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Thursday, March 26, 2020

"Dangerous Don”? ABQ Councilor Stirs Pot With Controversial Coronavirus Comments; Guv's Office Pushes Back, TV Station Goes Dark On Reporting Employee Coronavirus Case And Our Continuing Oil Crash Coverage 

Councilor Harris
ABQ GOP City Councilor Don Harris is getting pushback after controversial comments on the coronavirus in New Mexico--comments the Governor's office calls "dangerous."

Harris has become one of the first elected officials to publicly question the Governor's stay at home order to combat the coronavirus. Several hours after the first reported NM death from the virus was reported Wednesday, Harris told us:

I am sensing that  the Governor is going lockstep with places that have much different problems than we do, particularly New York. Testing there shows a very high infection rate, while in New Mexico it is two percent. You can't treat the country as a unified entity when New Mexico is a sparsely populated state and has a a different climate than New York.

The longtime councilor, first elected in 2005 from District 9 in the far NE Heights, also brought up the hot button issue of possible increased suicides among the millions of workers laid off because of the shuttering of much of the economy. President Trump brought up the same issue but the AP came with a fact check that disputes that notion.

Harris, an attorney in private practice, urged an "open discussion" about the stay at home order, saying his chief concern is that it could be extended beyond the scheduled April 10 expiration, causing extensive economic harm.

Hopefully we will have some good data by April 10 and be very cautious about extending it and with regard to whom and how long. We should talk about the young people resuming normal life and keep those people away from the elderly. I think we need to have an open discussion about the harm that the economic lockdown is doing to people.

Harris wrote on Facebook that his speaking out was prompted by the state's use of the emergency alert system Wednesday to urge all New Mexicans to stay home:

I received an emergency text from the Governor or her agency ordering me to stay home. At the time I was walking in the foothills. . . Albuquerque ranks number one in the nation in per capita for land devoted to open space and we are the fifth least-densely populated state in the country with 17 people per square mile on average. We have a high-desert climate with lots of sun and virus killing UV radiation. We are not New York City.

Harris also questions ABQ Mayor Keller's order closing city golf courses:

People can stay six feet away from each other. Why not let people go out and golf?

Harris is up for re-election in 2021 but he tells us he is "uncertain" about seeking another term.

DOWNRIGHT DANGEROUS
Gov. MLG

Governor's office spokeswoman Nora Myers Sackett came with this response to the Harris comments:

Councilor Harris' misinformed comments are not only misdirected, they are downright dangerous.

The only way to prevent a spike in the infection rate is with measures exactly like what Governor Lujan Grisham is doing; a statewide stay-at-home instruction, closing of non-essential businesses. That is the only way to flatten the curve and not overwhelm the state's health care facilities, at which point the public health emergency will be disastrous.

If is critically dangerous for the Councilor to imply that only the elderly are affected by COVID-19. That is categorically false. The majority of New Mexico's cases are under the age of 50. Like most viral infections, high-risk individuals are more at risk, but every New Mexican is at risk of contracting COVID-19. That is why it is essential that all New Mexicans stay home. Period. It is the only way to slow the spread of COVID-19.

New Mexico's sunshine will not eradicate COVID-19. I am dismayed that an elected official would suggest something so dangerous. The governor understands the terrible situation that this public health emergency puts our economy in – but the alternative, should the spread of COVID-19 not be stopped, is even greater economic and public health devastation.

The only way to slow the spread of COVID-19 is for New Mexicans to stay home and not interact with each other. Not just older New Mexicans, all ​New Mexicans. Any New Mexican is susceptible to this virus. Want proof? A baby under one was recently announced as having tested positive for COVID-19, with no known exposure to anyone else who had tested positive. This is not a virus of the elderly, and if New Mexicans, including Councilor Harris, do not take this seriously, we will feel the repercussions for months to come.

OIL CRASH COVERAGE

Our ongoing coverage of the oil crash and its impact on New Mexico continues with comment and analysis from Bob Gallagher, a former executive director of the NM Oil and Gas Association:

Joe, It is clear that Saudi Arabia has just won control of the oil market. The price war with Russia which resulted in them adopting a policy to maximize production levels brought oil prices sharply lower. The new policy is long-term. Obviously American shale producers do not like this because it will drastically decrease their revenues and probably result in bankruptcy for several companies. 

