Thursday, May 11, 2023

Media Beat: New ABQ Journal Boss Faces Challenges And Hard Landing Continues For Ronchetti, Also: Guv Pandemic Powers Explained  

There’s a new boss at the Albuquerque Journal, but he does not come from local stock or a big city. Patrick Ethridge has spent most of his journalism career in small markets in conservative Nebraska and Indiana.

Ethridge takes over as executive editor of the newspaper at the end of the month, replacing Karen Moses, who is retiring after a lengthy career. 

Ethridge’s immediate challenge will be navigating new territory in a majority minority state after coming here from the culturally homogenous Midwest. 

At 45 the new editor gives the state’s oldest and largest circulation newspaper a bit of a younger face. Moses and her predecessor Kent Walz both led the paper into their late 60’s. 

Journal publisher William Lang stated the obvious in announcing the new hire, saying job one will be to transform the Journsl digitally as the printed edition slowly but surely fades away. 

Ethridge has a lot of experience with the Internet, but the secular trend of a waning interest in local news  and the difficulty of making the digital product as financially rewarding as the old print edition are steep hills to climb. 

The conservative editorial policy and news lean of the Journal is not expected to change with the new editor.


It’s been a hard landing for former TV weatherman, Mark Ronchetti. After two unsuccessful statewide races, one for the US Senate in’20 and the other for Governor in ‘22, Ronchetti is now soliciting advertising and public donations for a twice weekly hour long podcast he is producing with his wife Krysty. 

Ronchetti has apparently been unable to re-enter the TV world, most likely because of his political exposure. In short, he has become too hot to handle. Politics and the weather don’t mix.

In his first podcast Ronchetti notes that he has two daughters rapidly approaching college age, and wonders about his and their future financial security. 

Ronchetti does not rule out another run for political office but six months after his gubernatorial defeat he’s trying any way he can to stay out of the unemployment line. 

Ronchetti has also filed a lawsuit against one of his media consulting firms seeking damages because of the way they unveiled his campaign websites. He claims they put them up too early and forced him to leave his TV weather job earlier than planned. That job reportedly paid him about $200,000 a year   


Despite widespread grumbling, the extraordinary powers given to the Governor during the Covid  public health emergency remain fully intact. Efforts to limit that power at the Legislature have fallen flat. 

We asked Santa Fe attorney Cliff Rees, one of the authors of the original public health emergency legislation, to update us now that we are in the post pandemic era: 

The concern expressed by the sponsors of bills to restrict the powers of the Governor during a declared PHE is the possibility that a Governor will abuse the Governor's powers granted in the NM Public Health Emergency Response Act (NMSA 1978) without legislative oversight. 

 The NM Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the Governor's use of the public health emergency orders vis- a- vis closing NM businesses in her response to COVID-19 in: 1) MLG v. Reeb, NM Supreme Court Opinion issued November 5, 2020; 2) MLG v. Romero, NM Supreme Court Opinion issued February 15, 2021, and; 3) State v. Wilson, NM Supreme Court Opinion issued June 7, 2021, demonstrating there is expeditious judicial review of the Governor's actions during a PHE. 

The NM Legislature empowered the Governor and the Secretaries of Health and Public Safety to enforce public health emergency orders restricting business operations through the use of civil penalties imposed by the Public Health Emergency Response Act. 

Lujan Grisham v. Romero, 2021-NMSC-009, February 15, 2021: The Governor and the Secretary of Health are authorized to restrict or close businesses when necessary for the protection of the public during a pandemic and the renewed temporary closure of indoor dining at restaurants and breweries was not arbitrary and capricious. 

State v. Wilson, 2021-NMSC-022, June 7, 2021 : The issuance of the State's public health orders during COVID-19 do not support a claim for a regulatory taking requiring just compensation nor do the public health orders' restrictions on business operations regarding occupancy limits and closures support such a claim. Furthermore, the businesses must exhaust administrative remedies in the Public Health Emergency Response Act before seeking judicial relief. 

The PHERA was enacted by the 2003 Legislature in the aftermath of 9/11 after an extensive public process during calendar year 2002 in the aftermath of 9/11, including at least 8 Town Hall Meetings statewide and at least 3 presentations to Interim Legislative Committees. It received only 1 negative vote on the Floor of each House.

