© 2022 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 3/7/22
Lawmakers begin increasing the pipeline of nurses
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
We’ve known for years that we need more nurses, but the pandemic really drove the point home.
Told at the opening of the 30-day session that New Mexico is short more than 6,220 registered nurses and certified nurse specialists, legislators approved $15 million a year to expand nursing education programs. This is a bigger commitment than the one-time $15 million they approved during the special session last year.
Lawmakers passed other measures that benefit nurses, along with help for nursing homes. House Bill 91 streamlines the process for nurses and other out-of-state healthcare workers (often military spouses) to be licensed in New Mexico. This allows them to work while fulfilling license requirements within a year. It passed unanimously in both chambers.
HB 163 gives in-state, full-time hospital nurses a $1,000 tax credit for 2022. The same bill exempts Social Security income from the state’s personal income tax.
These measures are on the governor’s desk.
It’s a start. Healthcare experts say legislators can’t just check nursing off their lists. They have to take the long view.
Higher education must hire more faculty and accept more nursing students. But hiring nursing instructors removes nurses from healthcare, and educational salaries don’t match what a nurse typically earns.
The situation is much worse in rural areas. Only 16% of nurses live outside cities, but rural residents tend to be older and have more chronic conditions, wrote Charnelle Lee, director for undergraduate nursing programs at Western New Mexico University.
There was some fear that the pandemic and the horror stories coming out of hospitals about exhausted, burned out healthcare professionals, especially nurses, could discourage enrollment. But people still want to be nurses, Lee writes, and some of them are individuals for whom nursing is a second career.
Our institutions are still turning away qualified applicants for lack of capacity, so we desperately need to expand nursing programs. And the programs need to accommodate nontraditional students who hold down other jobs while they’re in school, Lee writes. In my own family, a young woman working a full-time restaurant job while she tried to keep up in a nursing program failed her exams because she couldn’t juggle both.
Lee pointed out that nursing programs are usually in urban areas, but nurses tend to stay in the communities where they’ve trained. New Mexico fares better in that regard. A look at the state’s budget reveals funding for program expansion at college branches around the state.
Another bill that awaits the governor’s signature will support nursing indirectly.
In 2019 a measure passed the Legislature that delivered more funding to nursing homes, but it was set for repeal in 2023. Senate Bill 40 makes it permanent.
The state levies a modest daily surcharge on facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities for non-Medicare “bed days,” according to a legislative analysis. The facilities pay the Taxation and Revenue Department, which in turn distributes the money to the Health Care Facility Fund and the Disability Health Care Facility Fund. The state Human Services Department, which administers the two funds, uses the revenue to obtain federal Medicaid matching funds and increase payment rates to facilities.
Katrina Hotrum-Lopez, secretary of the Aging and Long-term Services Department, expects the funding to help long-term care facilities with staffing, which has been difficult, especially during the pandemic. It will also improve the quality of care.
In 2021, its first year of operation, the program delivered an $86 million increase in Medicaid. Some of this funding is paid for performance improvements. So far, HSD has paid $127.21 million to facilities for reporting quality data and improving quality scores.
There’s much more to be done to beef up the ranks of nurses. The last two years have scared us into taking the first steps.
© 2022 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 2/28/22
Want police reform? Listen to police chiefs
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
One step forward and one back for police reform.
New Mexico’s police chiefs say they don’t want bad cops on the force. Lawmakers this year gave them more recruiting tools. But when it comes to hiring and discipline, the state leaves them flying blind, and this year the Senate scuttled a much needed database that could inform hiring decisions.
After a police shooting or excessive-use-of-force incident, the state Law Enforcement Academy Board investigates, but it takes so long that a bad officer can resign from one department and get hired by another. The backlog goes back several years.
In the crime bills bundled into House Bill 68 and passed by lawmakers but not yet signed, one mandates dividing the academy’s governing board into a certification board and a new training council, along with new training standards for officers.
