scramble year after year, I’d have proposed 60 days a year. Many Judiciary Committee members said the same.
For decades, the Legislature met every other year, according to “Politics in New Mexico,” by Jack Holmes. Legislators tried three times in the 1950s and 1960s to get an annual session, and voters finally agreed in 1964.
Pandemic duress helped streamline the session this year. Limiting the number of bills was a stroke of genius. This year lawmakers were trying to hear 800-some bills instead of the usual 1,200. And with no visitors in the chambers, they dispensed with the fluff – introduction of guests, inane memorials, small honors. Legislators and the press gallery can all agree that they don’t need to hear that a legislative intern’s favorite thing is “hanging out with friends.”
Said Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Santa Fe, “We spend way too much time on that stuff. Way too much time.” But even with the bill limit and the near absence of ceremonial blather, legislators were still slammed in the final week, he said. “We need to look at the process.”
A second bill, HB 301, would have done that. If it hadn’t died in committee, it would have created a Legislative Process Review Commission to study everything from rules to transparency to staff support.
Committee members had more ideas about improving the process.
“A single senator can kill my bill because he doesn’t like it,” groused McQueen. This refers to committee chairs refusing to hear bills. It’s an old complaint.
House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, said that Senate members, elected every four years instead of two for representatives, have time to build the relationships they need to advance their bills. He added that staff located in the districts would help with constituent support.
Proposals to pay legislators surfaced again, another old issue.
In the interim between sessions, when legislators examine issues, they should put the Legislature itself on the agenda.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 3/15/21
Small towns need more flexibility to create jobs
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Small towns want some of the same carrots bigger communities use to attract new employers. And they want to recruit retailers if that’s the local need.
Such a bill sparked a bigger discussion among legislators last week: What constitutes economic development in small towns? What financial incentives can they offer?
Clovis, once a retail center, has seen its retail sector shrink and millions of dollars bleed across the state line into Texas.
“Retail is an economic driver,” Mayor Mike Morris told a House committee. “For rural communities it’s a major factor in the quality of life. As a mayor, I’m asking for help. We need some tools.”
Right now, only cities of at least 35,000 can use LEDA (Local Economic Development Act) funding to help new businesses. SB 49 would allow communities of 15,000 and up to use LEDA. The bill would also allow communities to help businesses of their choosing, including retail, even if they might compete with existing businesses.
“The statute ties our hands,” Morris said. “We’re asking for local decision making in how LEDA is used.”
The economic development bible teaches that incentives should only be used to create economic-base jobs – high-paying jobs in an industry that sells out of state. As those dollars turn over in the local economy, they create support jobs. Economic developers typically look down on retail, but in small towns retail can, in fact, be economic development.
Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, quoted the gospel about economic-base jobs and observed that the LEDA program was deliberately limited to make the most effective use of its funds.
“I agree with economic-base jobs except I’ve seen it not work,” Morris said.
Republican Sen. Ron Griggs could relate. When he was mayor of Alamogordo, the town had two grocery stores, and people wanted more. A major chain considered opening a store, but there were no economic development incentives. After the town scratched up with some help, it got a third grocery store.
“It’s important to small communities to have that option,” Griggs said. “Local governments know what they need.”
Republican Rep. Rod Montoya’s own community of Farmington is struggling with lost retail and lost population, but he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of government bringing in retail that might hurt local business.
Mayor Morris, a businessman himself, said he asked the owner of a local men’s store how he’d feel about Clovis recruiting a new retailer. The man told Morris he should recruit several new retailers. The local store struggles with the public perception that there’s no place left to buy clothing in Clovis.
Montoya still wasn’t convinced. “I think we’re changing the purpose of the fund,” he said. “I hate to see the fund eroded and lose the chance to bring in a big company.”
Montoya spoke admiringly of the Texas closing fund, which gives our big neighbor a lot of options that we don’t have. Heads nodded. We can’t have a fund like that to close deals because of the anti-donation clause in the state Constitution that forbids government contributions to the private sector.
Montoya wondered if we still needed the anti-donation clause.
That’s a good question. If I had a quarter for every word I’d written on the subject, I could take a nice vacation. The anti-donation clause was born in an era when railroad barons took advantage of governments. It’s probably outlived its usefulness.
Montoya said rural communities need their own closing fund.
Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, said he agreed, but “we’re not there yet, so we need to give you as many tools as we possibly can.”
LEDA has been a good program, but SB 49 demonstrates that its use is limited for small towns. Legislators should give more thought to rural incentives.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 3/8/21
Current governor’s controversial spending pales compared to her predecessor
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
As investigative reporting goes, the governor’s contingency fund is low hanging fruit. She could count on somebody of my ilk looking into it. So it’s surprising that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was so sloppy in her use of the fund, handing Republicans ammunition in their war against her.
