Wednesday, February 25, 2009

HB 185 Passes House Unanimously

HB 185, which permits the merger of five South Mesilla Valley mutual domestic water systems into one larger Authority, was voted on in the New Mexico House of Representatives this afternoon, where it received a vote of 64-0 in favor of the bill. The bill will be heard in the Senate next week.

The State of State Leadership

The following editorial, written by me, appears in Capitol Report, which came out this week

In Latin America during the era of dictators, when a strong man fell, the aftermath followed two roughly predictable patterns. If the dictator had fallen because civil society--political parties, newspapers, unions, and other institutions--joined to push him out in a bid to re-democratize the country, then those who had led the drive invariably emerged as effective national leaders and the ensuing regime was likely to be reasonably stable and democratic. But if the dictator had fallen through sudden death, assassination, or a military coup--some unexpected event--then a period of uncertain leadership and conflict ensued as remnants of the old guard tried to hang on and new politicians, split up and inexperienced at the game, fumbled with the opportunities before them.

The post-Richardson era is confusing at the moment because the strong man is still occupying the governor's seat, but his sources of political strength and moral suasion are unexpectedly depleted. The reckless spending spree is over, crony relationships are under various stages of official inspection, new leaders are preparing for elections next year, and most important, the public--far ahead of the political class--has the governor's number: time to move to new leadership. The political class, however, has not acted to push the governor aside by ignoring him and moving on. Instead, remnants of the old hang on; new leaders fumble; and the public grows restless.

As the public begs for leadership, among legislators the strongest leader to emerge so far is Sen. John Arthur Smith, who has responded to the crisis by telling the unpleasant truth, knowing some will want to shoot the messenger. He has used his power as Chairman of Senate Finance to hold the line, showing moral courage as well as leadership. Observers have detected among many legislators a pretending-thing-are-still--the-same, a waiting-to-see what happens next; that is, a dearth of leadership in Santa Fe this season. The most publicized lapse came when the senate voted to salvage $10 million of the governor's pet pork project, an equestrian center in Albuquerque, while slashing domestic violence shelters and pre-K classrooms, among other items. The senate defeated an amendment to cut $1.5 million from the equestrian center and use it for domestic violence shelters and pre-K classrooms. In explaining why the amendment had to be defeated, Sen. Phil Griego stated that it was designed "specifically to embarrass the governor..." Goodness,--can't have that, now, can we?

We've heard little about the mess we're in from our two hopeful candidates for governor, Lt. Governor Diane Denish and Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez. Should we take a time-out for them until next year, rescuing them from responsibility for leadership today? Or should we remember next year where they were this year? And is anyone of the R side running for governor? Helloooo? The silence deafens. Responding to this leadership void the governor organized an exploratory committee meeting at Geronimo's for his friend Val Kilmer. The guv may be far more subdued these days, but he's not brain dead and he knows the importance of action when others have their heads in the sand. Remnants of the old hang on; new leaders fumble; and the public grows restless.

Hector Balderas, the state auditor who hoped a few weeks ago to be presiding over the Senate today (seems like eons ago, right?), recently issued a report, commissioned by the legislature, on Smiley Gallegos' use of state and federal monies in Regional Housing Authorities 1, 2, 3, 4, and 7. At a press conference he declared the Gallegos enterprise represented "a colossal failure to low-income citizens and the state of New Mexico," and sent the results to law enforcement officials. Now Frances Williams, the plucky lady who blew the whistle on many of Gallegos' operations, in a forthcoming article to be published in the Haussamen blog, will assert that the auditor's work was poorly done, with numerous factual mistakes, omissions, and failure to do serious research to connect the dots which, she asserts, are there to be connected. The work by Balderas was hired out, but the report was not signed by anyone, including Balderas.

On a brighter note, who could resist an "attagirl" when Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones let the webcam roll in her tax and rev committee hearing in spite of somber warnings against it by House leadership, and two requests by the committee chairman to stop the broadcast even as it was rolling? Especially since the Senate had already dismantled the webcam system authorized last year to broadcast its floor sessions? Powerful House leaders muttered dire warnings against "disrupting" committee hearings (which are regularly televised nationally in Congress) or (heaven forbid) the possibility that webcasts might be used for "partisan" purposes. Partisan purposes? In our legislature? We're shocked! Shocked! Remnants of the old hang on; new leaders fumble and--thank you, Janice--the public is watching.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Banegas Clarifies Montoya Statement

Mr. Pat Banegas, manager of the Anthony Water and Sanitation District, informed me this morning that his board, last Tuesday, had voted to take a position against HB 185. Mr. Banegas himself has not taken a position on the bill. At a hearing on the bill on Friday, Mr. Victor Montoya asserted that, in speaking out against the bill, he was representing the Anthony Water and Sanitation District.

