Sherry Robinson 2019
© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 5/27/19
Medical bills shouldn’t be a surprise
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Congress has been hearing about surprise medical bills, and members of both parties appear ready and willing to act. What a surprise!
Surprise medical bills happen when you receive medical treatment, often in an emergency room from a doctor who’s not in your insurance network, or you’re taken to a hospital that’s not in your plan. Too often these bills leave people reeling a second time from an outlandish bill for a small amount of care.
At least three bipartisan measures are before Congress, and the state has also addressed the problem.
In Congress, members have taken different approaches, but the common thread is protecting the patient. One measure includes elective procedures, providers other than doctors, and lab and x-ray services. A second measure would require healthcare facilities to provide 24-hour notice to patients seeking elective treatment if they are about to see an out-of-network provider. A third would limit patients’ financial responsibilities to their own plan’s rates.
That’s the easy part.
The hard part is sorting out who gets paid what, which sets up a battle among insurers, doctors, hospitals, and their lobbyists. Two of the bills rely on the local market to determine payments, and one would use arbitration.
Surprise medical bills are just one more symptom of a sick healthcare system. Sky-high, unjustifiable pricing in care and pharmaceuticals should make any good capitalist blush. They inflict these prices on patients not out of any underlying calculation of expenses but simply because they can. And the unpredictability and lack of transparency add insult to injury.
States are also beginning to take action. Here in New Mexico, the Legislature passed and the governor signed the Surprise Billing Protection Act, a priority of Health Action New Mexico.
“Our office heard horror stories about patients getting hit with five-figure bills, even though they did everything they could to follow the rules,” said the nonprofit.
A 2016 survey found that 20 percent of privately insured New Mexicans, 36 percent of surgery patients, and 55 percent of people who visited the emergency room received surprise bills. The Managed Care Division of the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance estimates that it handles some 200 complaints a year about surprise bills.
SB 337, by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, takes patients out of the dispute by outlawing surprise billing and creating rules for insurance companies and providers to settle up. It passed both chambers unanimously.
A similar bill was HB 81, by Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, which prohibits an insurer from hitting a patient with a co-payment on physical therapy that’s higher than the rate for primary care.
It too was passed and signed into law. It limits charges from insurance carriers for coinsurance or copayments on physical therapy. The Superintendent of Insurance Office said the bill could help control healthcare costs “because timely access to routine physical therapy services can prevent the need for more expensive care, such as surgery or pain management, including opiates and resulting addictions.”
Legislators also waded into drug pricing. State spending on prescription medication totaled $737.8 million in 2017, up 8 percent from 2016, according to the Legislative Finance Committee. State agencies have been buying medicines separately, which reduces their purchasing power and raises costs.
Thanks to SB 131, by Sen. Jeff Steinborn and Rep. Joanne Ferrary, Las Cruces Democrats, a new state pharmaceutical purchasing council will negotiate and buy medicines in bulk. Initially, this will save taxpayers money, and it could be a step toward reducing costs in the private sector. The bill passed with broad support in previous years but was vetoed by former Gov. Susana Martinez without explanation.
Stopping surprise bills is a good step. Lawmakers here and in Washington should keep up the fight for transparency and reason in healthcare.
© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 5/20/19
Churches, volunteers prove that compassion survives in the face of intolerance
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Celia Yapita, volunteer coordinator for Catholic Charities of Central New Mexico, explained to a packed room of new volunteers last week that Albuquerque is currently getting up to three busloads of asylum seekers a week, and each bus of 50 people will have about 19 to 23 families, largely single parents with children.
“We don’t know who we’ll get,” she said. Or when.
While the number of border crossers from Mexico is shrinking, hundreds of people from Central America arrive daily and immediately turn themselves in. They’ve overwhelmed the Customs and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). They’ve maxed out El Paso’s Annunciation House, which has helped border people for decades. In February the Diocese of El Paso and Annunciation House reached out to churches in Albuquerque.
Instantly, a remarkable, all-volunteer network formed to receive the buses and help these weary travelers. This is in addition to the regular charitable and helping programs.
We’re now seeing multiple dynamics at work in the waves of asylum seekers and the response. The would-be immigrants are responding in the only way they can to violence, corruption, and poverty, by leaving. Our government has responded with dysfunction and cruelty. And so the religious community has opened its arms, proving that in the current atmosphere of meanness and intolerance, compassion survives.
The busloads of people arriving in Albuquerque have already been through a quick interview to determine credible fear as the basis for asylum, along with a background check. Next they’re handed over to ICE for more paperwork. Those who are lucky enough to have relatives or sponsors here have temporary asylum status; they’re funneled into the Annunciation House pipeline (it’s been compared to the Underground Railroad of the slavery era) to get them to their relatives or sponsors where they can wait for their hearings.
“All the work we do is to help them get to their families or sponsors,” Yapita said. “If there is no sponsor or family, they can’t come in. They’ll probably be held in detention. None are staying here. They’re court ordered to get to their destination quickly.”
The network formed literally overnight, when Annunciation House informed Catholic Charities that a bus would arrive the next day. Their quick response evolved into the “Companions on the Journey” project, and four other organizations joined.
“This is really the community stepping up,” Yapita said.
The people arrive sunburned, hungry, dehydrated, and sometimes sick. They may not have eaten a meal in days, and the bus drivers of prison-style buses don’t give them water because they don’t want to make bathroom stops.
Each group has teams that receive the buses, provide food and a place to stay with showers (all important), see to medical needs, record basic information, give them a change of clothes, and ferry them to the bus station or airport.
Teams receive and sort donations, procure toiletries and other necessities, and pack food for the journey. Volunteers sort donated clothing into tidy stacks by size to be distributed to participating groups.
It’s all a marvel of coordination, communication, and efficiency.
So far, the response is entirely private. The city of Albuquerque has now voted to spend $250,000 – reasoning that because ICE just dumps these people on the street it would be a city problem – and Bernalillo County has promised funding.
The wave of volunteers is another dynamic. People from Las Vegas and Santa Fe asked Yapita, “What can we do?” She recommended assembling “dignity bags” of toiletries and delivering them to Albuquerque.
This may be the most important byproduct of Companions on the Journey. Ordinary Americans, appalled by what’s going on at the border, are determined to meet the humanitarian crisis with humanity.
© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 5/13/19
Dysfunctional PERA pension board: ‘It’s a clown show over there.’
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Wayne Propst, executive director of the Public Employees Retirement Association, must limp because his feet are held to the fire so often. He reports to a board of 12 trustees, 40,000 member retirees, 50,000 employee members, legislators, and the governor.
Last week, disagreements over Propst broke out again.
State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg, a PERA board member, accused Propst in an op-ed of giving himself and other employees hefty raises without full board approval.
State Auditor Brian Colón has investigated and found that Propst acted “reasonably and within his authority, but he smacked the board, saying members’ behavior was unacceptable and a threat to future generations of retirees. The board, he said, failed to act on the budget by deadline, which was “reckless or negligent, or both, and coupled with the board’s lack of focus on its fiduciary responsibilities puts our retirees and future generations of retirees at risk.”
Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, chaired the pension reform effort in 2013 and has served as vice chair of the interim legislative Investments and Pensions Oversight Committee for about 10 years.
“The board is completely dysfunctional,” he said during committee debate in this year’s legislative session. “It’s a clown show over there. They’re yelling at each other down the halls. We have to fix it.”
He said the committee was “getting pushed and pulled in all directions.”
“Wayne tells me the truth,” Muñoz said. “He’s always been straight with me. The board just wants to attack their employee. When you attack the person leading the ship, the ship will hit an iceberg… When we have a dysfunctional board that can’t make a decision, maybe we need to send them a message. Get rid of ‘em. They’re not looking out for retirees when they’re fighting.”