Japanese steaks and booze sparked a letter by 14 Republican senators demanding that the State Auditor examine the account. And the Republican Governors Association takes up the subject in a social media campaign, along with Lujan Grisham’s purchase of jewelry last spring when the state’s “nonessential” retail was closed by health orders.
If we’re looking at executive spending and behavior, let’s look at the previous administration for comparison.
Gov. Susana Martinez made a big deal out of getting rid of her predecessor’s two chefs and his jet plane as a waste of taxpayer money. But then there was the infamous pizza party, in which noise and governor’s staff members tossing bottles off a hotel balcony came to the attention of the Santa Fe police, and Martinez made a fool of herself in a slurred call to the dispatcher.
Said pizza party, in fact, produced legislation in 2018 to improve scrutiny of the governor’s contingency fund.
There’s more. In the waning months of the Martinez administration, lawsuits revealed that Martinez was having a “personal relationship” with a state police officer, that the chief of the state police knew about it, and that he was using it as leverage to deal with his own problems – namely a series of sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuits that the state quietly paid off.
It cost taxpayers $1.7 million that we know of to settle lawsuits against the Department of Public Safety and its then chief. He and Martinez denied everything. The payments were supposed to be confidential for five years, but the Lujan Grisham administration refused to honor the confidentiality agreements.
Republicans senators’ letter to the State Auditor is the second strike against Sen. Greg Baca, a Belen Republican who ousted the wiser and long-serving Sen. Stuart Ingle as minority floor leader. The first strike was when Baca, a lawyer elected in 2017, set himself apart from the crowd with the dumbest line of questioning in memory.
During a Senate Rules Committee hearing for Sonya Smith as Veterans Services Secretary, Baca asked, “Do you expect that in your time here, in seven years, that you’ve been immersed in this culture enough in this state that you feel comfortable entering a position?” He added that 2.6% of the state’s population is African American and 48% is Hispanic or a Hispanic mix. “Do you feel like you are comfortable adequately representing both cultures — white, Native, Hispanics?”
Smith kept her cool. “Are you asking do I feel comfortable representing the Department of Veterans Services as a Black woman? Is that what you are asking? I don’t think when Gov. Lujan Grisham tapped me for this position, she was concerned about my color. I think she was looking at my skill set and ability to lead.”
Baca’s questions set off weeks of fireworks. The governor wrote to legislative leaders about her “extreme displeasure” with questioning Smith’s “qualifications on the basis of her race.” House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton called the episode “borderline racism and completely disrespectful.” Senate leadership said the questioning “was totally inappropriate, hurtful, and out of line.” Black leaders and organizations made their displeasure known.
Baca initially dissembled and then apologized. This is not a mistake Ingle would have made. Tellingly, Ingle didn’t sign the letter to the State Auditor either.
The State Auditor will study the contingency fund, as he studied the court settlements. Lujan Grisham’s groceries will look like chump change in comparison. But in the future, governor, buy New Mexico beef.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 3/1/21
Can wild horses drag out a compromise to an old problem?
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Two state senators have taken on one of the most controversial issues in the last decade. Taxes? Liquor laws? Marijuana?
No, wild horses.
Maybe you’ve heard about wild horse problems in Placitas, outside Albuquerque, and on the Navajo Nation. Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, held up a map to show legislative committee members that herds of wild horses are scattered across the state. They’re often in competition with livestock for ever thinning range and water. Nobody knows who owns them or what state agency has jurisdiction.
“I want someone to take responsibility,” Woods said.
Woods, an East Side farmer, has tried different approaches for the last few years. This year, he may have the right combination. He has a new ally in his co-sponsor, freshman Sen. Brenda McKenna, D-Corrales and a member of Nambe Pueblo. Her district includes Placitas, where the wild horse conundrum has turned neighbor against neighbor. Before even being sworn in, she said, it was the first constituent issue in her email.
Their Senate Bill 385 would add wild horses to the statute for cruelty to animals, spell out disposition of seized animals, and clarify that wild horses are not livestock. That means they have some protection and can’t be sold, slaughtered or euthanized like stray livestock.
It allows wild horses to be captured if they’re a physical threat, need veterinary care, or the land has exceeded its carrying capacity. They can be removed permanently if the horses are too unhealthy to return to their range or if there are better options. The bill asks the New Mexico Livestock Board to conduct a herd study, implement a herd management plan, and develop proposals for removal and disposition.
Disposition is the tricky part. New Mexico has no appropriate state lands for the relocation of wild horse herds, according to a 2019 study by New Mexico State University. The Livestock Board can send a horse to one of the state’s already strained horse rescue facilities but not a herd.