Not addressed in previous legislative debate is why the Governor has such extraordinary public health powers in the first place. The answer is that NM is one of about 10 US States that has a centralized public health system where almost all of the State's public health police powers are vested in the Governor and the NM Department of Health (DOH) since DOH was created during The Great Influenza, aka The Spanish Flu, in 1919. 

In 1919, 7 years after Statehood, NM was the only State without a State Health Department. Other States have hybrid public health systems which share public health powers between the State, Counties, Cities and Municipalities. The PHERA is based on the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act (December 21, 2001) developed by the CDC to assist States in the development of public health laws to respond to a public health emergency. 

The Model Act does include a section addressing the termination of a public health emergency by a State Legislature but both Governors Johnson and Richardson asked the bill drafters (I was one of them as an Assistant General Counsel for the NM Department of Health) not to include these provisions in the PHERA.  

The NM Legislature's part-time status, lack of salary and lack of staff expertise to perform oversight during a PHE (with the possible exception of fiscal oversight by the LFC) constitutes an additional compelling argument for a year-round professionally staffed Legislative Health and Human Services Committee to provide oversight over future public health emergencies that will likely occur when the NM Legislature is not in Session.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Former GOP State Senator Looks For Comeback And Could Have A Good Shot, Plus: Pirtle And Texas And A Ridiculous Tax Increase? 

Former Republican state Senator Candace Gould may have found a way back to the Roundhouse. After being defeated by Katy Duhigg in 2021 in her reelection bid for Senate District 10 she now tells us she will be running in the new Republican leaning Senate District 12. 

The current District 12 in ABQ is represented by retiring Democratic liberal Sen. Jerry Ortiz Pino.
It was chopped up in redistricting to benefit other Democratic senators, putting the new District 12 in the growing northwest metro area including parts of Rio Rancho. 

Gould or whoever secures the Republican nomination will have an excellent chance of going into the Senate. The new district is 37% Democrat and 37% Republican. It doesn’t get much better for the GOP than that. 

Other Republicans may be eyeing the opportunity but Gould may have the inside track given her name ID and solid fundraising record. 

As we finished writing this, we learned that GOP Sandoval County Commissioner Jay Block has also joined the senate district 12 race. Should be a good one.


First, this news out of Austin, Texas then some local reaction: 

A Texas legislative committee recommended Saturday that GOP Rep. Bryan Slaton be expelled for inappropriate sexual conduct with a 19-year-old intern. Slaton, from Royse City, could face an expulsion vote by the full House. Slaton, 45, has declined to comment  but his attorney last month called the claims “outrageous” and “false.” The House General Investigative Committee said Slaton gave the 19-year-old intern and another young staffer alcohol at his home, that he had sex with the intern after she was intoxicated, and that he later showed the intern a threatening email but said everything would be fine if the incident was kept quiet. Slaton also asked a fellow lawmaker to keep his behavior secret, the committee said.

In New Mexico it is not known if the woman that NM GOP state Senator Cliff Pirtle of Roswell was having an extramarital affair with is a Senate staffer but the rumor mill points in that direction. Pirtle’s wife .confronted the couple at a  Santa Fe apartment and has since filed for divorce. 

In the wake of the scandal Pirtle has said he will not seek reelection next year but plans on staying in the Senate until then. Here’s reader Dan Klein with his take:

I hate to give Texas credit for anything, but they are about to expel a lawmaker who had sex with a 19 year old intern (she wasn’t his wife). So what is wrong with New Mexico? Why aren’t they doing the same to Cliff Pirtle? By not acting it just reinforces the view of many citizens that our citizen legislature is just a bunch of good old boys and girls getting drunk and having sex with interns and staff and there are no consequences. It doesn’t matter if they are Democrat or Republican, they are all just there for the party.  

There’s been talk of a possible state Ethics Commission investigation of the Pirtle situation but nothing has surfaced yet.