Propst isn’t the big issue for PERA – it’s solvency. The pension fund is again falling behind its liabilities to state and local government workers while board members bicker over Propst and fight amongst themselves.
Last year, the PERA board reprimanded and censured trustee Loretta Naranjo-Lopez for trying to be reimbursed for her husband’s mileage expenses, filing a police complaint against the board chairman over board seating arrangements, harassing PERA staff, and accusing other members of conflicts of interest without providing evidence. This was the second board censure for Naranjo-Lopez.
During last week’s meeting, PERA staff and board members sparred over proposed raises for 11 top staffers. Naranjo-Lopez complained about greed.
And yet, two online investment publications, Institutional Investor and Chief Investment Officer, pointed out that PERA investment employees earn a lot less than their peers. Propst, for example, makes $166,290; his peers, five years ago, earned between $174,740 and $260,795. If Propst receives the 4 percent increase slated for other state employees, he would still be behind.
PERA’s chief investment officer, Dominic Garcia, earns $239,700, which is “vastly less than typical CIOs at foreign public pension funds, nonprofits, and private-sector firms,” said Institutional Investor. “The 35 highest-paid endowment CIOs all made more than $1 million per year.”
Think about it. This is the guy managing a $15.4 billion fund. Institutional Investor lionized Garcia as a young up-and-comer, “the CIO bringing alpha back to New Mexico.” For ten years Garcia was the protégé of David Villa, CIO of the top tier State of Wisconsin Investment Board. Propst brought Garcia back to New Mexico.
“Despite turnover problems blamed on relatively low compensation, the board stopped the 4 percent pay increases, even though the raises had been approved by the governor and the legislature,” reported Chief Investment Officer. “The New Mexico pension plan’s churning of financial pros is indeed remarkable.” Garcia is the fourth CIO in eight years.
The governor has appointed a task force to study the pension plan and propose remedies. The board and salaries should be on the agenda.
© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 5/6/19
Come to New Mexico, enjoy our scenery, hike our trails, step over our traps
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Debate on a bill to create a state Outdoor Recreation Division set off a friendly competition among lawmakers.
“What fish is the most sought after in New Mexico?” asked Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup during floor debate. “It’s the tiger muskie. We have some of the largest tiger muskie in Bluewater Lake.”
Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, asked, “What famous attraction do we have at Arch?” Arch Lake, he said, has a refuge for sandhill cranes. “And there’s great hunting on the caprock and duck hunting at Ute Lake.”
Sen. Ron Griggs asked, “What’s the largest lake in Otero County? It’s Lake Lucero – when it has water in it. Lake Lucero is responsible for White Sands.”
Every county in the state has outdoor features to brag about. That was one reason for the friendly reception of the Outdoor Recreation Division bill, which the governor recently signed into law. The division’s mission is to promote outdoor opportunities, but its larger mission is to create jobs by increasing recreational tourism. That’s why the division is part of the Economic Development Department.
We need to keep this in mind as we troll for tourists, especially outdoor tourists, because we have some unresolved disagreements among New Mexicans.
Part of the same debate was a question from Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell: “Are coyote shooting contests outdoor recreation?” His answer was yes. The Legislature’s answer was no. They’re now outlawed.
To city dwellers and animal humane advocates, this was an easy decision, but it was a bitter loss in rural areas, taken as an infringement of personal rights, local culture, and predator control. The coyote contest law allows every kind of control in use previously – just not a contest with prizes.
It was a bipartisan bill. For Sen. Mark Moores, an Albuquerque Republican, his sponsorship began when “yahoos” drove a trailer load of dead coyotes around his city after a killing contest.
A bigger conflict is the one posed by trapping, and this has been around since at least 2004, maybe longer. Every dog lover in the state mourned with Dave Clark, whose dog, Roxy, was strangled by an illegal snare as he desperately tried to free her. Roxy’s Law would have outlawed traps, snares and poisons on public land.
“All individuals are using these public lands, and they need to be safe for those individuals,” said Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos.
During two lengthy, emotional hearings, we heard dozens of people describe how their dogs were injured during hikes on public trails. In one instance, a woman stepped into a trap. Trappers argued that they would lose their livelihood, and ranchers said they rely on trapping for predator control.
Colorado has prohibited trapping, snares and poisons on public or private land since 1997. Arizona banned foothold traps and snares on public land in 1994. Both states have ranchers. Some argued that trapping is an old tradition. So was public flogging. Some traditions deserve to die.
The bill passed two committees and then disappeared so that sponsors and supporters could build more support.
The newly minted Outdoor Recreation Department should add a caveat to all promotions: Enjoy our trails, but if you, your children, or your dogs leave the trail to explore, you or they risk stepping into a leg-hold trap. Or you might encounter the bloody carcasses of trapped wildlife. Welcome to New Mexico!
Tourists come here for a taste of the Wild West, unblemished vistas, and the opportunities for world class hiking, biking, fishing, hunting, golfing and ballooning. We have to decide what face we want to show them, how wild we want our Wild West to be. The success of the new division and creation of new jobs depend on it.
© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 4/22/19
Borrowers might have a fighting chance with predatory lenders
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Legislators did more to clean up the laws governing storefront lenders, also known as payday lenders. Are we there yet? Depends on how you define “there.”
In 2015, I wrote that lawmakers were more concerned about predatory lenders, the bottom feeders of banking, than they were about desperate borrowers. Despite two bills and much debate, when the session ended, storefront lenders could still charge their low-income borrowers up to 1,500 percent interest – yes, you read that right – because adjusting it downward might put the lenders out of business.
Four years later, lenders are down to 175 percent and more regulatory oversight, but consumer advocates say that’s still too high.
Predatory lenders are worth our attention because they keep poor people poor and weaken local economies.
If you take your bank account for granted, consider that some people never have enough money left after expenses to make a deposit, and they don’t have credit cards. The term for them is “the unbanked.” Storefront lenders make small loans at triple-digit interest rates to the unbanked. When they can’t repay, lenders roll over the loan, and the fees and interest spiral. Frantic borrowers find that even though they pay on the loan, they can never pay it off.
“Many of our elders and young people borrow money for basic needs,” said Laurie Weahkee, executive director of the Native American Voters Alliance. “Our grandmas take out $300 loans, pay them off, and still get stuck.”
Storefront lenders, unlike banks and credit unions, make loans to anybody, whether or not they’re credit worthy. In fact, they expect to get burned on a large number of their loans, so they charge high fees and interest rates. They make their money from the people who do attempt to repay their loans.
And there’s a lot of money to be made, judging by the proliferation of these places. There are 622 of them.
In 2015 there was a bill to cap interest rates at 36 percent, a rate adopted by 20 states and the U.S. Department of Defense. A dozen New Mexico municipalities supported it. In a Senate committee hearing I watched industry lobbyists, who included a former House speaker and a former attorney general, argue that 36 percent would be ruinous. The committee killed the bill.
In 2015, a House committee sat on two rate-cap bills while it waited for the industry’s proposal, a weak measure with a few rules about income-tax refund loans and no mention of the big issues of rates and rollovers. The industry bill passed but later died. All that survived was a memorial calling for a task force to determine reasonable interest rates and proper consumer protection.
Judge Alan Malott wrote that legislators “should all be ashamed.”
In 2017, the Legislature capped the interest rate at 175 percent APR, but high fees and loan rollovers continued. Inconsistent language weakened the laws, reporting requirements were thin, and borrower rights on loan renewals remained unclear.
