Monday, March 30, 2009


In my blog of March 22 (Legislative Wrap Up) I incorrectly stated that the Veterans Museum had failed to pass. The governor signed the Veterans Museum bill into law in Las Cruces on Friday, March 27. I have corrected the mistake.

The Governor Comes to Las Cruces, Discusses HB 185

Governor Richardson was in Las Cruces on Friday to sign the Veterans Museum bill and to talk to constituents. A number of persons visited with him on behalf of HB 185, which has passed both legislative chambers and must be signed by the governor in order to become law. Among those speaking in favor of the governor's signing the bill were firefighters from the five communities affected by HB 185, including Artie Herrera, Tom Ontiveros, Alfred Nevarez, Jesus Carrasco, Arturo Uribe, and Angel Reyes (See Picture, at right)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Legislative Wrap Up

The Budget:

Overall, the session was rudderless, except for Senate Finance Chair John Arthur Smith's success in steering the ship away from a strong current headed for the shores of Deficitlandia. At the beginning, following the governor's lead from last summer, when he was dubbed "Dr. No", some legislative leaders appeared willing to ignore Smith's warnings and push what can only be called a liberal agenda (perhaps afraid of the sound of the word "liberal" some liberals in the legislature have taken to calling themselves "progressives") which would, under current financial conditions, have required a tax increase. Better to have a tax increase this year, was the logic, than next year, an election year. Smith was able to keep this current in check by pointing out that unless the tax increase was huge, poor prices in the oil and gas industry could easily force legislators to convene is special session to raise taxes a second time, much closer to election time. This unpleasant possibility, combined with Smith's power as Chair of Senate Finance, tended to keep spendthrift tendencies in check. Indeed, a special legislative session will almost certainly be held in September, to assess the financial condition of the state treasury. No other single legislator came close to having as strong an impact on the big-ticket legislative agenda as Sen. Smith.

So the bill to acquire the College of Santa Fe failed at the last moment. So did the bill to increase education funding 15%, along with it's siamese twin, HB 331, which changed the funding formula to help relatively poor districts. So did the SunCal TIDDs, the Las Cruces downtown TIDDs, the Santa Fe Opera rehearsal hall, an enhanced legislative pension bill, and other projects. Moreover, a bill to curtail some of the more excessive abuses in the double-dipping of retired state employees passed, as well as other fiscally sound measures to keep pension funds and health care funds solvent. The budget appears to be in fairly good shape, with room for adjustment up or down according to the flow of revenues in the next few months. Although Smith was not the only fiscal conservative calling for fiscal conservatism at a moment it was desperately needed, he deserves a great deal of credit for showing solid leadership on budgetary issues, and sticking to his guns.

Ethics Reform

Perhaps the most unsettling feature of the New Mexico political system in recent years is the decline in ethical standards, with scandal after scandal erupting year after year, and a good deal of evidence that "pay to play" politics has indeed become, as convicted kickback artist Michael Montoya asserted to those he shook down for cash, part of the way New Mexico does business. Liberal Democrats, who gained a few seats in the legislature last year, came to the session with a full package of reforms, and backed by a strong tailwind of public outrage over numerous scandals and violations of the public trust by public officials over the years. Had many of these bills succeeded, it would have been a historic example of the importance of elections. Unfortunately, most reform legislation failed, killed by political insiders, many of whom pose as liberal reformists in caucuses and party functions. Over 40 bills dealt with ethics reform of one sort or another. The most valuable of these, creating an independent ethics commission with subpoena powers, failed miserably. Another bill allowing judges to impose enhanced sentences of public officials convicted of corruption, failed as well. So did SB 263, requiring businesses bidding for state contracts to reveal their campaign contributions. And the cavalier attitude of the legislature toward ethics reform was evident in the passage of campaign funding limits (these have been in place at the federal level for three decades and in most states) but making them take effect only after the 2010 elections. Great example of moral courage, right?

Perhaps the most important single reform was not even part of an ethics bill package, but rather was HB 393, opening up conference committee meetings to the public, and sponsored by Rep. Joseph Cervantes, who has never been accused of being a flaming liberal. The impact of this bill was felt immediately, before it has become law, with the withdrawal of amendments to SB 854, in an open conference committee session immediately following the end of the legislative session. The maneuver by Smith to open the conference committee up in fact provoked the Speaker to call Smith a "racist S.O.B." in front of a group of reporters. The passage of this bill has a huge impact in reducing the strong powers of legislative leaders to manipulate the legislative process behind closed doors and pass bills that would not withstand public scrutiny. The other internal reform, allowing webcasts of committee meetings and the action on the floor, was enabled at least in great part because another not-too-flaming liberal, Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones shamed the leadership into allowing webcasts to become part of the political culture of the state, a long overdue reform.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Speaker Confronts Sen. Smith in Front of News Media As the Legislature Ends: What Was This About? Listen to the Confrontation

The first open conference committee in New Mexico history was presided by Senator John Arthur Smith immediately after the end of the legislative session. Perhaps, from the Speaker's point of view, it was a little too open too quickly.

After the open conference meeting, back on the floor of the Senate, Speaker of the House Ben Lujan walked up to Senator John Smith, who was speaking to reporters, and gestured at him emphatically, saying, among other things, "you're not worth a darn," in front of a number of television cameras and reporters. Smith replied, "thank you, Mr. Speaker," and later, when the Speaker had left, told reporters, "obviously the Speaker hasn't had as good a session as I have." If you want to hear the confrontation, listen here: (recorded by Kate Nash, found on Roundhouse Roundup)
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The dispute appears to have been related to Smith's decision to open up the meeting to the media. Speaker Lujan had sponsored HB 820, which would allow local governments to partner with private enterprises in eligible enterprises by issuing bonds. It failed to pass through the House twice on tie votes. Apparently the Speaker was able to add portions of HB 820 as a last-minute, relatively obscure amendment to SB90 and HB 854 (these bills had passed both houses, on matters unrelated to HB 820 but relevant to the Senate Finance Committee, which is why Smith ended up presiding over the conference committee), hoping conference committee members reconciling either SB 90 or HB 854, would approve the bill as amended to include those elements the Speaker wanted. Conference committees determine the final wording of bills passed by both houses whenever there is a difference in the language of both bills. In this case both SB 90 and HB 854 had passed both houses with differences in language, so a conference committee meeting was necessary.