Chokeholds are out. Officers would learn crisis management, de-escalation, peer-to-peer intervention, stress management, racial sensitivity and reality-based situational training.
Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, thought the new training program would just create more bureaucracy, reported the Santa Fe New Mexican. The root cause, he asserted, was drug use fed by trafficking across the Mexican border.
Sharer should talk to his own police chief more often. Chief Steve Hebbe has said repeatedly that better training would prevent trouble later on.
The training council’s members would be the academy director, heads of satellite academies and seven appointees of the governor – a prosecutor, a public defender, a tribal police chief, two people in adult education, a behavioral health provider and a person outside law enforcement.
The certification board would be responsible for granting, denying, suspending and revoking officers’ licenses. It would include a retired judge, a city police officer, a sheriff, a tribal police officer, a civil rights or defense attorney, an attorney who defends public agencies and a public defender. Last year, the governor vetoed a similar bill – the only meaningful piece of police reform and the only bill supported by police. Her beef was that the new board makeup wouldn’t have enough civilian oversight.
As legislators debated crime bills, The Paper, an alternative news organization, reported that in the last three years, the academy board decided 205 police misconduct cases, and more than half the cited officers kept their law enforcement certifications.
In one case, a Portales officer was terminated after a complaint of possible child sexual abuse and an Internal Affairs investigation. The police chief filed a misconduct report with the academy board. The board lost the materials. The police chief resent them. The board never spoke to him and ultimately dismissed the case. The officer is now working in another community where his new boss was unaware of the charges.
Sadly, there are many such stories.
After the board fumbled another case, Roswell Police Chief Philip Smith told The Paper: “What it leaves me with is a neighboring police department hiring the people I fire for dishonesty, and then my officers have to work with them again.”
Portales Police Chief Chris Williams said: “We don’t want these guys. We don’t want them anywhere. We want bad cops gone.”
The one piece of the crime bill that would have remedied this problem died on the Senate floor. It would have required the state Department of Public Safety to create a database to track police misconduct. Police chiefs say they need a centralized information source to assure they make good hires.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, removed the database at the 11th hour over “timing issues.” The bill gave DPS a year to create the database.
If that wasn’t enough time, why didn’t they amend the bill to provide more time? Maybe because it was the night before the session’s end, and everyone was exhausted and not thinking clearly.
One step forward, one back.
© 2022 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 2/21/22
It’s been a long, slow road for storefront lending reform
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
When I started writing about storefront lenders in 1999, I was a business editor and had covered banks for years. From a banking perspective these operations, also called predatory or payday lenders, made sense after a fashion.
They were a needed service. Banks don’t want to lend $200 because they can’t make money off such a small loan, and bank regulators require evidence of good credit. A storefront lender can make a quick, small loan to anybody, but because their customers are more likely to default, their interest rates are high.
If a borrower couldn’t repay on time, the loan rolled over; people took out a second loan to pay off the first one and a third loan to pay off the first two. A $200 loan could quickly become a $3,000 obligation. Storefronts target unsophisticated borrowers, especially poor people.
The lenders and their lobbyists have convinced legislators of their usefulness and their math. Until this year.
The Legislature finally passed a bill that slices their 175% interest rate down to 36%. It’s good news, but why did it take so long?
In 2005 New Mexico was one of two states with no limits on storefront lenders’ interest rates or the number of rollovers. Which was why storefront lenders mushroomed from 23 to 520 in the 10 years beginning in 1995.
Legislators tried to crack down in 2007, but the storefronts found ways around it. The Attorney General in 2009 sued two companies with interest rates above 1,400%.
In 2011 Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, carried two bills to cap loans of $2,500 or less at 75%, restrict fees for car title loans, and require detailed reporting to the state. Only the reporting survived. In 2015, a Senate committee killed a bill to cap storefront lending at 36% during a hearing packed with a Who’s Who of lobbyists, including a former attorney general, former house speaker, former state representative and former director of the state Financial Institutions Division. They said the cap would destroy their clients.
New Mexico In Depth reported that five of the six senators who voted to table the bill received campaign contributions from the industry.
