Thursday, March 09, 2023

Independent Child Advocate Bill Now Approved By House And Senate By Huge Margins; Guv Has Threatened Veto But Votes To Override Appear To Be There, Plus: Voting Rights Action  

Victoria Martens
“We have a crisis going on in New Mexico,” Sen. Crystal Diamond said. “We’re seeing the most horrific cases of child abuse in the nation.

Thankfully the New Mexican legislature is in full agreement. Both chambers have now passed bills--by huge margins--to have an independent child advocate help oversee the troubled and often failing Children, Youth and Families Department, prompting talk of overriding any veto that could come from Gov. Lujan Grisham.

The bill (SB 373) was blasted out of the state senate on a 30 to 8 vote Wednesday after a similar one passed the House 59-6. Those are veto-proof margins and a clear message to the second term Governor that it is time to walk back her opposition or else risk legislative and public opprobrium.

MLG narrowly avoided a veto override last year after she vetoed pork barrel projects for state legislators by reaching a compromise. But this is much bigger--the safety and well-being of children in a state that has seen some of the most gruesome child murders imaginable, including the 2019 murder of four year old James Dunklee Cruz, the 2017 torture-murder of 13 year old Jeremiah Valencia, the 2021 fentanyl death of 12 year old Brent Sullivan, the murder and dismemberment of 10 year old Victoria Martens and the beating death of Omaree Varela

Sen. Diamond and other sponsors of the child advocate bill could not overstate the horror even if they wanted to.  

The separate House and Senate bills will now have to be reconciled. With overwhelming support in the legislature and the public there is no need to water anything down. 

No doubt a bill will be sent to the Governor as a result of the high moral calling brought about by unspeakable child abuse this state has repeatedly been witness to. We trust she will sign the bill. How could she not?


The Voting Rights Act approved by the Senate Wednesday and previously approved by the House is not an "historic" bill as the interest groups paid to say such things assert, but it is a good bill and extends the progress our state is known for when it comes to ensuring access to the polls. As Sec. of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver puts it: 

 The Voting Rights Act builds on our state’s already established position as a national voting rights leader by further improving both voter access and election integrity. As federal voting bills are stymied in Congress and voting rights come under attack across the nation, states like New Mexico must step up to protect these rights. The New Mexico Voting Rights Act balances the demands for voter access with the needs of maintaining our high levels of election security.

Our libertarian streak took hold when it came to the provision to automatically register folks to vote when they deal with the MVD. But they can later opt out. And the declaration of a school holiday on Election Day we found unnecessary but minor. 

The Act's most important provision is a Native American Voting Rights Act to improve access to polls on tribal land. The Act also permits voters to sign up just once and then be mailed an absentee ballot before all elections. 


Our coverage March 2 of a bill that seeks to prevent Holtec from opening a high-level nuclear waste storage site in SE NM (or anywhere else in the state) drew a response from the company. 

They say Las Cruces Dem Sen. Jeff Steinborn's legislation ((SB 53)--which has already passed the Senate as well as one House Committee--is an attempt to stop a "very good and safe project." 

Most New Mexicans recoil at the thought of such a site but in the interest of a free and open discussion
we run this argument from a company spokesman:

What Sen. Steinborn is trying to do is against federal law. Only the Feds can set the rules and regs for nuclear energy in the U.S., so while this may pass, it will end up in court because the state can’t do what Sen. Steinborn is proposing. 

He argues is that the state should give consent. They did, in this letter from then Gov. Martinez and a 2016 House Memorial 16 sponsored by Rep. Brown and then Rep. Garcia Richard (Los Alamos). The senate also passed a Memorial in 2016. 

With that letter and memorials, Holtec and the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance moved forward with the application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and have invested 8 years and over $80 million dollars to go through the very detailed process. The final environmental impact statement (FEIS) said the project would not harm the oil/gas industry, farming or ranching. 

The NRC staff recommended the Commissioners award the NRC license. A decision is expected at the end of the month and we expect approval. This project has support from the elected officials in SE New Mexico whose leaders have gone through a couple of election cycles and were re-elected with their platforms expressing support for Holtec. So  I guess the voters are okay.

Holtec also signed an agreement with the NM Building and Construction Trades Council to build the facility. Holtec also has agreements with the Hobbs Hispano Chamber and the Hobbs Chapter of the NAACP. Holtec plans to build a training center that will train workers to work in the storage industry and also build a manufacturing facility in the state. This is a great opportunity for New Mexico. 