Smith's decision to hold the first-ever open conference committee immediately following the session thus threatened to expose in public the Speaker's efforts to find a way to get part of HB 820 passed into law through a relatively un-transparent process. Knowledgeable persons have explained that one of the potential beneficiaries of HB 820 was a film company in Santa Fe hoping to get state help to finance a movie studio near the railyards. And, indeed, when the sponsor's of the bill understood the conference committee would be held in public, in room 332 (Senate Finance Committee) their enthusiasm for supporting the amendment waned and the amendments were removed. Conference committee members have a right to quiz a bill's sponsors about any aspect of its contents. In private, members might let a questionable amendment slide into law out of courtesy, especially to the Speaker. In public, however, rigorous questioning would reveal this was a last-minute pet project that couldn't get passed the House through the normal process of legislative action. Given that it was a bill sponsored by the Speaker, voting for it would look like they were doing him favors rather than voting on the merits, and it might be reported that way on the front pages of the news media. Pass or fail there would be a risk of negative coverage for the speaker and his allies.

The Speaker was, perhaps understandably, upset with Smith at what he may have taken to be an effort to embarrass him in public. In the exchange (above) The Speaker repeatedly asked Smith repeatedly, "why didn't you call me?" A call, presumably, might have gotten the amendments removed without exposing the Speaker's movida in public.

Smith, on the other hand, perhaps understandably, was upset that the Speaker was trying to use a parliamentary device to sneak in legislation that had already been rejected through normal channels. Holding an open conference committee meeting was a way, then, for Smith to block the Speaker, and he seized the opportunity. Smith was under no obligation to hold an open meeting; it was a spontaneous decision. Even though the open meetings law has passed, it is not yet signed by the governor, and will not become law, if signed, for ninety days.

Nerves are on edge at the end of any session. This session was even more edgy than most, since the state is in a financial crisis and the legislature is forced to say "no" to many worthy projects. Neither Smith nor the Speaker should be criticized too much for showing less than 100% courtesy toward each other under the circumstances. Both are gentlemen and are unlikely to hold grudges over this incident.

Perhaps more to the point, if this process truly remains open, knowing in advance that amendments will be scrutinized in public, legislators will be far more cautious in their approach to getting approval in conference committees for legislation that would not stand up to the light of day under normal channels.

Rep. Joseph Cervantes fought hard for many years to get HB 393 passed, opening up the conference committee process. And the passage of HB 393 is one of the true landmark bills of the 2009 legislative session. It is one of those bills that everyone agrees should have passed long ago, but only after it has already passed and become part of a more democratic legacy. Believe me, it wasn't easy to do. It stands as a true monument in the legislative record of achievement of Rep. Joseph Cervantes, who hails from our own South Mesilla Valley.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Cd. Juarez: A Soft Military Presence, Crime Down 85%

I drove to Cd. Juarez this afternoon to see the city now that more than 7000 troops and 2300 federal police have taken over major responsibilities for public safety in this city of 1.5 million.

El Norte reports an 85% drop in major crimes this week, in assaults on businesses, kidnappings, automobile theft, beatings, homicides, and other crimes. In spite of this dramatic downturn, the military presence is extremely light-handed, so far. There are a few pickups, some with military markings, some with municipal police markings, each carrying between two and seven soldiers standing in the bed, patrolling through the streets, but these are intermittent and you can go for several miles without encountering a single one. About ten years ago, when the Zedillo government deployed military units to Juarez on counter-drug-trafficking missions, those troops (just a few hundred) were far more intrusive, since they set up roadblocks randomly throughout the city, stopping traffic to check indentification documents. I've lived temporarily under several military dictatorships and/or states of exception, and Juarez this afternoon is not what martial law usually looks like.

Major thoroughfares are not being patrolled with any frequency, and the tourist hangouts and shopping centers have no visible military presence at all. Traffic police, whether on motorcycles or in cars, are still wearing municipal uniforms, but then it was only this afternoon that Col. Efren Rodriguez Torres took charge of the traffic police, and only 350 soldiers have been assigned duties so far with them. There was a heavy military presence guarding the area of inspection cars coming into Juarez from the U.S., presumably to beef up protection against gun smuggling. But none at the U.S. Consulate building, nor at the major hotels, nor in most of the downtown area. Restaurants are going back to normal hours, after several had decided to close at 8 p.m. earlier this year. Clearly, soldiers assigned to take over municipal police duties have not yet integrated themselves into the day to day operations of many units. When this happens the light-handedness may change.

I expected to see a strong military presence in the Delicias police station neighborhood, since that is the highest crime area in the city, but the only evidence I saw was a pair of pickups, with Aldama Police Station markings, carrying army troops on 16 de Septiembre approaching Avenida Juarez while a civilian stood in one of the pickups taking photographs, presumably of a mission in action. In the red light district at 5:30 p.m. musicians were beginning to show up for the nightclubs. A few young women who looked like they belonged there were darting about chatting with each other amiably and, while not as populated or energetic as I've seen it before on a Friday evening, there was nothing to suggest anything was amiss in that area of town.