That year Lundstrom’s bill to cap rates and prevent rollovers also died, but she did get a memorial passed calling for a study.
Rate caps died again in 2016, but the following year Lundstrom got a compromise bill passed to cap interest at 175%, eliminate some fees, and ban payday loans. It was controversial. Republicans opposed new regulation of the lending industry, and some Democrats thought 175% was still too high. Lundstrom told me she believed 175% was needed to keep the lenders afloat.
That’s where things stood last year, when another 36% bill stalled in the House. Inexplicably, Lundstrom amended the bill to cap loans up to $1,100 at 99% and cap larger loans at 36%.
The amendment was superfluous. Last year credit unions stepped up, which was a major development. Several, including a credit union in Gallup, had been making small-dollar, unsecured loans for some time at rates below 36%. That blew holes in the tired old argument that rate caps would leave people with no place to get a small loan.
The Senate didn’t agree to the amendment, the House refused to negotiate, and the bill died. New Mexico Ethics Watch reported this year that lobbyist arguments against a lower cap carried more weight than campaign donations. In the 2020 election cycle, Lundstrom received the highest contribution, $7,500 – not a huge amount in the big picture, but she was still trying to help lenders.
This year, a 36% cap prevailed, although a compromise allows a 5% origination fee for loans smaller than $500. Maybe both sides have finally been heard.
© 2022 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 2/14/22
New Mexico could lead in clean hydrogen fuel production
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
In 2020 the Escalante Generating Station closed, throwing 225 workers out of jobs, and the Marathon Petroleum oil refinery closed at a cost of another 220 jobs. Good jobs.
These events would be devastating anywhere, much less in the state’s poorest county.
Is it any wonder that Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, is trying to move heaven, earth and the Legislature to create new jobs?
Lundstrom, who is also the area’s economic developer, is on her third bill this session to start a new hydrogen industry.
Moving heaven and earth would be easier. Although the governor has made hydrogen one of her priorities, legislators of both parties have offered hypocrisy and hysteria masquerading as “concerns.”
Environmental groups tried to kill the baby in its crib before it was even introduced, arguing that hydrogen is a “false solution” that would add more pollution and was a giveaway to oil and gas. Lundstrom’s co-sponsor is Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, an ardent environmentalist.
The first bill proposed tax breaks for low-carbon hydrogen production, use, refueling, and electric generating facilities. The idea is to create hydrogen hubs through public-private partnerships that could apply for funding from the New Mexico Finance Authority. New Mexico could also compete for hydrogen grants from the federal infrastructure act.
From the beginning Lundstrom and her co-sponsors have said hydrogen isn’t a sole remedy in the decarbonization needed to address climate change, but it has a crucial role because some forms of transportation, like trains and 18-wheelers, don’t lend themselves to electrification.
In a committee hearing last month, the business community testified in favor of the bill. The New Mexico Chamber of Commerce said it “would make New Mexico a leader in decarbonizing the transportation sector and potentially open up a variety of other industry opportunities, like ‘green’ concrete manufacturing.”
The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association’s Robert McEntyre told the Santa Fe New Mexican that New Mexico should “embrace policies that put our state at the center of this innovation, not outside of it.
“Low carbon hydrogen has the potential to build on New Mexico’s existing energy strengths while delivering jobs, investment, and growth like we’ve seen in the Permian and San Juan basins in recent years.”
Oil patch Republicans on the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee must have missed that testimony.
Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, made the motion to table the bill and declined to talk about it to a reporter. Townsend’s goal as House Minority Leader is to torpedo anything the governor tries to do, and he’s not overly fond of Lundstrom, having tangled with her in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.
Three other Republicans from energy-producing areas joined two Dems to table the bill. Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, complained the state was moving too fast, and “Native Americans are not for this energy.” Navajo Nation officials have endorsed the bill. Who speaks for the people who lost jobs in McKinley and San Juan counties?
Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, was uncomfortable with subsidies. And yet New Mexico is loaded with breaks and handouts for favored industries.