Monday, February 23, 2009

HB 185 Passes House Judiciary Committee Unanimously

HB 185, sponsored by Rep. Joseph Cervantes, which permits the merger of five South Mesilla Valley mutual domestic water systems into one larger Authority, received a unanimous "do pass" recommendation from the House Judiciary Committee this afternoon. The bill now moves to the floor of the House, where it is expected to be voted on this coming Friday by the entire House. Should the bill pass it will move to the Senate, where a similar bill will be sponsored by Sen. Mary Kay Papen.

It would be extremely unusual for the floor vote to go against the bill, inasmuch as it received unanimous support from the two committees that heard the bill. Very little organized opposition to the bill surfaced, with the possible exception of the Anthony Water and Sanitation District. Friday, speaking against the bill, Victor Montoya, from Anthony, asserted he was representing the Anthony Water and Sanitation District. However, Pat Banegas, manager of the Anthony Water and Sanitation District, earlier this month was quoted by the Las Cruces Sun News saying that he was neither in support of nor in opposition to the bill. Banegas could not be reached for comment and did not return my call.

Let's Understand Mexico's Troubles Correctly

The State Department has just renewed a traveler's advisory warning. A military report suggests Mexico might, in worst-case scenarios, fall victim to "rapid and sudden collapse." An Albuquerque Journal article ominously reads, "Mexico Verges On Failed State Status." The violence spills over to the U.S. side in many border towns, including El Paso, where the city council approved a resolution (vetoed by the mayor) calling for an open debate about drug legalization as a means of stemming the violence. Are these dire warnings for real?

As is the case with many stories about the U.S.-Mexico border, there is a strong tendency to exaggerate. Just a few years ago commentators were talking about the dissolving U.S.-Mexican border, and a post-border epoch was imagined as about to begin, where the practical meaning of border controls was about to be reduced, if not eliminated. One glance at the new border fences in the Paso del Norte region is enough to assure anyone that these fantasies were just that. And today, Mexico is in no greater danger of "collapsing" than the U.S. was in the scary aftermath of 9/11. Our institutions remained intact, there was national resolve to go on with our business, and life went on. So too in Mexico the institutions of the state remain intact, there is national resolve to go on with business, and life goes on.

But if Mexico as a nation state is in no danger of collapse, this doesn't mean there isn't a problem on Mexico's northern borders. In Cd. Juarez last year more than 1600 persons died violently in drug-trafficking-related incidences, a record high. At its worst moment as the homicide capital of the U.S., in 1991, Washington DC registered a rate of homicide that was half the size of Juarez's rate in 2008. Drug-related homicides are not solely the province of turf battles among rival criminal gangs. Increasingly, government officials are targeted for murder, and in the border states a palpable current of fear is evident as other indices of crime have skyrocketed, including "express" kidnappings and armed robbery and assault. Many restaurants in Cd. Juarez are closing at 8 p.m., since fear of these robberies has dissuaded many citizens from venturing out at night.

What appears to be happening is that state and local institutions are losing their ability to maintain law and order consistently in areas where drug traffickers formerly were able to operate with impunity. The resources available to the strongest drug traffickers can overwhelm honest local and state law enforcement efforts and, in truth, elements within local and state institutions have been compromised for a long time, making it difficult for honest agents to know exactly who is who within a law enforcement agency. Federal drug enforcement agencies have for a long time suffered from the same problem, and the Mexican national government has had a difficult time making honest brokers out of drug enforcement officials across the board. While at the moment the scenario has all of the makings of a serious crisis on the border, it also provides an opportunity for the government and citizens alike to reflect on the kinds of changes the Mexican law enforcement system must make in order to remake antiquated institutions in a sharper image of the needs of the twenty first century.

Given the fact that drug trafficking in Mexico is attractive almost exclusively because of the demand for drugs in the U.S., and that in the U.S. drug policy has for several decades been heavily border-intensive, focusing on interception of drugs at the border, rather than aimed at demand reduction, this would be a good moment for U.S. national policymakers to state an obvious fact: the failure of U.S. border controls to intercept more than a trickle of the volume of drugs entering from Mexico, is an important factor in Mexico's current border crisis. So important, in fact, that it is impossible to imagine success at any level without stronger serious cooperation between the two countries.

Cooperation with Mexican law enforcement agencies has been problematic up to now, for good reasons. Drug organizations have penetrated the higher levels of law enforcement as well as lower levels, in Mexico, and a serious exchange of intelligence at the operational level would probably result simply in tipping off the criminal gangs.