This year, the governor signed House Bill 150, which gives borrowers 24 hours to rescind a high-interest loan; it makes fees, disclosures, and penalties consistent for all borrowers; and it separates new loans from potential loopholes in loan rollovers and renewals. It also increases reporting requirements so state regulators can see that lenders comply with the law and evaluate the law’s impact on New Mexicans.
Another bill to cap interest rates at 36 percent died.
This doesn’t entirely solve the problem. We need better alternatives for the unbanked, but this helps. And it puts the industry on notice that consumer activists and lawmakers are watching.
© 2019 New Mexico News Services 4-15-19
One town grapples with its history and its public memorials
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
New Mexico has had its share of statue controversies. During a recent history conference I heard how a Texas town handled a volatile public debate over a Confederate soldier.
In 1918 the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected the statue, which stands atop an arch in front of the Denton County courthouse in Texas.
Except for the attention of pigeons, “it remained inconspicuous for 90 years,” said historian Lewis Toland, speaking Friday during a conference of the West Texas Historical Association.
The statue was offensive to Willie Hudspeth, an African American resident who complained to county commissioners. They ignored him for years.
After the Charleston church killings in 2015, other residents joined Hudspeth, and someone vandalized the arch by painting in red letters, “This is racist.” The discussion gained more momentum after the deadly Charlottesville white supremacist rally.
Denton’s soldier joined the list of the national Make It Right Projects, which targeted ten such monuments that should be removed. Make It Right leaders told the Denton Record-Chronicle they had no intention of being outside agitators and simply wanted to support Hudspeth, connect him to others with similar goals, and help the public understand the statues’ part in systemic white supremacy.
Descendents of Confederate soldiers defended their right to honor the sacrifice and military service of an ancestor, and historians weighed in that the statue was a remnant of the town’s past.
Peaceful Denton saw several protests – one with law enforcement sharpshooters on top of buildings around the square keeping an eye on unarmed protesters. One counter protester brandished a loaded AR-15 assault rifle as he argued with Hudspeth.
In 2017, the same year city workmen unceremoniously removed Robert E. Lee from a park in Dallas, 40 miles away, the Denton County Commission appointed the Confederate Memorial Advisory Committee to determine the statue’s fate. The committee held 14 meetings plus public input sessions during 2017 and 2018.
The crux of the discussions, Toland said, was whether the statue honored the confederacy or the soldiers. If it honored the confederacy, it honored an ideology that included an economy based on slavery. They decided that this statue of a youth holding a gun honored confederate soldiers, many of whom didn’t subscribe to an ideology but fought because they were drafted.
The meetings were open to the public, and local people came to watch the committee’s polite and civil discussions. Members participated in good faith, each adding their own experience. They would say later that chairman John Baines led the committee with respect and dignity.
One Hispanic member, who supported keeping the statue, said they should condemn slavery but not soldiers. Another Hispanic member said, “No amount of lipstick will hide what the Confederate soldiers fought for.”
A third member noted that most millennials opposed the statue and said he considered it divisive. An African American member said the statue was an opportunity to educate people about their history.
Baines himself wanted to remove the statue but then came up with the idea to modify the statue by adding historical context in the form of kiosks with videos about the history of slavery, information on the Confederacy, and a large plaque denouncing slavery. He also proposed posting the names of all veterans from Denton County.
During the final meeting, members initially voted 10 to 5 to keep the monument, but with more discussion of Baines’ modifications, the vote was 12 to 3 to keep the monument.
County commissioners unanimously approved the plan. So, while confederate symbols come down across the nation, Denton will keep its soldier. For now. This may be a continuing discussion.
Toland concluded: “We don’t run from our history because we think it’s ugly and unpleasant.”
© 2019 New Mexico News Services 4-8-19
Governor, legislators reach out with bills friendly to rural areas
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
We hear a lot about the rural-urban divide, but there’s no bridge quite like money.
In bills the governor signed last week, lawmakers sent some love to the state’s rural communities.
Three big concerns in outlying areas are education, roads and healthcare. Thanks to the oil industry, there is more money for all three. And with the departure of a vindictive former governor and the arrival of a new governor, communities can expect to see that money.
Education reformers took special pains to remedy budget slights of past years. In the overhaul of the state’s funding formula is a new rural population factor that will direct more funding to school districts and charter schools in what the U. S. Census Bureau defines as geographically rural areas.
They did this by returning the small-school size adjustment to its original purpose of helping rural schools. Charter schools across the state had cashed in on the adjustment, leading to friction over its use.
If you consider that in many communities, schools are the biggest employer, the 6 percent raise for teachers and school employees will make a big difference. A principal I know says: “This is an absolute win. Teachers will spend that money on cars and appliances. They’ll fix up their houses.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill to provide money for rural school districts and regional education cooperatives to train teachers in skills they need to teach in bilingual and multicultural classrooms. Educators testified that the RECs were the best avenue of deployment and had long served the rural areas.
One of the bills on the Rocket Docket signed early in the session requires the state Public Education Department to provide regular professional development for career-technical teachers. This had a lot of support from rural legislators. The former governor vetoed the same bill.
This was a good year for roads. The state Department of Transportation has the biggest budget in 15 years, with a base of more than $915 million. The budget includes $250 million in one-time funds for major projects across the state, $89 million for smaller projects divided evenly among DOT’s six highway districts, and $50 million for local projects.
In the healthcare arena, the Medicaid budget will increase by 5.2 percent, or $52.3 million. This will support provider network growth, with emphasis is on rural providers.
A major development this year was the dental therapist program. Similar to a physician’s assistant, the dental therapist will be licensed to perform certain procedures, working under a dentist’s supervision in under-served areas.
“I represent rural New Mexico,” said Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena. “This is highly needed, especially in areas like mine. We don’t have dentists.” She said in her area, Socorro’s three dentists are closest, and one of them is there only once a week.
The new governor’s treatment of rural capital outlay requests was kinder and gentler. “For the past eight years, projects that are necessary for small, rural, and under-resourced communities in New Mexico have gone unfunded,” she wrote.
Rural communities seeking public project funding have two handicaps: They may not have staff experienced in the state’s audit standards, and they may need a small amount of money. Former Gov. Susana Martinez automatically axed requests of $10,000 or less. Lujan Grisham decided to give them a break – this year – while advising the executive and legislative branches to look for better solutions.
Finally, to relieve our farmers and ranchers, who as a group are rather elderly, the governor signed a bill directing the Department of Agriculture to provide agricultural business internships and administer a new agricultural workforce development program. This bill had the support of New Mexico First and the National Young Farmers Coalition.
Big issues may dominate public attention, but rural areas weren’t left behind.
© 2019 New Mexico News Services 4-1-19
Lawmakers turn out decent but not spectacular economic development legislation
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Because the public memory is so short, I’m glad the last plunge of the rocket sled we call our oil and gas industry was just a couple of years ago. It rivets lawmakers’ attention on the economy.
For a long time, I’ve poked holes in what elected officials call economic development and defended programs that got little attention. Let’s look at what they did in this legislative session.
The new administration is hanging its hat on the film industry. Democratic majorities more than doubled the cap on incentives and agreed to pay down a chunk of the backlog. Republicans, who normally love tax breaks, see film incentives as a special handout to one industry.
The truth is somewhere in the middle.
Until now, I’ve defended the state’s generous rebates to film makers because they’ve created a vibrant new industry that excites young people who might otherwise leave the state. But I’m throttling back my enthusiasm because this is an expensive program. We can’t keep spending on it uncritically.
Film makers have mostly blessed the biggest cities, so I’m glad to see a provision in the new law to award higher rebates for work in rural areas.
My sense, from the beginning of the program during Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration, is that film owes its popularity to the fact that most of our decision makers have no idea what economic development is, but everybody grasps the basics of movie making.