Rep. James Strickler, R-Farmington, whose city was the first to propose converting a coal plant into a carbon-capture facility, said, “These exotic energy opportunities are so expensive.”
Lundstrom and her co-sponsors tightened up the bill, and they tried again. That attempt was snuffed by the House Speaker.
The third attempt is HB 228, a bare-bones bill. Small wrestled the emissions numbers beneath federal and state standards. No tax breaks. Public-private partnerships cold still apply for funding from the New Mexico Finance Authority; the Escalante conversion has its own investors.
The third bill charmed a majority of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee and now goes to the floor. When the hydrogen-powered train leaves the station, will we be on board or get left behind?
© 2022 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICE 2/7/22
Roundhouse budgeters should increase nursing pool and lend a hand to rural hospitals
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
If anybody figured hospitals were making money in the pandemic, they figured wrong.
Recently UNM Hospital, where COVID-19 patients from around the state fill every available bed, revealed a $4.6 million deficit. Rural hospitals are also strained. Troy Clark, president and CEO of the New Mexico Hospital Association, told the Albuquerque Journal the state’s hospitals got $367 million in federal relief early in the pandemic but still suffered a $640 million shortfall, and the most recent federal cash won’t make a dent.
Hospitals make their money on elective surgeries. Initially state health orders halted those procedures. Later the crush of COVID-19 patients forced those decisions, and people delayed procedures. At the same time, costs have spiraled because of the need for pricy traveling nurses and additional equipment and supplies.
Last week, the state House of Representatives passed a whopping $8.5 billion budget with money for everything under the big New Mexico sun. Teachers and cops got the most ink in media coverage. The House bestowed some serious money on healthcare but could have done more.
Things could change in the Senate. House Bill 2, the budget bill, directs $1.3 billion to Medicaid in anticipation of reduced federal pandemic dollars. It extends Medicaid coverage for new mothers from two months to a year. And it attempts to relieve the long list of people with developmental disabilities who are waiting to receive in-home care.
The governor’s proposed Rural Hospital Services Fund didn’t make it into the House budget, but maybe the Senate will support it. The problem is that five rural counties have no hospitals, and residents are a long way from the nearest hospital; six rural counties have hospitals with limited services.
But opening a new hospital or expanding an existing hospital is risky because low or uneven reimbursements from Medicare don’t cover the costs of care, and that can undermine a hospital in its early years of operation, according to legislative analysis.
Senate Bill 190 would create the Rural Hospital Services Fund with a one-time appropriation of $150 million. The state would stem losses in the first five years at new or expanded rural hospitals that provide acute care services.
Such funding would give rural healthcare facilities “the ability to expand services like behavioral health, prenatal services, dialysis, rehab, and any number of other much-needed care offerings currently out of reach to too many New Mexicans,” said co-sponsor Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos.
Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, said the fund would “deliver critical support for rural hospitals and provide much needed relief to New Mexico healthcare workers.”
Rural healthcare is the subject of a second bill. HB 97 would spend $7.5 million to create the rural healthcare project revolving fund. The New Mexico Finance Authority could lend up to $500,000 for rural healthcare projects.
A long-term fix that would help all hospitals is to increase the nursing pool.
SB 50 would provide $15 million for higher education institutions to expand their nursing programs, which have been at capacity for some time. The money would be used for faculty salaries, simulation equipment, student stipends and classroom renovation.
Currently high-priced travel nurses make up 12% of the nursing workforce, according to the New Mexico Hospital Association. The percentage is much higher at some hospitals.
Clovis Community College said that Plains Regional Medical Center had 25 to 30 travel nurses making up for staff shortages. “It became very easy for seasoned nurses to travel into Texas where nurses are paid at a significantly higher pay scale,” said the college in a statement, and the cost to the hospital was significant.
Legislative budgeters spend hours taking testimony every year. It’s a great pageant of need every year. Even so, they should see to the state’s hospitals.
