Political figures from Capitol Hill to New Mexico are buzzing about the revelation from former longtime Sen. Pete Domenici that he fathered a child out of wedlock 30 years ago with the daughter of another longtime Republican senator, Paul Laxalt.
“It’s surprising,” said, state rep Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, who worked on Domenici’s staff after Gentry graduated from college. “I don’t think it undermines all the great things he did for our state and nation but it’s a shock to everybody.”
Domenici had kept the affair a secret for decades and told the Albuquerque Journal he was revealing the story because he anticipated that someone was about to go public with the story.
“Rather that have others breach this privacy, I have decided to make this statement,” Domenici said. “These circumstances now compel me to reveal this situation.”
The mother of the child is Michelle Laxalt, who has been described “as one of the most prominent and effective government relations practitioners in the nation’s capital” and is the fourth of Sen. Laxalt’s six children.
In her own statement, Michelle Laxalt said her relationship with Domenici was “one night’s mistake (that) led to a pregnancy more than 30 years ago.”
“I raised my son, Adam Paul, as a single parent,” Michelle Laxalt said in her statement, adding, “I am proud of him, yet saddened that the circumstances of his birth might be used like a weapon to hurt many we love. Recently information has come to me that this sacred situation might be twisted, re-written out of whole cloth, and shopped to press outlets large and small in a vicious attempt to smear, hurt and diminish Pete Domenici, an honorable man, his extraordinary wife, Nancy, and other innocents.”
Domenici’s statement inferred that his wife did not know about the affair until recently:
“My family has been aware of these events for several months. I have apologized as best I can to my wife, and we have worked together to strengthen our relationship.”
Domenici and his wife have raised eight children.
Domenici, now 80, would have been about 50 years old at the time of the pregnancy. Associated Press reports that Michelle Laxalt was 24 at the time.
Michelle Laxalt is one of six children of Sen. Laxalt, who served in the Senate from 1974-1987. Sen. Laxalt, now 90, lives in Northern Virginia and Lake Tahoe, Nev.
In his statement, Domenici said “I am solely responsible” and that Michelle Laxalt “made me pledge that we would never reveal that parenthood, and I have tried to honor that pledge and so has she.”
“Pete Domenici was the go-to guy in New Mexico and he still is in many ways,” Rep. Larañaga said, adding, “There’s room for forgiveness for everyone and the way it was handled was admirable on both parts.”
Larañaga said he worked closely with Domenici in the 1980s when Larañaga worked as secretary of the state’s highways and said Domenici was in the Roundhouse last week visiting with legislators regarding the $418 million rail project in Santa Teresa.
“I haven’t had a chance to speak to the senator about it, ” Rep. Gentry, “but my guess is that to some extent, it’s a relief.”
A slew of media outlets that cover Capitol Hill have picked up on the story, given the high-profile that Sens. Domenici and Laxalt kept as two of the most influential Republicans in DC during their tenures.
And the news comes less than a week after Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, announced that he had his own secret daughter.
“I’m testing the waters,” Marks — who just concluded two terms on the Public Regulation Commission – said late Tuesday afternoon (Feb. 19).
An attorney based in Albuquerque and a Democrat, Marks is the first person to go on record as a potential candidate to take over for current Attorney General Gary King, who is wrapping up his second term as the state’s top law enforcement official.
“New Mexico needs a strong attorney general who will stand up for ordinary people at the legislature and in the courts and stand up for corporate accountability and honest government,” Marks said.
Marks’ exploratory committee is based in Albuquerque and has lined up Ken Sanchez as its treasurer.
In his eight years at the PRC, Marks prided himself on battling PNM for lower rate increases for electricity customers across the state and in the past year has advocated for reforming the PRC and establishing stronger qualifications for commissioners at the agency that has experienced a history of members who have run afoul of the law.
One of two pieces of legislation in the New Mexico statehouse aimed at raising the state’s minimum wage was defeated in a committee hearing Tuesday (Feb. 19), with the deciding vote came from a Democrat.
CORRECTION: An earlier post incorrectly said that House Joint Resolution 6 would raise the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour. It would only adjust the minimum wage to the consumer price index.
“This was very difficult,” state Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Las Cruces, told New Mexico Watchdog after House Joint Resolution 6 was defeated on a 6-5 vote in the House Voters and Elections Committee. “I just thought I should be here to vote on the behalf of the citizens of New Mexico, not necessarily one issue.”
The legislation called for tying the wage to the Consumer Price Index and bring the issue before the voters in the fall as a constitutional amendment.
But a number of members of the committee, including Democrat Debbie Rodella of Española, expressed concern about raising the minimum wage through constitutional amendment instead of by statute.