In spite of the apparent tranquility, two men were executed last night at about 9 p.m. They were in a late-model black Dodge Nitro at an intersection, when a man approached the vehicle on foot and began shooting through the window on the driver's side at the two men in the vehicle. Both men opened their doors to try to escape the fusillade, but both fell to the ground, bleeding. One was declared dead at the scene and the other died after arriving at the Social Security Hospital. These were the first executions registered since the armed forces took over the city last Monday. They were almost certainly members of the "Artistas Asesinos" gang, since one of the victims had a tatoo associated with that gang, of faces with laughter and with tears. Members of this gang and the "Los Mexicles" gang were the subjects of an attack a few weeks ago by the "Azteca" gang during an uprising that broke out when the Azteca gang took over a portion of the prison. Twenty people died in the ensuing riot.

Sam's in Juarez, by the way, has an excellent selection of Rioja, French, Malbec from Argentina, and Chilean wines, for reasonable prices, and they take U.S. Sam's cards and credit cards.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

ABQ Journal Reports Sunland Park Land Purchase is Dead

Rene Romo reports in the Albuquerque Journal today that the 22-acre land purchase using a $2.85 million loan from Stan Fulton will not take place. Romo quotes Angelica Marquez, a city councilor who usually votes with the mayor, as saying, "It was not conducted the way it was supposed to be done, so it's off," prior to a city council meeting on Tuesday, which was not attended by Mayor Martin Resendiz. The deal appeared to be in trouble after a March 5 emergency meeting was called by Resendiz, to cinch the deal, but only one council member and Resendiz showed up, preventing a vote.

Even as the deal fizzled out, more questions about it surfaced. Romo reports that on March 5 Resendiz said the loan would be paid off with revenue bonds financed by racetrack fees, channeled from the county fair to Sunland Park. But Diana Alba reported in the Sun News on March 18 that Frank Coppler, the attorney for Sunland Park, had said the city would pay for the loan using franchise fees from the Camino Real Landfill, and that in a previous interview Resendiz had declined to state the source of the funding for the bond.

If indeed the purchase had been financed with landfill franchise fees this would have posed a potential political problem and conflict of interest, inasmuch as the landfill is extremely unpopular among many residents of Sunland Park, and, in effect, the land transaction would have placed the landfill and the city in a partnership. Last fall the New Mexico Environment Department granted the landfill only a one-year extension on their operating contract, and will review it again this year. If the city were dependent on landfill franchise fees to pay back the loan, this would have made it more difficult for the city to argue against extending the contract for another ten years.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sunland Park Government Under Scrutiny: Twenty Two Acres for City Hall: Summary and Analysis


In a story today by Diana Alba in the Las Cruces Sun News it was revealed that the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration (DFA) has ordered the City to clarify a number of issues relating to a plan to acquire land for a new City Hall. Alba has done an excellent job of covering this story over the past few weeks, so I don't need to go into too much detail about the background.

Mayor Resendiz has proposed buying a 22 acre lot on the corner of Gibson-Veck Road and Sunland Park Drive, for $2.85 million, to be used for the new City Hall. Stan Fulton, the owner of the Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino, has agreed to allow the City to borrow the $2.85 million, interest-free, from a nearly $12 million grant he made to Sunland Park to help pay for a new international port of entry to connect Anapra, Mexico, and Sunland Park. As structured by Frank Coppler, the City's attorney, Sunland Park would repay the loan by issuing revenue bonds against franchise fees from the Camino Real Landfill. Coppler, incidentally, has acted as the Landfill's attorney in the past.

Last week three of the six Sunland Park city councilors complained that Mayor Martin Resendiz has not provided enough information about the plan and filed a request for information under the public records inspection act. Among the information requested are details of the appraisal undertaken to value the land. No action has yet been taken on this request.

One of the issues the DFA has asked the City to clarify is the relationship between councilors and the owners of the 22-acre lot.

Another is the budgetary implications of a $2.85 debt for a city with a budget of less than $4 million.

In other words, what would this debt load do to the city's ability to borrow in the future? According to the Sun News story, Coppler has indicated that if the $2.85 million is not repaid within two years, the land would revert to Fulton. Is this the best way to structure such a loan? Is there a better way? Can Sunland Park realistically be expected to pay this off in two years, solely from franchise fees? The New Mexico Environmental Department last fall gave Sunland Park a one-year extension to operate. What if the NMED refuses to grant the Landfill a permit to operate? What will happen to the franchise fees?


It is highly unusual for DFA to interfere in the affairs of a municipal government, to the extent of demanding answers to pointed questions about a proposed transaction. It is also highly unusual for three city councilors to resort to the public records act to get information that should have been readily available not only to councilors but also to the public at large. Why the secrecy?

There are other questions that come to mind as well. Why 22 acres? Does the City really need 22? Why not 5 or 10? How much is the building of a City Hall complex going to cost? Where will the City get the money? When can this be expected to happen? Is this something citizens really want and can afford?

Sunland Park approved an economic master plan in 2006. In that plan a city hall complex was envisioned at a location on Sunland Park Drive near Western Playland, next to a canal, with a bridge connecting people to the river. The 22-acre location was designed for a shopping center. Has the master plan been amended since Martin Resendiz became mayor last year? If not, why would the city act against its own master plan? Violating it might well cause potential investors and businesses to lose confidence in the city's ability to plan reliably into the future.

On Thursday morning, March 5, Resendiz was so anxious to seal the deal that he called an emergency meeting of the city council for that evening. But by that time suspicions were so high only one council person and Resendiz showed up so the meeting had to be cancelled. Is there some urgency to buy this land, now? If so, what is it? If not, why not wait until plans for a city hall complex can be drawn up at least in conceptual form, with a price tag, and plenty of time for discussion by citizens about the merits of spending several million taxpayer dollars that way, as opposed to some other way.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Former Senate President Manny Aragon Sentenced Today

As the 2009 New Mexico Senate is heading toward the finish line on Saturday, former Senate President Manny Aragon is heading to jail to begin a 67-month sentence for skimming money from the construction of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Courthouse in Albuquerque. Aragon pleaded guilty last October to three federal felony counts of conspiracy and mail fraud. He was sentenced today by U.S. Federal District Court Judge William P. Johnson, who also ordered him to pay $649,000 in restitution and $750,000 in fines. The restitution will apply toward the $750,000 fines. Several other persons were convicted in connection with the Metro Court scandal, including former mayor of Albuquerque Ken Schultz. Among the letters sent to the judge on Aragon's behalf prior to the sentencing were letters from Archbishop Michael Sheehan and President of the Senate Tim Jennings.