We will point out that Martinez was a Republican Governor. Today we have a Dem Governor who is opposed to the site.

Also, arguing that in SE NM, "voters are okay" with the storage site negates that most voters in the state have said via polling that they are against high level nuclear waste being stored here. And transport of nuclear waste into the state--especially high level waste like expended nuclear fuel rods--is a statewide issue. 

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Wednesday, March 08, 2023

It's A Taxing Matter; Behemoth Tax Bill Lumbers To The Roundhouse Runway; 70 Pages Of High Impact Proposals Presented And Analyzed Right Here  

The tax man giveth and the tax man taketh away, or in this case the House tax committee. The panel, led by new committee chair Derrick Lente of Sandia Pueblo, passed on a 9-5 vote a 70 page omnibus bill this week (HB 547) that now goes to the full House and then the Senate. There's a lot to crunch so let's get to it. . .

Committee take: First up are those $750 rebate checks New Mexicans have been daydreaming about and that MLG indicated were coming their way. It appears they will have to lower their expectations because the tax bill recommends only $300 rebates to taxpayers from the oil and gas generated surplus. MLG is now countering the House offer with a $500 rebate.

Our take: Given the immense $3.6 billion surplus projected for this fiscal year (and we'd bet a bowl of Barelas Green that it will be more) plus the  billions accumulating in the revenue stabilization and early childhood funds, 300 bucks is a lowball rebate. 

If they can't do MLG's reasonable $750 for everyone, then they should do it for lower income taxpayers--those making less than $50,000 a year, and reduce the rebates higher up the income ladder. 

Inflation is not a mirage and neither is our status as a very poor state. The money is needed. And with outsized surpluses expected to continue in the fiscal years ahead, legislators owe it to the people to return a fair-sized sum. 


Scranton Joe gave the nation a big boost by increasing the federal child tax credit during the pandemic. It put a dent in childhood poverty, showing the credit works. The House tax bill's NM Child Income Tax Credit of up to $600 for low income families (increased from $175) and $400 to $200 for higher earners is right on target since the increased federal credit has disappeared with the pandemic.


Chairman Lente
They do get it right quite often. So it is with the proposed reduction in the state gross receipts tax. The committee bill takes it from 5 percent to 4.375% in July 2024. Last year MLG proposed and won a one-eighth cent cut in this tax. The steady chipping away at GRT is a break for both consumers and business--especially professionals who have to charge the tax for their services making them less competitive, plus the GRT is regressive, taking a larger percentage of income from lower earners than high earners. MLG was ridiculed by the GOP when she proposed that baby GRT cut, but it did put the state on the long sought path of lessening its dependence on this tax. 


Committee take: The bill would overhaul income tax brackets with lower rates for some demographics and higher rates for top earners — as high as 6.9% for individuals making more than $250,000 annually. 

Our take: Yes and no. Yes for the cut in the lower brackets and no to the tax increase for the high earners. This is not the time to raise income taxes. We have enough money stashed in the mattress to last several budget years even in the event of a major oil crash and the 5.9 percent tax rate is plenty. The economy here needs constant stimulation. Higher income taxes don't help. There may come a time when such an increase is needed but clearly now is not that time.


On the other hand this is time for the committee's plan to reduce the Capital Gains Tax from the sale of stocks and businesses etc. The rate has been too low for years, as the bull market raged on Wall Street with high returning stocks and bonds. The committee proposes that this 40% deduction on unearned income be capped at $2500, bringing NM in-line with 41 other states. The full House and Senate should concur to collect a fair share and gain future tax revenue. 


We just got done saying this is not a time to increase taxes, but we don't consider a tax on booze in the state that suffers from the worst death rate an alcohol tax. We consider it a behavioral health fee. It needs to go up to cut consumption to save lives and improve the quality of life here. 

Gone is that solid proposal to increase the tax by a quarter a drink. In its place is a one or two cent a drink increase. That sounds woeful and it is, but it is something and the tax has not been raised for decades. We say pass this itty bitty increase and then get more aggressive in the years ahead. (Tax supporters are still trying to get this to 15 cents a drink as the bill winds its way thru the process.)


The Committee proposes a "flattening" of this tax that would make it 5.9 percent. Currently there are two rates--4.8% and the 5.9%. Gov. Martinez led the charge to cut this tax but it turned out to cost the state treasury millions and failed to deliver the corporate jobs supporters said it would. This adjustment (okay, call it a hike) is long overdue. 