But the U.S. has a growing corruption problem on our side, too, and more can be done to foster cooperation between the two countries. A period of thorough re-examination of U.S. drug enforcement policy is in order, and this time it should be done without taboo subjects, without preconditions, and in conjunction with a stronger strategic, rather than operational, consultation with the highest levels of official Mexico. It might be helpful, as well, if state and local officials, who after all have felt the greatest burden on the border, were part of this conversation, as well as the citizens living in the border region.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

HB 185 Heard in Judiciary Committee

HB 185, which would approve the merger of five South Mesilla Valley mutual domestic water associations into one larger Authority, was heard in the House Judiciary Committee yesterday. It received a "do pass" vote from the House Agriculture and Water Resources Committee earlier in the month. The bill had been assigned to the Health and Government Affairs Committee, but was reassigned by the Speaker of the House to the Judiciary Committee. The Judiciary Committee has not yet issued a recommendation for the bill.

At the hearing yesterday a number of persons spoke on behalf of the bill, including Gary Esslinger, Treasurer-Manager of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District; Rick Martinez, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Finance Administration; and Bill Hume, from the Governor's Office. In addition, a number of persons from the affected domestic water districts spoke in favor of the bill, including Gabe Gutierrez, Robert Nieto, Martin Lopez, Karen Nichols, Olga Sanchez, Robert Nava, Ellen Drew, and Arturo Uribe. The bill now has the support of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, the New Mexico Farm Bureau, the Groundwater Drillers Association, and the League of Conservation Voters. There appears to be no opposition from the Municipal League or from Dona Ana County, or the Association of Counties.

A few persons spoke out against the bill, including Maria Elena Bejarano, Natalia Mercado, Manny Garcia, Betty Gonzales, and Victor Montoya. Victor Montoya asserted at the hearing he was speaking against the bill as a representative of the Anthony Water and Sanitation District. However, in an article written by Diana Alba appearing in the the Las Cruces Sun News on February 6, Pat Banegas, General Manager of the Anthony Water and Sanitation District, said "I'm not going to support it or go against it," referring to HB 185. Banegas could not be reached for comment.

Friday, February 13, 2009

How Broke is the State? Does Our Slice of the Stimulus Pie Help? Notes From An Interview With Senate Finance Chair John Arthur Smith

Few people know the overall financial picture of the state as well as Sen. John Arthur Smith, Chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Deficit spending is forbidden by the Constitution, so the state keeps track year-round of the flow of money into and out of state coffers to make sure a deficit does not occur. Each year the Department of Finance and Administration (DFA) estimates (projects) the revenues for the coming year as best they can. The Senate Finance Committee is where the buck stops in balancing the next budget against projected revenues, which makes it arguably the most powerful committee in the legislature.

This year the state is in a fiscal crisis, since oil and gas revenues are down (we depend heavily on these) and the recession has cut other revenues such as sales taxes and investment income earnings. Smith warned last summer of the coming storm, but was dubbed "Dr. No" by Governor Richardson, who held a special session to give taxpayers a rebate, ignoring the warnings. It turned out Smith's predictions were on target. I asked him to give me some of the major findings from a briefing he got this afternoon from the DFA about the latest estimates of the crisis and what we might expect from the state's share of the Stimulus Package, passed in Congress this evening. Note: In New Mexico the Fiscal Year begins on July 1. So when I write "FY10" below I mean the year beginning on July 1, 2009.

Budget and Revenues Dissected: The Statistics of the Bad News

DFA is now estimating that the projected tax revenues to get us to July 1, 2009 will fall $438 million (not $300 million, as previously thought) short of current expenditures for a FY09 budget of about $6 billion. So the state either has to find the money or cut spending by that much. The situation for next year is even worse. Assuming a $6 billion budget in FY10, the best estimates place the shortfall of revenues at $582 billion. In the next 16 months the state will have to find $1.02 billion (438 plus 582), and, possibly, if things get worse, up to $1.2 billion in order to maintain the same level (a little over $6 billion) of expenditures. After that the picture is still bleak. For FY11 the estimate is the state will have revenues of about $5.7 billion, still short of the $6 billion budget for FY08. DFA believes the state's revenues, given the current tax rates, will not get back up to the level they were in FY08 until FY2013.