Aragon used his power in the senate to obtain capital outlay funds to pay for a large portion of the Metro Court's construction, and he requested more funds than necessary, from which he and others would file false vouchers for fictitious work and pocket the money, often delivered in large bundles of cash. Even prior to the discovery of the kickback scheme, escalating costs for the Metro building caused something of a scandal.

At his peak, Aragon was a gifted politician, with quick wit, a sharp tongue, and a rather unpredictable temperament. He was a member of the 1969 constitutional convention and, like so many of the delegates, went on to serve in elective positions for many years. An attorney and a wealthy man, he was in the state legislature for 29 years but he never forgot his roots in the South Valley of Albuquerque. His attorney Ray Twohig, in arguing for leniency this morning, stressed to the judge some of the legislative legacies for which he is responsible, including the construction of the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, dental care for the poor, and closing drive-up liquor windows.

Aragon was given a brief period to get his affairs in order before beginning his sentence.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Breaking News: HB 185 Passes Senate Unanimously

HB 185, merging five domestic mutual water systems into one Authority, passed through the Senate unanimously at about 9:15 p.m. this evening. Several of the legislators from Southern Dona Ana County were able to maneuver to have the bill voted on this evening, including Sen. Cynthia Nava, who yielded her turn on the floor on other business to enable several visitors from the South Mesilla Valley, who have been following the bill, to witness the vote before returning home. Sen. Mary Kay Papen ushered the bill through the Senate after it passed through the House last week. The bill now goes to the governor's office, and it will become law unless the governor vetoes it within the next three days. The governor's office has indicated it is in support of the bill.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Cd. Juarez Under Unofficial Martial Law

Cd. Juarez is now essentially operating under unofficial martial law, a condition that prevails when the military takes over control of the normal administration of justice. Unlike declared martial law, which imposes a set of rules over the population, such as curfew hours, a suspension of habeas corpus, and military tribunals, in Cd. Juarez the armed forces have been limited to occupying most of the positions of municipal law enforcement. The judicial system has remained in civilian hands.

With the arrival today of 1500 troops from the Sixth Light Infantry Brigade in Mexico City and 1250 soldiers yesterday, the total number of army troops assigned to provide security to Cd. Juarez is now 7,300. When you add to that the 2300 agents of the federal police who have been sent by President Felipe Calderon to the city, there are now over 9600 federal law enforcement agents guarding Cd. Juarez. Under normal conditions the city employs about 1500 police officers.

Tomorrow morning, March 16, military officers will take over the top positions of the municipal police, including Chief of Public Security, Chief of Police, chiefs of the six police stations of Cd. Juarez, director of the city’s Special Police, Chief of Delta Group, and Director of Rapid Response. In addition a military officer will act as a liaison between the military units assigned to the city and the Secretary of Defense’s Office in Mexico City. The officers have been sent to Cd. Juarez from various places in Mexico, and some are retired. Still to be filled by officers are the positions of Director of Traffic and the warden of the municipal jail, which rioted last week when Azteca gang inmates seized part of the jail, leaving twenty dead.

Musical Chairs: Santa Fe Just Before the Music Stops

The legislature is preparing for the last week of the session. Looks like the budget will come in at about $5.5 billion, roughly $750 million lower than the budget approved last year, which then had to be trimmed this year due to a drop in current revenues. At $5.5 billion the budget is on a rickety platform, with a lot of "ifs" supporting it. If revenue forecasts hold up (oops, the price of natural gas in Farmington went down this week), if the stimulus package from the feds prevents a further decline in the economy, and if the legislature acts responsibly this week, the state may be able to generate enough revenue to pay for the budget. If not, further cuts will have to be made down the line.

Among the things you might keep your eye on: The College of Santa Fe. Will the legislature acquire this venerable private, but bankrupt, institution? Powerful Rep. Luciano "Lucky" Varela, from Santa Fe, and the Governor would like the state to acquire it on a bailout plan, but it is $30 million in debt, and a bailout would acquire those debts. The board of regents at Highland University announced they would buy it, but the Governor would now prefer the University of New Mexico or perhaps a consortium between the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State to run it. While the House approved $3 million to run the college next year, the Senate Finance Committee pointedly removed it from their budget. Can the Governor get it brought to the floor and pass it? Sen. John Arthur Smith is concerned that the institution, which could not make a go of it charging students tuition of $26,000 per year, would end up gobbling up a lot of money out of the state's university budget. If tuition dropped to $4000, taxpayers would be, in effect asked to pick up $22 million per year just to cover those revenues for 1000 students. The bailout costs might be a lot cheaper if the insitution is allowed to go bankrupt, cancel out the debt owed, and renegotiate a buyout. But that still leaves unanswered the question of whether the state really needs to subsidize another institution of higher learning in New Mexico, even one that appears to have been quite excellent, particularly in the arts. Given the highly politicized mess that higher education has become in recent years, don't expect the Senate to give the Governor a blank check.

The Education Budget: The Governor would also like to increase funding for education by 15%, tied to a separate bill to change the formula (see the two stories, below, on HB 331 and HB 346), and yet another bill that would increase the school year by 5 days. If the Governor can get a floor vote on this bill, it could conceivably pass, since the Senate gained a couple more liberal seats this year, and the educational establishment would like to see this one pass. But don't count on it.

