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Monday, March 25, 2019

Breaking Down The NM Rural/Urban Divide; Population Stats Tell The Tale; Trends Favor Cities But Liberals Will Still Be Checked 

Given the renewed focus on New Mexico's "rural-urban" divide we thought it a good time to check out the growing population gap between the state's three large metro areas and the rest of the state. The results are interesting if not exceptionally surprising.

The most current estimate of the state's population is 2.095 million. Of that, 913,000 live in the officially designated ABQ metro area; 214,000 live in the Las Cruces metro and 146,000 in the Santa Fe metro. That's a total of 1.273 million.

The three metro areas now comprise nearly 61 percent of the state's population which explains much when it comes to analyzing the current political climate. Cities are traditionally more liberal and their newfound power this century is being felt at the ballot box and in legislation approved or defeated in Santa Fe.

The revolt of the state's sheriffs against new gun control laws adopted in Santa Fe--29 of the state's 33 county sheriffs loudly opposed them--tells the story. Their collective muscle had little impact on the body politic. The bills passed.

That's not entirely due to the metro population surge--polls show widespread support for background checks for gun sales across the political spectrum--but it did surface the rural frustration with their big city counterparts and demonstrated that more often than not "urban"will be the long term winner in the urban/rural divide.

State House Minority Leader Jim Townsend of Artesia said following the recent 60 day legislative session:

This session will go down in history as the one in which the Legislature failed to listen to the populace. This session misses the mark. It does not represent New Mexico … I am convinced you will see the people rise up like never before. . . This was Santa Fe versus the rest of New Mexico. In two years … we plan to change the numbers.

But the sad fact for Townsend and his fellow rural New Mexicans of a similar philosophical bent is that the numbers have already changed and the change they represent for the state appears irrevocable.

Upcoming events could begin to cement that change. Next year's election is one of them. Conservative Senate Democrats could face primary challengers from more liberal opponents and three ABQ GOP metro state Senators could face formidable Democratic challengers. Also, the 2021 redistricting of the state legislature is slowly drawing closer. It will be presided over by a Democratic Governor and very likely a Democratic legislature. That could further weaken rural standing because of population shifts and Democratic political proclivities favoring the cities. All of this will only increase the pressure on Townsend's brand of conservatism to maintain its relevance.

HOW FAR LEFT?

Even though trends are away from the R's in rural counties, the state is not about to become a hotbed of California liberalism. Analysis now from one of our Senior Alligators with long experience in Santa Fe. She says:

It will be interesting to watch the state House if the conservative coalition in the Senate experiences a big dip in power. If so, I suspect that the House may not be nearly as liberal as it is now. As things stand the liberal House members can send any kind of progressive legislation over to the Senate knowing it will be killed with little political fallout. Speaker Egolf could be more of a gatekeeper on those type of bills if and when the Senate's politics move more to the center.

CYFD COMPETENCE

Reader Richard Flores, formerly of CYFD, monitors developments for us at the agency. He reacts to news carried here Friday that one of the department's social workers has been charged with child abuse and delinquency of a child:

In about 1990, New Mexico required all employees whose job classification included the title of "social worker" to be licensed by the newly created Board of Social Work Examiners. The licensing process was instituted to professionalize the practice of Social Work in New Mexico, and this included all child protection workers employed by CYFD. In 2001, or somewhere in that vicinity, CYFD was able to circumvent the licensing requirement by changing the job title (to caseworker) of those employees that provided direct services (investigations, permanency planning services) to children and families. 

By removing the title "Social Worker" from those engaged in direct services to victims of child abuse/neglect, CYFD also effectively removed the licensing requirement for employees at that level. In my opinion, that decision to deregulate social work practice at CYFD, whether intended or not, put into motion the evolution of that culture that you allude to in your Friday blog.

Got, it Richard. Did CYFD Secretary Blalock as well?

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Friday, March 22, 2019

Friday Clippings From Our Newsroom Floor 

New CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock has a real culture problem on his hands, but he already knew that:

A former social worker with New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) is being investigated for child abuse and delinquency of a child. Police say Natalie Nicotine is accused of driving a juvenile to court while drunk in September. She's also accused of asking a juvenile for money and taking another teenager to buy marijuana.

Secretary Blalock was brought in from California to straighten out this messiest of departments. Would he do some good by bringing in some social workers from out of state and increasing the salaries of those trained to more rigorous standards? He's new and he has time to change the damaged culture. But not that much.

(And "Natalie Nicotine" is accused of buying marijuana for a kid? Folks, we just report this stuff).

JABBING BACK AT JANE

Reader Laura Stokes differs with the comments of GOP State Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert who praised the state Senate conservatives for holding at bay liberal legislation from new state House Dems:

Joe, in response to Ms. Powdrell’s lecture to progressive legislators noted on your blog this week, I would ask why shouldn’t they expect to make big changes? After 8 years of neglect, incompetence and corruption by an administration which had no idea how to govern, there is so much to be done and these legislators set out to do it. An awakened constituency elected them and our governor to do just that and they did their best. And, in fact, some much needed legislation was actually passed after years of stagnation.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the state ranks dead last in the country in overall child well-being. . . Are these Republicans and conservative Dems so proud of their fiscal conservatism that they are willing to sacrifice our kids and our state’s future in the name of austerity when, in fact, there are resources that can be used to invest in children and families? They may gloat but they should know that even though this session has ended, the fight has only just begun. 


BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

Rep. Alcon & Sen. Heinrich
Here's a bright spot to end the week on:

This is a pic of Dem State Rep. Eliseo Lee Alcon and US Senator Martin Heinrich. Heinrich's office explains:

Heinrich presented service medals to Vietnam veteran and Rep. Alcon of Milan. 