Dealing With the Bad News This Year

In dealing with the shortfall the state is counting on two sources to make up the difference and prevent a big spending cut: state reserves and the Stimulus. First, the state is digging into its reserves. The state's Tobacco Settlement Endowment Fund is one example. Each year the tobacco industry gives a certain amount to the state as part of a national settlement for the health costs caused by tobacco-induced diseases. The state leaves half of the money in the fund for a rainy day, and this year it has dipped into the principal of that fund to cover the shortfall. Likewise, the College Endowment Fund, set up by the legislature for a rainy day, had about $100 million built up. However, because it was invested in equities, which crashed last fall, it lost about a quarter of its value. This year the state grabbed $15 million from it to help cover the shortfall.

The state has set a goal of maintaining enough in reserves to cover 10% of the budget, but this year, due to dipping heavily into reserves, Smith indicated to me we are currently only at 8%, or about $100 million short of 10%. The governor, he asserts, was "highly optimistic" when in his state of the state address last month said the state's reserves were at 13%. Remember, we may well have to dip into reserves again for the next few years.

The second source of revenue this year is the famous Stimulus Package of $790 billion, which passed through Congress this evening. The state of New Mexico's share of that package is $1.582 billion, which must be spent over the next 27 months. Prorated by month, this should add up to about $937 million over the next 16 months. As seen above, the shortfall to July 1, 2010 is up to $1.2 billion, so it goes a long way, but doesn't quite cover it by about $300 million. So assuming the state is able to spend the $937 million of Stimulus money (see below) in timely projects the state will still either have to cut spending, raise taxes or dig deeper into the reserves, unless the price of oil starts going up very quickly, increasing the state's revenues. If the state decided to increase taxes, the entire $300 million shortfall would be covered if every taxpayer who files a return in NM paid an average extra tax of $375, or about $23 per month for the 16 months in question. The situation is serious, but not as bad as it is in some other states.

Where Does the Stimulus Go in New Mexico? (Do I get a piece?)

Most of the Stimulus goes to the following items:

1. The Highway Department: $271 million. The feds want "shovel-ready" projects out to bid within 30 days starting the minute the President signs the bill. At the present time, according to Smith, the Highway Department is about $400 million short, so the stimulus doesn't take care of all of it, and the funds will be used for projects that have been approved but delayed for lack of funds.
2. Education: $266 million. Plus a "General Purpose Flex Fund" of $58 million, for a total of $324 million. Given the fiscal crisis this year the Senate zeroed out capital expenditures for school construction; the House had asked for $165 million. So some of the Stimulus money may well be spent for construction, since this will immediately create jobs, a major goal of the Stimulus package. It is still not worked out whether Higher Education will get a piece of the education pie, but universities will gobble up as much as they can.
3. Medicaid: $563 million. This should prevent the crisis in health care in New Mexico from becoming catastrophic.
4. Programs for the elderly, nutrition, Head Start, and Special Education: $90 million
5. Public housing capital funds, homelessness prevention: $27 million
6. Law enforcement: $28 million
7. Transit capital grants: $35 million
8. Title I Education funds: $6 million

Problems, Issues

The state has little experience in spending large injections of earmarked funds as quickly as Congress would like, which raises questions about how well the state can absorb this money in truly worthy projects. Although Smith did not mention this, in Third World countries it is commonplace for quick injections of money from, say, the International Monetary Fund or World Bank, to be wasted in corruption or foolish, politically motivated, expenditures that do not contribute to economic development. The technical phrase for this is "absorptive capacity." Unless a legal and bureaucratic infrastructure is in place for spending unexpected money, absorptive capacity is limited and the chances are high the money will be wasted. In New Mexico, as we have learned from painful experience, there is still a lot of politically motivated spending stemming from the state's government spending infrastructure, such as the capital outlay process. This suggests the legislature and public should be watching carefully to make sure we don't get scandals coming out of this.

The good news is that Congress, in its wisdom, prevents the Stimulus money from being used to "supplant" the General Fund. In other words, state legislators cannot get their grubby fingers on this money and carve it up in the usual porkish way. Moreover, Smith pointed out, a good deal of it--Highways, Education, Medicaid--is earmarked into agencies subject to pretty strong mechanisms to keep pork projects at a minimum. It is the other expenditures that most need to be watched.

Another note of caution that Smith stressed is that the Stimulus bill makes no recommendations or distinctions between "recurring" expenses and "one-time-only" expenses. Should the Stimulus money be used to pay for recurring expenses, say, to increase the size of the bureaucracy, or create new jobs for teachers, then in some ways the employment problem will simply be postponed for the next 27 months. Those hired under the stimulus would have to be laid off in 27 months when the money runs dry, because state revenues are not projected to reach the FY08 level until 2013. Unless the economy has created a lot of new jobs in New Mexico, it might be difficult for these people to find employment. Likewise, if the funds are used to increase the operating budgets of bureaucracies, this will create a serious problem down the line when the funds end but the bureaucracies will resist being cut down to non-Stimulus size. Smith hopes, therefore, that as much of the Stimulus money as possible should be spent on capital projects, with one-time-only expenditures, such as buildings, bridges, culverts, levees, and other projects that would have long-term benefits while providing short-term employment.

