It was ostensibly the governor's show, as he came to town to sign four bills, but the master of ceremonies, appropriately, was Senator Mary Kay Papen, who presided over the signature event in the Auditorium at Corbett Center, NMSU, and who was the steward of SB 279 through the legislature this year.
Before I go on, two persons not there yesterday were spiritual godparents of the bill, due to their dedication to the cause over many years: Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, who put the late Carlos Corral and (now Representative) Antonio Lujan two decades years ago to work with the poorest segments of society in Dona Ana County to help them empower themselves, and Oscar Butler, perhaps the first member of the political class in the county to demand that issues affecting colonias be placed on the political agenda, at a moment when it was not politically popular or rewarding to do so. The groundwork laid by the Diocese and by Commissioner Butler, and many others, provided the colonias with the experience it took to get this bill moving.
SB 279, sponsored by Sen. Mary Kay Papen in the Senate, and co-sponsored by Rep. Andy Nunez, for the first time creates a stream of revenue to be used exclusively for colonias infrastructure development. The funding source is to be 5% of the revenues earned by Permanent Severance Tax bonds (technically, senior water bonds); an equal amount, appropriated in a separate but parallel bill, will be given for infrastructure development for Native Americans in New Mexico, who comprise 10% of the state's population. These funds don't come out of the General Fund, so they didn't affect the budget this year. Until now infrastructure for colonias came from a very messy, iffy, highly unpredictable, and altogether unsatisfactory process by which capital outlay funds were distributed, often in a highly charged political environment. This is a permanent fix and puts the poorest communities in the state in a position to receive the most basic infrastructure needs in an orderly way that permits long-term planning. This year the revenues would have provided about $22 million to be split between colonias infrastructure and Native Americans.
I have often been critical of the legislature this year, and there is even a possibility I will be again. The signature of this bill into law, in the middle of a severe financial crisis, is an example of how grassroots action, coordinated with elected officials, tossed into the difficult process by which bills become laws, can result in legislation that responds to real needs. The state legislature can hold its head up high for having passed these bills.
People in the know tell me it was a skilled team effort that brought this bill in: Rep. Joseph Cervantes helping out at critical times, Sen. Cynthia Nava helping Sen. Papen on the floor, Rep. Nunez keeping it alive in the House, etc. This is, of course, how it should be, but sometimes isn't. Not to be shortchanged: the hard work Senator Howie Morales, from Grant County put into getting this passed. Mr. Morales has shown a lot of evidence in a very short time that he is a worthy successor to the late Senator Ben Altamirano: bright, hard working, sensible.
HB 165, the so-called Whistle Blower bill, sponsored by Joseph Cervantes, was signed, in the presence of the spiritual godmother of the bill, Frances Williams, who was in attendance at the Auditorium. This bill makes it more difficult for retribution to be extracted against persons who complain about irregular or illegal or inapproriate behavior in state government. Williams blew the whistle on the activities of Smiley Gallegos, under indictment today, only to find herself threatened by lawsuits, and sometimes ostracized by some Democrats who should have learned in infancy that loyalty to honest government far outranks loyalty to party members who have betrayed the public trust and who stain the reputation of the party.
Senator Nava made brief mention of the passage of HB 100, which enables fire departments to write in stipends for gas and other incidental expenses that currently have to be paid for out of the pockets of volunteers. The origin of this bill was a chilly evening in December at the Mesquite Fire Station last December (see my post, "Is There Something Wrong With This Picture?" Dec. 29, 2009) when Chief Alfred Nevarez complained he was having serious difficulties recruiting volunteers and keeping the ones he had, among other reasons because of the price of gasoline and other expenses his volunteers were having to pay in the course of responding to calls. Senators John A. Smith, Papen, and Cynthia Nava were present at the meeting. I was particularly struck by the irony that Nevarez had no resources, but Smith indicated the governor, in the middle of a fiscal crisis, felt it necessary to keep handing over $82 million per year to Hollywood in a program in which experts say the state gets only 15 cents or so on the dollar in return. It was gratifying to see that that small meeting resulted in legislation. Let's hope it helps out our friend Fire Chief Nevarez.
Other bills were signed as well. One, which brought the mayor to the occasion, was the TIDDS bill that passed for Las Cruces, bringing in a few million. Let's face it: this is pork, even when it is good news that it will at least come into Dona Ana County. Does the City need the money as much as teachers and state government workers being asked to sacrifice themselves to protect the governor's Hollywood giveaway? You be the judge.
Finally, Spaceport officials were trotted out to plug the Spaceport one more time, boasting about a bill to force space-ship owners to warn clients about possible dangers before flying, but then forbidding relatives, in case of disaster, to sue the owners for negligence, no matter how negligent they might be. In my view this is not a great trade-off or landmark issue in state policy, but even if you agree with it hardly an occasion for plugging the spaceport. In some corners of the county there is still a deep resentment about the Spaceport. The governor used all of his prestige three years ago to ask county residents to raise their taxes to pay some of the bills for the spaceport. A strong grassroots organized effort, based in the South Mesilla Valley, opposed the tax hike, nearly defeating it. Some citizens have recently complained that the contracts that were promised for Las Cruces and the county have been passed out to Albuquerque firms or out of state firms, and there are other complaints about the need to subsidize private out of state corporations during a serious fiscal crisis in the state. So, without giving opponents of the Spaceport a chance to rebut the argument, the Governor took advantage of the occasion to tell his side of the story.