Beyond film, lawmakers made a pretty good effort for genuine economic development.
The budget bill fattened the LEDA (Local Economic Development Act) closing fund from $14 million to $60 million. LEDA pays for infrastructure related to company relocations and expansions. And the Job Training Incentive Program (JTIP), which pays a portion of wage and training costs, is at a robust $10 million. These are the state’s bedrock economic development programs. There’s also more money for roads.
The governor has signed at least four jobs bills. Agricultural enterprises are now part of the Statewide Economic Development Finance Act, so they’re eligible for funding.
School boards can expand vocational training and education centers. The goal is to snag students who don’t like traditional schooling and to jump start career training and apprenticeship programs in the Public Education Department.
We will have Centers of Excellence in cyber security at New Mexico Tech, sustainable agriculture at New Mexico State University, renewable energy at San Juan College in Farmington, and biosciences at the UNM Health Sciences Center.
And the Small Business Investment Corp. will get another $50 million for loans to small-business owners.
Awaiting the governor’s signature are bills that would:
What legislators didn’t do in this year of big bucks was to spend a dime on broadband. That’s hard to believe.
Bills that tanked included several to enable public-private partnerships to develop broadband infrastructure and one to offer gross receipts and compensating tax deductions for broadband network facilities components.
Another oversight: Dems congratulated themselves for their tax bill, but they didn’t touch gross receipts tax reform.
The successful measures, taken together, matter, but legislators didn’t hit one out of the park.
© 2019 New Mexico News Services 3-25-19
Foot dragging in the House, business as usual in the Senate, same results
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Now that we know the results of the legislative session, and everybody’s opinion of that session, allow me to give you a broader view.
Before I begin, let me say, your lawmakers work very hard. It takes grit to withstand the long hearings and long days. The food is sometimes great but mostly not. The night House members debated the budget, everybody had a fast-food burger in a bag.
This year’s session was like a dam burst with a flood of pent-up legislation and a whiplash-inducing shift in political priorities. Add to that a batch of eager, newly elected legislators. Usually the new folks sit on the sidelines and watch for a while, but this bunch jumped right in.
November’s blue wave gave the Democrats a 46-24 majority in the House and a 26-16 majority in the Senate. How the two chambers dealt with their numbers was very different.
In the House, Dems had a big agenda and a mandate. (I use the word “mandate” cautiously, knowing that in the past politicians have claimed mandates with even small majorities.)
House Speaker Brian Egolf did a good job of herding his cats. The House, always more businesslike than the Senate, was more so this year. Instead of dithering during the first few weeks, they got off to a fast start. Night and weekend hearings began early in the session instead of the final weeks.
House Republicans carried their election shock, anger, and denial into the session. With Minority Floor Leader Nate Gentry’s decision not to run for office, they had a leadership vacuum. They chose James Townsend of Artesia as minority floor leader. He and the minority whip, Rod Montoya, have served only since 2015, the year Republicans had a narrow majority for the first time in six decades. Townsend has never even chaired a committee.
Townsend’s strategy was to slow down every debate, even for bills they liked. And how did that work out? Egolf kept them all in session late into the night and set the clock for three-hour debates, which the rules allow. We watched as Republicans, struck by amnesia, asked the same questions and repeated the same points. Over and over.
Initially the Rs did all the talking while Dems sat in sullen silence. Then Dems joined the word duels, depriving the Rs of some soapbox time. When the clock ran out, they voted, with predictable results.
This went on for weeks.
In a contest of stamina like this, the game goes to the team with the youngest players. Guess who that was?
Committee hearings were similar. It was clear the House chairs had instructions to stay on task and not allow the discussion to wander. This caused at least one kerfuffle as somebody decided she was unfairly cut off and stormed from the room.
Meanwhile, the Senate, which likes to call itself “the deliberative body,” carried on normally. They debated as usual, made their points, and voted.
Senators weathered no midnight sessions until the last week. Senate Republicans could influence the debate on the strength of their arguments and didn’t lose credibility for obvious stalling. Senate Floor Leader Peter Wirth took some heat for not strong-arming his moderates, but the deliberative body has always had independent spirits.
In the end, the result was the flurry of Democratic legislation that anyone could have predicted in November when the voters spoke. While some might blame Trump, I think the elections were a referendum on eight years under the former governor, and that, actually is worse news for the New Mexico Rs.
Voters are fickle. They may decide that they don’t like this new direction. If so, the Republicans can offer the old direction. But don’t hold your breath for a red wave.
© 2019 New Mexico News Services 3-18-19
Senate moderates strike a needed balance among Roundhouse extremes
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Probably the single most important thing I heard this legislative session was, “We don’t want to be Washington because they don’t get anything done. We wanted to get something done.”
The context of the comment, by Sen. Clemente Sanchez, a Democrat from Grants, was a conference committee presentation of the tax bill, which he described as a compromise between the House and Senate.
It was a hard-fought compromise, in fact, between liberals of the House and moderates of the Senate. Republicans were at the table, but their small number limits their clout, not to mention their vote.
Who better to broker a compromise than a political moderate? The fact that it wasn’t worse (by “worse” I mean the big tax bite in the original bill) is due to Sanchez himself, backed up by Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith.
Sanchez this year was also the guy who got a minimum wage bill passed. As a Democrat with roots in business, he could see the need for an increase in the wage, made sure he understood the business perspective, talked to the governor, and also carried the flag for rural communities that really can’t afford a big increase.
Again, he was facing off with House liberals who were trying to do their best by low income people who hadn’t seen an increase in the minimum since 2007. And really, do we expect anybody to live on $7.50 an hour? The result is a stepped increase and a student wage that most everyone can live with.
Sanchez and Smith, along with other Senate moderates – George Munoz of Gallup, Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces, John Sapien of Corrales, Gabe Ramos of Silver City, and several others – have been singled out by at least one blogger as members of a nefarious conservative coalition with Republicans.
It doesn’t exist.
If you’ve lived in New Mexico a long time you may remember in the 1970s when there were two actual, organized coalitions of liberals called the Mama Lucy Gang and conservatives of both parties called the Cowboys. It made political coverage more entertaining.
What we have now is less colorful – a handful of senators who vote mostly Democratic but on some high profile bills like tapping the permanent fund for early childhood education, marijuana, abortion, taxes, energy and minimum wage have tilted to the right. Unintentionally, they’ve become a swing vote.
That’s earned them some heat from Democrats who want their party members to march and vote in step as the Republicans do. Three things: The moderates are mostly from small towns, and they’re probably listening to their constituents. (Sapien is in a swing district.) Most New Mexicans, pollsters have said, are in the middle. And in the party of the big tent, expect big differences.
Munoz once told me: “I can’t be a progressive. In my district, I’ve got a refinery, a power plant, coal mines, and a railroad.”
For an interesting blend of philosophies, consider a bill Munoz carried for the city of Carlsbad. The oil boom has filled the community’s hotels with people who stay indefinitely because there’s no housing. They pay the state’s lodgers tax for the first month only, but the city still has costs to provide services. So Munoz attempted to create a special tax that would kick in after the lodgers tax.
Eddy County’s Republican legislators understand the problem but wouldn’t touch a bill to raise taxes. Munoz understood the need and as a Democrat doesn’t break out in hives at the word “tax.”
In the two legislative chambers where most of the members are easily identified as liberal or conservative, we need these moderates. I hope they eat their broccoli and sleep soundly.
© 2019 New Mexico News Services 3-11-19
Does clean coal technology have a place in energy transition?
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Sen. Bill Sharer had been talking for a good hour before I realized he was filibustering.
Sharer is one of those lawmakers that, when he takes the microphone, you know you can catch up on your email, have a snack, and take a bathroom break.