© 2022 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 1/31/22
This is no time to go cheap on water agency staffing and resources
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Listening to the state’s water managers defend their budget requests, I heard a message that deserves a megaphone: With a warming climate and shrinking water supplies, we can expect more lawsuits as states and individual users fight over what’s left.
The State Engineer’s Office and the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) see threats in all directions, but legislators started out cheap in a year when the revenue cup runneth over.
In November, State Engineer John D’Antonio, one of the most competent water officials to hold the job, stepped down, citing a discouraging lack of financial support to protect New Mexico water, along with unfunded mandates. Even though the agency had 67 fewer employees than it did when he held the position 10 years earlier, even though Texas threatens to whip us before the Supreme Court, and even though revenue projections were sky high, the State Engineer was told to submit a flat budget.
What were they thinking?
The state’s had a 50-year water plan for three years, and the Legislature expects the agency to complete it despite what D’Antonio described as a “glaring non-response” to funding requests. Recently, acting State Engineer John Romero and ISC Director Rolf Schmidt-Petersen asked for increased staffing and money to contend with climate change, Indian water rights settlements, litigation and compliance, the 50-year water plan, water rights disputes, dam safety, project management, water measurement, and data sharing. Agency staffers are stretched, Schmidt-Petersen said.
He expects the litigation front to get even busier. The Texas lawsuit is ongoing. Texas claims New Mexico takes more water than it should from the lower Rio Grande through diversion and pumping. The Lone Star State is making noises about a second lawsuit. The State Engineer is asking for $4 million to advance this lawsuit, and the Attorney General is asking for $6 million. For $10 million the state would be well prepared, Schmidt-Petersen said.
According to El Paso Matters, Texas has spent $21 million on legal fees since 2012, and New Mexico has spent about $10 million.
Rep. Candy Ezzell, R-Roswell, observed that 18 years ago the agency was working on water rights adjudications. What’s the status? Jeff Primm, the agency’s program support director, tiptoed around the question, assured Ezzell they were working hard on adjudications and then said they were roughly half finished with a very complex process.
The governor would increase the two agencies 4.3% over the last fiscal year; the Legislative Finance Committee recommends a 1.9% increase. And the governor would provide more money from the general fund instead of the less reliable Water Trust Fund. Neither comes close to the agency’s ask. In response to questions, Schmidt-Petersen said the state hasn’t received any CARES Act or infrastructure money.
The House Appropriation and Finance Committee voted for the LFC proposal, but it’s early in the process. And individual legislators have bills in the hopper.
For the Water and Natural Resources Committee, Reps. Tara Lujan and Andrea Romero, both Santa Fe Democrats, have House Bill 24 to appropriate $12 million to the State Engineer for planning and administration.
The two lawmakers also have HB 131 to provide funding to several agencies, including $4.3 million for the State Engineer and $2.8 million for ISC, to comply with the Water Data Act.
Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, is carrying HB 41, which appropriates $60 million to the Water Trust Fund, which hasn’t seen an appropriation since 2007. The fund, worth $43.9 million at year end, provides $4 million a year for water projects. That drawdown isn’t sustainable, according to legislative analysis.
It’s shocking that in a desert state with dwindling water supplies, it takes the resignation of the state’s chief water honcho to spark some interest in the governor’s office and the Legislature. And not enough interest, at that.
© 2022 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 1/24/22
Legislators try to protect renters while increasing housing supply
By Sherry Robinson All She Wrote
New Mexico doesn’t have enough housing, affordable or not, and rents are climbing. Renters have few options.
On opening day of this 30-day legislative session, tenant advocates demonstrated outside the Roundhouse demanding that lawmakers do more to protect renters. Among other things, they wanted rent control.
A rent-control bill didn’t get anywhere in last year’s session, but one bill would give renters more cover. Other bills approach the problem from a market angle.
For the record, I’ve been a renter and a landlady.