. . "Alcon spent over a year on the battlefield working to save the lives of his fellow soldiers. However, like so many Vietnam veterans, recognition for his service and sacrifice is long overdue. These medals are nearly 50 years past due and I am honored to present them to him on behalf of a grateful nation.”

“I'm excited to finally receive these medals and grateful to Senator Heinrich for helping to retrieve them,” said Rep. Alcon. “It really shows his commitment to our veterans and the value he holds for those who have served our country.”

Alcon was drafted in 1969 and served as a combat medic. . . He never received the medals he had earned.

Alcon, 69, has represented House District 6 since 2009. It includes portions of Cibola and McKinley Counties.

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Thursday, March 21, 2019

With Legislative Session In The Rearview Mirror ABQ City Election Comes Into Focus, Plus: Optimists Beat Pessimists In State's Financial News 

Now that the legislative session is over the city of ABQ Nov. 5 election is starting to come into focus, with the first candidates surfacing. The latest news is that a strong challenge has developed to longtime Dem City Councilor Ike Benton.

29 year old Zack Quintero, president of the NM Young Democrats, a NMSU grad and a current student at the UNM School of Law, says it's time for  a "transition" from Benton and he is off and running with a formal announcement set for March 24.

District Two takes in Barelas, Downtown, parts of the North Valley as well as neighborhoods near the UNM law school.

Benton has already announced he is seeking another four term. He was first elected to the seat in 2005. Quintero says Benton's support of controversial transit projects like the ill-fated Central Avenue ART project will be a major issue as well as public safety. We'll have more on the race soon.

There are three other seats up for election on the nine member council which is controlled by the Dems, 6-3.

In District 4 in the NE Heights, Republican Brad Winter, the longest serving councilor, has not yet announced if he will seek another term. In District 6 Dem Pat Davis is expected to go for re-election and is heavily favored in the early going, although he is expected to have opposition. In District 8, incumbent Republican Trudy Jones has not yet made public her intentions.

Candidates are now making declarations with the city clerk on whether they will seek public financing which both Benton and Quintero say they will do. In May candidates will begin collecting the necessary petition signatures to win a spot on the November ballot.

Speaking of the ABQ City Clerk, history buffs take note:

Did you know the Office of the City Clerk maintains historical minutes of City Council meetings dating back to 1890? For the next month we will provide a weekly post on what was happening with #CABQ in the 19th and 20th centuries!

Hey, maybe they have the crime stats from the 1890's? That might make us look pretty good today.

NOT FOR PESSIMISTS

For a change the pessimists must be grinding their teeth because the good news about NM's finances just keeps coming. The price of oil touched $60 a barrel Wednesday for the first time in four months and then there's this jaw dropper:

Exxon Mobil Corp. plans to reduce the cost of pumping oil in the Permian to about $15 a barrel, a level only seen in the giant oil fields of the Middle East. The scale of Exxon’s drilling means that it can spread its costs over such a big operation that the basin in Eastern New Mexico and West Texas will become competitive with almost anywhere in the world, Staale Gjervik, president of XTO Energy, the supermajor’s shale division, said in an interview.

15 bucks a barrel?? I mean, we're getting that thing down to the cost of a decent enchilada plate.

And then there's this: The Feds look as though they are going to pump more money into the nuke programs here: The Trump federal budget proposal provides for an ample increase for modernizing nuclear weapons and that means a budget increase for Los Alamos National Labs, with the money stimulating the northern economy. How much of an increase specific to New Mexico has not yet been stated.

We'll stop with the glad tidings while we're ahead.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Veteran GOP House Member Says "Thank God" For Conservative Senate Dems, Plus: About That Tax Increase For High Earners 

Here is something you don't see every day--a state House Republican openly praising certain state Senate Democrats:

Thank God for Senate Democrats,” said Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Corrales. “Some of these (House ) freshmen really thought Senate Democrats would think their ideas were the best inventions since ice cream. Doesn’t work like that.”

Powdrell-Culbert, 69, has served in the House for 16 years, and while she was ready and willing to give the House freshmen a piece of her mind, she's probably also keeping a close eye on her Sandoval County legislative district. In 2018, a Democratic opponent scored 45 percent of the vote against her. The district is still GOP country but in the presidential  election year of 2020 the Dems could make her work for it as the higher turnout will lift them up some. That would keep Powdrell-Culbert on her toes.

Still, the feisty liberal freshmen are learning their lessons the hard way and with Powdrell-Culbert around class is definitely in session.

FAKE NEWS OR NO NEWS?

Was it "fake news or "no news yet" on the legislature's increase in the personal income tax for single filers making over $210,000 and for married couples filing jointly making over $315,000?

In our Monday blog we opted for "fake news" because the tax increase is tied to a precondition--it takes effect only if state revenues in the fiscal year that begins July 1 do not grow more than five percent over the current budget.

Several readers argued that that is not exactly fake news if you believe the Lujan Grisham administration's budget estimates for the 2020 fiscal year. Fair enough. For now we'll call the measure "no news yet."

The budget officials project that while this year's general fund revenue will come in at $7.59 billion, the next budget year will see that shrink to $7.43 billion, forcing the tax hike to take effect.

However, what if they are wrong? If revenue hits just a bit over $7.969 million--an increase of over five percent--the tax would die. And the way this oil boom has been generating cash, we would not count that out. If oil, currently priced in the high 50's a barrel, went up 15 bucks and stayed there, we could easily hit the mark, and we may do that without any price increase, given the historic and stunning volumes being produced in the SE Permian Basin.