Ethics Reform: Recent corruption scandals have led to a good deal of posturing about ethics reform. More than 40 bills were introduced. But ethics reform bills have a way of not quite mustering enough votes, or else getting watered down with provisions that weaken the effect. The only substantively important bill that has been passed the Senate so far is a bill that would limit campaign donations for most offices to the federal limit of $2300 per person per year, and with limits on the amount that can be given to PACs and parties, from PACs to candidates, and from parties to PACs. This makes it more difficult for the kinds of creative financing that has been going on for several years in ways that severely compromise the independence of candidates from interest groups, party leaders, and PACs. But the bill will not go into effect until 2011, after the next election cycle. Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez has been criticized severely for arguing against some of the ethics bills, on the grounds that "we're not bad people." But it was Sen. Sanchez who took the 2013 sunset provision off the $2300 limit, which greatly strengthened the measure. When the dust settles next week, we will see how much courage the legislature had to do the right thing to reduce the chances of corruption. Don't count on too much

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Senate Judiciary Committee Passes HB 185: Breaking News

Saturday evening 8 P.M.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 9-0 this afternoon to give HB 185 a Do Pass recommendation. The bill would merge 5 mutual domestic water associations into one regional Authority. The bill passed through the House of Representatives unanimously on February 25, and was heard both in the Senate Conservation and Judiciary committees this week. It received a unanimous vote of approval in the Senate Conservation Committee earlier this week. The bill is expected to reach the floor of the Senate on Monday for a vote, where it is expected to pass, and then be sent to the governor's office.

Mr. Pat Banegas, manager of the Anthony Water and Sanitation District, was in Santa Fe today, urging members of the committee to vote against the bill. He was accompanied by Frank Coppler, an attorney for the Anthony Water and Sanitation District. This was his first appearance in Santa Fe in connection with this bill. I was not able to ascertain what Banegas' arguments were against the bill.

Except for Mr. Banegas, whose opposition was unexpected, the bill has received a great deal of support from many sectors, including the governor's office, the office of the state engineer,
the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, the New Mexico Farm Bureau, the Groundwater Drillers Association, and the League of Conservation Voters. There was no opposition from the Municipal League or from Dona Ana County, or the Association of Counties.

The Scylla and Charybdis of HB 331 and HB 346

Don't underestimate the ability of legislators to cause mischief. The diabolical connection between HB 331 and HB 346 is a perfect example.

HB 331 changes the school funding formula to favor school districts with a disproportionate number of poor children, non-English speaking children, and children with learning difficulties. In other words, school districts like Gadsden. Standing alone, the bill would have virtually no chance of passing. Wealthy districts would resent losing funds to help poor districts. Anglo districts would resent losing money to help the non-English speaking. The bill would stand up as a poster child for "unfunded mandates," and it would never see the light of day, regardless of its merits. Likewise, had HB 331 come with money attached to it, say a per capita fee of, say $300 per student found to be eligible in each school district, it would have failed not only for the reasons given above, but because, in this economic climate, of course, we couldn't possibly afford it. Double failure.

However, it does not stand alone. It is accompanied by HB 346, which funds HB 331, but in a special way. Instead of earmarking funds for each qualifying student and distributing funds to districts accordingly, it takes the budget for public education and adds 15% to the total. And then it raises gross receipts taxes .75% to pay for it. Grand total? $389 million the first year, over $400 million the second year. Now that we have raised the public school budget by 15% we go back to HB 331 and allocate the money to every school district, but giving some extra funds to districts that are especially poor, with high numbers of non-English speakers, etc., since the new formula provides for this. Bottom line: public education gets increased 15% overall.

Now, what if HB 346 had stood alone, increasing public school funding 15% across the board. In the middle of a nasty recession and fiscal crisis? Not a chance! But it doesn't stand alone. Tied to HB 331, HB346 is the price you pay for helping out the poor. You bleeding heart liberals wanna help the poor? Pony up and raise taxes, because HB 331 forces districts to help the poor. You parents wanna help education in general? Vote for HB 346 because helping the poor is the way to sneak a 15% increase into the budget. Catch22! How clever!

In Greek mythology, two monsters guarded opposite sides of the Straits of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland. Scylla, a female beast with six heads, lived on a rock and gobbled up sailors whose ships passed by too closely. But if you veered away to avoid Scylla, you encountered Charybdis, on the other side of the straits, who sucked up enormous quantities of water and spit it out three times a day, creating whirlpools which sucked ships down, drowning all hands. In The Odyssey, Odysseus is forced to choose which monster to face in order to get through the straits.

The Siamese-twin nature of these two bills presents some legislators with a Scylla or Charybdis decision. If you represent Gadsden School District in the legislature, one of the poorest districts in the state, with a high proportion of non-English speaking students, there is a strong temptation to vote for HB 331 since it will definitely help raise the proportion of funds going to the district. But on the other hand you can only get this by voting for HB 346 which demands a huge tax increase of .75%. Remember two years ago? The South Valley not only said "no," but "hell no" to the governor when he asked them to raise their taxes by .25% to fund the Spaceport in Sierra county. The governor lost an enormous amount of respect in the South Valley because of his strong support for this tax increase, which barely squeaked by with a margin of less than 300 votes. And Bill McCamley, without fully understanding the implications of his support at the time, essentially threw away his chances of becoming a congressman when he backed the governor in the Spaceport tax election against the wishes of the South Valley. The deadly whirlpool caused by the Charybdis of tax increases is still fresh on peoples' minds in the South Valley.

Odysseus chose to face Scylla rather than Charybdis, on the grounds that he would definitely lose some sailors, but he felt this was better than to risk losing the whole ship to Charybdis, should he try running through at whirlpool time. Representative Joseph Cervantes chose to vote against HB 346, presumably on the grounds it was better to forego extra funding for poor students than to raise taxes on all citizens in the middle of a serious economic downturn and in an especially poor area of the state. His aunt, Mary Helen Garica, chose to vote for HB 346, presumably on the grounds that it was better to increase taxes than to pass up an opportunity to improve the funding levels of schools throughout New Mexico and especially to Gadsden.