Smith said it was important to keep the above in mind because over half the Stimulus money (well over $800 million) goes to education and medicaid, where the bulk of the expenditures (85% for education, 78% for medicaid) is for salaries.

In other words, the Stimulus was designed to have an effect on the entire U.S. economy by putting people to work. But to the extent that the funds stimulate employment in New Mexico, helping solve the national problem, the way the funds are earmarked and the way New Mexico's government is organized makes it very tempting and easy to simply increase the budgets of bureaucracies hire more teachers. If this happens it could easily cause another crisis down the line 27 months from now when the Stimulus money runs out and budgets need to be cut.

So while there are still serious issues to be dealt with, it seems unlikely New Mexico will be forced, as some states have been, to slash their funding drastically. In Arizona, for example, Arizona State University was asked to slash 40% of its budget this year, and ended up last week slashing only 18%. By comparison, New Mexico State University is preparing to cut by only 2.5% in FY 2010.

HB 301 Outlawing Texting-While-Driving Passes Committee

A bill introduced by Rep. Antonio Lujan, of Las Cruces, making text-messaging while driving a misdemeanor, has passed through the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee by a vote of 5-1. It now goes to the House Judiciary Committee. Among the committee members on the House Judiciary Committee is Rep. Joseph Cervantes, of Las Cruces.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

State Finances Worse Than Expected: Interview With Sen. John Arthur Smith Tomorrow

The state is twice as much in the hole financially as was predicted before the legislative session. Instead of being $300 million in the red, the state is about $600 million in the red. Next year is likely to be just as bad. The latest projections of revenue are due tomorrow, and I have arranged to interview the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. John Arthur Smith about these projections and what they mean, after they have been released. Sen. Smith has been accurate in the past year in predicting these shortfalls, although his warnings have often been ignored.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

La Politica New Mexico Adopts Comments Policy

Due to a recent orchestration of anonymous comments submitted,apparently, on behalf of a political cause, I decided to clarify my policy on handling comments. I adapted many of these from the policy statement of Heath Haussamen on his blog.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Lower Rio Grande Mutual Domestics Discuss HB 185

The Lower Rio Grade Mutual Domestic Water Association held their regular board meeting this morning in Berino. Among the items discussed was HB 185, introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Joseph Cervantes, which would merge the five mutual domestics--Desert Sands, Vado, Berino, Mesquite, and La Mesa, into one regional authority.

There appears to have been some confusion about the exact provisions in the bill inasmuch as a substitute bill was introduced last week, replacing the original bill. But the substitute bill was not published by the legislature until yesterday, several days after some citizens had complained about the wording of the first bill, thinking it was the bill before the House Agriculture and Water Resources Committee. The two bills were not identical, and the original one contained language that empowered the proposed authority more than the substitute bill.

The New Mexico Municipal League worked with the sponsors of the bill, and it's language was altered. As citizens in the South Mesilla Valley became aware of the language of the substitute bill, opposition to it appears to have declined. Only one person present at the meeting this morning, Ms. Natalicia Mercado, expressed reservations against the bill. She indicated she was frustrated by difficulties in finding out whether the existing mutual domestic was running in the red or in the black and expressed her concern that the same people running the mutuals would be running the new authority. Mr. Martin Lopez and Mr. Martin Nieto, who helped lobby for the bill, answered a number of questions, reiterating that the only major change in the legal status of the five mutual domestics would be the economies of scale realized by the merger and the ability to use revenue bonds for improvements to the system.

Mr. Mitch Boyer, of Vado, indicated he felt more could have been done by the association to solicit "buy-in for the bill" and suggested the board of the new entity might build in more oversight. Mr. Manny Garcia stated he felt many citizens "didn't know about 185."

If the bill clears the House of Representatives it will move to the Senate. Should it pass into law new governance regulations will be created, including provisions for citizen input.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Rep. Andy Nunez Introduces HB296 to Raise the Population Required for Metro Court: Would Counteract HB 275

Rep. Andy Nunez has introduced a bill to raise the county population size required to trigger a transition toward a metro court system. If signed into law the bill would effectively delay the creation of a metro court in Dona Ana County until after the 2020 census.