The Saudi's continue to export close to 10 million barrels per day and still have spare capacity of approximately 2 million barrels per day. Next month Saudi Arabia will surpass Russia to become the world's second largest producer and I would guess within the next two years they will pass the United States and become, once again, the largest producer in the world. They can produce a barrel of oil for $9 per barrel!

The CEO of Aramco, the Saudi oil and gas company, said, “(We) can sustain the very low price and can sustain it for a long time.” This will allow them to increase their market share. Aramco’s CFO said “we are very comfortable we can meet our shareholders expectations at $30 a barrel or lower."

This is an all out attack on the hydraulic fracturing for shale oil companies in NM and elsewhere and a lethal attack on the finances of New Mexico. Oil at $30 per barrel or lower should frighten the Governor, lawmakers and every New Mexican. It is real and it is here as we speak. 

Oil closed Wednesday at around $24 a barrel.

QUIET OVER CORONAVIRUS

We reported this week that a male employee of KOB-TV has been stricken with the coronavirus. That has been confirmed but the station says it is not going to report the news even though it did report about a PNM employee bring stricken as well as a hospital employee contracting the virus. KOB General Manager Michelle Donaldson wrote this memo to the station's staff:

Since being asked. .  .if we should be reporting this, I have changed my position. . . I asked the question about whether we were reporting the employers of other patients. Someone pointed out to me that we had reported a case at PNM and one health institution. Upon further consideration I realize that PNM employs a HUGE number of people. So does the health institution (the VA). Out of privacy concerns, I am electing that we do NOT report this on our news. . . We may reconsider this later. But once its reported, you can't take it back. And honestly as this virus moves through our community, I believe this will be a nonissue. This is my decision for now.

Our media Alligators who aided with this update wondered what privacy concerns Donaldson is thinking of. The individual's name is not going to be released.

And is it only news if only employees at "HUGE" companies contract the coronavirus, not at one of the most well-known institutions in the state which KOB is? And the presumption that the KOB case will be a "nonissue" because the coronavirus is going to increase dramatically, is not yet operative. There have only been 113 cases thus far in a state of two million.

KOB may want to consider applying the same transparency standards to itself as it demands from the institutions it covers. That way they could really stand for New Mexico.

This is the home of New Mexico politics.

E-mail your news and comments. (newsguy@yahoo.com)

Interested in reaching New Mexico's most informed audience? Advertise here. 

(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2019

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

On The Media Beat, Tracking The Oil Crash, Defending MLG, Big Bill On Crisis And The Campaign Watch 

New Mexico continues to be grateful that even as the coronavirus case count goes up--it hit one hundred Tuesday--the state still reports zero deaths. Of course, that could change but with social distancing measures in effect, we have reason for continued hope.

(Unfortunately, the state reported its first coronavirus death Wednesday, an Eddy County man in his late 70's with underlying health issues.)

Now to the blog news of the day and we kick it off on the media beat. . .

The state's newspapers are getting hit hard, very hard, by the coronavirus crisis. Advertisers are pulling ads as they shutter their businesses. That leaves the papers in the lurch. Already the Santa Fe New Mexican, Taos News and Santa Fe Reporter have laid off employees. Ads in the ABQ Journal are so few they seem like an oddity.

Also, our Alligators report the coronavirus has struck the media, with a male employee of KOB-TV being stricken. The individual had recently traveled out of state. Like all the TV stations, KOB is deluged with news and is now running a one hour news broadcast at 10 p.m to keep up.

The local stations will take a revenue hit but they are owned by out-of state-corporations that can weather the storm. The newspapers we mentioned are all locally owned.

The irony here is that the number of news consumers is skyrocketing because of the coronavirus but with everything shuttered there is no spending and thus no way to monetize the surge in readers and viewers.

New Mexico, like everywhere else, was waiting Tuesday night for the massive $2 trillion dollar federal stimulus bill to win congressional approval. What exactly our state will get is not yet known.