Had I been forced to cast a vote under these circumstances I probably would have voted to increase the taxes, but I certainly understand and respect those who voted the other way. It simply isn't fair to force legislators to make such choices.

Apart from the trickiness of making the two bills contingent upon each other, there is a serious policy flaw in this approach: nowhere in these two bills are increases in funding tied to increases in student performance, which is woefully inadequate in most school districts in the state. But here we enter into the arena of school politics: dealing with performance issues is not what the school establishment and entrenched interests are all about. But that is another story.....

Tax Hike for Education Goes to Senate: Will it Pass Through the Senate?

HB 346, which increases gross receipts taxes by three quarters of a percent to supplement public education funding passed the House on March 13 and heads to the Senate. The bill represents an extremely large tax increase, raising revenues $389 million in FY 2010, which begins in July, and over $400 million for 2011. The bill should be viewed in connection to HB 331, which changes the school funding formula in various ways. The connection is this: HB 346 funds the changes proposed in HB 331. As HB 331 is written, if HB 346 does not pass, the changes proposed in 331 will not be enacted. HB 331, like HB 346, has passed the House and is headed to the Senate.

So what, exactly, does HB 331 do? It changes the funding formula to provide extra money for students needing more help than usual, such as children from families living in poverty, children with learning difficulties, and students who cannot speak English. Should both bills pass, school districts will receive extra funds to assist these children based on the demographic characteristics of each district, including the factors listed above. While it seems unlikely that every penny of the extra revenue will be used exclusively on poor children, non-English-speaking children, and students with learning difficulties, there will at least be fewer excuses districts can make for failure to accommodate such students and, hopefully (dare we hope?), the performance of students outside the specified categories, would also go up.

Entrenched special interests within the education establishment have been staunch advocates of these bill, which would make up what is said to be a 15% "shortfall" in funding. Even in Albuquerque, which would pay more than its fair share in taxes for this funding compared to the extra revenues it would get for schools, teachers are in favor of the bill, prodded along by the Albuquerque Teacher's Federation.

What are the chances the bills will pass through the Senate? Slim.

The governor has been arm-twisting in favor of the bills, but there are rumors of a movida to remove the contingency between the two bills, forcing school districts to reallocate their existing budgets if HB 346 does not pass and funding is denied. If the contingency is removed school districts would if effect be given (those dreaded words again) unfunded mandates to force schools to increase help for non-English speaking children, poor children, and children with learning abnormalities; that is to say, children whose parents don't tend to have a lot of political clout. Under these conditions a great deal of public support for 331 would evaporate from parents who do not come under the affected categories, especially parents in highly liberal, but relatively wealthy and Anglo districts who are concerned about the poor and underprivileged only when the mandates are fully funded, not when funding for them comes out of the budget for their own kids. The movida thus appears to be a wickedly inspired effort by conservatives to remind everyone that liberal supporters of both bills, including the entrenched educational establishment, really don't care as much about the children being served by HB 331 as they do about kicking up overall funding to public education by 15% under HB 346. Don't worry, liberals, the movida is highly unlikely to actually get off the table. It was floated mainly to make you nervous.

Bottom line: given the revenue projections (price of gas is even lower now than when the last dire projections came out a couple of weeks ago) it seems unlikely the bill will survive the scrutiny of the Senate Finance Committee. State finances are on the flimsiest of platforms of contingency already, and if one of the legs of the stool collapses, a huge emergency will arise. There are probably a number of senators who would like to see the bill get killed in the Senate Finance Committee, because if it makes it to the floor, they would face the cross-pressure of having to decide between voting for a massive tax hike (facing the wrath of negative campaign ads down the road) and voting against education. Sen. John Smith can take the blame for killing the bill, without forcing senators to commit to a yes or no. You can tell your conservative constituents the tax hike was bad, and tell your liberal constituents Smith killed it. However, should the bill make it to the floor it will probably go down by a vote or two along the same lines (but not identical) as the vote for Jennings on the floor on the first day of the session. But my confidence in this last statement is not very high; it could conceivably pass.

Death Penalty About to End in New Mexico

In a historic move on Friday the Senate voted to repeal the death penalty in New Mexico. The House has already passed the bill, which now becomes law on Wednesday March 18 unless the governor vetoes it. A veto seems highly unlikely, given the constellation of political forces in the legislature at this time--liberal legislators gained seats in the legislature after the 2008 elections. Perhaps even more important, a poll taken in 2008 indicated that 64% of New Mexicans would support replacement of the death penalty with life without parole. Given the governor's current approval rating (41%), he would hardly be likely to risk alienating 2 out of 3 voters on that score, even though he appeared to be against abolishing the death penalty last year. If it becomes law New Mexico will become the 15th state to repeal the death penalty

The death penalty has a long and undistinguished career in American politics, with highly uneven, which is to say, unfair, application in different states, in its timing, and with prejudice to blacks, Hispanics, and the poor. It was suspended in 1972 by the Supreme Court due to the capricious way the Court said it was being applied. The ban was lifted in 1976 and since that time 1136 executions have taken place, 95% of them in the South, and well over half of those executed were people of color. Even the current U.S. Supreme Court, which is hardly a bastion of liberal thought, has had second thoughts about the constitutionality of the death penalty as it is currently practiced (or malpracticed?) in real life.

In New Mexico Toney Anaya showed a good deal of moral courage when he ran for governor in 1982 and publicly declared there would be no executions should he be elected. In spite of public opinion running strongly in favor the death penalty at that time, Anaya won the election and kept his word.

Globally, there has been a strong tendency in the past few decades to abolish the death penalty. Thirty years ago only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty. Today all but 59 countries (out of about 200) have abolished it or severely restricted it. In 2007 the United States was fifth in the world in the number of executions carried out, behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, and was followed by Iraq. Other countries that carried out executions that year include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Botswana, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Kuwait, Libya, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Viet Nam, and Yemen. If you remove the United States and Japan from the list, the average score on the Economist Intelligence Unit's Index of Democracy for these countries is 3.61, which would rank 121st out of 167 countries covered, slightly ahead of Cuba but behind Pakistan and Rwanda. That is to say, with the exception of the United States and Japan those countries that carry out executions are exceptionally undemocratic.