And Republican Monica Youngblood told the resolution’s sponsor, Democrat Miguel Garcia, that she suspected he wanted to bring the legislation before voters to avoid a veto from Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
In the end, all five Republicans voted to not pass the resolution and five Democrats voted to pass the resolution. Mary Helen Garcia cast the deciding vote, thus sending HJR6 into legislative oblivion.
Mary Helen Garcia’s vote came one day after fellow Democrats blocked her bill in committee that called for ending the practice of “social promotion” for third-grade students who cannot read at a minimal level.
Was her vote an act of revenge?
“Absolutely not,” Garcia said, adding, “There’s a great deal of difference between putting something in statute and putting it (in) as a constitutional amendment … I believe if this was put in statute, I would have voted different.”
There is one other bill that calls for raising the minimum wage in New Mexico — Senate Bill 416 sponsored by Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española — but, unlike SJR6, it would raise the minimum wage strictly through the Legislature instead of a constitutional amendment and would be subject to a veto by Gov. Martinez. SB416 would raise the minimum wage in the state to $8.50 an hour, the fourth-highest in the country.
Update: On Tuesday evening, SB416 passed through the Senate Public Affairs Committee on a 5-3 vote, with all the Democrats on the committee voting yes and all the Republicans voting no. It now moves to the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee.
Only Washington, Vermont and Oregon have state minimum wages higher than $8.50 an hour. Most of the states have minimum wage rates that equal or exceed the federal rate of $7.25 an hour. Five have no state minimum wage law, and four have rates below the federal level.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama called on raising the national minimum wage to $9 an hour.
Employees who injure themselves on the job while drunk or under the influence of drugs can continue to receive workers’ compensation benefits because a legislative move to deny such claims has stalled.
Proponents say refusing such payouts is simple common sense.
“I believe it’s a personal responsibility question,” said Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Texico, after his House Bill 139 was tabled in the House Labor and Human Resources Committee on a party-line vote, with all five Democrats voting to table the bill and all four Republicans voting against.
The case dates back to 2006 when a city sanitation employee in Las Cruces named Edward Villa fell off his garbage truck and injured his head, wrists and a hip. Some three hours after Villa hurt himself, he was found to have a blood-alcohol level of .12, well above the .08 limit in New Mexico for being legally drunk.
But because of a lack of clarity in the interpretation of the Workers’ Compensation Act, an appeals court ruled that Villa was entitled to 90 percent of his workman’s compensation claim, which cost taxpayers in the city of Las Cruces about $90,000.
Working with the court system, Roch introduced HB139 to streamline legal contradictions while including drug abuse as well as alcohol abuse in rejecting potential workers’ comp claims. The bill was approved by the Advisory Council on Workers’ Compensation and Occupational Disease.
Roch says the bill would only apply to workers’ compensation benefits and not touch the medical benefits that would go to an injured worker.
“It was kind of overbearing and punitive in terms of the worker,” Garcia told New Mexico Watchdog, adding, “You’re also dealing with issues of family members who are heirs to entitlements.”
But Roch countered, “We have to protect all the other workers who are on the job site and their families.
“Because you have one guy or one gal that comes to work under the influence, and they drive a forklift and they run over a colleague, who, through no fault of their own, is put in harm’s way, that’s the folks we have to protect. So this is about workplace safety as much as anything else.”
Roch says labor union opposition to the bill influenced Democrats on the committee.
“Ultimately the members of the labor committee who voted to table it are watching organized labor representatives for their cue on how to vote on this,” Roch said. “It’s unfortunate.”
A bill that has been tabled can theoretically be brought back to life if a member on the House floor calls for bringing it off the Speaker’s table to debate the legislation, a practice called “blasting” a bill. But Roch told New Mexico Watchdog he’s not planning to do that.
“If there’s political capital to be spent, I think there are places we can spend it and get more bang for the buck,” Roch said.
The reaction to the bill’s tabling in its very first committee hearing has produced criticism, including an opinion piece in the Las Cruces Sun-News saying the committee’s decision perpetuates a situation that “simply defies sense.”
The committee decision has prompted the introduction of a bill in the Senate that largely mirrors Roch’s tabled bill.
“We introduced it on the Senate side to keep the debate going,” said state Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, of his Senate Bill 465. “It’s just common sense. If you show up to work drunk or on drugs and you hurt yourself, the taxpayers and the workman’s comp fund shouldn’t be paying you off.”
But as of Tuesday (Feb. 19), there were just 26 days left in the 60-day session, and SB465, which has been assigned to be first heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee, has not been heard yet.
Here’s Rep. Roch on the bill:
Last week we wrote about how Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Las Cruces, was swimming upstream against her Democratic Party colleagues with her bill favored by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez to retain public school students who cannot read at a minimal level by the end of the third grade. (Click here to read that story.)
Sure enough, on Monday (Feb. 18), Rep. Garcia’s bill was tabled on a party-line vote in the House Education Committee. Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, has been skeptical to say the least about the effectiveness of retaining students and Rep. Stewart is the committee’s chairwoman.