It is no accident that the bill was introduced by Rep. Nunez, whose constituency extends to Hatch and Garfield, 40 and 50 miles away from Las Cruces. Under the present system magistrate courts have offices in Hatch and Anthony, for the convenience of persons accused of misdemeanors. But if a bill sponsored this year by Rep. Joni Gutierrez (HB 275) becomes law citizens in the outlying communities of Garfield, Hatch, Rodey, Rincon, Radium Springs, Sunland Park, Chamberino, La Union, Santa Teresa, Chaparral, Anthony, Mesquite, Vado, Berino, La Mesa, and San Miguel--more than half the county's population--would all have to commute all the way to the courthouse in Las Cruces.

Many of Mr. Nunez's constituents from the northern part of the county are displeased by the surprise introduction this year of HB 275, creating a metro court this year. Under existing law counties are forced automatically to shift to a metro court system when the U.S. census indicates the population has reached 200,000. Thus, the shift would begin with the census of 2010. However, Rep. Gutierrez's HB 275 would create a metro court in Dona Ana County this year. HB 292 would render her bill inoperative, since it would raise the population size needed to trigger the creation of a metro court from 200,000 to 350,000. For more information see my blogs here this morning and yesterday.

Martin Lopez, Gen. Manager of the Mesquite domestic mutual water district, clarifies differences between water systems

I had a brief telephone conversation this afternoon with Mr. Martin Lopez, Manager of the Mesquite mutual domestic water association, which joined in with four other mutual domestic water associations to propose HB 185, creating a Lower Rio Grande Public Waterworks Authority merging the five districts into one. I asked him to clarify the differences between a mutual domestic water association, a waterworks authority, a water and sanitation district, and a municipal water utility. He replied that in terms of powers, a municipal water utility is tops, followed by a water and sanitation district, followed by a waterworks authority, and finally a mutual domestic, on the bottom. The major difference in power between a mutual domestic and an authority is that an authority has bonding capacity. This, he said, is the major reason the five mutual domestics have requested passage of HB 185. Aside from realizing potential economies of scale and seeking common funding sources, the Public Waterworks Authority, if passed, would have bonding capacity (not allowed by mutual domestics), which would give it the autonomy to raise funds on its own for improvements to the system. The Authority would not be competitive in power, say, with the Anthony Water and Sanitation District, which has much broader and more extensive powers, and the Authority could be absorbed at a later date by a municipality.

From comments I received to a blog I did yesterday on HB 185, it appeared there might be some confusion about just what kinds of powers the Authority might acquire and I shared in that confusion. Hopefully, Mr. Lopez's comments help clarify this point.

Committee Advocating Metro Court Excludes Hispanics and Rural Voters: Legislators Beware

Yesterday I received a copy of an email sent by what appears to be the League of Women Voters Metro Court Committee, the only source of visible support for a bill (HB 275) introduced by Rep. Joni Gutierrez, immediately creating a metro court for Dona Ana County.

What is astonishing in reviewing 53 persons on the list is the complete absence of a single Hispanic name. Moreover, there appears to be virtually no representation of persons living outside of Las Cruces, although nearly 55% of the population of the county lies outside the city.

What is wrong here is that in a county in which two out of three residents is Hispanic and 55% of the total population lives outside Las Cruces, the League of Women Voters would be so bold as to create a committee, purporting to represent the civic interests of the whole county, but in which the ethnic and geographic majorities are excluded. Clearly, the move to metro court has powerful implications for Hispanic citizens and for citizens living a distance from Las Cruces. And even more boldly, the League apparently feels comfortable trying to rush this bill through the legislature without even the pretense of sounding out public opinion in any sector of the population. The views of the 53 persons on the committee appear to be quite enough for everyone in the county, thank you.

Why the big rush to create a metro court here, right this minute? Existing legislation contemplates creating a metro court when the census indicates a county has reached a population of 200,000. This will happen one year from now when the census is taken, so why rush things before the entire community can be consulted about an important civic change? Does this bill represent any sector of the population except for the lawyers who would most assuredly benefit from it, and an all-Anglo committee of the League of Women Voters? Why was HB 275 introduced in the first place?

There is nothing magically "good" about moving to a metro court system. Anyone who wants an independent assessment of the metro court in Albuquerque (the only other metro court in New Mexico) after twenty years of operation should read the Soich Report, written by an employee of the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts for the Institute for Court Management, in May 2000. I have a copy in my possession and will make it available to anyone who wants to read it. I have already outlined my objections to metro court (and issued a disclaimer as well) in a blog I posted here yesterday (www://, and I would welcome a debate with anyone about the issue. Citizens should hear both sides of the issue: so far, this has not happened.