New Mexicans can be proud we are about to leave the ranks of those societies--overwhelmingly undemocratic--that still maintain the death penalty.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Garcia Answers Anonymous Criticism

I published the following comment because I decided to answer it:

"You seem to be, at best, either a very, very conservative Democrat or a democrat in name only. How a person such as yourself ever got elected as Democratic Party Chair in Dona Ana County is beyond me. The posts on your blog echo Republican thoughts in the rest of the state.
I have left several posts on this blog disagreeing and have yet to se one posted."

Here is my answer:

Your comment amounts to name calling rather than disagreeing with something I said. Your assertion that I harbor "Republican thoughts" suggests both that I have them (whatever that means) and that there is something wrong with that. And your comment that I am either a conservative Democrat or a "democrat (sic) in name only" similarly suggests not only that I am a conservative Democrat (whatever that means) but also that there is something bad about that. An inference in your comment is that if you disagree with someone you are justified in suggesting disloyalty to the party. Since no one wants to be called a traitor, a subtle fear factor in invoked.

Nowhere do you refer to something specific I have written and then argue with it. Your comment is pure innuendo. The reader should fill in the blanks with your negative thoughts and direct them against me. But yes, I can figure out what you mean: you don't like it that I have complimented Sen. John Smith for showing leadership. Since Smith is known to be a conservative Democrat you accuse me of being the same and then ridicule me for that. But since when have conservative Democrats been incapable of leadership? Do you disagree with me? Tell us why. You don't like it that I criticized the Lt. Governor and Senate Majority Leader for not showing leadership. It would appear you think they are liberal Democrats (a conclusion I wouldn't necessarily share, and one that is irrelevant to the point I was making) and therefore should not be criticized. These two potential candidates are in key leadership positions. they should be willing to let us know now what they think. Do they agree with the governor's priorities? What are their priorities? What should we be doing about the crisis? Do you disagree with this? Then say so, no need to call me names.

One of the problems in the Republicans have today is precisely that they created litmus tests about what being a good Republican meant. Conservative religious groups began demanding that Republicans should all think alike on issues like abortion and stem-cell research and evolution and deregulation. Many Republicans stopped drinking the kool-aid when they woke up and found the Republican doctrine of balanced budgets and small government had ended up under W. Bush in a drunken-sailor binge of spending, debt, unnecesary war, and a huge increase in the size and scope of government, including an unprecedented assault on civil liberties, and all of this ended up in a scandalous collapse of our economic system caused in great part by the doctrine of deregulation which in pracice meant, "let the banks cheat about the soundness of housing mortgages and let the Madoffs rip off." Fewer people identify as a Republicans today than they have since the Watergate scandals destroyed Nixon a third of a century ago. Forcing people to demonstrate loyalty to party doctrine is the ultimate disrespect to democracy, where different people should be able to present their views without fear. The goal is better government, not more Democrats or more Republicans in office.

For several years the state has been plagued by corruption scandals. Two state treasurers are in jail and former President of the Senate Manny Aragon will be sentenced next week for acts of corruption. Many other credible allegations of wrongdoing are being investigated as we speak. All of the culprits or alleged culprits are Democrats: am I a wicked conservative Democrat traitor for mentioning these facts? The true disloyalty to the party, and it applies to both liberal and conservative members, comes from people like Manny Aragon, who used his powerful position to line his pockets with taxpayer money, and there is nothing conservative or liberal about saying so.

My last point: you complain that I did not publish some of your other comments. That is correct. They were name-calling personal attacks on me or others. If you are so lazy that instead of telling me why you disagree you slap a negative label on me, this is not acceptable. And when you use the "anonymous" label to call me names you would not dare to use in a face to face meeting, this is nothing less than cowardice. Try me: tell me why I'm wrong and I will publish your comment. And if you sign your name I will even permit a certain amount of name calling. I'm a grown man.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

HB 185 Passes Senate Conservation Committee

House Bill 185, which creates a water Authority, merging 5 mutual domestic water systems in the South Mesilla Valley, has passed through the Senate Conservation Committee, after passing through the New Mexico House of Representatives, and is now moving to the Senate Judiciary Committee. It is expected to pass through the Senate and go to the governor's desk. Should it pass through the Senate before the last 3 days of the session, the bill will automatically become law unless the governor vetoes the bill. Should it pass during the last three days of the session it will become law only if the governor signs the bill within 20 days.

There was no opposition to the bill in the Conservation hearing, and it appears it will be placed on the consent agenda of the Judiciary Committee with other bills for speedy action.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Should Lt. Governor Denish Declare Independence?

I began answering a question I received in the comment section, but my answer got too long so I put it here.

Our Lt. Governor is from Hobbs and one of the great traditions of the East Side of New Mexico (Little Texas) is a strong culture, still maintained, of good manners, a modest demeanor, and speaking with fewer words than elsewhere in New Mexico. Lt. Governor Diane Denish is clearly within this tradition.

That said, there is solid evidence to suggest that, yes, she has at times shared with friends her audacity to think differently than the governor, even though in some political circles in New Mexico it has been considered treason to think such thoughts, and punishable if thought out loud.

The question now arises: now that the governor is a lame duck, and, due to the circumstances, lamer-- potentially wheel-chair lame or even bed-ridden lame--than would normally be the case in the seventh year of an administration, would it behoove the Lt. Governor, who is known to harbor thoughts of succeeding Richardson, to make a clean break with the governor, and begin speaking out like a normal candidate would, about the affairs of the state, which of course, are not quite normal under the economic circumstances of the nation and state? Even if it risks alienating the governor and the political class that put him in office?

