Thursday, February 25, 2021

Color Them Turquoise: Only Four Counties Get Coveted New Covid Ranking, Plus: MLG Political Pandemic Struggle; Impatience Grows; Does She Run Again? And: State Budget Bosses; Lundstrom In The Groove; Munoz Tries To Find Footing  

NM GOP photo
The state's most popular color grew even more so this week as MLG announced a new "turquoise" level for the coronavirus pandemic. Once reached, it allows a county to partially open their bars and entertainment venues. That's a biggie because they've been closed for nearly a year. 

Of course, this being Covid there's a hitch. Right now the counties of Catron, Harding, Sierra and Union are the only ones to reach the now coveted turquoise rank. And the last we looked there wasn't much nightlife or even day drinking going on in Pietown in Catron County. 

Still, it was a sign that gradually--ever so gradually--the pandemic is relenting. 

And that is none too soon for the Governor's political prospects. The impatience is palpable now, with high school students holding protests and coaches pondering a lawsuit to get out from under the restrictions that keep them from their sports. 

MLG has not often shown a stubborn streak but she has more than made up for it by adamantly refusing to let the kids resume their fun on the soccer and football fields. She is nearly alone in her position in the entire nation. 

It's not just high schoolers who are rebelling, signs are popping up around ABQ that take the Governor to task for the ongoing restrictions. 

Even the state's roll out of the virus vaccines, widely praised and ranked near the top in the USA, is the subject of growing criticism as citizens fearful of COVID but under the age of 75 remain largely shut out from getting shots. 

As for those political prospects, the Alligators and insiders now wonder aloud if those are being shaped with an eye toward a second try at a top job in the Biden administration, rather than a second run for governor next year.

MLG has $351,000 in her campaign account (although that dates from last October) not meager but not outstanding either for a race that will cost $5 million or more. 

And she's not known for a long attention span, jumping from the Bernalillo County Commission to Congress to Governor all in the span of only six years. 

We're not about to bellow "you heard it here first" but there is a vibe in the air. (No, Howie, our "Howie Watch" is not coming back quite yet.)


ABQ Rep. Deb Haaland was questioned for another day at her confirmation hearing before the Senate energy committee Wednesday, but the highlight of the day came after the hearing ended. (Video here.)

That's when committee chairman and key Dem Senate swing vote Joe Manchin of West Virginia announced he would be voting for Haaland's nomination as Secretary of Interior in committee and when it goes before the full Senate. 

His decision paves the way for the Laguna Pueblo member to become the first Native American cabinet secretary in history. Haaland, who has been under increasing attack from oil state GOP Senators, may have to name a West Virginia building after Manchin when she finally takes the helm at Interior.


Rep. Lundstrom
Big spenders quibbled with the proposed state budget as discussed here this week, but at least there is no train wreck over the main order of business of the session. The House passed the $7.4 billion document Wednesday, sending it over to the Senate on a 60-10 vote, with the votes against all coming from R's. 

The budget was ushered through by House Appropriations Committee Chair Patrica Lundstrom. Her increase in stature was noticeable. 

With John Arthur Smith, the longtime chair of the Senate Finance Committee no longer in Santa Fe, Lundstrom (and the House) are gradually taking back some of the power that was accumulated under Smith. Or you might say restoring the balance of power between the two chambers. 

Without Smith, known as "Dr No" for his tight fiscal practices, more moderate state budgets are in the offing.

Meanwhile, the new chair of Senate Finance, George Munoz, ran into trouble this week when a bill he sponsored (SB 226) to help out small cities, including his hometown of Gallup, was defeated on an 8 to 3 vote in the Senate tax committee. 

The measure would have provided a handful of cities with populations of 10-25K some relief for money they are losing because of the state's repeal of the tax on food. A hold harmless provision that has the state reimburse the cities for the lost revenue is being phased out. The Munoz bill would have allowed the small cities to continue to receive much of the reimbursement.

It wasn't an earth shaker, but six of the no vote were from fellow Dems of Munoz, chair of the powerful Finance Committee, so what gives? 