This was different. The Farmington Republican was trying to throttle the Senate into amending the sweeping Energy Transition Act, a bill several years in the making that’s generated plenty of sparks.
SB 489 would firmly steer the state toward renewable energy by requiring New Mexico’s investor-owned utilities to use 50 percent renewable energy by 2030 and 100 percent by 2045 and phase out most natural gas plants.
It sweetens the pill by creating a fund for severance pay and job training. And it allows Public Service Company of New Mexico to recover some costs through a bonding mechanism.
Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, has been pilloried by the left and the right for his bill. The left doesn’t like the “bailout” of PNM; the right doesn’t like the mandated timetable for renewables.
Much debate centered on the San Juan Generating Station outside Farmington. PNM has said it will close the plant and its coal mine in 2022 because renewables are cheaper than coal. We’ve already seen the bankruptcies of some of the nation’s biggest coal companies.
The market has spoken. The market can be brutal.
Farmington’s leaders are scrambling to save, or at least extend, the life of the plant and its 450 jobs and tax revenues. What they came up with is Acme Equities, a little known New York hedge fund, and, said Candelaria, a technology tried just twice on much smaller operations. Acme proposes to do a feasibility study by June 1, and if that pans out, it would begin construction by January 2023.
We heard a lot of arguments in committee about Acme Equities’ experience or lack with utilities, along with the state of carbon capture and sequestration.
Sharer wanted to amend Candelaria’s bill to allow the San Juan to remain open while a potential new owner builds a new system.
The San Juan is embedded in my professional life. As a PNM employee in the late ‘70s, I spent time at that power plant and wrote about it. I wrote the news releases about the plant’s first CO2 scrubbers. It’s still hard to comprehend that a structure so massive, complex, and long serving is simply obsolete. I understand why Sharer would try to buy time.
Farmington’s plan might seem like a shot in the dark, but don’t sell technology short. Back in the day, I wrote endlessly that we would still need coal because wind and solar were too expensive. Now look where we are. A web search shows a lot of activity in carbon capture, so it may not as far out as Candelaria intimated.
There is also the argument, made during hearings, about what we do when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. PNM said it still has nuclear power from the Palo Verde Generating Station in Arizona. Clean coal might still have a role.
So Sharer talked and talked, trying to move his fellow senators. Candelaria doubts the technology will work but also said the city of Farmington can still go ahead with the project, bill or no bill. He opposed Sharer’s amendment, and most of the Senate agreed.
Candelaria, I think, has nothing against carbon capture, but he’s fought long and hard to win support and get his bill down the road. He didn’t want 11th hour complications. Sharer really needed his own bill, his own campaign, and his own supporters. He and Farmington have three more years. There’s time.
© 2019 New Mexico News Services 3-4-19
Controversial tax measure still being shaped, will look quite different by session’s end
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Rookie legislator Antoinette Sedillo Lopez introduced a bill mandating a four-year moratorium on fracking, which she called a pause. On the appointed day before the Senate Conservation Committee, the Albuquerque Democrat was ready with her panel of experts and a roomful of supporters.
Committee Chairman Joe Cervantes said SB 459, the anti-fracking bill, would be last on the agenda. After the committee heard all the other bills, Cervantes gave Sedillo Lopez 15 minutes, saying members were due on the Senate floor. After rushed testimony, Cervantes cut them off and adjourned the meeting. The bill has yet to reappear on the agenda, which Cervantes controls.
There you have a demonstration of the power of legislative committee chairs. More importantly, you see how the process works to extinguish bad bills and shape other bills.
For all the dire predictions that SB 459 would kill the oil boom and gut tax revenues, it never had any traction.
In this legislative session, I’ve thought that if the Democrats want to maintain their cozy majorities, they should tone down their anti-business rhetoric. During debate on the big tax bill, House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, called out Dems for their anti-business bills.
Yes, there are such bills, House Speaker Brian Egolf admitted, but “they aren’t passing this chamber or the other chamber.”
So we can look at the tax bill, HB 6, in a different light. It’s not necessarily anti-business – in some aspects it’s pro-business – and it will change.
What it does is double the working family tax credit and correct the whammy from the Trump tax break by providing a tax deduction for dependents. It increases the excise tax on motor vehicles from 3 percent to 4.2 percent. This tax hasn’t changed in decades and is still cheaper than surrounding states. It increases the tax on e-cigarettes and tobacco products.
The bill taxes nonprofit and government hospitals for the first time, but the Legislature will spend more money on Medicaid, which in turn delivers a 4-to-1 match from the federal government. Republicans have called this anti-hospital, but hospitals are supporting this piece because they see it as a win-win.
Online retail sales will be taxed. The New Mexico Retail Association has tried for years to get this tax as a matter of fairness to the state’s brick-and-mortar stores. Most other states have online taxes. Amazon has paid gross receipts taxes here for some time.
The bill doesn’t touch corporate income taxes except to shift some large, multi-state operations to combined reporting. There is no opposition to this.
The two most controversial pieces would take away some of the capital gains deduction in personal income taxes, and raise personal income taxes for higher earners. Families earning $300,000 or more would pay 6.5 percent, up from the current 4.9 percent.
Altogether, the bill would raise $357 million. Republicans are saying half a billion, but that’s incorrect.
Townsend said: “This is more a shot in the dark than a moon shot. I believe what we’re doing is wrong for New Mexico. It’s a short-term influx of new taxes that will slowly go away.”
Egolf argued that the bill rights the ship of state by restoring tax revenues sacrificed in former Gov. Bill Richardson’s tax cut of 2003.
“It set us on a course of scarcity and austerity,” he said. “There’s a generation of New Mexico children who didn’t get the education or healthcare they deserved.”
Few subjects are as touchy as taxes, but House members on both sides deserve kudos for a civil and respectful debate.
HB 6 now goes to the Senate. The bill in its final form will be much different. You can take that to the bank.
© 2019 New Mexico News Services 2-25-19
Budget debate showcases 50 ways to stimulate the economy
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Nothing quite defines vision like the state budget. In black and white, legislators assign values to all the things they’ll spend two months debating.
There was no unjustifiable largesse in the House budget. Rep. Patty Lundstrom, the Gallup Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, is by habit deliberate and down to earth. And the substantial needs of the state quickly claimed every cent of the $1.1 billion surplus.
Even so, there was drama and a little humor during floor debate last week.
The Democrats rolled out a $7 billion budget that increases spending by 10.8 percent over fiscal 2019. They pumped up the education budget by $449 million (16 percent) to $3.25 billion because education has been stunted the last few years and because the court, in Yazzie-Martinez vs. New Mexico, seized the state by the collar and said it was failing its children.
They gave many agencies bigger budgets, built in a pay increase for state employees, and kept a nice cushion of 22.4 percent in reserves.
Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, told Lundstrom: “You are knowledgeable, disciplined and fair, and you’re patient. There are a lot of good things in this budget.”
But he questioned whether the large sums going into education can be spent efficiently and worried that revenue could plummet as quickly as it soared because of the cyclical fortunes of oil and gas.
Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, echoed his party’s concern that lawmakers could find themselves cutting budgets again in the future. A veteran of several admirable tax reform proposals in years past, Harper was a good choice to present the Republican alternative.
In a rare move, the Rs offered their own $6.6 billion budget as an amendment. It would increase spending by 5 percent, which Harper argued is sustainable. Schools would get a 7.7 percent increase to raise pay to teachers, principals and school employees. They would restore school fund balances swept during lean years, but the Public Education Department budget would be flat. The Rs would fatten reserves by 25 percent in fiscal 2020 and 33 percent in 2021, and they would rebate $200 a person to taxpayers. However, few state employees would see a raise, and they wouldn’t relieve the backlog of tax credits owed the film industry.