The Santa Fe bean counters nave been notoriously unreliable in recent years. During the recession they predicted state revenue shortfalls that were not nearly as worse as those that occurred and during the oil boom they have underestimated the cash flow to state coffers.

As for the new tax rate, it would be a mild increase on the wealthiest taxpayers, giving them a a rate of 5.9 percent, up from today's 4.9 percent.

ABQ Dem State Rep. Javier Martinez, vice-chair of the House Taxation and Revenue Committee, agreed with our assessment that the possible tax increase measure does not restore a progressive tax structure. He wants an interim committee to come up with such a plan that addresses all the tax brackets. He also might want to look at creating a new bracket--for taxpayers making over $400,000 or $500,000. Should they pay the same as the "little guy" making the $210,000?

One correction: In our Monday blog we said if the tax rate were to take effect, it would start on January 1, 2022. Actually it would begin January 1, 2021. And a tip of the hat to the ABQ Journal capitol bureau chief Dan Boyd for supplying additional information for this report.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Time For Another Edition Of Reader Vox Populi: Readers Write Of The Legislative Session, Dr. No, Tech Jobs, Balloons And Coloring New Mexico  

Time for another highly anticipated edition of Reader Vox Populi. ABQ attorney Bob McNeill gives us a kick start:

Joe, Good work covering the legislative session. NM is a backwater state in ways that keep us from progressing. MLG represents progress, but we have a mix of religious and rural values that make NM unique and aren’t going to change anytime soon, if ever. 

Sen. John Arthur Smith (chairman of the Senate Finance Committee) happens to have seniority and lives in Deming. Deming isn’t representative of much of NM, and John Arthur represents Deming and it’s values. But he won’t be in the Senate forever. We are in for a long, slow process of getting this state moving.

Educating our kids at an early age is an essential part of the effort. Poverty remains New Mexico’s primary barrier to getting out of last place in child well-being.

Reader Richard Flores writes of the most recent case of a child dying in the custody of foster parents and how that impacts the Children Youth and Families Department (CYFD):

CYFD will, once again, come under intense scrutiny after a child died in foster care. We don't know what happened so the public, media and politicians need to withhold blame until medical findings are made public. In any case, CYFD  faces another disconcerting and monumental PR fiasco. 

I believe the current governor is fully committed to serving the "best interests" of New Mexico's children, and it is unfortunate for this to happen so early in her term. Perhaps the task force to be appointed by the governor to reform child protection can come up with a reform package that will address the needs of our children and families for the better.

DOUBTING DR. NO

Reader Jeff Nordley writes of the decision of State Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith to not give a hearing on the bill to legalize recreational marijuana:

Joe, About your coverage of the marijuana legalization bill sponsored by Rep. Javier Martinez. Theoretically, in a democracy the majority prevails. Well, according to the ABQ Journal a majority of citizens in every county in NM support legalization. But, thanks to one Senator in Deming Democracy is subverted. That's not democracy, that's ridiculous.

An anonymous reader writes of their frustration with Senator Smith and other conservative Democrats, who along with Senate Republicans often form a conservative coalition to thwart legislation:

We Democrats need a robust primary in 2020 to rid the party of DINO's (Democrats in name only).  I plan to donate heavily to anyone challenging Sen. Clemente Sanchez of Grants or Senator Smith.

TECH AND BALLOONS

Reader Barry Simon writes:

Joe, I read an article recently about how tech entrepreneurs are looking elsewhere to start their companies rather than in unaffordable San Francisco. They mention Austin and Seattle. Then comes the kicker: "...even New Mexico." I guess our state is now one large city. But at least our burgeoning reputation as a tech center is being noticed.

Reader Steve Wentworth is president of the neighborhood association near the ABQ Balloon Fiesta Park. He writes of Mayor Keller's $7.5 million proposal to extend a railroad spur into the park to expedite traffic flow:

The Rail Runner spur line extending to Balloon Fiesta Park was considered a decade ago and died from a lack of support. Neighborhood leaders have been told the proposed spur line and a $2.5 million dollar slip ramp onto I-25 would only be used for Balloon Fiesta and maybe Freedom Fourth--less than two weeks of annual use. The majority of Park users drive to the Park and would not use the Rail Runner. 

Other improvements should be made to address the needs of people who use the park year round, including sewers, drainage, restroom facilities and utilities. The money for the proposed spur line and slip ramp could pay for additional city buses and improve  mass transit system for the metro. It doesn’t make any sense to target such an extraordinary expensive item while ignoring real year-round needs.

Good arguments, Steve, but the Mayor's seem a tad stronger, given the world class status of the event, even if the spur is used mainly for those two weeks. Those are the two weeks when millions of dollars come into the community from across the globe.

GOOD BEHAVIOR

Reader David Ley writes:

Joe, Senate Bill 41, introduced by Senator Mary Kay Papen, is intended to ensure that the events of 2013, and the state’s unilateral and destructive actions regarding behavioral health cannot recur.  The bill passed the legislature twice previously but was vetoed both times by Gov. Martinez. The bill again cleared the legislature this session, with bipartisan support and is on the  Governor’s desk. We expect her to sign this bill.  

A documentary on the events of 2013 and its long lasting ripples is showing at the ABQ National Hispanic Cultural Center April 6 at 3 pm. Your readers are invited to attend. Behavioral health providers and Human Services Department Secretary David Scrace will attend.

A reader writes of Bernalillo County Clerk Linda Stover winning a national award for her election worker training programs and provides this link.