Hanna Skandera, the secretary-designate for the Public Education Department and a big supporter of Garcia’s bill, tweeted after the hearing, “Disappointed HB 247 tabled on a party line vote. A similar bill passed the House floor 62-5 in 2011.”
The issues isn’t dead yet since a companion bill sponsored by Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, has been introduced in the Senate and Garcia told New Mexico Watchdog last week she would consider “blasting” her own bill onto the House floor.
Update 2/19: Gov. Martinez told New Mexico Watchdog on Tuesday (Feb. 19) she’s holding out hope that Sen. Kernan’s bill can get through the Senate:
In the meantime, Rep. Stewart — who is opposed to the third-grade “social promotion” bill — took to Twitter to explain her opposition to the legislation:
“50 years of research shows: retention damaging to most students unless done early,K-1, with parents, for immaturity or at risk issues.”
It may hit a dry well in the legislature of a state where about 30 percent its revenue comes from severance taxes from the oil and gas industries, but a freshman Democrat from Las Cruces has introduced a bill banning horizontal hydraulic fracturing in New Mexico.
“I didn’t come up here to make easy votes, I came up here to make the right votes,” state Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, told New Mexico Watchdog of his Senate Bill 547 that would immediately ban what’s commonly called “fracking” as a matter “necessary for the public peace, health and safety.”
But critics of the bill say a fracking ban would cripple the oil and gas industry, which funds the Severance Tax Permanent Fund, and that would mean a dramatic cut in money that goes to public schools in New Mexico.
“Without oil and gas production, there’s no money for our schools,” said Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, whose district includes the San Juan Basin, one of the most fertile areas in the world for natural gas production.
“Without fracking, (there’s) no oil, no gas, no schools,” Sen. Sharer said.
According to analysts at the Legislative Finance Committee, oil, gas and extractive industries accounted for $1.7 billion in severance taxes in fiscal year 2012, with more than half of that total going to public schools and higher education in the state.
Critics of hydraulic fracturing say the drilling technique endangers water tables and may even lead to earthquakes — claims the industry vehemently denies.
“I fully understand — and as someone who teaches statistics the difference between a correlation and cause and effect prove — that doesn’t mean it’s not occurring,” Sen. Soules said.
“Fracking has been used in the state of New Mexico at least since the 1930s in some form,” Sharer said, “so for all of us to say it’s something that’s bad and evil is just wrong.”
“Until we get a lot more answers about how (fracking) is affecting the geology here, I think it’s unwise for us to continue,” Soules said. “Once we have contamination, we can never get it back.”
Soules says his bill would affect future wells, not wells already in existence that were drilled with hydraulic fracturing.
“We’re not going to go back and un-frack areas,” Soules said.
But Sharer said, ”Well production goes down over time and so yes, we can do that (but) the schools would continue to get less and less money until suddenly we didn’t have any money at all.”
Soules acknowledged a fracking ban could mean less money for public school funding.
“It may mean that we need to find new revenues to fund our schools because we’re not getting as much from oil and gas,” Soules said. “We need to ask (taxpayers) that and I think most of them will … Until we (get more information), I think we’re taking a gamble.”
SB547 has been assigned to three potential committees and will go before the Senate Conservation Committee first but it has not been heard yet and most Roundhouse observers think it’s a legislative longshot.
“That’s an understatement,” one senator said.
“I’m a new freshman,” Soules said. “I really don’t know about all the politics of something of this sort as to what’s likely to pass, what’s not likely to pass. So it would be very difficult to answer that very effectively.”
Does Sharer think it has a prayer?
“It better not,” he said. “Because the argument is, no fracking, no schools.”
Here’s video of Sens. Soules and Sharer on SB547. It runs three minutes:
Cassandra Romero started out as an intern and became a part-time employee for the Democratic Party of New Mexico.
But now the 21-year-old and her boyfriend are facing charges of embezzling more than $2,000 by allegedly forging the signature of Javier Gonzales, the chairman of the party, and cashing four checks in the Albuquerque area.
Romero was busted on Feb. 5 after an accountant conducting an audit noticed the signatures on the checks were not properly signed. Romero’s boyfriend, 20-year-old Larry Daniel Maez, was booked into jail on Saturday when he and another man were arrested for stealing the tires off of a black Camaro, according to a criminal complaint.
Three of the checks were made out to Maez and one was made out to Romero.
Romero has been released since her arrest but Maez is in lockup, facing a $5,000 bond since he’s facing another felony charge.
According to the Democratic Party of New Mexico, Romero had been an intern since August of last year and a part-time employee since October and she is no longer working for the party.
According to a statement given to KRQE-TV, the DPNM said it was saddened by the events and they’re working with Albuquerque Police Department. Romero is facing felony charges of embezzlement, forgery and fraud.