Lundstrom, who is an economic developer in her day job, pointed out that their proposed reserves would reach $800 million. “It’s almost hoarding dollars… Having $800 million with no raises doesn’t help us grow the economy. We need to invest in our people. We need to invest in our systems.”
And even though she’s not a fan of the tax break for film makers, she said, “We have a responsibility on this film tax credit to pay for what we agreed to do, whether we like it or not.”
My favorite moment in this three-hour debate was when Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-Albuquerque, explained the methodical, painstaking process of budget building and then questioned Harper about how he arrived at his 5 percent increase.
Harper said that as a research engineer, he’s “very data driven,” and the number reflected data and “political reality.” He told Stansbury she would understand how budgets came together after she’d been there longer.
“I was a federal budget analyst,” Stansbury responded. “I know very well how budgets come together.”
Notice that the debate was (mostly) gracious. Lundstrom shared credit all around. Everybody praised the Legislative Finance Committee staffers, who are the wizards behind the curtain.
The Rs did what they needed to do, which was to stake out a conservative budget for I-told-you-so purposes if the state’s economy lives down to their expectations.
As a member of the female party, I watched Lundstrom and Stansbury with pride. You go, girls!
© 2019 New Mexico News Services 2-18-19
Transportation needs still outstrip this year’s expansive budget
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
It’s the biggest transportation budget anybody can remember: $950,281,200.
Department of Transportation secretary, legislative analysts, House Appropriations and Finance Committee chair – nobody could remember a budget like this.
It includes $279 million of one-time money from this year’s oil and gas windfall.
Rep. Phelps Anderson drew laughs from the HAFC committee when he described it as the “moon shot of roads,” borrowing the governor’s term for her education package.
What can they do with this budget, just shy of $1 billion? Not as much as you might think. That’s because the department’s project list is long, smaller budgets in years past delayed work as roads continued deteriorating, and extraordinary developments, like the oil boom in southeastern New Mexico, stressed an already inadequate road network.
So, when Anderson, R-Roswell, asks when U. S. 285 south of Carlsbad will be addressed, or when Rep. Anthony Allison, D-Fruitland, wants to know about the 22 miles of Highway 64 west of Shiprock, the department can say they’re in the works. Somewhere.
It’s not a fast process. There’s design, engineering, surveying, and environmental work. Newly appointed Secretary Michael Sandoval said DOT has so many vacancies (512, down from 528 when he started) that he worries about whether the agency can even manage the contracting process.
So it’s cold comfort when Allison learns work will start on Highway 64 in 2022, and reconstruction will proceed in five-mile segments.
“That road has taken so much abuse,” he said. “The residents of the surrounding area flood into Farmington on weekends. We can’t wait another 6 years.”
Of course, everybody on the committee can say the same for their roads.
On U.S. 285 south of Carlsbad, the pavement is failing from the volume of heavy equipment, and 71 sinkholes line the corridor, according to an engineering study.
This is not just a money problem. For years, DOT has divided its funding equally among its six districts. This might seem equitable on a superficial level and probably saved cabinet secretaries some political grief in meetings like this one, but the needs are quite different.
“We try to be as equitable as possible,” said Sandoval, a 20-year DOT employee. “We’re now moving toward a data-driven process. We want a statewide plan to move money around to specific projects based on data.”
“Data-driven” is a term we’re hearing a lot this year. In this case, the agency would know exactly what’s going on with each road so that instead of just splitting a little money six ways, it could focus on the greatest needs.
Right now, that would be the Permian Basin, where heavy equipment unseen outside the oil patch lumbers down narrow, crumbling roads, along with pickups and school buses, and U. S. 285 is a disaster waiting to happen.
The world’s largest oil play, now buoying state revenues, has some of the region’s worst roads.
“We’ve met with Permian Basin folks,” Sandoval said. “They have money they want to invest. It would be helpful to have private funding.”
This year, that’s within reach. The HAFC chair, Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, has introduced HB 286, which would allow local governments to enter long-term public-private partnerships, called P3s, to finance, build, and operate roads. A board attached to the New Mexico Finance Authority would screen and approve agreements.
“We have needs that are immediate and no way to pay for them,” Lundstrom said.
Some legislators, tired of waiting, have introduced bills to skirt DOT processes and tap the general fund for specific road projects or “urgent need” projects defined by highway fatalities.
Their impatience is understandable, but we’re better served by letting the state Transportation Department make these decisions. The agency should get on with its statewide plan and data-driven process sooner rather than later.
© 2019 New Mexico News Services 2-11-19
With no apparent strategy, House Republicans throw themselves at every fight
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
New Mexico’s House Republicans in this legislative session complain that the majority Democrats aren’t listening to them. The Democrats say they’re listening, but they have a mandate.
In 2014, when Republicans gained a majority in the House, it was the Dems’ turn to complain that they were pushed aside.
So how does the majority party become more gracious and how does the minority party muster its limited numbers to make a difference?
There are no answers today or in 2014. Whoever’s in power makes their plays and forgets that voters in this state tend to swing back and forth, looking for a happy medium but finding only extremes.
Former Gov. Susana Martinez and the Republicans took flak for pushing wedge issues, like not passing third graders who couldn’t read and taking drivers licenses from undocumented immigrants.
Now the Dems are busy pushing their own wedge issues – abortion rights, gun control, legalized marijuana – only nobody’s calling them wedge issues. The difference is that they have the votes to pass them and, presumably, a new governor willing to sign them. But, hey, that’s politics and the democratic process.
What’s the minority party to do? Some might embrace the sage advice to choose your battles, work on bipartisan bills that help everybody, continue to espouse your positions, and bide your time.
Instead, under the grumpy leadership of Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, the Rs have decided to oppose everything, to throw themselves into every fight and go down in a hail of words.
Last week this played out in the procedural battle over a bill requiring background checks in gun sales. During hours of drama, as reported in the Albuquerque Journal, Republicans used a “call of the house,” in which lawmakers must return to the floor and the door is locked, but Rep. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, went missing. The House found a way to go on without Gallegos, but Rs threatened to leave in a group, which produced another call and locked doors.
For all that, the bill passed 41 to 25. It might be great political theater, but it accomplished nothing and took time from other bills that deserved attention. I also think these episodes damage lawmakers’ ability to work together.
More revealing was the vote on a bill to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. Columbus Day has been a thumb in the eye of tribal members for years. The substitution is a simple solution that a number of cities and states have already adopted.
You might think House Republicans would tiptoe around anything that smacks of racism, given the accusations that cling like duct tape to the president.
But no, they voiced their objections at length, led by Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, who noted that he’s Hispanic and his wife is half Navajo. He worried that the change would offend all the people who immigrated to this country in search of a better life. He also thought it was divisive.
Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, saw the bill as a rejection of history, which is often violent. Rep. Candy Ezzell, R-Roswell, said, “I get perturbed when we segregate one group. When we change history we take away our children’s right to know” the events that shaped us.
Normally I would agree with their concern about history. I thought it was a mistake for Albuquerque to remove a cannon and flag from Old Town that symbolized the Confederate presence here during the Civil War.
This bill isn’t trying to change history. It recognizes that Christopher Columbus isn’t everybody’s hero. And if we don’t want to single out any one group, we should give up St. Patrick’s Day, Chinese New Year, and Cinco de Mayo.
The Rs missed an opportunity to display the kind of forbearance they want from Dems. And they proved it’s still wise to choose your battles.
© 2019 New Mexico News Services 2-4-19
If you hold it they will come: Teachers speak out at Saturday legislative hearing
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Teachers and the public got a rare opportunity last Saturday to weigh in on education issues before the Legislature.