CALLING PETER WIRTH

Reader Ken Tabish writes of the legislative session:

Joe, Many kudos to you for bringing the backroom and front room maneuvers during the most recent legislative session. It is refreshing to see progress after eight years of, as you say, “nothingness.” You just gotta have a love to hate relationship with Dr. No (Senator Smith) as he was at it again with fellow Dem Senators Clemente Sanchez and May Kay Papen. 

There will be great efforts by the progressive wing to find candidates to go against them in the primary. My question from the sidelines is where was Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth? If he was wielding influence behind the scenes, it surely didn’t have an impact on these three. House Speaker Brian Egolf surely outperformed him in leading the House in pushing forth a progressive agenda.

COLOR MY WORLD

ABQ Reader Chris writes regarding our suggestion that because NM is not clearly a blue or purple state on the issues that we color it turquoise:

Re your color suggestion for NM politics:

"And there you have a New Mexican shade of Blue. Or maybe we should have our own distinct color given our state's unusual split on economic and social matters. How about a special color of turquoise?"

I cherish our state mineral, turquoise, and its color is one of my favorites, but as a descriptive color for politics it seems inappropriate. The oft-used "purple" is not appropriate because it is a combination of equal parts of red and blue, which is not an accurate description of our politics. Since NM is more blue than red, how about the color violet, which falls between purple and blue on the color spectrum?

Or is it too frilly a color to describe the rough and tumble of La Politica?

If we really want to show the true colors of La Politica, Chris, we might have to go to black and blue.

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Monday, March 18, 2019

Session 2019: New Mexico Plays Catch Up: After A Lost Decade New Leadership Took Field And Came To Play; Our Recap Of The Top Plays And Key Players  

Euphoric Democrats called the 60 day legislative session that ended over the weekend "transformative" "historic" and "monumental." We would opt for less hyperbole and call it "very important."

A solid foundation was laid for what could indeed become transformative change in the years ahead but a foundation is not a home. So before too much celebratory champagne spills on to the floors of the Roundhouse, let's take a deeper dive.

--The big picture headline for the session is "New Mexico Starts To Catch Up."

--The minimum wage--outside of the three large cities--had not been raised for a decade, woefully languishing at $7.50 an hour. Now it will go to $9 an hour in 2020 and eventually to $12 in 2023. The increase to $9 is 20 percent over ten years ago. Catch up.

--The state's general fund budget first reached $6 billion in 2007-08. Flash forward to this year when it hit $7 billion for the first time. That's a rise of 17 percent over 12 years, or less than 1.5 percent annually. Catch-up.

--Back in '07 the public education budget rang in at $2.560 billion. This year it comes in at $3.2 billion. That represents increase of 25 percent over twelve years and basically tracks the rate of inflation. Catch up.

--State employees are getting a pay raise of 4 percent. They have had no pay raises or mostly tiny one percent increases the past ten years. That's catch up. Ditto for public schools teachers who this year received a pay boost of 6 percent.

--The state's financial foundation had been so chipped away at by the recession and eight years of budget austerity that promised a better economy but failed to deliver that even the GOP this year did not fight the education budget which is 16 percent more than last year's.

NEW MOOD

It was an optimistic and productive session but let's put it in the context of the deep financial black hole we fell into this last decade. The result included several years of historic depopulation, a crime epidemic, a drug epidemic; a wave of child abuse, a loss of manufacturing jobs and a transition to a low-wage economy. This constructive legislative session began a long awaited restoration--not yet a transformation.

There was significant legislation passed but from where we sit one of the more consequential changes was in the psychology. The Governor, House, Senate and members of both parties embraced, for the most part, the new order that features mammoth surpluses and the release of pent up frustration. After 8 years of do nothingism they went to work and a can-do spirit returned to the Capitol fueled by the Permian Basin energy boom that promises to fill state coffers for years.

THE PLAYERS

The Governor led ably, if at one moment wobbly. She overreacted to the blistering reaction she received from rural county sheriffs over her proposed gun laws (which passed). And those who wanted to see her move the conservative state Senate Dems more to the center were a tad disappointed.

But those proved minor detours on the way to a win. She helped craft a suitable compromise on the minimum wage, kept the controversial but precedent-setting Energy Transition Act on an even keel; failed on the constitutional amendment for early childhood but did so in a way that cues it up for another attempt; stayed the course on two gun control laws (despite the hectoring); presided over ground breaking legislation for at risk students; a needed increase in the public schools budget and warmed up the previously frosty gubernatorial relationship with legislators.

The Alligators said she banged heads behind closed doors, but that's what a Governor does. There was merit to her post session Fourth Floor celebration.

House Speaker Brian Egolf grew into the job more this year and right on schedule the Republicans grumbled that they were being shut out. Well, that's what happens when you are shut out at the polls.

He had an embarrassing moment when he misspoke on a campaign finance reform bill but otherwise ran a tight ship. The addition of so many new progressive faces made it easier. Gone were Reps. Rodella and Trujillo who had made his life difficult. Much of the nonsense of past sessions--useless memorials and pontificating over red or green chile and the like--were mostly gone. The House was more productive than it has been in years. The Senate conservatives were like a batter facing ten pitches at once as they swatted away at Egolf and company's often unwanted presents.

Sen. Smith
In the Senate it was still all Dr. No all the time. Senator John Arthur Smith, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, clung to his perch as the top Senate dog, but the pressure on him is now palpable. The new Governor joined the House in applying some.

The state's growing blue patches portend a coming to Jesus moment for the conservative Senate coalition that Smith has long presided over.

That may come at the June 2020 primary election when progressives hope to challenge some of the conservative Dems. They will also work to take out a couple of ABQ area GOP senators in the general election that would finally bust the coalition.

If the coalition does go, as we suspect it may, it would be the moderate Governor who would be the final check on any swing too far left. For now, the coalition stands but not as tall.