Came across an article over the weekend from salary.com on the:8 College Degrees with the Worst Return on Investment
As you might expect, fine arts degrees finished in the top (or bottom) eight.
But No. 1?
The profession I’ve spent my life in — communications:
You’d think the ink-stained newsrooms and TV studios are full of wealthy and famous journalists. Not quite. Although these skills require lots of education and training, they buried the lead regarding the lack of payoff.
Click here to read the story.
It’s been a fight filled with dueling contentions of costs and threats of lawsuits that’s been going on for a year and a half, but on Friday (Feb. 15) an agreement was reached regarding the San Juan Generating Station in the Four Corners area of New Mexico.
“This agreement reflects a compromise,” the state’s Environment Department Secretary David Martin told the Albuquerque Journal. “All people are not comfortable with all aspects of it, that’s the nature of a compromise.”
The bickering involved the EPA, the Environment Department and the utility company PNM, with environmental activists urging the EPA to hold firm on anti-pollution efforts while Gov. Susana Martinez and a couple members of the Public Regulation Commission tried working on a compromise.
At issue were the coal-fired plants at the San Juan Generating Station some 15 miles from Farmington. The EPA had been calling for a retrofitting plan it estimated at $345 million but PNM said the cost would be more like $750 million to $1 billion, which would work out to about $85 more per year for PNM customers. PNM owns nearly half the facility.
In the deal announced Friday, PNM would build a natural gas plant, shut down two units at the generating station and install pollution control equipment by 2018. Valerie Smith, a PNM spokesperson, was quoted by Albuquerque Business First saying the agreement will cost the company about $400 to $430 million.
Judging by estimates used during the course of the debate, that would roughly translate to a little more than $30 more per year for a PNM customer.
A wide range of people applaueded the compromise, including Gov. Martinez, a Republican, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelley and US Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat who prides himself on his environmental record.
“We worked hard to craft a reasonable solution that would improve air quality, conserve New Mexico’s precious water resources, avoid an extremely burdensome rate hike on consumers, protect jobs in northwestern New Mexico, transition away from coal and toward New Mexico natural gas, and position the state to take full advantage of exciting new economic development opportunities in the Mancos Shale,” Gov. Martinez said in a statement.
“This agreement aims to reduce pollution, while protecting local jobs and New Mexico ratepayers,” Sen. Udall’s statement said in part. “It will also accelerate our state’s transition to a less carbon-intensive, cleaner energy portfolio using New Mexico’s resources.”
The agreement is non-binding and has to be approved by the state’s Environmental Improvement Board (which is expected to give it the thumbs-up) in late October before going to the EPA in late 2014.
New Mexico Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen — one of the most powerful people in the Roundhouse – had a coronary angioplasty procedure done Thursday (Feb. 14) but aides say he’s in good spirits, expecting a full recovery and should be back on the Senate floor by early next week.
It’s the second time in seven months that the 62-year-old Sanchez has been hospitalized. Last July, he complained of chest pains and had an angioplasty procedure to clear a blocked artery.
Members of both the Senate and the House observed moments of silence for Sanchez during Friday’s sessions. Sanchez has served in the Senate for 20 years.
Lt. Gov. John Sanchez is defending a flight that cost taxpayers $1,388.
The trip was for a hearing Tuesday hosted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Roswell, as well as a rally to keep the federal government from listing the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species.
“It was official state business,” Sanchez told New Mexico Watchdog on Friday, adding that “it was important for representatives of the state to take part in the hearing.”
Oil and gas executives and workers in the state’s “Oil Patch” fear a federal listing for the chicken could severely hamper the industry.
Sanchez said he was not on the flight due to the death of his wife’s mother and was represented by his chief of staff Mark Van Dyke. State Sen. Carroll Leavell, R-Jal, and state Rep. Bob Wooley, R-Roswell, were on the flight and spoke at the airport rally, which was organized by the chambers of commerce in Roswell and Artesia and featured a speech by U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-2nd District.
“What’s the difference between going to Roswell to testify at an official hearing as to us appearing in Washington, D.C., for us to testify at a Senate or Congressional hearing?” Sanchez asked.
The state’s Department of Public Safety owns the plane.
“That rally was going on before we decided to go to the official hearing by Fish and Wildlife,” said Van Dyke, who did not speak at the rally; Wooley and Leavell addressed the crowd.
“The purpose for us going down there was to be there for the hearing,” Sanchez said. “I think the rally was, in my mind, secondary to the fact that we were there to attend the hearing and testifying on behalf of the state of New Mexico.”
Were any Democrats in the Legislature invited?
Sanchez referred the question to the office of Gov. Susana Martinez, who made the flying habits of former Gov. Bill Richardson an issue in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. New Mexico Watchdog e-mailed the governor’s spokesman. As soon as we receive a response, we’ll post it. Update: Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said in an e-mail, “Our office reached out to Minority Leader (Donald) Bratton (a Republican from Lea County) to ask for his recommendations on which legislators should testify at the federal hearing. He recommended one member from each Chamber.”