Committee take:
The committee proposes a $2,500 refundable personal income tax credit toward the purchase of an electric vehicle--or up to $4,000 for low-income residents, with an additional $300 credit for car-charging equipment and installation. 

Our take: We have our doubts on this as we read regularly of Tesla cutting prices to attract more buyers and other major auto companies also coming with lower priced electric vehicles. We get the clean energy angle, but are not sold on the size of these credits as the free market already is adjusting the pricing and thus the demand. We'll count ourselves neutral and listen to the floor debate for guidance.

And there you have the 2023 tax package (or some of it) presented and analyzed here with the goal of preventing your eyes from glazing over. 

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Tuesday, March 07, 2023

Time for Another Edition Of The Always Popular Reader Vox Populi; They Write Of A Salaried Legislature, Lawmaker Pensions And Reforming CYFD, Also: Child Advocate Plan On The Move 

It's been far too long since we had an edition of the always crowd-pleasing Vox Populi. That drought ends today. . . 

These lines in the Monday blog about the plan to have legislators draw salaries for the first time drew special attention from a lawmaker at the Roundhouse:

Those supporting salaries argue that it would make the Legislature more representative, attracting a wider range of candidates to run for the Roundhouse that now leans toward attorneys, business owners and other professionals who don't need a salary for legislative service. 

And now the reaction of the lawmaker who stayed anonymous:

You've accepted the inaccurate narrative that the Legislature is made up of lawyers, business owners and professionals. That doesn't describe the 27 members of the Senate Democratic Majority at all. Business owners are Senators Cervantes, Munoz and probably Padilla, though that's unclear. Lawyers who actually practice are Cervantes, Wirth, Ivey-Soto, Duhigg and Maestas. Sen. Baca is the only Republican practicing. 

Most Dem Senators are actually coming from the "unknown" categories. We really don't know how they earn a living, or know if their income comes indirectly from government jobs, grants, or as government retirees. The Legislature has seen an exodus of the business class, which explains the legislation getting passed and the inability to create a positive business reputation for the state to diversify. 

There are actually quite a few senators whose income is rather mysterious, despite the financial disclosure forms they fill out.

That there has been a turn to the left since the departures in 2021 of such Senate Dem conservative icons as John Arthur Smith and Mary Kay Papen is not in dispute. 


Roundhouse Reading
Our report Monday on the generous pension plan received by state lawmakers drew this from reader Dan Klein:

How nice that the same legislators who slashed PERA cost of living raises for regular retirees, turned around and gave themselves an unfunded pension raise! The small amount of money they contribute to PERA each year does not cover their pensions, so where does it come from? The same legislators appropriate money in the budget to cover their own pensions. What a scam. 

During this same ten year time period the legislature screamed that the PERA fund was not solvent and they put PERA retirees in their crosshairs, cutting their cost of living adjustments to almost nothing. At the same time their health insurance is going up astronomically. I personally would like to see a full-time legislature, and their pension program completely revamped so that they have to deal with the same budget tightening that tens of thousands of regular PERA retirees have to deal with. 

The idea of having a full-time, paid legislature surfaced in a serious fashion this session but it has not made much progress as the March 18 adjournment nears. 


Before we get to more Vox Populi, this news. That proposal to establish a child advocate office to provide more and better accountability for CYFD won unanimous approval from the House Appropriations Committee Monday: 

“Whenever a child is harmed, we must take immediate steps to understand what went wrong so that we can prevent future tragedies,” said lead sponsor Rep. Jaramillo. “House Bill 11 builds on the success of similar initiatives in other states, while addressing the unique needs of New Mexico, to bring greater accountability to CYFD and better protect our children.”

The House bill now goes to the House floor where approval is expected. Also Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved that chamber's version of the child advocate measure--SB 373. Passage through both chambers is looking promising but an MLG veto threat hangs over the hope. 

Now back to the must-read Vox Populi. . . 


Scott Chandler
Deming area rancher Scott Chandler sued the state and was awarded nearly $1 million over a 2013 NM State Police investigation under Gov. Martinez that targeted Chandler’s Tierra Blanca High Country Youth Program in Hillsboro. No criminal charges were filed as a result of the investigation. 