Legislators of New Mexico, let's be fair about this. Don't enact into law the views of a highly unrepresentative committee until Hispanic citizens and people living outside Las Cruces have a chance to respond. Before shoving a major change in our judicial system down the throats of our citizens give the majority a chance to make their views known.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Sen. Nava Introduces SB 382, Allowing Permit Denials for "Bad Actors"

Sen.Cynthia Nava has introduced a bill amending the Air Quality Control Act that would, among other things, allow the state Department of Environment to deny or revoke a permit to entities that have a poor compliance record. Sections of the bill apply to entities that have "exhibited a history of willful disregard for environmental laws," or misrepresented material facts in applications, or failed to disclose required information, among other causes for potential revocation of a permit.

This bill strengthens the authority of the Secretary of the Environment to act against an actor that may have shown bad faith in the application procedure or while holding a permit. Some citizens in Mesquite are likely to comb the bill to check against its potential applicability to Helena Chemical Company, which has been embroiled in environmentally-based controversies for several years.

HB 185 Clears House Committee

HB 185, which merges five South Mesilla Valley mutual domestics into one Authority, received a unanimous "do pass" vote in the House Agriculture and Water Resources Committee today. According to Martin Lopez, General Manager of the Mesquite MDWC & MSWA, the bill now heads to the House Health and Government Affairs Committee. The bill appears to enjoy considerable support from local and statewide entities, including the Farm Bureau, the Municipal League, and the City of Las Cruces Water Utility. It was introduced by Rep. Joseph Cervantes.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Metro Court in Dona Ana County? Why this is a bad idea

Rep. Joni Gutierrez has introduced a bill (HB 275) to create a metropolitan court immediately in Dona Ana County. Metro is a court of record, meaning that every word of the proceedings would be transcribed and preserved, and citizens are required to elect judges who are attorneys. Currently, magistrate is not a court of record, and citizens may vote for ordinary citizens, if they choose, for judges. While the notion of a metro court is superficially appealing--it suggests the quality of judges and proceedings will improve--there are powerful reasons to leave the current system untouched in Dona Ana County. Here's why (Valle del Sur: pay special attention):

1. Check out Metro Court in Bernalillo County: You want this?
The strongest reason to oppose metro court here is the uninspiring record of the only metro court in New Mexico, that of Bernalillo County. In a well documented, independent study written in 2000 by Zella Kay Soich, the author reached these conclusions about the Bernalillo Metro Court: "based on current attitudes and experiences...the public and lawyers are still critical of long waits, delays, expense (in time and money) and frustration." (Zella Kay Soich, "Improving Court Efficiency in New Mexico by Establishing a Metropolitan Court System: An Analysis and Assessment," Institute for Court Management, May 2000, p. 24).

After the imposition of the metro court in 1979 (then, as now, with lightning speed, and little discussion) case loads "immediately increased 25%," clogging up court operations and "causing the court to unravel." (Soich, p. 20) The Albuquerque Journal reported in 1980 "people are getting a horrible view of justice in America." (Soich, p. 20) The next year one lawyer said the court was "still a zoo," and still another year later the Albuquerque Tribune characterized the court as "chaos." (Soich, p. 21) In 2002 the Albuquerque Tribune wrote that "tardiness, rudeness, and a tendency to go easy on offenders are among the reasons a court watch group is recommending that half (7) of the (14) metro judges...should not be retained in this election." (Joline Gutierrez Krueger, ABQ Tribune, Oct. 25, 2002). In 2006 the Albuquerque Journal reported that for the previous decade, more than a third (about 2500 out of 7500) of DWI cases in Metro court were dismissed without being heard. (ABQ Journal, Jeff Procter, Dec. 7, 2006). If it doesn't work that well in Albuquerque after 30 years, is there any reason to believe it would work better in Las Cruces?

I challenge anyone to find evidence that would indicate the Metro Court is "better" than the magistrate court--the perception of the public, the quality of the service, etc. But it is a lot more expensive!

2. The Metro Court Triples the Cost of Magistrate Court
In 2005 the total budget for Dona Ana County's municipal and magistrate courts was $3,396,510 for ten judges and a staff of 62. The Dona Ana Court Consolidation Study Committee in November 2005 estimated a metro court for Dona Ana County would cost $11,009,906 for only 7 judges and a staff of 77: more staff, fewer judges--just the opposite of efficiency. The bill introduced by Rep. Gutierrez now contemplates 8 judges (magistrate court too has been awarded another judge), but appropriates only $5 million. And it will cost a whole lot more than the 2005 figure of $11 million in the bloated prices of 2009. Costs in Metro court are way up: judges there are now earning $106,000, compared to magistrate judge salaries of less than $80,000. Where will the rest come from? With no guarantee of improving service, should taxpayers be shelling out three times more for this?