With Tim Jennings’ loss in November, no Democrats from Roswell serve in the state House or the Senate.
But Democrat George Dodge Jr. represents a portion of Curry County, which makes up part of the lesser prairie chicken’s range. Dodge said he was not contacted about taking part in the flight.
Like Wooley and Leavell, Dodge also opposes listing the bird as a threatened species.
“It involves the co-ops, it involves oil and gas,” Dodge said. “I’m part of the Farmers’ Electric Co-op out of Clovis and it would impact us if (Fish and Wildlife) listed it.”
Democrats say the rally made the flight more of a political event than a visit to represent the state.
“Is it going to break the bank? No,” Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said. “Is it a large amount of money? Of course not. But the point being, yeah, it was just politics. It’s also unfortunate, given how much the lieutenant governor made hay over the use of the state airplane in the campaign to then turn around and use a different airplane for his political purposes.”
California pays its state legislators more than $95,000 a year — and gives them $141 for each day they’re in session.
And in Michigan, they receive $71,865 in salary — plus a $10,800 yearly expense allowance, no matter how far they live from the capital city of Lansing.
But in little ole New Mexico, lawmakers earn no salary at all.
That’s right — zero, zip, zilch.
“I think the system works just fine as it is,” state Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, told New Mexico Watchdog. “I like the idea that we’re true citizen-legislators and I think most New Mexicans agree.”
The Land of Enchantment is hardly the Land of Enrichment as New Mexico holds the distinction of being the only state in the country that doesn’t pay legislators a salary. The only payments they get is a $154 per diem plus approved expenses, including mileage – which can add up in a state that’s large and expansive (121,589 square miles, the fifth-biggest in the US).
“Legislators here have always voted against (granting salaries), I don’t know why,” said Rep. Henry “Kiki” Saavedra, D-Albuquerque, who’s been in the House of Representatives for 36 years. ”But for me, it makes no difference.”
But don’t get the idea that lawmakers trekking to the state capital in Santa Fe are paupers.
The per diem and other expenses add up and they also qualify for a generous state pension:
*Should New Mexico legislators pay $600 a year to the the Public Employees Retirement Association, they become eligible for a pension. It’s a good deal for them, as it’s been pointed out that after 10 years in office, they can make more than $10,000 in their first year of retirement. In addition, they can stack that amount on top of any other public-funded pension they may already receive.
*As for expenses, a recent review of the money paid to House and Senate members showed more than half the lawmakers received more than $10,000 in per diem and approved expenses in 2012 and 17 of them made more than $15,000.
Still, that looks like a bargain for compared to some states. For example, the total for per diem and expenses last year for every one of the 112 New Mexico legislators came to $1.2 million ($10,714 per lawmaker). That $1.2 million would pay for just 9.7 legislators in the 120-member California State Assembly.
In general, most New Mexico Republicans like the no-salary system while most of the complaints come from Democrats.
“We’re not getting a good cross-section in the House and in the Senate because we don’t get a salary,” Rep. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, said when New Mexico Watchdog posted a 4-minute video on the topic. “Making it as it is now is counter-productive.”
But Rep. Larrañaga, an 18-year Roundhouse veteran says instituting a salaries would raise more questions that it answers.
“We’ll end up with the same situation that you see up in Congress,” he said. “How much do you have to get paid to be up here? Are you going to get someone for $20,000 a year to be a full-time legislator when we don’t need to be hear all the time?”
“It’s a terrible idea,” said Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democrat and one of the most liberal members of the Legislature. “And it leaves us very vulnerable to the influence of lobbyists. Not that they come pay us but we don’t know enough about the issues, we to have to rely on them and that leaves us very vulnerable.”
Defenders of the system point to states that pay full-time salaries to lawmakers but don’t lack for complaints of lobbyists unduly influencing the legislative process — or, in the recent examples of Illinois and New York , where lobbyists were convicted of crimes.
Critics say the no-salary policy disproportionately favors older and retired candidates.
“For your young legislators, maybe they should get paid more because they leave their familes and they leave their jobs,” said Rep. Saavedra. “I’m retired so I don’t have to worry about that.”
“I think it gives us a skewed body that’s not representative of the state as a whole,” Sen. Ortiz y Pino said.
But Larrañaga points to the current New Mexico Legislature thats includes a number of active teachers, one doctor, one firefighter, an engineer with a Ph.D. at the Sandia National Laboratories, as well as the farmers and ranchers that accompany the usual high percentage of lawyers found in just about any political body.
“I don’t care where it is across the state of New Mexico,” Larrañaga said, “there’s always a candidate to run for the House or the Senate. We’ve not lacked for candidates, we’ve not lacked for talent.”