Is it ridiculous to raise taxes to safeguard irrigation in the middle Rio Grande Valley when the state literally has billions upon billions in surplus revenue? Well, taxpayers are going to have to prepare for the ridiculous:

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District Board of Directors voted 5-0 Monday in favor of a 1 mill tax increase that will generate $4.3 million a year to be used solely for capital investment in equipment and infrastructure in the district’s nearly 100-year-old irrigation system. “The goal of this mill increase is to move us away from being reactive to the next infrastructure break,” said Jason Casuga, MRGCD chief engineer…The increase will affect all property owners within the Conservancy District’s boundaries, whether they are irrigators or not. It will cost the owner of a property assessed at $200,000 an additional $67 a year. Money resulting from the increase would be used to pay for some of the $175 million in priority projects. Those voting for the mill increase were Vice Chair Karen Dunning and board members Barbara Baca, John Kelly, Glen Duggins and Michael Sandoval. 

MRGCD could not line up area legislators to get more capital outlay in a year when the capital outlay budget almost busted through $1 billion? Did the Board even try? 

Chief Engineer Casuga, consider yourself the victim of an Alligator strike. We only wish the Gators had gotten wind of this ill-advised tax hike earlier so they could have participated in a preemptive strike. Ditto for the asleep at the switch conservancy district board. 

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Tuesday, May 09, 2023

Battle Of The Bonds; More On Unser and ABQ Museum Feud; Longtime Former Director Speaks Out 

Bond funding for the Albuquerque Museum is usually routine but this year a bitter argument broke out between museum supporters and City Council as the supporters claimed councilors were trying to shortchange the museum by pushing through a $4 million bond for relocating the Unser Racing Museum into ABQ from Los Ranchos. 

In the end the $4 million was approved for Unser as well as for bonds for a long planned ABQ museum educational center but at a lower level than initially proposed. Both items will be part of a $200 million Bond issue that will be presented to voters in November. 

We received a lot of mail about all this and today we hear from Jim Moore, the director of the Albuquerque Museum from 1979 to 2005:

The Unser racing museum is a small operation, and with less than 20,000 visitors and a budget that doesn't clear $300,000 I think that the board (if you can find a member list) has no serious track record of fundraising. Hence, the run for the public trough. 

My concern now that Council has put this $4 million in the package is about how the language in the revised $200 million Bond package will be presented. I don’t know if Mayor Keller has the political capital or the will to separate the Unser Museum $4 million from the normal museum bond language and make it a stand-alone project, but that is what should happen. 

The voters deserve transparency on this and it squares with the way Council has handled it, especially in saying that they didn't take the money from the Museum. Everybody knows that's a shell game and it's not true, but they declared it loud and clear. Making it separate gives it a fair shot, while hiding it is essentially a cowardly subterfuge, one by which, it appears, any number of individuals will benefit. 

As you know, previous bond language has always lumped everything together. If the Unser Museum (unnamed - no museum is actually named in bond language) is packaged into that kind of generic language it will breeze through on Albuquerque Museum's coattails and be home free. 

I have to assume that the $4 million for Unser is plucked out of thin air. They don't have a written program, or a design, much less a construction bid. They don't have a projection of annual operating costs or staffing. They have never said who will cover these expenses, but it is clear that the State which owns the current facility and land doesn't do it, and apparently the (unstated) game plan is to have the City absorb these costs once the capital dollars are in play. 

In addition to the generic question: "What will the $4M buy?” there are other serious budget-related questions regarding governance, and the "collection" and its value. 

As Moore pointed out and an administration staffer confirms, bonds for the museum have traditionally been presented to voters in a lump sum without line items. That’s still expected to be the case this year as well.


Readers continue to react to the death last month at 88 of former Governor Jerry Apodaca who served from 1975 through 1977. Here’s longtime lobbyist Ed Mahr:

Joe: I had the fortunate experience to work for the late Gov. Jerry Apodaca when in April 1977 I was named secretary of the Dept. of Corrections. Working for a "strong" governor like Jerry was a delight as his lone instructions to me were to run the department "professionally and within the legal parameters required by state statute." He supported his subordinates when they performed competently and quickly rid his cabinet of those who did not. He was a "no nonsense" chief executive who served his state with honor and class. Rest in Peace, my friend. 

The former Governor will lie in state at the Roundhouse on May 15 that and other memorial and funeral details are here.

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Monday, May 08, 2023

Heinrich Re-elect Off To Awkward Start; Competing Ambitions For Senate And Guv Clash, Plus: In-depth On His Seniority Outlook  

Senator Martin Heinrich erred when he doubled down by  announcing his 2024 reelection bid last week but not extinguishing speculation that his real goal is the governorship in 2026. 

