Monday, December 15, 2014

NM Senators Take Last Gasps Of Majority Air As They Prepare To Become Backbenchers, Plus: Critical Eyes Turn Toward PNM's Oversized Rate Hike Request 

Heinrich & Udall
The last gasps of majority air taken by New Mexico's two United States senators seem frenzied, as if something most dreadful is imminent. And indeed it is for Democrats Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich. Come January they will be cast into the minority, shedding much of whatever power they have managed to accumulate in their short-lived senatorial careers.

In a news release announcing passage of the public lands package the senators declared it contained "momentous gains for New Mexico." The appointment of Senator Heinrich to the Senate Armed Services Committee was described by Hill rats as "huge" for the state.

Although the lands and wilderness package and Heinrich's new appointment are solid achievements, adjectives such as "momentous" and "huge" don't quite fit the bill.

The Valles Caldera, already a National Preserve, will now become part of the National Park system. The Columbine-Hondo near Taos--which has had quasi-wilderness status for decades, now gets full wilderness status.

Heinrich's committee appointment is notable for a state heavy on military bases, but he will be in the minority on the panel. That is a "huge" difference from being in the majority.

It was as if the duo was flexing their muscles to try to stave off the atrophy that will soon afflict them. Next year and for as long as the GOP retains control of the Senate Udall and Heinrich will be challenged just to remain relevant. That's the pickle the Democrats have gotten themselves into and now they pay the price.

It has been decades since both of New Mexico's senators have been in the minority party. With GOP firebrands like Ted Cruz on the loose and other more powerful senators trying to bring home shrinking supplies of bacon, our federal funding seems less secure and our stature undeniably diminished. Being consigned to senatorial minority status will test our senators in ways that are not yet fully visible.

Udall and Heinrich shouting from the rooftops of final successes in these dying days of the congressional session is understandable but yelling at the cattle doesn't stop a stampede and that's what these two diligent lawmakers face in the years ahead.

(P.S. Heinrich's appointment to Armed Services received notice in the environmental community. Can he use that position to get on top of that dangerous Kirtland Air Force Base fuel leak that is causing so much consternation in the city?)


Meanwhile, back in the marble corridors of DC, Heinrich and Udall found themselves boxed in when that giant omnibus budget package came up for a vote over the weekend. Both confessed to being deeply disturbed about banking and campaign finance provisions in the measure that were decried by Sen. Elizabeth Warren who has emerged as the new populist leader of the Dems. But because the budget contained so much pork for NM, both senators voted in the affirmative. In the House, the two Dem Lujans--Michelle and Ben Ray--voted no. GOP southern congressman Steve Pearce voted yes.

As for Sen. Warren, her bold stance during the budget debate gave rise to speculation that she will soon become the anti-Hillary and go for the '16 Dem prez nomination. Heinrich has already endorsed Hillary but Udall has held his fire. He had Warren in ABQ for a rally in his recent re-election bid.


Unlike some big businesses PNM is not scorned by its customers. The electric company has long been known for its community involvement but PNM seems to be putting at risk a sizable measure of goodwill as it comes with a proposed price jolt for its residential customers. It wants a 14% increase in residential electric bills effective Jan. 1, 2016.

That request comes as a shock as New Mexico continues to shed high-paying jobs and replaces them with the $10 an hour variety. That is, if we replace them at all. Employment growth is a blip or nonexistent, matching the wage stagnation.

In fact, one of the great ironies of the proposal is that because New Mexico's economy continues to stagnate less electricity is being used by customers. PNM wants to raise rates to make up for the lack of demand. That alone should tell the company that this is not the time for the vast majority of its customers to absorb a 14% rate hike.

What's particularly troubling to critics of the PNM rate hike is how it shifts the company's expenses away from large corporate users and onto the backs of the ordinary citizen. Big users could see on average an actual monthly rate decrease of nearly 8 percent.

This is an era when even the weakest corporations are prospering. That's in stark contrast to labor which is at a low point. No one wants to see their bills go up but if anyone is best able to shoulder an increase, it is the large industrial users that PNM is letting off the hook.

This is part of a larger and more disturbing pattern. The Governor and Legislature in 2013 cut the corporate income tax, only to force local taxpayers at the city and county level to make up the revenue lost to the state. Now we are hearing how the administration and Legislature want to triple the amount--to $50 million--for the "closing fund" to lure corporations here. This comes as even tiny pay raises for most state government employees and school teachers are being nixed.

The bottom line is that average NM workers have taken major hits to their bottom lines in recent years with no pay raises, fewer benefits and lack of job opportunities.  PNM and its industrial customers do not operate in a societal vacuum. They are prospering while so many others aren't. That makes them much better suited to shoulder more of the rate burden than Mr. and Mrs. New Mexico. The Public Regulation Commission (PRC) should bring a sharp scalpel when it considers this rate hike.


We mentioned the concerns some Democrats have over former ABQ state Senator Bernadette Sanchez possibly being appointed to the state House by the Bernalillo County Commission to fill the vacancy created by ABQ state Rep. Mimi Stewart. She was appointed by the commission to fill a vacant state senate seat. Sanchez responds:

SB10 which I sponsored in 2010 to balance the state budget did not reinstate the food tax. It narrowed the food tax to nutritional foods similar to the early childhood nutritional food educational program managed by the Department of Health for low income pregnant women, mothers, children, and infants. The bill (would have taxed) soft drinks, candy, chips, sweets, and white flour tortillas and other foods that have no nutritional value. . .The bill was chosen by the Senate Democratic Caucus to balance the budget and protect low income people from cuts to needed services.

I had several opportunities to join the Senate coalition with the R’s but my record verifies I didn't. Joining or not joining a coalition is not a priority for New Mexicans. What is important to them is getting assistance and needed representation in improving their quality of life. There are many New Mexicans that I worked with that were struggling as a result of no housing, being unemployed, trapped in small loan debts, having or a family member having a mental health disorder. . .

I am able to provide my experience not only as a former senator but as an educator and mental health counselor. . . I am proud of. . . the legislation that I sponsored that became law to improve education outcomes, mental health, disability services, creation of mental health courts (and) substance addiction treatment. . .

The county commission will decide at a special meeting Tuesday who will fill Stewart's vacant House seat.

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