ALSO OF NOTE

That abortion bill that would have removed an antiquated statute from the books went down to defeat in the Senate, but it could spark campaign funding from national abortion rights groups who could seek revenge in the 2020 senate primary races. . .

Senator Peter Wirth's constitutional amendment to stop electing and have the Governor appoint members of the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) made it through and will be on the November 2020 ballot, That could be a close one. . .

Legalization of marijuana failed but a bill to decriminalize possession of up to half an ounce made it to the Governor. That seemed like a pitch-perfect compromise at this moment in history. Of course, the push for legal pot will be back next year. . .

Senate coalition watchers have their eyes peeled on Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces. She turns 87 tomorrow and her election plans for 2020 have not yet been announced. If she opts out, the seat would could go to a Dem progressive, delivering a blow to the coalition. Watching her close things out at the end of the session did not leave the impression that she was packing it in. We'll see. Happy Birthday, Mary Kay.

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Friday, March 15, 2019

New Mexico Is Blue But Not California Blue; Progressive Social Issues Agenda Gets Crushed In Santa Fe While Economic Platform Fares Better 

We all know New Mexico is going Blue, but it's not California Blue. It's our Land Of Enchantment's own special shade and it's being painted right in front of us in the final hours of the 2019 Legislative session. Let's take a look. . .

Somewhat breathtakingly, given the Democratic landslide in last year's election, nearly the entire social issues agenda of the progressives and MLG collapsed in Santa Fe while more liberal economic measures have fared better.

The right to die bill died in the House when its sponsor pulled it because it lacked the votes for House passage. Last night the abortion bill that would have repealed an antiquated state law that makes abortion a crime, except in cases of rape, went down in flames on a 24-18 vote in the Senate after easily passing the House.

And it wasn't just those conservative Dems voting no on the abortion measure and who often form a coalition with the R's to thwart the progressive agenda. This time it included Northern Dem Hispanic Catholic Senators Carlos Cisneros, Pete Campos and Richard Martinez. They were joined by new Hispanic Catholic Dem Senator Gabe Ramos of Silver City.

Then there was the progressives' bill to legalize marijuana which made it through the House but got stiff armed in the Senate and is dead for this year. Again, Hispanic senators more friendly to economic populism were not ready to go there.

The only major progressive social issue that managed to a win was the bill mandating background checks for just about every type of gun sale in the state, But calling it "progressive" might be a stretch. Polls show the checks are overwhelmingly supported by D's and R's.

But it was like another state when it came to many of the banner economic issues of the session:

--Enviros and MLG scored a major victory with the Energy Transition Act (ETA) to increase the amount of renewables used to generate electricity.

--Progressives savored a nearly $450 million increase in the public schools budget; teacher pay raises of six percent and state employee pay hikes of 4 percent.

--They delighted in the $700 million overall increase in the state general fund budget, taking it to $7 billion for the first time ever.

--And late Thursday evening, after nearly a decade of no increases in the state's $7.50 an hour minimum wage, there will finally be a healthy hike progressives could somewhat celebrate. A House-Senate conference committee compromise agreed to raise the state minimum to $12 by 2023. The first increase starts January 1, 2020 at $9 an hour and goes up every year until 2023. The compromise does not include indexing the wage to inflation and it maintains the tipped wage for restaurant servers. 

The restoration of the progressive tax structure--raising the income tax on the wealthiest taxpayers so it would cease being the same as the lower brackets--was one important progressive economic issue getting beaten back (another was the constitutional amendment to tap the state's Land Grant Permanent School Fund for early childhood education.)

But how much to tax the well-to-do could be the opening progressives need to help take out the likes of conservative flat tax supporter Dem Senator Clemente Sanchez in 2020. House Speaker Egolf seemed to sense it when he proposed a late compromise that would have the highest tax rate kick in on incomes of $250,000 instead of $200,000. That higher amount will probably still lose, but it  could be an effective campaign issue for a Clemente primary foe.

WHAT IT MEANS

The state's economic direction has changed dramatically because of the long Great Recession which cratered much of the economy and cost so many good jobs. The economic drift is to the left. But social liberalism, while thriving in many of the state's cities, is still taking a back seat to the long New Mexican tradition of social conservatism.

What does that mean politically? Well, for progressives aching to run primary challengers against conservative rural Dem Senators, it means challengers will want to stick with the bread and butter issues and bend a bit toward the conservatives socially.

For Governor Lujan Grisham, who was especially stung by defeat of the abortion bill (she noted her discontent on Twitter) it means her path to success in turning around the state's education system and its economic malaise is wide open. But if she presses too much on the hot button issues that went down to defeat at the hands of her own party's social conservatives she will get intense push back.

And there you have a New Mexican shade of Blue. Or maybe we should have our own distinct color given our state's unusual split on economic and social matters. How about a special color of turquoise? Like this:

Located in Los Cerrillos, New Mexico, the Little Chalchihuitl mine is one of the oldest mining spots in the U.S. The turquoise found here is a stunning light green-blue color with gray or brown streaks, making the stone incredibly interesting to look at.

Yep. That's a good color for our politics and like that turquoise, they have been incredibly interesting to look at.

THE BOTTOM LINES

In our first draft Thursday about the bill (SB323) decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana we said the legislation would make possession of half an ounce or less of marijuana a "pretty misdemeanor." We took that from the bill's Fiscal Impact Report but we read it wrong. It would be a petty misdemeanor if you were arrested with more than half an ounce. For half an ounce or less the bill would make the possession a civil matter, not a criminal matter, and it would be punishable by a small fine.