My answer is simple. Yes!

The nation and the state are in economic crises, the likes of which we have not seen for more than six decades. There are no easy answers about just what role government ought to play in resolving the crisis. Why shouldn't potential leaders of New Mexico, who will be courting our vote a year from now, share their thoughts about the crisis which is breaking out today?

The news media and lobbyists and public officials, and potential candidates, are, like ostrich heads in the sand, pretending this is a normal legislative session. We've seen the usual childish games again: politicians indignantly floating ethics bills with their names on them while undermining their teeth behind the scenes, or talking about transparency through webcasting while turning off the lights, etc. The usual stuff. But the budget shortfalls are real, and given the current crisis perhaps the ostrich analogy isn't strong enough: how about Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burns? Unemployment is up. Revenues are way down. The federal government stimulus package doesn't cover the projected shortfall in revenues for the state, predicted a month ago before the stock market plunged another thousand points. What do we cut? What do we keep? Do we raise taxes? If so, where will we raise them? Who will benefit?

The only person showing leadership is Sen. John Arthur Smith, by simply asking legislators to look at the numbers and take them seriously, and debate things honestly. If you want to pay for a program, which taxes will have to be raised, or which other spending will have to be cut? The numbers he's talking about ought to have stimulated a serious debate about top priorities in New Mexico and alternative ways of finding money or cutting spending. But so far they have not. President Obama has shown moral courage by putting all of the budget items on the table, and letting everyone know just how big the deficit and projections are. He also showed moral courage by voting against the war in Iraq a few years ago, before it was popular to do so. Shouldn't we expect the same from our future leaders? Judging by what has happened so far, Smith is the only one of the bunch I would trust to guard my share of the $5 billion budget paid for by the taxpayers.

There are parallels here to the situation in 1994. Then, an entrenched political class backing Governor Bruce King was easily defeated in November by a man no one had even heard of with a simple message: things are so rotten in Santa Fe it would be better to veto everything the political class of both parties puts out in the way of bills, and let state government languish without direction for eight years; which it did. Johnson was immensely popular with the public throughout his term. Today, given the inability of an entrenched political class to focus on a crisis like adults, would it not be better to elect someone who actually believes state government has a sacred pact to tackle the problems of the day, and is willing to ignore the political class to prove it can be done? As in 1994 the voters of New Mexico might just be willing to elect someone they've never heard of who can inspire them with straight talk.

So far, I haven't seen the kind of leadership from Diane Denish, or Michael Sanchez (who has been talking seriously about running for governor), or even less from potential Republican candidates, that one would expect from someone who actually wants to take over the troubled reins of the state 22 months from now. The Richardson era is over, guys. He has no capacity to solve next year's problems in New Mexico, nor the moral authority to address the current situation today. Who's up next to bat? Give us a reason today to vote for you tomorrow.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Richardson's Approval Rating Plunges

A Survey USA poll of 600 New Mexicans last week showed the governor's approval rating has dropped to a low of 41 percent. In the past his approval ratings have been in the high 60's and low 70's. The drop is almost certainly due to the investigation under way in the U.S. Attorney's Office over the relationship between contributions to PACs controlled by the governor and the granting of contractual work to CDR, a bonding firm from Beverly Hills, a few years ago. The investigation prevented the governor from accepting a nomination as Commerce Secretary under President Barack Obama. By way of comparison, President Bush's approval rating as President was in the low-to-mid 30's during much of 2008, dropping in some surveys to the lowest level ever recorded.

South Valley Legislators Cervantes, Papen, Pass bills

HB 393, sponsored by Rep. Joseph Cervantes, that would open legislative committee meetings to the public passed unanimously in the House today, by a vote of 66-0. A senate version of the bill, SB 150, is currently in the Rules Committee.

On another front, Sen. Mary Kay Papen's SB 20, which would reorganize the state's affordable housing programs, passed through the Senate unanimously, and now moves to the House. The housing program collapsed in 2006 when the Albuquerque regional housing authority defaulted on bonds owed to the state. Attorney General Gary King has been investigating allegations of widespread misuse of funds. If passed into law the bill would require far more stringent oversight.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The War on Drugs: Record Executions in February

From the Diario de Juarez, Sunday, March 1: Drug-related executions, which surpassed 1600 in Cd. Juarez last year, reached a record number of 230 in February. This is higher than the annual totals in 2003, 2004, and 2005, and breaks the previous monthly total of 228, set in August, 2008.

The latest executions occurred on Saturday when two police officers in a patrol car stopped at a filling station in Praxedis G. Guerroro, in the Valle de Juarez. A group of armed men caught them by surprise, shot them, and reloaded their weapons before fleeing. On Friday the body of a woman killed by gunfire was found in the back seat of an abandoned black 2001 Chevrolet Impala, at a filling station on the corner of Cuatro Siglos and Paseo de Nogal. Hours later a female police officer and her male partner were shot and killed in Praxedis G. Guerrero, in the Valle de Juarez. This was the 13th female police officer killed this year. Meanwhile, an investigation continues into the death of a state law enforcement investigator, who was shot and killed on his way home, apparently by military personnel. According to witnesses a group of soldiers were talking to prostitutes on a steet corner when a car driven by Manuel Lorenzo Saucedo Delgado, accompanied by another car with law enforcement personnel working on a case with Mr. Saucedo, passed by and soldiers began shooting at them. The vehicles stopped and soldiers ordered the men out of the vehicles and began beating them. At least one other man was wounded by gunfire.

On the U.S. side, a California State Assemblyman, Tom Ammiano, has proposed legislation that would legalize the sale and taxation of marijuana, as a means of raising funds for the state, which is in the throes of a heavy financial downturn. And according to a declassified document street gangs, like the Barrio Azteca gang of El Paso, connected to major narco-trafficking organizations, are taking over the wholesale distribution of illicit drugs in many parts of the United States.