House Bill 65 would give renters more time to catch up on payments after they’ve received an eviction notice. More importantly, it would prohibit owners from terminating (or not renewing) rental agreements during a declared emergency or disaster, which was how some landlords got around a Supreme Court ban on evictions during the pandemic, according to Source New Mexico. The bill’s sponsors consulted the Apartment Association of New Mexico in developing the bill, so it’s not hostile to landlords, and it carries the governor’s blessing.
Currently, if tenants get behind, they have as little as three days to pay. Once an eviction notice is filed, they can be out on the streets in a week.
HB 65 stops short of banning “source-of-income discrimination,” in which landlords refuse to rent to anybody paying with government-subsidized vouchers. This form of discrimination is illegal in all but 19 states. Such a prohibition also would have prevented landlords from refusing pandemic-related rental assistance money.
The last time I wrote about this, I found some landlords complaining that their tenants refused to apply for the money, since they couldn’t be evicted, and some tenants saying their landlords refused to cooperate with their application. Many didn’t understand how the state Emergency Rental Assistance Program worked. Source New Mexico said landlords are still refusing rental assistance so they can replace tenants with higher-paying customers.
Legislators also recognized that housing is an issue for employers and economic development. Attracting new businesses will depend on whether workers can find acceptable housing.
The bi-partisan House Memorial 9 asks the state Construction Industries Division to convene a task force to study housing availability and improve the construction industry’s interactions with government. We hear often that building inspectors are in short supply. And building permits can be time sinks. Both cause delays, increase costs and reduce housing availability.
In Senate Bill 19, Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, asks the state to put $70 million in the New Mexico Housing Trust Fund, created in 2005 to provide flexible funding for housing initiatives. The Mortgage Finance Authority would use the money to acquire, build, rehabilitate, finance, or weatherize affordable housing units. The agency estimates 4,578 affordable homes could be created.
The affordable housing supply has steadily declined, according to a legislative analysis. In New Mexico, 117,613 households pay upwards of 30% of family income for housing, and another 100,858 pay half or more. The state is short 32,000 units, and thousands more don’t have complete kitchens or plumbing.
“This is a perfect year to do something meaningful that is transformational for people in New Mexico,” Rodriguez told New Mexico In Depth. She’s in a key position to make it happen as chair of the interim MFA Act Oversight committee and vice chair of the Senate Finance Committees. Rodriguez also wants more than a one-time investment. In SB 134 she teams with Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces and vice chair of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, to seek severance tax bonding capacity for the housing trust fund. This would stabilize the fund and generate $27.7 million in the coming fiscal year.
It’s a good package of short- and long-term solutions. Maybe rent control will be unnecessary.
© 2022 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 1/17/22
Candidate Dow takes on Ethics Commission in its first high-profile case
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
New Mexico’s Ethics Commission was a long time in becoming a reality, and now a case has entered the public realm for the first time.
After years of corruption scandals, it was clear the state needed a watchdog, but a major obstacle was legislators’ fears that their political adversaries could use any ethics body to lodge false allegations. And that’s exactly what Rebecca Dow is claiming.
Dow, a three-term state representative from Truth or Consequences, is a Republican candidate for governor. She’s also the founder and former CEO of AppleTree Educational Center, a nonprofit that serves children and families in Sierra County.
Before the 2020 general election, Democrat Karen Whitlock, Dow’s opponent, filed an ethics complaint. Two of several allegations were that Dow failed to report more than $5,000 in gross income from AppleTree and didn’t disclose that she might have represented AppleTree before state agencies. Both violate state law. Much of Appletree’s revenue comes from state grants and contracts.
Recently, commission attorney Walker Boyd found probable cause, which triggered a release of documents, and the Albuquerque Journal obtained more information in its request for public records.
Dow denies any wrongdoing and said she can represent nonprofits as constituents in her district. She made very little money consulting for AppleTree, she said, and amended her financial disclosure documents to comply with state law.
She lashed out with this: “For years, the radical Democrats have tried to scare me out of running with bogus complaints. They haven’t scared me yet. And they won’t.”