He also filed a successful defamation suit against Martinez political adviser Jay McCleskey for using that investigation  in a political campaign against him, and that brings us to this email from Clint Chandler, brother of Scott, concerning our continuing CYFD coverage:

Joe, I read with interest your mention of the many bills to reform the CYFD. Given the existence of those bills and related, broader, issues, the timing seems apt to mention my brother Scott has a lawsuit, which, if successful, would substantially pull back the veil at CYFD. This is presumably the last of Scott's lawsuits that, as you know, included complaints against the State of New Mexico and, separately, against Jay McCleskey. 

Scott possesses documents that memorialize depositions and other records obtained in discovery during the series of lawsuits. Scott could have used these items in court proceedings, if they were ruled admissible, but otherwise they were unavailable to the public. The CYFD has demanded the return of those items with the intention of destroying them. 

The case number is D-721-CV-2022-00001. The judge is Roscoe Woods. Since Scott is now a magistrate judge, he is unable to direct attention to this matter on his own. Given the legislative efforts to reform the CYFD, and the strong probability Scott's lawsuit will inform future reform discussions, I thought it desirable to submit this for your consideration to enter into the mix regarding the CYFD reporting and commentary.

Thanks for that Clint and for giving marching orders to the Legal Beagles focused on CYFD reform to look at that case and report to reform minded legislators and advocates. 


ABQ attorney and child welfare law specialist Deborah Gray made these comments in response to the newspaper's report on MLG's announced CFYD reform proposals:

The  headline, “Gov. orders shakeup at child agency,” really piqued my curiosity. “Yay!” I thought, “change is finally going to happen!” After reading the piece, I believe a more accurate headline would have read, “Gov. orders bureaucratic reshuffle at dysfunctional agency.” 

“Shakeup” implies massive change. Exciting. Bold. New. I got my hopes up. What came next, though, were just words on a page: the “office of innovation” within the Children, Youth and Families Department and a “new advisory council.” Say what? Oh, and also looking out of state for “experts” and rehiring people who have already worked there. Stale. . .

It is quite obvious to the most casual of observers, but apparently not to those entrenched in bureaucratic “thinking”: There cannot be any meaningful oversight of CYFD, by CYFD. Are there excellent workers and staff at CYFD? Absolutely. Can the agency be trusted to hold itself accountable? Of course not. Among the most fundamental issues that plague our entire child welfare system is best described by a word the governor used to describe CYFD: dysfunctional. . .

Constructing “new” and additional bureaucratic edifices would be an expensive distraction used to further bury the truth. . . Here’s an alternative idea: Let’s use the services of a professional interventionist to help us . .Our child welfare system is broken. . .The time to tinker around the edges has long passed. Massive change. . . is necessary. . .Our child welfare family can properly function to keep children safe only if we address our own issues first. Otherwise, the child welfare apparatus in New Mexico will simply continue to reflect and replicate the dysfunction and trauma it purports to address. 

And that, dear readers, is another edition of Vox Populi fresh from. . . 

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Monday, March 06, 2023

A Salary For NM Lawmakers? Not Without Some Political Risk, Plus: Legislators Get No Salary But Do Get A Generous Pension Perk; We Take A Deep Dive, Plus: Important Day Today In Quest To Reform Troubled CYFD 

Sending the voters a constitutional amendment to decide whether to provide legislators with a salary for the first time in state history sounds like a safe way to handle a hot-button issue, but it might be dangerous for senators and House members in swing districts. All legislators face re-election in November '24--the same time voters would be asked about a large permanent pay hike.  

As they often are on such matters, Republicans are unified in opposition. The House Saturday approved the amendment (HJR 8) on a 40-24 vote. If  it makes it thru the senate and voters give their okay, the amendment would establish a citizens commission to determine the salary legislators would receive beginning in 2026. (Conny amendments don't require gubernatorial approval.)

If the amendment makes it to voters will Democratic incumbents in districts where the R's have a shot be in the crosshairs? '24 is a presidential election year so that may give them cover as a higher turnout tends to benefit their party. Also, legislators in tough battles could maintain they only asked voters to decide the increase, not that they support it. But they would still be on the defensive and risks remain.

The strategy for the GOP is a layup: Have these senators and representatives in the majority done such a good job that they deserve a permanent pay raise? If the crime wave continues to rage they would have a good combination play. 