But a number of New Mexico Republicans do concede that they would like to see some money reserved for personal staff. Outside of leadership positions such as the Speaker of the House, lawmakers receive only limited support during the legislative sessions (which run just 30 days on even-numbered years and 60 days in odd-numbered years) and fend for themselves during interim committee meetings.
“Thank goodness my wife helps me but we don’t have any help,” Saavedra said. “We have to do it on our own.”
In the Watchdog video, then-Sen. Clint Harden, a Republican, said, “I got a call from one of my constituents who said, ‘Senator, you need to have your staff tell you to do a better job returning phone messages.’ And I said, ‘Ma’am, my staff is my wife opening the back screen door of the house and yelling, ‘Clint, check your archived messages.’ ”
Despite the occasional complaints, serious talk about changing the no-salary policy is hard to find as New Mexico — like so many other states in these economically challenging times — focuses its legislative priorities on jobs and balancing its budget.
“I am not sure if the public would go along with it because I think they feel that we don’t do anything anyway,” Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española said after the 2012 expense report showed him receiving the highest total in 2012 – $20,922. Martinez favors establishing a salary system.
Can the New Mexico model work in other states?
“If you’re a heavily populated state like California, maybe you need a full-time legislature,” Larrañaga said. “But for New Mexico, which is low in population and per capita income … what we’ve got is still a good thing.”
Here’s the Watchdog video posted from December of 2011 with New Mexico legislators debating the no-salary system:
A bill aimed at closing what advocates call the “gun show loophole” by requiring background checks in New Mexico passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday, Feb. 13, and now moves on to the state Senate.
After nearly two and a half hours of debate on the House floor, House Bill 77 passed 43-26, including the support of eight Republicans.
“We don’t think this is an infringement on 2nd Amendment rights at all,” HB77 sponsor Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, told New Mexico Watchdog after the vote. “In fact, we think this enhances 2nd Amendment rights.”
Three weeks ago, the bill was stalled in committee but Rep. Garcia worked with House Republicans including Rep. Nate Gentry of Albuquerque to take out provisions some GOP members objected to.
The reworked bill dropped a requirement that the Department of Public Safety oversee background checks and deleted any provisions dealing with private transactions for firearms, as well as exempting people with concealed-carry permits.
Gov. Martinez pointed to another change in the bill that establishes a procedure to align the state’s mental health and criminal conviction records with the federal instant background check system.
“This is a product of compromise,” Rep. Gentry said at the beginning of the debate that more resembled speechifying as ardent critics and supporters of the bill didn’t ask many questions but gave their opinions on the bill.
“It appears that some members are willing to stand up and beat their chests,” Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Texico, said in opposition while Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, spoke for 20 minutes in support of the bill. ““This bill is moderate. It is bipartisan. It is intelligent,” he said.
In the end, eight of 32 Republicans voted for the bill (Alonzo Baldonado, Kelly Fajardo, Gentry, Jason Harper, Terry McMillan, Paul Pacheco, Jim White and Monica Youngblood) while three Democrats voted against it (Kiki Saavedra, Nate Cote and George Dodge).
The bill now moves on to the Senate and with 31 days left in the 60-day session and considering that Democrats hold a 25-17 edge on Republicans in that chamber, it seems HB77 has a good chance to end up on the governor’s desk.
“Now we put our armor on again and go through the committee process in the Senate,” Garcia said.
Freshman state Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, says he wants to encourage business development.
But at the same time, companies that receive taxpayer money should pay if they fail to make good on their promises.
“I consider myself a pro-business guy, but at the same time we want to protect the citizens of New Mexico and the taxpayer when a company reneges on its obligations,” Harper told New Mexico Watchdog. “There should be some accountability.”
Harper wants to see stronger “claw-back” provisions after taxpayers lost money on a string of business deals gone bad:
— Last summer, Schott Solar declared bankruptcy after it received $16 million in state taxpayer money to break ground on a facility in Albuquerque. According to the terms of the deal OK’d by the administration of then-Gov. Bill Richardson, no claw-back provisions existed, although last month the New Mexico Finance Authority announced that it wrested $3.3 million from Schott.
*State taxpayers have spent $209 million to build Spaceport America in southern New Mexico. After reports of Spaceport anchor tenant Virgin Galactic seeking liability protection from the Legislature, the company would have to pay just $1.5 million-$2 million in claw backs should it pull up stakes.
*Hewlett-Packard received $2.2 million in incentives from the city of Rio Rancho and promised it would hire 1,350 people for a customer support center. Not only did HP hire only 860 people, last month the company announced it would cut 200 of those jobs by Oct. 31. The claw-back provision calls for HP to repay about $71,000 for averaging 700 employees in Rio Rancho this year.