At ABQ City Hall a staffer involved in the economy watch said the the bill is key to the recovery here. It will pay the salary of furloughed workers for several months of which there are now tens of thousands in the state and metro. The measure would also send $1,200 checks to citizens and give funds to boost the ABQ Sunport and transit, among other things. The bill awaited US Senate action as the blog went to press. . .

The State Investment Council has approved $100 million in loans that will go to mid-sized businesses. The funds come from the Severance Tax Permanent Fund.

That could be just a smidgen of what is needed to keep the economy afloat but it's a start. The problem? The SIC wants interest on the loans--as much as 12 percent. Critics immediately pounced, saying that's punitive and prohibitive and the loans need to be interest free.

OIL CRASH NEWS

Coronavirus is crashing demand for oil. Combined with the Saudi-Russian price war the SE NM Permian Basin is flat on its back. And it's apparently going to start that way for quite some time. The news:

Chevron now expects to pump about 125,000 fewer barrels of oil and gas per day in the Permian Basin by the end of this year, down 20% from its 600,000 barrel per day target. Chevron cut its capital spending budget by $4 billion on Tuesday, leading a wave of cost-cutting announcements across the reeling oil-and-gas industry as the coronavirus pandemic has slashed demand and triggered a dramatic slide in oil prices. The field is its “most flexible” for spending reductions. Chevron has 16 drilling rigs at work in the field now, down from 20 last year, and will drop to fewer than 8, This is the first indication from an oil major of how sharply it would pull back in the Permian, which has made the United States the world’s largest oil producer.

That means widespread layoffs in the SE NM oilfields are right around the corner.

DEFENDING MLG

We had readers defending MLG from the critics who did not care for her Monday news conference where she announced more measures to deal with the coronavirus. Janet Steele came with this:

Yes, the criticisms of the Governor’s presentation are nitpicking. I felt reassured by her calm firmness. And she told the truth—unlike the words coming from the White House. Truth over slick presentations anytime.

And reader Rodger Beimer writes:

Compare the MLG news conference/announcement to the rambling non-sensical daily political base rallying posturing of “The Orange One”. I’ll take MLG any day.

BIG BILL BEAT

Former NM Governor Bill Richardson was on the job when the 2009 financial crisis hit the nation. In an interview with Politico he gave his take on today's crisis:

. . .Former NM Gov. Bill Richardson said “some of the issues that are being proposed and voted on now are going to become the norm in our political system, both with Republicans and Democrats.” He predicted a new normal including paid sick leave, and even guaranteed income of some kind. “In other words,” Richardson said, “the era of big government is back, and both parties are going to embrace it to resolve problems. And [the change] is caused by the virus.”

Veteran politics watcher Steve Cabiedes says Libertarians, who advocate for smaller government, "are on the run. You don't find many of them on social media during this crisis," he reports.

CAMPAIGN WATCH

There's little campaign action to report as the health threat is pushing politics aside but here's a few items.  Unsuccessful GOP US Senate candidate Louie Sanchez has endorsed Elisa Martinez for the nomination in the June primary. . .

And there's a doctor running for the state House in what could obviously be a timely candidacy. He's Dr. Willie Orr and is challenging fellow Democrat and State Rep. Marian Matthews who was appointed to District 27 in the ABQ NE Heights seat to replace another medical doctor, Rep. Bill Pratt who passed away.

Dr. Orr says he "specialized in geriatric in private practice, treating the elderly and eventually being the Long-Term Care Medical Director for United Healthcare in Albuquerque."

The R's have several candidates running in their primary so this one will be a spirited contest.

This is the home of New Mexico politics.

E-mail your news and comments. (newsguy@yahoo.com)

Interested in reaching New Mexico's most informed audience? Advertise here. 

(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2020


Tuesday, March 24, 2020

How Long Will It Last? New Mexico Society And Economy Get A Further Crackdown As Governor Battles Coronavirus, Plus: Critics Say Guv's Announcement Missed The Mark In Presentation 

Gov. Lujan Grisham (Moore, Journal)
How long? That simple two word, but exceedingly complicated question is now on the lips of every New Mexican as they absorb the shock of further shutdowns of society announced by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham Monday in a bid to halt the spread of the coronavirus that has claimed over 500 lives nationally but none so far in this state.