This week we referenced the district of retiring ABQ City Councilor Don Harris as being in the the far NE Heights. His district is mainly in the SE Heights. 

Finally, on the wagyu beef beat--Japan or local--we get this from reader Andre Larroque: 

Anyone can take their Toyota, Honda, or Kawasaki down the Turquoise Trail to Madrid and pick up a ‘Mad” Chile burger at the Mineshaft Tavern. It’s made from the real local Wagyu beef you mentioned and sourced from a little ways further down the road at that same place which has a gate on the road - a Wagyu-gate.

Have a beef?  We welcome your comments, criticisms, original recipes and cries of existential angst.

Reporting from Albuquerque, I'm Joe Monahan. 

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Haaland's Potent Symbolism Confronted By Rigorous Questions From GOP Senators At Confirmation Hearing; They Drill Down On Hot Buttons; She Defers To White House, Plus: More From The Waygu Beat  

Rep. Haaland
Republicans on the Senate Energy Committee didn't deliver a make or break moment as they went after the nomination of ABQ Dem Congresswoman Deb Haaland for Secretary of Interior at her confirmation hearing Tuesday. But their repeated drilling down on complex issues facing the department revealed anew the symbolic nature of the Haaland appointment--as the first Native American to serve in a presidential cabinet--not someone who is going to be barking orders or pushing back against the White House on policy. (Full hearing here.)

Haaland repeatedly deferred to the new president's policies when confronted with her progressive (and often controversial) stances in favor of banning oil fracking and new oil pipelines. She didn't disavow those positions but said they are not those of the president's and that is what will guide her as secretary.

Haaland repeatedly told the GOP questioners that she would "study" and "be briefed" on a wide array of issues, even though she was nominated by Biden over two months ago. That broadbrush response would probably not be acceptable for another nominee, but again the massive symbolism (or identity politics) surrounding this nomination has given Haaland more leeway than a run of the mill appointment and she took full advantage of it. 

The Dems exercised a deft political move when they had legendary Alaska GOP Rep. Don Young, the longest serving GOP member of the House (50 years!) and a master of Interior issues, introduce Haaland to the committee along with Sen. Martin Heinrich. Young's support may have dampened the enthusiasm of the Haaland opposition. 

Also, there were more high profile cabinet confirmation hearings being held at the same time as hers (attorney general and HHS Secretary) and that meant banning fracking was not going to be an excitable headline in the national media.

Other takeaways from the first round of the hearing with the second round today at 8 a.m. NM time. (Stream here.)

--As Haaland repeatedly told the Senators she would defer to the White House on key decisions, a GOP lawmaker reminded the nominee that she would be asked to make recommendation on those issues, not just play along. That revealed the challenge ahead for Haaland to distinguish herself as secretary beyond being a symbolic first. 

--Haaland's non-confrontational demeanor served her well when her positions were challenged. She was careful not to pick a fight that could ramp up opposition in the full Senate which is evenly divided between R's and D's and who must confirm her appointment after Senate Energy. 

Van der Heide
--Haaland's generalized answers put insiders on notice that staff power will be significant at Haaland's Interior. That points to Jennifer Van der Heide who the Biden administration recently named Chief of staff at Interior. Until then, she was Chief of Staff to Rep. Haaland. Van der Heide is an attorney with deep experience in tribal policy and is seen as an important player in securing Haaland's nomination. And if anything left of center is going to get out of Interior, Van der Heide's fingerprints will be on it. 

--Members of the committee were an impressive bunch. From Dem Sens. Manchin and Wyden to R's Barrasso and Daines, there were no slouches. All were at the top of their games and Haaland had to take notice. She's a relative newcomer to that kind of lion's den but she handled it with humility. Asked by Chairman Manchin whether she would be willing to come back today for a second round of questions, she replied: "I'll do whatever you want me to." That had to be music to the senatorial ears. 