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Thursday, March 14, 2019

Just Hours To Go: A Lobbyist's Lament, One Pot Bill Still Lives, GOP Senator Seeks Cover On Minimum Wage And Can Norway Show NM Something?  

Pity the Santa Fe lobbyists. In these final hours of Session '19 when the action shifts out of the committees and onto the floors of the House and Senate they have to contend with some new restrictions on access that are prominently posted outside the respective chambers. One of the smooth talking, Gucci-wearing wall-leaners says he and his brethren don't like what they see:

Joe, both the House and Senate have had these signs up for a couple of weeks whenever they are on the floor. Lobbyists are no longer allowed to catch legislators on the floor like we use to before they are gaveled to order. This is what made New Mexico special and our legislators accessible. 

Well, it’s a tough sell. Feeling sorry for a lobbyist in Santa Fe is like feeling sympathy for the guy who just ran over your dog. But don't take it personal, lobbying corp. You notice how Senators this week quietly killed that bill that would have prohibited you from buying them any food or drink during the legislative sessions? They still like you--a lot.

Just two full days to go in Session '19 before Saturday's noon adjournment. Here's what's catching our attention. . .

Legal pot is dead but decriminalizing the possession of a small amount of the weed (up to half an ounce) is still on the table. ABQ Dem Sen, Jerry Ortiz y Pino reports;

Senator Cervantes' SB323 has passed the Senate and has only one House committee referral, to Judiciary, before it reaches the floor there and is sent to the Governor. It is an improvement over what we do now, but not as broad a reform as we need if we are to have any hope of actually controlling drug use. Criminalizing it clearly hasn't worked, but decriminalizing it only does half the job: it leaves the illegal market controlled by gangs, cartels and dealers, unimpeded, free to squeeze millions in profit from New Mexicans. 

House Judiciary has the bill on today’s calendar. The state reports that the bill would reduce the number of criminal cases in the courts. In 2018, there were 2,165 cases of people charged with possessing an ounce or less of marijuana. The Cervantes bill would make it a civil not a criminal offense for possession of up to half an ounce, punishable by a small fine. That would mean a lot of low income folks would avoid spending time in jail for smoking a joint.

As for the cartels, legalizing marijuana elsewhere isn't having much of an impact on them. A report here.

HEARING FOOTSTEPS

Sen. Rue
At least one ABQ metro state senator is hearing footsteps behind him on the 2020 campaign trail and taking action. Republican Sander Rue was the only R to vote in favor of a minimum wage increase bill that passed the Senate last week on a 26-15 vote. He represents ABQ's westside which is heavy with middle income families and growing more Democratic.

Rue is one of three GOP metro Senators we've pinpointed as vulnerable to defeat at the hands of the Dems next year as BernCo grows increasingly blue. The others are the North Valley's Candace Gould, who has already drawn a Dem opponent, and GOP Sen. Mark Moores in NE ABQ.

As for the minimum wage, it's tied up in knots as conservative Dem Senator Clemente Sanchez could not reach a compromise with the House which wants a higher boost (as does the Guv) than provided for in the Senate passed bill.

The big cities already have their own minimums but outside of them the hourly wage is only $7.50 an hour and hasn't been raised in years. That's a lot of chile picking for a few dollars. There’s plenty of time for a compromise and a lot of low-wage workers are counting on one.

LOOK OUT OCATE

There's been nearly unanimous support for the proposal to apply the gross receipts tax to all Internet sales in the state. On-line giant Amazon already applies the tax but the House-passed tax bill applies it to all Internet sales. There is a minority view and Reader David Geary has it:

Joe, you endorsed the Internet sales tax as it would “level the playing field” between online and local “brick and mortar” retailers. This view might work for metropolitan areas, like Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Las Cruces, but many New Mexicans are very rural, are on low or fixed incomes, and 40% of them are on Medicaid — indicative of their precarious livelihood.

Take poor car-dependent families who live in Claunch or Ocate. They must drive as long as a 2-hour round trip for even mediocre shopping. Being able to order online, and have needed items delivered to them, is a real benefit. And what would the new tax be for them? The statewide sales tax rate, or that rate plus the added local sales tax to around 8%? Ouch!

Fair points, David. To answer your question, the legislation would first apply the statewide gross receipts tax of 5.125% to on line sales but after two years the local GRT tax would also be applied.

LOOK TO NORWAY

About the immense gobs of money being generated in the NM oil boom and how to best use the surpluses to move the needle in a positive direction, reader Douglas Carver writes:

Joe, You've done a great job chronicling the changing financial fortunes in the state, thanks to the oil boom in the Permian Basin. When our bean counters look for models of what to do with this new-found and (for a change) possibly long-term wealth, we should look to Norway. Two good pieces demonstrating why are here and here.

You want a dream for New Mexico? Becoming the Scandinavia of the United States.

Those are good reads on how Norway, which generates $40 billion a year in oil revenue, has changed their social and economic landscape with the funds. We recommend them to our NM solons.

Just one other thing, Douglas. Can we get the Scandinavian thing but keep our own weather?

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Wednesday, March 13, 2019

A Whole Lot Of Shakin' Going On In Santa Fe: We Cover The Major Action, Plus: New And Incredible Oil Boom Numbers Rock The Roundhouse; Another Cornucopia Of Cash Coming Soon 

It may not be earth shattering but the 2019 legislative session is shaping up as one of the most consequential in years. And, unlike the past eight legislative sessions under the previous Governor, these final days are busy--really busy. Let's try to fit it all in, starting with our takeaways:

--The hefty hike in the public education budget is a done deal. The Senate Finance Committee has approved an increase of nearly $450 million million (16 percent). That puts the state on track to restore funding stripped away in the Great Recession and to begin satisfying a court order that found the state violating the Constitution when it comes to educating the many at risk students in the state. Supportive legislative Republicans and their leader Sen. Stuart Ingle get a special tip of the hat for realizing the necessity of this boost. 