Video here. Public Health Order here.

The "stay at home" order takes effect today and expires April 10. That's 17 days on top of the five days the state has already been restricting public movement to keep the number of deaths at zero. But if the health crisis is still seen as threat the order could be extended beyond April 10.

The Governor confirmed a recent report here that the public schools are unlikely to reopen by the state's April 6 deadline.

In announcing the order MLG said citizens are still gathering in a fashion that violates her original order restricting public movement and that's why the closure of all businesses deemed "nonessential" is necessary.

She and her administration can now only hope it works. If an extension of the order is needed, political and economic tensions are likely to overwhelm the government.

There are numerous exceptions to the order, including allowing hotels and RV camps to operate at 50 percent capacity. The grocery stores and take out restaurants stay open but just about all retail outlets are now closed.

The Governor pleaded with New Mexicans to obey the order, knowing that voluntary compliance is a must because widespread state enforcement is nearly impossible:

I need you to heed this order, I need every New Mexican to do their part. Everyone in this state has a social contract for responsibility for one another. If you don’t take this serious, then we can’t reduce the spread of COVID-19.

As of Monday the state reported a total of 85 coronavirus cases with 9 hospitalizations. Five of those  remained hospitalized.

With increased testing the virus is now found in many rural counties but most cases are still in the population centers of the ABQ metro, Santa Fe and Las Cruces.

The fact that there have been no deaths is a double-edged word. It is great news, but could be discouraging citizens from isolating and taking the outbreak as seriously as MLG and health authorities desire.

13 other states now have orders similar to the one MLG put in place. However, none of the states bordering ours has, although each of them has had virus deaths. 

The public health is of paramount importance but the wreckage of the state economy is a close second. If the clampdown is not extended, the damage will be extensive but manageable. A longer lockdown and the state will enter a depression that would exacerbate the state's already serious addiction and crime problems; prompt further depopulation by our younger residents; permanently close an untold number of businesses already teetering before the order; reduce the overall size of the economy and collapse the tax base.

THE ANNOUNCEMENT

The Governor has not hesitated during this crisis, making the tough calls and doing so with able cabinet officials assisting her. She has earned widespread praise for her demeanor and knowledge.  But political observers say Monday's news conference broadcast live on the major network affiliates and streamed online was a miss in a number of ways. We rounded them up.

--The announcement/news conference was widely promoted as starting at 3 p.m. but didn't go off until 3:17 p.m. Citizens fixated on their TV sets were left to wonder what was going on. That wait contrasted with the Governor's precise timing for today's "stay at home" order of 8 a.m.

--She did not appear in a close-up view, but from a distance at various angles depending on where each station positioned their camera. Instead of using a desk, she was at a large podium. That's her default choice but not the one for an announcement of this magnitude. (Think of how a major speech is made from the Oval Office).

--The news conference held at the state House chambers was cluttered with signs posted behind the Governor that were unreadable on television.

--The chamber emits a light echo that her microphone didn't eliminate and that hampered the delivery. Reporters questions were often difficult to understand. It didn't help that the stations did not picture the questioners, just the disembodied voice.

--The Governor went free form with this major announcement, not reading a prepared and concise script to keep her message direct and simple. She wandered into the weeds about the details of the virus, information that is important but not necessary. She never did read the actual public health order she issued which is quite readable and easy for the viewer to grasp.

The presentation, criticized as "amateurish" and "not reassuring" in some social media quarters, begs for examination by her staff and PR experts.

The take of the critics may be dismissed by some as nitpicking but this was one of the most consequential moments in state history--the blocking of the vast majority of New Mexico's social and economic movement. It doesn't get bigger than that and demands the best in crisis communications. How it's presented has an enormous influence on how the public responds. There could be more such moments to come for this Governor. To be effective as possible they will have to be accompanied by more gravitas and professionalism than was in evidence Monday.

This is the home of New Mexico politics.