They had plenty to say after eight years of controversial policies from the state Public Education Department, budget cuts, the landmark Yazzie-Martinez vs. New Mexico lawsuit ruling that the state had failed its children, and the new governor’s proposed education “moon shot.”
For five hours, at two minutes each, a stream of mostly teachers filed before the House and Senate education committees to offer their thoughts on a range of education matters.
So who gives up a Saturday to drive to Santa Fe and have their two-minute say? The best.
Many described themselves as exemplary teachers under the existing measures. A few had been named a teacher of the year. Most had been teaching for years and had advanced degrees. Some had been administrators.
They spoke well, they’d done their homework, and they knew their students.
The current teacher evaluation system came in for much comment. One teacher worried about fellow teachers who were “persecuted” by the evaluation system. Another called the system “punitive” and added, “I was evaluated by a principal who didn’t show up.” A third described evaluations as “inconsistent.”
SB 247 would establish an evaluation system by law. It would allow evaluations every three years for experienced teachers. Several teachers said all teachers should be evaluated every year and that PED should make the change by rule.
“An effective evaluation provides feedback and an opportunity to grow,” said a teacher. “It’s important that teachers be held accountable.”
Regarding pay, they talked about teachers who don’t make a living wage, who have 300,000 miles on their cars, who qualify for Medicaid. A teacher who received merit pay said she didn’t support merit pay. “All teachers deserve a living wage,” she said.
Many teachers spoke out for their fellow school employees.
“We need counselors, social workers, nurses, and librarians to do our jobs,” said one. “We need our custodians and cafeteria workers to earn a decent wage.”
A school nurse said, “Nurses make a difference. Counselors make a difference, but every year we get left out of pay increases.”
The governor and lawmakers have both proposed pay increases for school employees.
There was a lot of support for HB 77, which steers more funding to the classroom instead of the administration. This is a priority bill for Think New Mexico, a nonpartisan think tank, which studied education spending and found that between 2006-2007 and 2016-2017, administrative spending grew faster than classroom spending in more than two-thirds of the state’s school districts.
“I was troubled to learn that administrative spending has grown 37 percent and salary increases were 14 percent,” compared with far smaller increases for classrooms and teacher pay, said a teacher. “There’s no reason administrative costs should grow faster than classroom costs.”
Teachers and parents at charter schools advocated for parent choice and opposed the cap on charter schools in HB 5 and SB 1. They also support SB 245, which would improve charter school facilities.
Similarly, a number of educators opposed capping public education at 22 and said that provision in two bills would close down adult programs in jails and other facilities.
Most of the speakers were from the state’s largest cities. Teachers from rural areas spoke loud and clear for career-technical education.
A teacher from a small school said: “We have to do more for our kids. We don’t even have a nurse. We don’t have librarians.”
Legislators and committee members deserve a pat on the back for holding a Saturday hearing for people who can’t attend hearings on work days. Judging by the response, teachers appreciated the gesture.
© 2019 New Mexico News Services 1-28-19
Lawmakers move a bill to block teachers from withholding bathroom privileges
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Sometimes, a law gets passed to fill in for the absence of good sense.
Take Senate Bill 26, for example. It would require the state Public Education Department to prevent teachers from punishing kids by withholding bathroom privileges.
Joan Day Baker testified last week that her third grade son was coming home with wet pants because the teacher told him he couldn’t use the bathroom.
“He has bladder spasms,” she said. “He needs to go.”
Baker, an early childhood education expert and member of the governor’s transition team, began checking. She found others with the same complaint, including a mom in the Albuquerque area whose daughter was having repeated bladder infections because she wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom. She also learned that the ACLU asked that the California Bill of Rights guarantee students’ bathroom privileges.
“This is a national problem,” she told the Senate Education Committee.
Baker took the matter to Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, who made international headlines two years ago with his “lunch shaming” bill, forbidding schools from denying lunch to a kid whose parents owed money at the cafeteria.
SB 26 would require PED to set a policy for bathroom use in the schools that would take into account a student’s age, special needs, and physical impairments. The department would need the input of pediatricians, child psychologists and early childhood educators. Teachers couldn’t disallow bathroom privileges or deny other privileges if they suspected inappropriate bathroom use. However, PED would allow “incremental and respectful intervention” in the event somebody was gaming the system.
At this point in the hearing, I was thinking, what kind of teacher tells a child he can’t go to the bathroom? And do we really need a law for this?
I asked an old friend who taught high school math for decades and finished her long career as a teaching coach.
“I’ve seen this before, many times,” she said. “It’s a power trip by a teacher who wants control, but how hard is it to control an 8-year-old? It’s not even that hard to control high school kids.”
She described the chain of events even though she wasn’t familiar with Baker. “So she begins to make phone calls. Then she gets her friends to make phone calls. Then she talks to her legislator.”
Problems like this can be solved by “treating kids like people,” she said, and by remembering that “this is somebody’s child.”
Back in the hearing room, another mom testified that her 6-year-old was coming home with wet pants even though he used the toilet at home without accidents.
Adrian Carver, of Equality New Mexico, said, “I love this bill.”
Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, didn’t love the bill. He said he could support a bill saying that bathroom privileges shouldn’t be used as punishment, but the bill goes too far. His wife, who’s a teacher, said it’s a slap in the face to teachers.
“What about the student who abuses privileges?” Brandt asked. “What if a kid’s already gone three times, and there’s nothing wrong with them?”
Two years ago, it was Brandt who defied the previous governor and some in his own party with a bill allowing teachers to take all ten days of their sick leave without being penalized on their evaluations. When the bill was vetoed, Brandt led an effort to override that succeeded in the Senate but not the House. The same bill is on a fast track this year.
Some committee members thought school districts, rather than PED, should set policy. Others questioned whether it really required expert input.
Good point. Do we need people with advanced degrees to advise us that when a kid’s gotta go, he’s gotta go?
Five of nine committee members thought so. The bill passed.
© 2019 New Mexico News Services 1-21-19
Spending smarter, not just spending more, occupies lawmakers
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
With Democrats in control of both houses of the Legislature and a new Democratic governor, the fear is that they’ll go on a “spending spree.” This is the favorite phrase of Republicans, who regard themselves as a check on Democratic excesses.
So let me assure you: There will be no spending spree because Democrats have the same fear.
Last week I heard even the most liberal of Dems express a reluctance to spend the entire $1.1 billion surplus. So even with a high tide of spending bills, a great many will die in the budget process.
And despite dire warnings from the Rs, we won’t see any showboat projects like the Rail Runner or the Spaceport. We will see attention to roads and bridges, school buildings, salaries, and rainy day funds.
The real checks on spending will be the two budget committees and their strong-minded chairs. The Legislative Finance Committee has already done a lot of groundwork to help them all focus.
Top of mind this year is the court decision in Yazzie-Martinez vs. New Mexico, in which a district court judge ruled that the state is failing its children by under-funding public education. The state must report back in April, which means the governor and Legislature must act in this session.
In their proposed budgets, both branches substantially upped their education spending. While they differ in other areas, their education proposals are pretty similar.
This is personal for the chair of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, Rep. Patty Lundstrom. The Yazzie lawsuit originated in her district when Wilhelmina Yazzie, mother of three, grew frustrated with the scarcity of everything from textbooks to after-school programs in Gallup schools.
The landmark lawsuit opened the curtain on years of education on the cheap, and the judge found the state in violation of its Constitution.
One revelation during an HAFC hearing last week was the money wasted during the last eight-plus years. LFC staffers kept using the jargon “evidence-based” to emphasize the need to fund programs with a track record of working.
It seems the Public Education Department was pumping money into programs with no evidence of their effectiveness and not even checking to see if schools were spending the money as intended. Both the Yazzie ruling and the LFC have called for more oversight by PED.