Those supporting salaries argue that it would make the Legislature more representative, attracting a wider range of candidates to run for the Roundhouse that now leans toward attorneys, business owners and other professionals who don't need a salary for legislative service. 

That may well be, but if you're a Democrat sitting in a vulnerable district you may want leadership to give you a pass on a bill that could set off political fireworks next election season.


Lawmakers currently get a daily per diem of at least $178 and $210 for high cost Santa Fe for each day they are in session or attend an interim committee meeting. Also, while New Mexico is the only state to not give a salary to legislators, they do have a juicy retirement plan--the only one in the nation that lets them collect at any age when they leave the Legislature. 

That retirement plan benefits were increased at the '22 session. How the plan works bears updating given the serious play underway for solon salaries. Attorney Charles Sullivan explains that after ten years of service a legislator hits the retirement sweet spot:

The golden parachute is now made of platinum. . . For a legislator who has served at least 10 years, his or her pension is computed by multiplying the IRS per diem for Santa Fe times 14% (increased from 11%) times 60 times years of service. . .Here's a hypothetical to show how generous the 10 year plan is.  

A male legislator begins service in 2009 and retires at the end of 2022 after 14 years. He will be 46 years old when he retires and has a life expectancy of 29.74 years. In 2022 the IRS per diem for Santa Fe is $202 (now $210). 

The legislator starts receiving his pension in 2023. We multiply $202 times 14% for $28.28. We next multiply $28.28 by 60 for $1696.80 We next multiply $1696.80 by the 14 years of service for an annual payment of $23,755.20. If we then multiply that number by a life expectancy of 29.74, we have a total of $706,479.65. Not too shabby. But wait. 

There is a cost-of- living provision in the statute. With a first year payment of $23,755.20 and an annual cost of living increase of 3%, after 29.74 years our retiree will have received an astonishing $1,115,608. And how much did the legislator have to contribute to qualify for this regal retirement? He contributed $500 per year for 2009 through 2011 ($1500), plus $600 per year from 2012 through 2018 ($4200) and $1000 per year from 2019 through 2022 ($4000). So, for $9700, he may receive over one million dollars.

14 years of service would be seven, two year terms for House members. Senators serve four year terms. 

The state pension system says a lawmaker who retires today with 10 years of service stands to collect a pension of $17,000 a year. 

The '22 increase was a nice perk but it did not apply to the roughly 204 retired legislators currently getting pensions. PERA administrators say the increase does not apply to past legislators who are none too happy about it and have quarreled with PERA about the bill's intent. 

In a letter to PERA administrators from one of the retired ex-legislators and forwarded here, it states that the average legislative pension in 2021 was $11,000 but jumped to $14,000 with the increase--but not for those already retired. We're told he PERA board has not taken up the complaint of the former lawmakers. 


It will be an important day today for that proposal (SB 373) to establish a chief child advocate (aka ombudsman) to hold the troubled Children Youth and Families Department accountable. The Senate Judiciary Committee takes up the measure that has two Republican sponsors--Sens Gallegos and Diamond--and one Democrat--Sen. Leo Jaramalillo. 

Committe chair Joe Cervantes has been showing impatience with the lack of progress at CYFD but Gov. Lujan Grisham has said she does not support the advocate, believing the administration can get the agency under control with new personnel, even though the last four years have seen more child related tragedies. 

To keep the advocate nonpartisan the appointee would be attached to the office of the attorney general and appointed by a panel of four top legislators and four Governor appointees. They would choose a chairperson to complete the nine member panel that would name the advocate who would have a six year term and could only be removed for wrongdoing by the state Supreme Court. 

CYFD is not all on MLG. Far from it. Remember, Gov. Susan Martinez named an advertising executive to lead the department and led it right into the ground. This is an institutional and cultural problem at CYFD. 

Supporters of the child advocate point out that over 40 states already have one. (See chart on left.) They are circulating this long list of unsuccessful "reform efforts" made in recent years by CYFD that are bewildering (and depressing) and that will be perused today by committee members. 

This is a top state issue with widespread voter concern. Senate Judiciary could do a service by getting the advocate bill out of committee and giving New Mexico a full legislative airing of the difficult issues facing CYFD and the state's at-risk children who find themselves under the agency's purview. 

The bill's sponsors need to stay on an even keel and bring both parties together to get this passed. Then the Governor will need persuading. This will be the most important legislation of the sponsor's political careers--no matter how long those careers last. 

They need to go to the mat. 

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