Dow is trying to play the nonpartisan commission as the tool of Democrats, but remember that former House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton will likely face the ethics commission, and that’s the least of her worries. A fellow Democrat, Attorney General Hector Balderas, led the investigation that resulted in a grand jury indictment last year.
So much for radical Democrats.
In hundreds of pages of documents, the Journal learned that Dow fought like a cornered mountain lion, resisting the commission’s subpoenas and refusing for nearly two months to sit for a court-ordered deposition.
When Boyd got a court order, Dow continued to stall. A second court order found Dow in contempt, said she violated the earlier order, and fined her $50 a day until she complied. Dow paid $4,115 and sat for a deposition in October.
All this was after Boyd offered to settle the case if Dow paid a $250 fine and acknowledged her responsibilities under state law. She didn’t respond to the offer. Later on, she instead filed an amended financial disclosure that still didn’t answer all the questions.
Was the commission out of line? No. Reformers like Common Cause wanted an ethics body with teeth, and 75% of New Mexico voters approved a constitutional amendment establishing an independent ethics commission with subpoena power. One concession to lawmakers’ fears of frivolous complaints was to make investigations confidential until there is a finding of probable cause. (The person filing the complaint can make allegations public.)
Everything Boyd did was within the legal scope of commission duties, writes attorney and political blogger Pete Dinelli. And now the commission wants legislators to strengthen disclosure laws and increase funding.
In his report, Boyd cited Dow’s “refusal to acknowledge apparent violations” as the reason for litigation and said her “actions are not consistent with a good faith willingness to provide evidence to the Commission or correct good-faith mistakes.”
At this point, a non-lawyer might ask what she’s hiding. That will come out in a public process before a hearing officer. If candidate Dow dislikes this level of public disclosure, imagine how she might feel about the scrutiny governors have endured even without an ethics commission.
© 2022 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 1/10/22
State shapes plan for rural infrastructure priorities and funding
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
Rural infrastructure is in line for an energizing infusion of money from the state and federal government, and it’s not likely to be misspent or wasted. I just finished reading the Rural Infrastructure Needs Study. Apparently, we won’t just be throwing money at our problems.
The state Legislative Council Services commissioned the study last year, and it was completed last month by the nonprofit Pivotal New Mexico, the engineering firm Bohannan Huston, UNM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, and the Grant Plant.
The 162-page report examines broadband, water, and electricity in our rural areas – what’s there, what’s needed, funding sources and how to chase them, and what other states have done. Maps pinpoint the degree of need. (The term “infrastructure” usually includes roads, but that’s not part of the report.)
The report should be must reading for public officials and involved citizens. See Rural Infrastructure Study – Pivotal New Mexico (pivotalnm.org).
Cost estimates for broadband range from $2 billion to $5 billion; for water, $1.4 billion, and for wastewater, $350 million to $800 million. But paying for projects may pose less of a challenge than the ability to chase money.
Small communities – and at times even the state – don’t have the expertise to apply for grants, loans, and/or federal funding. Funding sources often require in-depth documentation of need and proposed use of the money, and the process is competitive. The best applications win.
For example, the ballyhooed federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, recently passed, dangles $55 billion for clean water, $65 billion for broadband, and $65 billion for electric grid updates and clean energy.
Formulas will direct some of this money to New Mexico, but much will be awarded in competition with other states. New Mexico and its jurisdictions must be ready with plans and priorities. Broadband alone requires a five-year action plan with stated investment priorities.
But communities and the state often lack good, detailed data. (I’ve heard this same complaint from economic developers.) This includes internet access and speeds, number and location of households without electricity, or water supply and usage.
A community might plunge into some quick and dirty data collection in pursuit of funding, but this doesn’t approach the broad tracking that other states do routinely.
“Small communities report feeling overwhelmed and unaware of the full range of resources available to them,” said the report. “Many jurisdictions would benefit from technical assistance” with planning, engineering, data collection, design, budgeting and timelines.