While Haaland was testifying the campaign to take her congressional seat continued. Dem Victor Reyes announced that Sec. of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver will do a Facebook event with him tonight at 6 p.m. And Dem Antoinette Sedillo Lopez has been endorsed by the Adelante Progressive Caucus. 


In blogging about MLG's contingency fund purchase of expensive Wagyu beef, much of which is imported from Japan, reader Bob Owen chimes in:

Wagyu beef is raised at the New Mexico’s Lone Mountain Ranch near Madrid. Perhaps the governor is keeping it local by supporting New Mexico ranching and business. 

The Guv Mansion Wagyu was purchased at a Santa Fe grocery store and is indeed likely of the homegrown variety. But then with rich guys like Alan Webber and Jerry Peters hanging out up there, it might be the imported stuff. (Hey fellas, we're free for lunch.)

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Tuesday, February 23, 2021

State House Budget Makes Modest Attempt At Putting Huge Surplus To Work, Plus: How Fiscal Conservatism Endures In Santa Fe No Matter Who Is Elected, And: Longime ABQ Councilor Harris To Retire 

A pedestrian FY 2022 state budget that makes a modest attempt at putting to work an immense budget surplus in what will soon be a post-pandemic New Mexico passed the House Appropriations Committee Monday and headed to the full House.  

When all was said and done the budget stood at $7.4 billion, a 4.6 increase over the current one that ends June 30. The reserves, which have skyrocketed to $2.7 billon or over 35 percent of the budget because of a new bull market that has taken the oil price over $60 a barrel, were tapped for $1 billion, leaving $1.7 billion in reserve or just under 25 percent, more than double the traditional reserve of 10 percent.

The budget does contain $400 million in needed pandemic economic relief but contains no sweeping measures. State employees and teachers get a 1.5 percent pay hike that will barely register when their health costs are accounted for, and while the House speaker says the budget "reimagines" the state economy, the major attempt at that seems to be a $300 million one time appropriation for roads. Broadband gets a mere one time pop of $30 million. What if the legislature reversed those numbers? That would be reimagining.

The budget passed the committee, chaired by Rep. Patricia Lundstrom of Gallup, unanimously. Not one dissent to the state's governing document among the 19 members? How's that for the fighting spirt? Then there's that news release from the state GOP actually praising the new budget. 

You did some good work, Patty, but when no one complains and the R's tout a budget, you left too much money on the table. Why? To avoid an argument?  Did the R's seek unanimous budget compromises when they controlled the House for two years starting in 2015? Not a chance. 

With a 45-25 majority, House Dems have more than enough troops to wage battle and recast policy for a rapidly changing economy and a fading New Mexico. But they don't like to fight. They like the status quo and ultimately they lack the will. And that bring us to this. . . 


How does mostly conservative fiscal policy endure year after year in Santa Fe Fe no matter the economic outlook or the partisan breakdown of the legislature? To find out travel into the legislative weeds with a Roundhouse veteran.  It's a bit lengthy but whether you're a newcomer or an old-timer it is a must read:  

Joe, I was at the legislature as an agency representative for 14 years. In my view, most legislators want to do the right thing. They take their jobs seriously. But they get a whopping 30/60 days to pass all the bills for the year, on top of making sure they bring home the bacon for their districts. They can't possibly have all the necessary information to make sound decisions, so this means they rely heavily on one guy: David Abbey, director of the Legislative Finance Committee.

David Abbey
David and his staff theoretically are supposed to provide complete and, ideally, neutral, information to the members and let them draw conclusions based on facts alone. But in my experience, that's not what happens. Instead, David imposes his will on the members through the analysts, and their Fiscal Impact Reports (FIR). Want a good bill to die quickly? Give it a scary FIR analysis and load it up with millions of dollars of costs that may or may not bear any relationship to reality. Want a terrible bill to pass? Edit out any negative language, lowball the financial impact and you're good to go. 