“HP is in my district,” Harper, an engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, said. “I’m grateful for the jobs they bring but … that seems like a slap on the wrist to me.”
No statute mandates claw-back provisions for deals to entice businesses that involve taxpayer dollars.
Harper’s bill — House Bill 352 — tries to establish a framework for drafting claw-backs.
The Attorney General’s Office and the New Mexico Municipal League have noted the bill does not clearly define what constitutes a “substantive contribution” to a business and says that vagueness cold prove to be problematic. Still, Harper says the lack of specifics is aimed at giving some flexibility to communities and the state .
“There’s no equation,” Harper said. “I’m trying not to micromanage from the top but what (HB352) states is there is a proportional claw back” aimed at protecting local businesses that have received public funds from being adversely affected.
“We don’t want to take a business that’s been here for 10 years, has contributed (to the community) and defaults in a small way on their obligations and require them to pay back all the monies that were contributed,” Harper said.
HB352 will be heard in the House Business and Industry Committee on Thursday and has received support from Rio Rancho Mayor Tom Swisstack.
“I’m not sure what kind of pushback we’ll get,” Harper said, “I’m sure there will be some. But I’m hopeful this will be a bipartisan, ‘do the right thing for New Mexico’ kind of bill that can go to the governor’s desk.”
As you’d expect, New Mexico Democrats loved President Obama’s State of the Union address while those from opposing parties panned it … but there was one Democrat who expressed some concern over the state’s national labs.
President Obama’s speech comes less than a week after a report came out saying the Obama administration is preparing to cut America’s nuclear weapons arsenal by as much as one-third — a move that could have ramifications for New Mexico since much of the work on the U.S. nuclear arsenal is conducted at Los Alamos and Sandia National laboratories, which together employ about 20,000 people in the state.
The President made one reference to the nation’s stockpile saying, “we will engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals, and continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands – because our ability to influence others depends on our willingness to lead.”
That caused Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, to remark in his post-speech statement that “It will be critical to examine the details of this plan to determine its impact on New Mexico.”
No other members of the New Mexico Capitol Hill delegation made reference to the reduction plans for nukes.
Here are some of the reactions across the state, beginning with Gary Johnson, the former two-term governor of New Mexico, 2012 Libertarian Party presidential candidate and the chairman of the Our America Inititative:
“What we didn’t hear tonight was a President telling the truth about the real state of the Union: that we are broke — and that he and the Congress are succeeding only in digging us deeper into a financial hole that is, in reality, the single greatest threat to the nation’s well-being.
“Rather, we once again heard the tired argument that the challenges we face can somehow best be met by more government that costs more and taxes more. We’ve tried that. In fact, we’ve tried it so hard and so long that we have a debt totaling more than $90,000 for every worker in America.
“And while he spent an hour laying out a mind-boggling list of things the government should do, from ‘investing’ in infrastructure, technology and energy to helping parents pick the best college for their kids, he assured us his plans will not increase the deficit by ‘a single dime’.
“That is absurd on its face, and could only be based on the same arithmetic that has given us a $16 Trillion debt.
“Once again, we witnessed a great political performance wrapped around promises that shouldn’t be made in the first place, and that we certainly cannot afford to keep.”
From US Senator and Democrat Martin Heinrich:
“I was encouraged by his commitment to addressing and recognizing the urgency of climate change by supporting renewable energy and energy efficiency initiatives, and his determination to invest in science and technology programs to prepare our students for the jobs of tomorrow. New Mexico leads in these efforts of American energy independence and innovation.
“Additionally, small businesses and American manufacturers deserve the tools they need to succeed because they are a backbone of a growing economy. Building a 21st century infrastructure creates jobs, spurs growth, and keeps American jobs at home.
“I was also encouraged by the President’s commitment to fixing our broken immigration system. We need accountable and responsible immigration reform where undocumented immigrants have an opportunity to earn their citizenship.”
From New Mexico’s lone Republican in the Capitol Hill delegation, Rep. Steve Pearce:
“I insist tonight that the President puts his words into practice, and allows these Americans to prosper, instead of struggling under the weight of more new taxes, more debt, and more inflation.
”… I call on the President to address the needs we can all agree on: jobs, debt, and freedom to prosper. These are not questions of party or ideology, but of America’s future. People are tired of political posturing and political deals. They want solutions: solutions to the debt and deficit, solutions to the inflation that comes from the Federal Reserve’s printing of money, solutions to our continued joblessness.”
Here’s more from Rep. Luján:
“Tonight, President Obama put the focus back on what should be our top priority – creating jobs. He correctly pointed out that reducing our deficit cannot be the only path we take if we want to grow our economy, rebuild the middle class, and spur job creation in New Mexico and across the country.