If you live outside Las Cruces, the idea of Metro Court is especially troubling.

3. Metro Court hurts the South and North Valleys of Dona Ana County. Today, magistrate courts operate in Anthony, Las Cruces, and Hatch. With metro court only Las Cruces has a court. People from Sunland Park, Santa Teresa, La Union, Chamberino, Anthony, Berino, Mesquite, Chaparral, San Miguel, La Mesa, Garfield, Hatch, Rodey, and Rincon would be forced to drive long distances to get to metro court. In fact, 54% of the population of Dona Ana County lives outside Las Cruces, so more than half the county--well over 100,000 people--would be negatively affected. Thirty years after getting a metro court in Albuquerque, citizens in the outlying areas are still complaining about the inconvenience. Dona Ana County is more than three times larger than Bernalillo County and is one of the poorest counties in the state. This represents a serious imposition on most citizens of the county.

Next: do you really want lawyers involved in this?

4. Metro court forces citizens to vote for attorneys for judges, eliminating the People's Court. Magistrate judges can be attorneys or ordinary citizens. Metro court forces you to vote for attorneys to judge petty cases. There are two major problems here. First, when charged with an offense you are much more likely in a Metro court to feel you have to get an attorney, adding significantly to the cost and quite possibly the time it takes to resolve an issue. Do you really want your petty cases decided by lawyers splitting hairs about legal details? Petty cases require common sense, not advanced degrees. Second, the concept behind magistrate court is that it is a People's Court, where common sense and local community standards determine the outcome. Attorneys are much less likely to understand local community standards, especially in places like the South Valley or Hatch, and they are, if anything, less likely to have the bottom line sense of justice of ordinary citizens.

5. Metro courts are courts of record: beware. Magistrate courts are not. Given the increasing sensitivity of governments to a person's background for a security clearance, do you really want the details of your daughter's Saturday night adventures preserved for public inspection and quotation forever? We aren't talking about felonies here, because these automatically go to District Court where they are, as they should be, recorded. But this is a petty court. It seems foolish to expose our misdemeanors to permanent, detailed inspection, when most citizens elsewhere do not.

Bottom Line

The current system of magistrate and municipal courts is well over half a century old. It was designed wisely, with the knowledge that, in contrast to higher courts, most people at one time or another will appear in magistrate or municipal court. It is in these courts that citizens actually meet face to face with our judicial system. Dispensation of justice should be in accord with local norms, by people known and well respected in the local community, elected by their peers. It should not have the faceless and stiff formality of higher courts where lawyers and legal arguments prevail. A People's Court prizes settling minor cases in a fair manner, given all circumstances, rather than by the outcome of a debate among expensive lawyers splitting hairs about the interpretation of obscure legal codes. In Bernalillo County, the only other place in New Mexico that has experimented with Metro Court, it is anything but clear after 3o years that the lawyer-based system is one iota better than the magistrate courts.

There is no pressure from any quarter for a switch to Metro Court, except from lawyers (who stand to gain from Metro Court) and the well-intentioned, but all-too-often narrowly focused League of Women Voters (whose members vastly under-represent Hispanic citizens here) for this change. Hispanics constitute 65% of the county: where are their voices?

Full Disclosure: My wife is a magistrate judge. Her term expires in 2010. I did not consult with her in writing this piece, and the passage or non-passage of this bill will not affect her tenure in office. I became a passionate supporter of the magistrate court system as a result of conversations about 25 years ago with Magistrate Judge Ruben Maynez, as many of my students will attest to, long before my wife became a judge.

Rep. Cervantes Introduces Bill to Form Regional Water Authority

Rep. Joseph Cervantes has introduced HB 185, which would create the Lower Rio Grande Public Waterworks Authority. This would merge five mutual domestic water and wastewater service providers--Berino, Desert Sands, La Mesa, Mesquite, and Vado--into one. The five entities held public hearings with members last September and each passed resolutions supporting this move. According to Martin Lopez, General Manager of the Mesquite MDWC&MSWA, the bill will be supported by the New Mexico Municipal League.

The Authority would be able to issue revenue bonds. The first board of directors would be made up of the five existing directors of the mutual domestics. The intent of the merger of the five entities is to realize economies of scale through unification.

HB 185 will be co-sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Mary Kay Papen.