Also, the school districts and charter schools were quite creative in manipulating the state’s funding formula to their own benefit. One bill, HB 5, ends that – until schools come up with new tricks.
So this session isn’t entirely about spending. There’s serious emphasis on being smarter about existing education spending.
Probably the biggest difference in the two budgets is the governor’s willingness to lift the $50 million cap on rebates to the film industry and pay off the $250 million backlog.
Lundstrom said she needs to see the numbers. “I’m not sure we’re ready to lift the cap,” she told me. It doesn’t help that the industry hasn’t shown any love for her district in McKinley and San Juan counties, despite the area’s dramatic scenery.
House Republican leaders Jim Townsend and Rod Montoya call the film rebate “corporate welfare.” That complaint didn’t fly eight years ago and still doesn’t. Media industries, as the sector is properly called, is a legitimate player in the state’s economy and one, I might add, that our young people stay to work for.
However, it’s worth looking at the incentive. What are other states doing? What can we reasonably sustain?
After eight years of cutting, of robbing Peter to pay Paul, the pent-up demand is such that even the penny-pinching Republicans would spend more on education and roads.
Regardless of how lawmakers divvy up dollars, you can count on hearing about it in the 2020 elections.
© 2019 New Mexico News Services 1-14-19
Former governor may be angling for a job in advocating for the wall
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
The new governor visited the border, heard a briefing from Customs and Border Protection officials, met with the National Guard, and said, “I haven’t seen anything to indicate we have an emergent crisis here on the border.”
The old governor said she thinks the president’s plan is “smart.”
Who’s right? It depends on your political persuasion. Nationally, nearly three-quarters of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (74%) support extending the wall, and 83 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners are opposed, according to the Pew Research Center.
But ask yourself this: Who’s looking for a job?
Former Gov. Susana Martinez has been trumpeting her “legacy.”
A website, susanamartinez.com, says: “Governor Martinez took office when New Mexico was facing the largest budget deficit in state history, rampant corruption, chronically underperforming schools and an economy overly dependent on federal funding at a time when the federal government massively cut spending. She confronted these issues head-on, turning the largest budget deficit in state history into a record-breaking surplus (without raising taxes), restoring confidence in state government, enacting bold education reforms that resulted in the highest graduation rates in state history and unprecedented improvement in student test scores, and fundamentally changing and diversifying the state’s economy by growing the private sector…”
In some parallel universe, New Mexico must have elected Superwoman.
Here in this universe, legislative budget committees worked hard to keep our numbers in the black, and an oil boom blessed us with new revenues. She gets credit for not raising taxes, but in her pinched approach, she denied us the opportunity to increase desperately needed revenues in ways that wouldn’t have hurt New Mexicans.
She didn’t restore confidence in state government – she eroded state government to the point that vacancies are at an all-time high and morale is at an all-time low. Her “bold education reforms” gave us eight years of controversial, top-down mandates and a teacher shortage. She can take credit for improved graduation rates, but the “unprecedented improvement” in test scores is a tiny percentage change that still doesn’t demonstrate the effectiveness of her changes.
Martinez keeps telling us she’s diversified the economy, but it’s no more diversified than it was before, which is why New Mexico has the distinction of being the state most affected by the shutdown, according to WalletHub, which has pronounced many such dubious distinctions on the state.
Her real legacy? Eight years of picking unnecessary fights with the other two branches of government, eight years of arbitrary and vindictive vetoes of bills that could have done some good, and eight years of slashed capital outlay and the economic stimulus that goes with them.
It was like being tied to a chair and forced to watch “Mean Girls” endlessly.
Leaving office with 35 percent approval ratings – even lower than the president’s – she’s not likely to run for office. And after her eight-year vendetta against the state’s courts, her prospects of practicing law here aren’t shiny.
Now she emerges as a newly minted supporter of the president and his wall at a time when he could use a Hispanic friend, and she is, after all, the nation’s first Latina governor. That should be good for something. But not that long ago, Martinez objected to Trump’s remarks about Mexican immigrants and didn’t show up at his campaign appearances.
After the 2014 elections, when Republicans cleaned up, I wrote that nobody should feel comfortable. Republican political consultant Frank Luntz observed profound voter dissatisfaction and frustration with Washington that had nothing to do with party.
I wrote at the time “of a kind of snarling (public) expectation: Do something. Spare us your grandstanding and your petty little fights and solve some problems.”
Sadly, this still applies.
© 2019 New Mexico News Services 1-7-19
Past governors’ actions guarantee, even mandate, that Lujan Grisham will get more scrutiny
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
If anybody thinks Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will get an easier ride from the media than her predecessor, they should rethink.
Within days of her inauguration, the Associated Press reported that $25,000 in campaign donations were linked to one of the current racino bidders. And everybody reported the comments for and against ending PARCC testing.
This is NOT necessarily a harbinger of things to come or a hint that the new governor is off to a shaky start. It’s just another work week for the new executive and the media who cover her.
If anything, Lujan Grisham will get tougher scrutiny, and it’s because of the past three governors’ actions.
Take the inauguration, for example. Gov. Susana Martinez’s inaugural committee raised nearly $1 million. The committee chair questioned some of the spending, and nobody knew where all of those dollars flowed. Not until 2016 and an FBI investigation did the Santa Fe New Mexican report that the governor’s advisor, Jay McCleskey, raked in $130,000.
Other monies ended up in Martinez’s 2014 re-election campaign, despite fund raisers’ assurances to contributors, and this apparently was nothing new in the state.
Martinez’s inaugural committee promised, but didn’t deliver, transparency about its spending. Lujan Grisham’s inaugural committee has said it would post financial details on a website. We’ll see.
The state’s journalists have learned to pay closer attention to campaign funding and the many ways donors influence issues and decision making.
The racino decision will get a hard look, and the governor can thank Martinez for the media breathing down her neck. That’s because Martinez received generous campaign contributions from two Louisiana developers who won a nice contract to lease State Fair land for their racino.
Martinez said one had nothing to do with the other, but the Santa Fe Reporter in 2014 wrote that “money helped buy the Louisiana men access to Martinez that wasn't afforded to some of the working-class New Mexicans who protested a state-sanctioned gambling institution in their rough Duke City neighborhood.”
Big-dollar state contracts, especially anything involving money management, get extra attention because of pay-to-play schemes during Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration. After Richardson garnered national attention for his run for president, he remained in the national eye for having to step back from consideration as U. S. Commerce Secretary when pay-to-play became the big story. The state was still settling some of these cases in 2016.
Jose Z. Garcia, a New Mexico State University government professor, wrote 10 years ago on NMPolitics.net that Richardson had raised such unprecedented amounts of money that he created a climate ripe for pay-to-play politics. Contributors got appointments “and in other ways appeared to receive a great deal of face time with Big Bill.”
Lujan Grisham can expect everybody to have a lot to say about education. That goes back to Gov. Gary Johnson, whose idea of education reform was vouchers. One reason Richardson had so much wind in his sails coming into office was that, except for the narrow minority who agreed with Johnson, everybody else wanted a real reformer. And Richardson did support a bipartisan reform that passed the Legislature during his honeymoon period.
Lujan Grisham considers testing so important, she got rid of PARCC tests even before having an education secretary in place. The tests have been so time-consuming and controversial that only two jurisdictions are still using them. Still, they had their supporters in New Mexico, and one was the group New MexicoKidsCAN whose executive director said debate about the PARCC tests has become politically driven. But so is nearly everything about education.
So Lujan Grisham’s honeymoon, if she ever had one, is over. The new governor, like her predecessor, promises transparency. We’ll hold her to that.