Friday, March 18, 2011

Education Governor? Final Santa Fe Hours Watched, Plus: City Beat; Council Pay Boost & More, Also: It's A Gas; Follow-Up On The Big Shortage 

  • The sixty day session of the NM Legislature ended Saturday at noon. Here's the AP wrap. Gov. Martinez reacts to the session here and here's the AP rundown on the major items that passed and failed.
Education Governor?
Governor Martinez poses for a picture with Sophia.This one may very well be remembered as the "small potatoes" session because the big economic issues have been shunted aside. But as we head toward a Saturday noon adjournment there is a package of legislation that is arguably of the larger potato variety. That would be Governor Martinez's education initiatives.

They've been doing pretty well in the Senate and House committees and we'll be watching to see if all of them make it up the Guv's desk. If they do, she will have salvaged something from an otherwise pretty bare cupboard. Most of the other proposals the administration has highlighted have been emotional wedge issues or in the aforementioned "small potatoes" category. (Passage of the education bills would also be feathers in the caps of Dem State Senator Cynthia Nava, GOP Sen. Vern Asbill and GOP Rep. Dennis Roch).

The education package--ending social promotion for third graders, teacher accountability and grading the public schools--are the closest the administration has gotten to an economic agenda, albeit indirectly. The inferior performance of public school students is an impediment to job creation. Will Martinez's reforms make a difference in our schools and thus our long-term economic performance? We'll soon see if the Legislature wants to find out.

Meanwhile, Hanna Skandera, the Guv's Sec. of Education-designate, will keep the "designate" in her title for at least another year. The State Senate will not vote to confirm her this session. Skandera still gets to serve but with a clear message from Senate Dems who accuse her of being a Bush ideologue, unqualified or both.

That's in stark contrast to the bipartisan support the Guv's educational reforms have been finding. But the continued scolding of Skandera may be a blessing for Martinez. The new secretary has been taking a lot of heat from the education establishment over the proposed reforms, but in the process drawing some of it away from the Guv. And in case any of the other new cabinet secretaries didn't know it---that is the unwritten part of their job descriptions.


Follow up now to a bunch of City Hall stuff we've been covering. First, the council pay raise. City councilors will now be paid $17,500 a year, up from around $10,400. That's the decision from the independent salary commission which was empowered by city voters in 2009 to set councilor and mayoral pay. (The commission's final report is here.)

The commission did not approve an increase for the Mayor who is currently making around $104,000 after taking a voluntary cut from the $109,000 level.

The new pay scale--the council president will get about $20,000 a year--isn't going to make any difference in attracting more and better council candidates as some commission members argued. We have not had that problem since we went to the modern form of government in '74.

The hike to $17,500 isn't outlandish, but it does come at a time when other city employees are taking pay cuts to balance the budget. Was it necessary? Not when you consider that each councilor gets a personal assistant who makes $55,000 a year or so. And everyone is concerned that this salary commission--whose decisions can't be overturned---will give even heftier paychecks to the politicos in the years ahead, even though they are meant to have part-time salaries and be part-time public servants.

If it gets out of hand, we may have to look at asking voters to repeal the commission, just as they approved it in 2009.

The problem is from the early 70's when the City Charter was set up and they debated whether to give a councilor 10 percent or 20 percent of the mayor's salary. If they had gone with 20 percent rather than 10 percent, today councilors would be getting about $20,000 a year. But it was feared the charter would not get voter approval if they went with the 2o percent.

Should the salary commission next recommend that councilor pay be permanently set at 20 percent of the mayor's and be done with it? That's a thought.


And then there's the money being spent on PIO's with the city. We blogged this week about how TJ Wilham the PIO for public saftety director Darren White, has been moved aside. He's now working in emergency management. We also reported that Erin Kinnard Thompson, an aide to White, has been named to the new post of deputy director of communications. That led to this reader email.

Joe, you blogged:

"It appears that Mayor Berry would be saving $75,000 if he does not use the Wilham salary for another position."

Wilham's PIO position never existed before Berry was sworn in. Neither did Kinnard Thompson's. Between the two of them they represented approximately $135,000 in new spending (not including benefits). Had TJ's employment been terminated rather than creating a new position for him with the same pay at the Emergency Operations Center there would have been a $75,000 savings. As it stands now, with TJ still at the trough, there is no savings.