Working on his 2019 bill, Woods learned that the Livestock Board had been sued for removing horses from private land because state law was unclear on “estray” (livestock running loose.) A 2015 court decision held that “undomesticated, unowned horses” were not livestock and not estrays, but the board had no authority to impound the animal.
Worse, the decision required a court to decide whether a horse was wild; the Livestock Board had to determine how domesticated a horse was to decide jurisdiction. That left unwanted horses in limbo and the board to care for them while the court deliberated.
McKenna said the horses were also a safety issue. She knew of two crashes this year, one involving a motorcycle and a horse. The motorcyclist walked away but not the horse.
“A lot of this is a people problem,” she said. Herds grow because people who can no longer care for their animals turn them out. “Everything gets hungry. Everything needs water.”
Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi, reflected on the Navajo Nation’s long standing problems with horses. Near her home, where wild horses compete with cattle and sheep for scarce water, somebody took matters into their own hands by shooting the herd’s stallion.
“We hope to see a solution the tribes can emulate,” she said.
The state Bureau of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Protection Voters of New Mexico support the bill, but the New Mexico Cattlegrowers and the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau are opposed.
To Woods, even if the bill passes, it’s a partial solution.
“We can round ‘em up and put ‘em in a pen,” he said. “Do we feed ‘em forever? We really need to put our thinking hat on. We need to sit in the same room and hammer this out.”
In this drought year, doing nothing means they starve.
© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 2/22/21
Lawmakers shoot down bill to upend state-industry collaboration
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Two years ago, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said: “The produced water bill, I think, is going to go down as one of the greatest environmental accomplishments to come out of the state Legislature of New Mexico.”
Produced water is the stuff that comes up during drilling – up to 8 barrels of wastewater for every barrel of oil. What’s to be done with it?
A 2019 bill, by Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, supported industry to reuse wastewater from oil and gas production to reduce its need for fresh water. And it allowed the state Oil Conservation Division to levy fines and penalties for violations.
Small collaborated with state regulators, as well as the Environmental Defense Fund, and industry participants to write the bill. The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association and other business groups supported it; environmental groups, not so much.
In the current session two Democrats tried to re-do the landmark legisltion.
Recently, Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, sneered at the 2019 law, saying, “The industry-drafted produced water bill that flew through the legislature two years ago is a disaster.”
She and Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerillos, introduced SB 86. It would have banned the use of fresh water for drilling at depths lower than freshwater zones and required operators to use produced, recycled or treated water instead. It imposed fines for spills and assigned new duties to the Oil Conservation Division, such as worker safety and wildlife and domestic animal protection, which it hadn’t performed previously.
The division said it would need 22 new positions, including attorneys, environmental specialists, compliance officers, and support staff, at a cost of $2.3 million a year. The state Environment Department estimated its new costs at $555,000 a year.
Before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, Norm Gaume, retired water and wastewater engineer and graduate of Hobbs High School, said the self-policing set in place by the 2019 law isn’t working.
Industry and business groups disagreed.
Rikkee Lee Chavez, of Marathon Oil, said experts collaborated two years ago to write the Produced Water Act, but SB 86 would undo that collaborative work. “Give the Produced Water Act a chance,” she said.
The New Mexico Chamber of Commerce, formerly the Association of Commerce and Industry, argued that the 2019 law made New Mexico a leader in the reuse and recycling of produced water, encouraged investment in produced water recycling and reuse, and created more regulatory oversight for produced water use.
“Senate Bill 86 eliminates most, if not all, of these benefits, and sends the wrong message to business investors,” the group wrote.
Asked in committee why she introduced this bill, Sedillo Lopez said she had her own produced water bill in 2019, wasn’t invited to participate in Small’s bill, and voted against it.
“We don’t know enough about fracking or fracking waste,” she said. She questioned why it’s a violation to not report a spill but not a violation to spill.
Sen. Daniel Ivey Soto, D-Albuquerque, noted that the bill assigned the state Oil Conservation Division an additional mission and new duties and gave it three months to come up to speed.
“I have a problem asking an agency to do things that are outside their wheelhouse,” he said. He added that if operators couldn’t use fresh water to test for leaks, “we’re asking operators to introduce pollutants. This is not proper policy for the state.”
The last word belonged to Senate President Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque: “I’m bothered that we don’t allow the laws we passed to take effect. We have a process in place, and this bill wants to change everything. It’s a danger to the industry” and not supported by a single state agency.
The committee tabled it unanimously.
Southeastern and northwestern New Mexico, stung by anti-industry bills this session, should be feeling some love.
© 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.