David and his staff are among the first to meet and "train" every incoming legislator. Why do progressive ideals die as soon as newbies walk through those heavy, brass doors at the Roundhouse? It's not because the legislators magically lose the will--it's because they get the scare treatment and quickly learn to fall in line if they want to accomplish anything. This isn't to say David is a bad guy, he's not at all, he's just fiscally conservative. He has done tremendous work for the state, if you believe that pinching every penny is the right thing to do. 

For decades he successfully executed the will of (former Senate Finance Committee Chairman) John Arthur Smith and other conservatives before him, and, to his credit, he has saved the state from some real financial disasters. But this is to say that you cannot look only at the legislators and wonder why things aren't getting done. There is a huge and powerful organization (the LFC) choreographing both legislative chambers that is unknown to 99% of the voting public, and they are staunchly conservative. If the progressive arm of the legislature has any hope of executing their agenda, they have to replace the leadership at LFC. They have to hire people who will support investment in early childhood education, who will take risks on new and innovative programs to attract good businesses and educated, qualified people to this state. 

We have seen what 20 years of fiscal conservatism has done for New Mexico--it has kept us at the bottom of all the good lists and at the top of all the bad ones. The voters here want change; they've told us this loudly and clearly by eviscerating every politician who trends conservative. So why do we have the most powerful and influential legislative organization still being run by a fiscal conservative? Why do the progressives keep employing someone who works against their interests?  They need to hire someone who will more than reluctantly support their agenda, someone who has serious progressive chops and who will help them push these policies through. 

Now that is excellent analysis, and you ain't going to get it anywhere else, kids. 

Abbey is a highly competent public servant who is in his late 60's and has given signals that he may retire in the not too distant further. When he does the fiscal hawks will move rapidly to clone him. Will the centrists and progressives have the will to break their grip on all that budget power? That's the question. The answer is worth billions.


Councilor Harris
Longtime GOP City Councilor Don Harris says he will not seek re-election to his far SE Heights ABQ City Council seat. The decision is a blow to the R's who now face the prospect this November of losing District 9 which has grown more moderate and Democratic during the Harris years. The Council is currently divided 6 to 3 and could go to 7 Dems because of the Harris retirement. 

Harris, an attorney, was first elected in 2005. His departing release says:

"One of his most impactful pieces of legislation was the resolution that devotes 2% of the biannual bond proceeds for Open Space purchases, which has resulted in millions of dollars of Open Space purchases, and will continue for the foreseeable future. . . . He (was among) the deciding votes that stopped a street car from being built along Central Avenue. “I have worked with three excellent Mayors,” Harris said. “There is no ‘aisle’ dividing our dais at City Hall. We all do our best to work together for our great City.” 

Harris, 58, survived a recall election early in his tenure and never looked back, winning re-election with solid margins. And he probably would have an easy run for re-election this year. 

He tended to his district well, but Harris and the "excellent mayors" he served with reigned over a city increasingly besieged by an ongoing crime wave that crippled the economy, put the brakes on population growth and has seen APD become a shell of its former self.  

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Monday, February 22, 2021

Waving The Wagyu: MLG'S Trio Of Missteps Finally Give GOP Something To Work With; Consultants Weigh In On Damage, Plus: Another Divide: Pricey Private Schools Swing Open their Doors While APS Kids Remain Locked Out  

Wagyu ribeye
It's been a miserable streak for the GOP but they're getting a break, thanks to a trio of missteps by Gov. Lujan Grisham. Whether the errors translate into election success is another matter, but the R's now at least have material to work with. 

None of the three missteps alone is that impactful, but if tied together consultants on both sides say they could do lasting damage to the Guv's image. One explains it this way: 

First, there was "jewelrygate" where MLG had an ABQ jewelry store open their doors to fulfill a remote order, despite such retailers being shut down because of the pandemic. 

Then there's those big pay raises she gave to key staff members as most New Mexicans did without raises or worse. 

Now there's the reveal of her purchase of over $6,000 of groceries--some quite expensive--with her contingency fund. 

The groceries were for pampering guests at the Governor's Mansion, even as she warned folks not to share their homes with people other than family and while many New Mexicans lined up at food banks. 