--The ETA is A-OK, according to the Legislature and Governor. It passed the House Tuesday and is on MLG's desk for her signature. The Energy Transition Act establishes a goal of having the state's energy sector going to 50 percent renewables by 2030 and 80% renewables by 2040. That's big. The bill, however, also provides what critics call a 'bail out" of PNM for the cost of closing down its coal-fired generating facilities. That's also big and could lead to a court challenge.

--If the legislature passed only those two bills, they alone would make for a significant session, especially compared to the do-nothing gatherings of the recent past. But there's much more.

--The state budget has yet to go to the Governor but it will soon and total about $7 billion. That's a $700 million increase over last year. But hold on. There's another cash cow that is flying under the radar.

—Bam! Senate Finance approved a capital outlay bill this week with one time money coming from the booming oil fields that will total nearly a billion dollars. Whew. It's actually $933 million for the "pork" projects for individual legislators and the Governor, such as new buildings, parks and the like. If the Legislature can do a better job of rolling out all that dough, you are talking some serious economic stimulus.

As fiscal hawk and Senate Finance Chair John Arthur Smith grumbled this week:

Politicians who like spending money really enjoyed this session.

--It is really incredible to see these new numbers come rolling in from the Permian and to try to internalize what they could mean for this largely impoverished and under educated state. It's just awesome:

(NM oil output) hit all-time record of nearly 246 million barrels in 2018, according to the latest statistics from the state Oil Conservation Division. That’s up 42 percent over 2017, when New Mexico produced nearly 173 million barrels, also a record high at that time.

If this keeps up we're taking John Arthur to the gambling tables in Vegas for a weekend.

NO BUST IN SIGHT

We've blogged a number of times that the surprise for lawmakers could be how long this oil boom continues and keeps a flood of cash coming in for a long period--not the old boom-bust scenario. Chairman Smith seems to be catching on:

That preliminary forecast on surplus money for FY 2020, released late last year, may now be too low, said Sen. John Arthur Smith. . . “It appears we’ll generate more than what was forecast in December, even over $1.2 billion,” Smith said. “And for next year’s budget, we’ll likely see a steady revenue stream from oil and gas. I think production will hit 300 million barrels by the end of this year.”

Folks, it's Ground Control to Major Tom time: All Fiscal Hawks please land immediately. You've been grounded for the foreseeable future.

But Dem State Senator John Sapien of Corrales is still flapping those wings:

We’re like a homeless person who wins the lottery. We’re going to spend it all, and in two to three years we’re going to be broke again.

What? Are homeless people winning lotteries in NM? Anyway. . .

John, they are not spending it all. The budget reserve for the coming budget year is an unprecedented 20 percent and then there's that new rainy day fund (that we find excessive) that will see even more millions set aside. And then there's the tax increase bill to provide a back-up revenue stream in the event of an oil crash. Not all of it will survive the final legislative hours but a conservative estimate is that well over $100 million in new annual tax revenue will go on the books. (Unfortunately, it appears the restoration of the progressive tax system may not stand up to  conservative scrutiny). Still...

We don't say it too often, but dammit, that is pretty good legislating. Now the job is to come up with a multi-year plan for the surpluses to come.

The Governor and the Legislature have been presented with one of the greatest opportunities  in state history.

It's time to stop fearing the future and embrace its possibilities.

SAY IT AGAIN

Ryan Flynn of the NM Oil and Gas Association has said it before and he says it again. Reacting to the historic oil gusher numbers of 2018, he declared:

This shows that even if prices remain relatively stable, the state can still expect $1 billion-plus surpluses to continue into the future.

Hey, fiscal hawks. That's an oil and gas guy saying it, not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Sure, make certain the spending train doesn't go off the tracks, but at least grab a seat.

Here is more persuasive evidence for the Guv and legislators that time is running short and they need to intensively prepare and plan for this cornucopia to come:

Royal Dutch Shell is on the hunt for deals to bulk up its position in the Permian Basin, where it lags rivals Exxon Mobil and Chevron. “We are definitely actively looking at opportunities,” Wael Sawan, Shell’s deepwater boss, said. “If none ever come up then that’s a disappointing outcome.”

That's not some small independent operator. These are the major multinational corporations of the world.

Like a broken record (remember those?) we'll say it again:

This Governor and Legislature have been presented with one of the greatest opportunities in state history. 

P.S. Please don't blow it.

TOO GENEROUS?

About our Tuesday blog saying the the current five member Public Regulation Commission (PRC) has its act together compared to previous panels and that keeping the commissioners as elected officials--not appointed ones--makes sense, a Senior Alligator writes:

You’re being awfully generous with the PRC. Just because none of the Commissioners is currently under investigation or caught with their hands in the cookie jar doesn’t mean they are a model of accomplishment. What exactly Commissisoners Cynthia Hall and Valerie Espinoza have accomplished is unclear to me. Have they fixed the state’s broadband problems yet or held Century Link accountable for their lack of investment in rural areas? How about extending natural gas northward beyond Espanola or pushing electric providers on renewables? What about putting some needed pressure on insurance providers?

A new, appointed group of commissioners might just be ethical, qualified and effective. That’s a true formula for success and a rarity at the PRC as we know it.

Several other readers said while there may indeed be a new "progressive majority" on the commission it is "inconsistent," with Dem Commissioners Hall and Espinoza often breaking in different directions.