E-mail your news and comments. (newsguy@yahoo.com)

Interested in reaching New Mexico's most informed audience? Advertise here. 

(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2020

Monday, March 23, 2020

State's Leadership Preps For Special Mid-June Legislative Session; House Speaker Egolf Weighs In On What To Expect, Says NM Is "Not In A Fiscal Crisis." Is "Cautiously Optimistic" On Coronavirus Resolution 

New Mexico's political leadership is prepping for a mid-June special legislation session as they grapple with the coronavirus pandemic and plunging oil prices.

House Speaker Brian Egolf tells us the session, which he would like to last "a day or two," would be a virtual meeting, unless the current health threat is greatly diminished.

Think of the 70 House members and 42 senators in webinars, with plenty of avenues for the public to participate electronically.

The Roundhouse is already known as a Petri dish during in-person sessions, sending colds and viruses quickly around the building. Many lawmakers are over 60 years old, the group most vulnerable to the virus.

Given current technology, Egolf says ensuring full public participation should not be a problem in a virtual session.

Egolf flatly states that New Mexico is not in a "fiscal crisis" thanks to the Governor and lawmakers setting aside reserves of $1.9 billion (an updated figure from the LFC that includes road money recently vetoed by MLG).

House Dems, he declared, will not support budget cuts to recurring spending such as recent teacher pay hikes but could look for savings in "one-time" expenditures such as road projects that have been stalled or don't have enough money to get the go ahead.

The worst thing we could do right now with all the chaos is to reduce or change the paychecks of educators, police officers, firefighters and state employees. No good comes from  putting less money into New Mexico's people. As the largest employer in the state by far, we need to support our employees, just as the private sector makes a payroll.

Egolf pointed to the ongoing Great Recession of the 2010's and presided over by GOP Governor Martinez who implemented austerity policies that dramatically cut state government.

The last administration tried to to use budget cuts to get out of an economic crisis. The results are plain. They utterly failed. I am very, very confident that Gov. Lujan Grisham will learn from the mistake of  her predecessor and we will not pursue austerity. The last time we did, Colorado and Arizona spent wisely and left us in the dust while it was a lost decade for New Mexico. 

Speaker Egolf
Egolf is in close consultations with the Governor as the health crisis unfolds. He praised her actions and says a resolution here may not be far off:

The Governor's decisions have been really difficult but she is getting nearly unanimous support among elected officials on both sides. It's been pretty remarkable. Look at Colorado or Washington and what happens when you delay the hard decisions  She hasn't. I'm cautiously optimistic that in two weeks we will see the virus curve flattening.

The Guv’s public health emergency order expires April 10. If she has to extend it, the consequences to the economy could be a calamity. No wonder Egolf is emphasizing the positive case. 

Egolf said Dem state reps are busy fielding calls from concerned constituents and troubleshooting issues such as unemployment and medical needs. He said a number of members of the caucus with specific expertise are offering suggestions to the administration on the coronavirus crisis.

WHAT ELSE?

We asked Egolf what other issues might be on the Governor's call for a brief special session, besides budget matters:

The bill to strengthen absentee voting provisions that died in the last session is needed more than ever as we head toward something close to an all-mail election in November; a bill to ease professional licensing requirements so we can tap out of state medical talent to deal with emergencies like coronavirus and a bill to keep unemployment taxes on business from soaring because of the mass layoffs we're experiencing. 

House Republicans raised eyebrows when last week they called on the Governor to immediately call a special session. Besides the obvious health concerns that need to be addressed before lawmakers convene, Egolf and MLG pointed out that a massive relief package is under consideration in DC that could send significant money to the state. A June session, they said, would account for that as well as more reliable estimated revenues from oil and gas.

Now in his fourth year as the House Speaker and with most of his foes within his own caucus gone, Egolf speaks with authority. He'll need it if he is to shoot down the budget hawks already circling the capitol and demanding a rollback of the MLG/Egolf agenda.

This is the home of New Mexico politics.

E-mail your news and comments. (newsguy@yahoo.com)

Interested in reaching New Mexico's most informed audience? Advertise here. 

(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2020
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