In interviews, researchers heard these complaints: Funding for planning is too limited and too restrictive. Loans aren’t a real solution to small communities or utilities with little debt capacity. Same with matching funds; little towns can’t come up with the match. They need flexibility in timetables. They’d like an engineer and planner on call.
The report also singled out our old friend, the state anti-donation clause, for its “chilling effect on a wide range of infrastructure projects.”
The anti-donation clause of the state Constitution forbids spending state money to benefit private entities. When I was writing regularly about economic and business development, I railed against the clause in columns like this because it was outdated and obstructive.
The report points out that, while other states have similar prohibitions, ours is the strictest and least flexible and “hinders public-private partnerships in infrastructure projects.” In Colorado, if the Legislature finds a project is for the public good, the anti-donation clause doesn’t apply.
The study recommends action steps: Write a five-year broadband plan. Fund the state’s Councils of Government to hire technical support. Improve statewide data collection. Revise the anti-donation clause.
One takeaway is that state government hasn’t overlooked rural areas. The other is we need to up our game.
© 2022 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 1/3/22
Torrent of infrastructure money meets chasm of need
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
With so much money sloshing around when legislators meet in January, we might expect to have almost enough to make serious dents in New Mexico’s infrastructure needs. “Might expect” being the operative words. Experience teaches that with this much money, there’s great opportunity for mischief.
In my decades of Roundhouse watching, I can’t remember a time when so many dollars were headed our way.
Consider that in the recent special session, lawmakers designated $478 million in federal stimulus money for road projects, broadband and airport improvements, among other things, and left $724 million unspent for the coming 30-day session. The federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will deliver $3.7 billion to New Mexico – $2.8 billion in the next five years – for roads, bridges, airports, public transportation, broadband, and water projects. Just in fiscal 2022 the state will get $486.5 million for bridges and roads.
It sounds like a torrent of funding, but it would fill a chasm of need. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 30% of the state’s roads are in poor condition, 6.5% of bridges are structurally deficient, 219 dams are considered high hazard, and we need $1.4 billion in drinking water projects.
We have bridges in New Mexico that school buses aren’t allowed to cross.
For broadband alone, the federal infrastructure bill has some $100 million to start with. Another $43 billion will be divvied up among the states. The stimulus bill has $123 million for broadband, and in this year’s regular legislative session, lawmakers approved $133 million in state money for broadband.
The Legislative Finance Committee has estimated that about one in five public school students don’t have internet access. It could cost $1 billion to $5 billion to connect most or all of the state’s unserved areas, but for the first time it’s within reach.
To come back down to earth, we’re coping with worker and supply shortages. How much of this is realistically doable? As Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, said, “We’re talking about a lot of money here. I wonder if we’re putting money in areas (where) we just can’t spend it.”
And where there’s this much money, there’s the prospect for fraud and theft. So I was somewhat relieved that the governor in November appointed an infrastructure czar. Martin Chavez, former state senator and three-term Albuquerque mayor, understands the needs of local governments. A moderate, business-friendly Democrat, he led a successful campaign to preserve Kirtland Air Force Base and started a graffiti patrol.
What you might not know about Chavez is he was more focused on getting things done than on whether people liked him. The city desperately needed more river crossings, but 20 years of bickering had settled nothing. Chavez worried that his town was becoming two Albuquerques – one on the west side and one on the east side of the Rio Grande.
A proposed bridge required taking down an old cottonwood near the river, and the tree had become a line in the sand between environmentalists and bridge supporters. At 4 a.m. city crews showed up and cut down the tree in the right of way, launching the needed bridge. Progressives are still irked.
His official title is “infrastructure advisor,” and he’s assigned to the Governor’s Office. He will work with communities “to determine priorities for billions of dollars in federal infrastructure funding,” according to a news release.
Two other appointed advisors are Mike Hamman, the state’s water advisor, and Matt Schmit, broadband advisor.
What I like about these appointments is the accountability. Money won’t just disappear into the marsh of state government. Somebody will be tracking every dollar, I hope, and see that spending accomplishes what it’s supposed to.