LEGAL POT DIES


ICYMI--The legal pot movement has died suddenly but not unexpectedly in Santa Fe. With one sentence Senate Finance Chair Smith blew smoke in the eyes of the legalization supporters. He simply said:

It’s not a priority.

Everyone and their brother saw it coming, even after the pro-pot crowd was heartened by House passage of a bizarre bill that would have put the state in charge of selling the stuff.

What's sad is the missed opportunity. In their zealotry to get legalization its backers ignored pleas to support a decriminalization bill. That bill would have prevented the jailing of mostly low income people for possession of small amounts of the weed--the very people the well-financed national marijuana lobby in Santa Fe says it wants to help. . . Maybe they can put up the bail money for those jailed in the next year?

There you have it, Gators. That's a whole lot of action. Don't worry. Being a political junkie is still legal in New Mexico. But be forewarned: it can be both a blessing and a curse.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

PRC Shake-Up Eyed Even As It Finally Settles Down And Steps Up, Plus: Pay Raises For Top Elected Officials On The Move, And: Sainthood For Dr. No? 

Cynthia Hall
Valerie Espinoza
After a couple of decades when the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) has often looked like a clown show, so riddled with ethics and personal lapses that you fully understand why there is a measure being considered to eliminate the five member panel and replace it with a three member PRC appointed by the Governor. But there's a problem--the clown show has closed.

The current five PRC members have done nothing of late to embarrass themselves or the state. More important, many Dems are pleased with the working liberal majority that has emerged on the panel (perhaps the first one in the PRC's 20 year history). This PRC has been more aggressive with PNM--the electric utility it is charged with regulating--along with many other companies including insurance and transportation.

For now, it's hard to see how the Governor could appoint a stronger panel than today's. Take a look:

--ABQ attorney Cynthia Hall is a star in her field and already had a lengthy background at the PRC, serving as assistant general counsel, before winning election. Hall sports an eye-popping resume that includes expertise in environmental and regulatory law--essential to the PRC's responsibilities.

--Former Las Cruces area Dem State Senator Stephen Fischmann overcame paid political opposition from PNM in last year's election to win his seat. He is known for his studious demeanor and expertise in regulatory affairs. This quote says it all: "My goal is to transform the PRC from an agency that’s guided by utility interests to an agency that guides utilities in the public interest."

--Valerie Espinoza, the former Santa Fe County Clerk, is also a Democrat and gives the PRC a progressive majority that has turned around the image of the commission. She currently chairs the PRC and is known in the North for her crafty political ability, an essential quality to bridge the gap between the utilities and end users.

--Teresa Becenti Aguilar adds to the Dem majority--but not necessarily to the progressive majority. Her northwest district is plentiful in natural resources. She brings a Native American perspective to the commission and lengthy experience at the federal level, including the Congress and BLM.

--Republican Jefferson Byrd is a rancher and environmental engineer who gives voice to the conservative view on PRC matters. He grew up in Mosquero and brings to the commission a deep understanding of rural NM.

So finally, after two decades filled with antics that made voters want to pull their hair out, the PRC seems to have found its footing. That makes the proposed constitutional amendment that would ask voters to let the Governor appoint the PRC and add additional qualifications to serve seem a bit out of step. Internal staffing reforms of the complex agency seem to be more pressing, according to experts.

Senate Joint Resolution 1 passed the Senate and is now in the House but legislators might want to keep it there and pause before upending a PRC that at last seems equal to those it regulates--and tough enough to represent everyday people.

PAY HIKES COMING?

When the PRC launched, in 1999, the eyebrows were raised over the salaries for the commissioners. Coming in at $90,000 a year they were then among the highest paid public servants in the state, but time marches on as does inflation. The Senate on a 37-3 vote recently passed 15 percent pay raises for various elected officials, including the PRC. See what you think:

⦁ Governor: $110,000 to $126,500
⦁ Secretary of State: $85,000 to $97,500
⦁ State Auditor: $85,000 to $97,500
⦁ State Treasurer: $85,000 to $97,500
⦁ Attorney General: $95,000 to $109,250
⦁ Commissioner of Public Lands: $90,000 to $103,500
⦁ Public Regulation commission (PRC): $90,000 to $103,500

Those are still pretty modest wages for the authority the positions wield. We would look for the pay raises to be quietly pushed through the House in the final legislative days. We'll let you know.

NEW NAME FOR DR. NO?

Dr. No
Reader Ken Tabish has an insightful and funny take on the tabling by the Senate Rules Committee of the constitutional amendment to tap a portion of the nearly $18 billion Land Grant Permanent School Fund for early childhood (ages 0-5) education:

Joe, I had this feeling after reading your blog last Thursday that "Dr. No"--State Senator John Arthur Smith, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, needs a name change. I believe he is due sainthood and should be given the title of Saint of Perpetual Poverty in NM. 

Yes, the early childhood amendment was killed in the Rules Committee but no one will convince me that conservative Democratic Senators Mary Kay Papen, Clemente Sanchez and Bill Tallman are not in Dr. No's hip pocket. It was a clear deflection to avoid a direct "no"  from Smith and his Senate Finance Committee. He is firmly against the amendment and always has been but this year he avoided a direct hit for that position which is unpopular with the public. 

It's apparent Smith has the power in the Senate. Where is Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth through all this? Smith’s behind the scenes push to decrease the minimum wage increase and the change in the recommended tax rate increase for higher earners are measures that impact mostly poor citizens of this state! Thus, Dr. No is now the Saint of Perpetual Poverty!

Sainthood for Dr. No, Ken? Somebody call J.D. Bullington. Looks like we need a lobbyist at the Vatican!

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