Taken together, that's enough to craft an advertising campaign positioning her as an out of touch, spoiled aristocrat. Whether the incidents stand the test of time is the issue. 

The state GOP has gone to work, calling the Governor "Living Large Lujan" and "Greedy Grisham:"

Greedy Grisham’s behavior, while it may be legal, is hardly gubernatorial; it’s cruel, insensitive and reinforces the image of a governor who kills jobs for some New Mexicans while living large. It is ever clearer who our Governor really is and what her priorities are. This is not good government. This is not efficient government. This is hypocritical government.

MLG admits she fumbled on the groceries that included a cut of Wagyu beef, a fat-laden steak, the best of which is imported from Japan and sells for $15 an ounce or more. (Wagyu is not related to the lowly chicharrone, the fatty snack of choice of many of her constituents.)


Sen. Cruz
The electorate loathes when politicos preach one thing and do another e.g. the recent flaps with Sen. Cruz over his Cancun trip and California Governor Newsom's pandemic outing to a pricey restaurant.

Never mind that the infractions are relatively minor, they can leave indelible marks on a leader's character and crater their polls. 

Our previous Governor saw her political aspirations collapse when in 2015 she hosted a staffer Christmas party at an upscale hotel where she got drunk. In comments captured on tape she berated hotel staff when they brought noise complaints to her attention. 

For MLG, the first order of business is to stop the self-inflicted wounds and meet with regular New Mexicans. She's been closed off from the public, sticking to a stay-at-home schedule that has left her vulnerable and perhaps out of touch.

For the GOP the job is to keep alive the negative MLG imagery and finding a strong Governor candidate, a task that's proving as elusive as finding Wagyu beef at your local Smith's.


MLG took a hit for the wagyu mishap but she's speaking for the majority of parents as she comes down hard for returning kids to schools after a nearly year-long absence. Her view clashes with that of the teachers' unions who, despite recommendations from national health authorities, continue to fight to stay home.

The Governor criticized APS when the school board voted 4-3 to continue to keep students out of classrooms. It's not only health concerns driving that decision, APS is having a hard time getting teachers to go back to class. They just won't go. 

The school board and the kids are essentially held hostage, even as the pandemic dissipates. (The governor does have the power to let school sports resume and impatience is growing over her reluctance.)

The public school closings reveal a great divide. While APS students remain shut out, students at ABQ Academy, where tuition runs over $25,000 annually, kids started to return to campus this month and all students will be back in the classroom today. Ditto for other private schools where kids are in class with their friends and in a social structure that keeps them mentally healthy and advancing academically. (And that's happening across the nation).

No wonder so many NM parents do whatever it takes to get their kids into elite schools and leave behind the bickering of the public sector.


State Rep. Melanie Stansbury has won the endorsement of Washington Senator Maria Cantwell for the Dem nomination for the soon-to-be vacant ABQ congressional seat of Rep. Deb Haaland:

. . . A sociologist who works on water, climate, and science policy, Melanie has spent her career working to address the economic, social, and environmental challenges our communities face and I know she will do the same in Congress.

Cantwell is a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources which tomorrow morning at 7:30 NM time will begin confirmation hearings for Haaland as Secretary of Interior. The hearing will be streamed live on the committee's website and archived for later viewing.

We reported about the lawsuit filed by GOP congressional hopeful Eddy Aragon that asks a NM federal court to stop the major parties from having their central committee members pick the nominees, in effect forcing them to conduct primary elections. Here's a copy of that lawsuit and an excerpt:

Allowing unconstitutional appointment of candidates in the 2021 special election for New Mexico's 1st congressional district to proceed would irreparably harm Plaintiff and the voters of New Mexico both by denying representation of the voters. . . in the near term, and by permanently sowing distrust in federal elections. The U.S. Supreme Court has found such threats to constitute irreparable harm on numerous occasions. The stakes in this case are too high to ignore.    

If the process is not interrupted, the special election for the ABQ seat could be held in June.  

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