Point taken.


We questioned the timing of the re-election announcement of ABQ Dem North Valley City Councilor Debbie O'Malley, pointing out that it came right when that salary commission was approving pay hikes for future councilors, news she might not want to be associated with seeing how it is not universally popular. But O'Malley says:

Thanks for posting my re-election plans.

I am running for re-election regardless of findings determined by the independent salary commission. In regards to the timing of my re-election announcement, Tuesday marked the beginning of the City's public financing process and I announced on Wednesday.

And reader Alan Schwartz adds:

I think your criticism/comment about Councilor O'Malley is mis-directed. It's the Salary Commission whose timing is out of sync. The Exploratory Period for public financing started on March 15. The Salary Commission argues that increased Council compensation could increase the pool of candidates...Arguably, anyone for whom an additional $10,000 would make a difference would seek public financing. Yet, the Salary Commission has left this group dangling in the wind as they drag out their decision. They should have wrapped this up by March 1, which would have allowed all potential candidates a level playing field at gathering seed money and testing the waters.

Thanks for that take, Alan.

And finally, we want to reiterate a correction we made to our Thursday blog. The four city council seats up for election in October are Districts 2,4, 6, and 8. In our first draft we said Councilor Michael Cook was up for re-election. He is in District 7 and is not up this year.

The four councilors elected in October will be eligible to receive the pay raises approved by the salary commission.


We return today to the natural gas crisis that engulfed the state in early February when Arctic weather invaded the state, leaving thousands without heat. Myriad investigations are underway for the reasons behind the failure. We pick up our coverage with the comments of a Senior Alligator close to the situation:

New Mexico Gas Company officials have been kidding themselves as they pass the buck to suppliers and pipeline operators. They seem to assume they will escape responsibility for damage to businesses and homes as a result of the natural gas outage in early February. However, they failed to properly inform communities and pueblos of their intent to cut off supplies and have admitted as much in their state legislature and US Senate committee testimony. Customers are signing on to the class action law-suit as anger builds. The article in the Rio Grande Sun just highlights the lack of transparency in the oil and gas industry and how entitled the industry feels.

And that investigative report from the Rio Grande Sun:

New Mexico Gas Company officials and natural gas pipeline operators are telling conflicting stories about the causes of last month’s gas outages that left thousands of Northern New Mexicans out in the cold.

Both sides agree that the unusually cold weather helped create an imbalance between natural gas suppliers, who were putting too little into the pipelines, and local distributors, who were beholden to customer demand. However, the Company is refusing to disclose who its natural gas suppliers are and at least some of its claims that service was disrupted due to rolling electricity blackouts in Texas do not match with what electric company officials have said.

Now to Spiro Vassilopoulos, a veteran natural gas investor and Republican activist, who we first consulted when the gas went out:

I never accepted that it was an electricity problem, nor a supply problem. I've always suspected that the NM Gas Co. temporarily made their capacity available to another gas supplier or they missed their demand forecast in their IRP. However, in fairness, no one could have foreseen the extreme weather.

Spiro's full comments are here.

We all await the final government reports on what went wrong and why but we think our original take on the political impact stands. The natural gas crisis was a setback to the energy deregulation agenda promulgated by the new Governor, even as she drew generally good reviews for her response to the outage.


From Farmington:

A piece of an old Farmington era is gone. Jimmy Drake, 82, founder of Drake Well Service, diedon Saturday evening after a lengthy battle with leukemia. From building an oil and gas empire to breeding and racing horses and serving on the City Council, Drake's imprint can be seen throughout Farmington.


From Rep. Steve Pearce

Congressman Pearce invites high school students from across New Mexico’s Second Congressional District to apply for the 2011 Congressional Art Competition. The winning piece of art from each district will be displayed (at) the Capitol...The winner will receive two round trip tickets and two nights’ hotel accommodations to enable him/her to attend the unveiling ceremony in Washington. Submissions must be no larger than 28”x28” framed...Application materials are available at Pearce's web site under “Serving You.”

The deadline for the competition is April 22. (All NM high school students are eligible).

And we are past our deadline for this week of blogging. Thanks for stopping by. We appreciate it.

From Albuquerque, I'm Joe Monahan reporting.

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