If those competing goals continue to circulate voters could get confused fast. But an error doesn’t mean punishment will follow.

One of the most striking reactions—or non-reactions—to his announcement was the lack of a Republican response by both the national Republicans and the ones here on the ground. 

The DC Senate GOP appeared lame when it said it was still searching for a candidate to take on the two-term senator. The local GOP was simply silent. That leaves a lot of room for error for Heinrich.

Perhaps the 51 year old two term Heinrich continues to dangle gubernatorial prospects as a ploy to clear the field of potential competitors. But his chief rival could be Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland and she’s not about to back away from anything. She will also take her good time determining what her future political plans are and whether they include a Guv run. 

Heinrich would’ve been better off nurturing his governor ambitions privately. But when you’ve led a charmed political life such as his that probably comes as an afterthought.

As for that video in which he said he is “all in” on his Senate candidacy, our Alligators were unimpressed. One of them offered this review:

I thought for a guy with that much money running for a second term, and maybe trying to run for governor, it was weak. This has none of the sophistication that you saw with, for instance, Bill Richardson’s return to NM back in the day

The major DC political pundits all rate the 2024 US New Mexico Senate race either safe Dem or solid D. With unintentional help from the Republicans, plus nearly $2 million in the bank, Heinrich should be able to make voters forget his awkward start.


We recently put the question out on whether Heinrich climbing up the Senate ladder with a new plum committee assignment might dampen his enthusiasm for any gubernatorial run. We got this response on his prospects from longtime DC reader Michael Thorning:

I'm a former staffer to Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall and now work on government reform at the Bipartisan Policy Center in DC. Congress is one of my areas of expertise, if one can ever be an expert in it. 

You wrote of Sen. Heinrich's prospects for a committee chairmanship that might impact his calculations about a future run for governor. Senator Heinrich is next in line at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where he has been representing the state's interests since he arrived in the Senate in 2013. The likelihood of his ascent depends, paradoxically, on Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-WV). Manchin currently is chairman of the committee.

 If Manchin were not re-elected or does not run, Heinrich would almost certainly be up to bat. But as you note, the scenario also depends on Democrats' remaining in the majority. Manchin is expecting a competitive re-election bid in West Virginia and Democrats' majority prospects likely depend on him winning, which would also likely keep Heinrich from the committee chairmanship for now. 

Heinrich is similarly next in line on the Intelligence Committee. Current chairman, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), seems unlikely to leave soon and was last elected in 2020. Given his levels of seniority on other committees, Warner is not likely to ascend to the chairmanship of another committee, which might draw him away from the Intelligence. 

Heinrich has positioned himself on the Senate Appropriations Committee and is currently a subcommittee chairman, a "cardinal" in Washington lingo. Not since Senator Domenici has New Mexico had a member simultaneously on both the Energy and Appropriations Committees.  Heinrich is also currently the chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, an under-the-radar assignment, but one Senator Bingaman long kept and valued.  

Among his fellow Democratic colleagues who came to the Senate in 2013, which includes household names like Elizabeth Warren and Tim Kaine, Heinrich has likely amassed the most committee seniority 

Thanks, Michael. An excellent summation that makes advocates for New Mexico queasy that Heinrich would be leaving so much on the table if he were to exit. Well, maybe this too shall pass and the Senator is just experiencing a midlife crisis. 


We were sorry to hear of the passing of former state senator (1967-76) and Albuquerque businessman Leo Dow. We got to know the Republican lawmaker when he was the lieutenant governor candidate under governor nominee Joe Skeen in 1978. They lost that year to Democrat Bruce King. 

 Dow, a native of Chilili, was a middle of the road Republican with a close association to Senator Pete Domenici. He was also quite the businessman having run his well-known ABQ Leonardo’s lounge for many years. 

Gov. Lujan Grisham remarked:

Senator Dow was an esteemed leader in his community and a dedicated public servant. He bravely served our country during World War II before becoming a successful businessman and entering public service. During his time as a state senator he earned a reputation of working with colleagues across the aisle and in both chambers, and he was highly regarded and respected by his peers. He was particularly close with U Senator Pete Domenici, with whom he worked closely to ensure crucial funding and programs were supported in New Mexico. I send my deepest condolences…

 Leo Dow was 96.

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