“While we must work to responsibly reduce our deficit with a balanced approach that prevents the sequester’s arbitrary cuts, it is vital that we make investments that lay the foundation for a stronger economy. Strengthening STEM and early education, promoting entrepreneurship and job training, investing in a clean energy economy, and encouraging innovation will help grow a stronger middle class that is the key to a brighter future for New Mexico.
“… Moving forward, one area that we must hear more about from the President is his goal of reducing our nation’s nuclear weapon stockpile. It will be critical to examine the details of this plan to determine its impact on New Mexico; however, I believe Los Alamos National Laboratory has an important role to play in achieving this goal and in maintaining and ensuring the safety of a smaller nuclear deterrent.”
Democratic Sen. Tom Udall tweeted:
“We have a big task ahead to find common ground and pass a budget that reduces the deficit and advances our values … We must grow the economy from the middle-class out through job creation in clean energy, manufacturing and infrastructure investments but we won’t achieve this goal by gutting programs seniors depend on or cutting investments in education and training for our kids.”
From Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-New Mexico:
“The President detailed a strong path forward that will create jobs and strengthen middle class families. His proposals offer a broad-based, balanced approach to creating jobs and reinvigorating our economy. The quickest way to turn around our economy is to put people back to work. Whether is it through new clean energy initiatives, a revitalized manufacturing industry or infrastructure investments, we can put Americans back to work right now, ensure long term economic growth and move our country forward.”
It may get her crossways with a lot of members of her own party, but Mary Helen Garcia is back with her education reform bill.
Garcia wants to end the practice of “social promotion” for students who can’t read at a minimal level by the end of the third grade.
“The (teachers) unions are the ones pushing back on this,” the Democratic state representative and retired school teacher from Las Cruces told New Mexico Watchdog, “and I think they (Democrats) have a responsibility to take a close look at all the bills being proposed.”
“The negativity that they’re trying to promote is that it’s a retention bill,” Garcia said. “It’s not a retention bill.”
The fact that Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and her Public Education Department Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera have enthusiastically backed previous bills introduced by Garcia rankles teachers unions and some Democrats in the Legislature.
In the past two years, Democrats such as Rep. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque have criticized the legislation — “Fifty years of research shows retention doesn’t work,” Stewart said at the end of the 2012 session — and Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez refused to have a third-grade retention bill heard at the end of the 2011 session, prompting a nasty back-and-forth between Sanchez and Martinez.
But Garcia has insisted she’s been a believer in ending “social promotion” before Martinez even became governor. And, Garcia said, HB257 is new and improved.
“It starts at kindergarten,” she said. “That’s where the remediation starts … If they’re not proficient by the end of third grade is when they will be retained. Only once can they be retained, and I want to be very specific about that.”
One of her critics is Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, who says he’ll introduce his own bill aimed at improving early childhood reading results.
“My bill relies on current statute,” Sapien said. “Current statute is very strong … When the professional educator recommends to the parent retention, if the parent doesn’t want the retention to take place (at any grade level) they can waive for one time that retention. But the statutes give the school districts the entire power to retain the student thereafter.”
One thing nearly everyone agrees on is the fact that too many New Mexico youngsters simply cannot read at a proficient level — a basic skill that practically dooms them to a life of struggle and poverty.
Martinez and Skandera point to studies showing that third grade is a make-or-break year for students.
“Up to the third grade, students learn to read,” Skandera has said on numerous occasions, “but from the third grade, they read to learn.”
In the governor’s proposed budget, Martinez has allocated $13.3 million for early reading initiatives across the state so that if a third-grade bill is passed, the numbers of students held back can be kept to a minimum.
“In my bill, all kindergarten students in the state will be assessed upon entering kindergarten,” Garcia said. “This is where the governor comes in because she will be paying for those assessments through the Public Education Department. That way if the students transfer, you have that base stat data.”
Garcia’s new bill has an added wrinkle — 95 percent attendance.
“If children are not attending 95 pecent of the school year, there’s very much a possibility they’ll have to be retained because if they’re not in school, they’re not learning,” Garcia said.
Sapien doesn’t like the 95 percent proposal.
“When you insert language like that, you’re going to walk into all these social economic challenges,” Sapien said. “What if the kid is not there 95 percent of the time? That’s my concern.”
Then there’s the political reality to consider. With Democrats holding a 38-32 majority in the House and a 25-17 advantage in the Senate, Garcia may be swimming upstream.
“We have a lot of union members in the House now,” Garcia said. “They would not sign on to my bill at all. Mimi (Stewart) and the Albuquerque people would not sign on (who are) on the Education Committee because I think it’s a union issue. And if it’s a union issue, I’m not afraid to challenge it.”
Should her bill be blunted in the committee process, would Garcia consider “blasting” her bill — putting it up for a floor vote in the House?
Garcia didn’t hesitate.
“Yes,” she said.
Here’s video of our interview with Rep. Garcia:
Update: Shortly after posting our story, Gov. Martinez referred to it on her Facebook page:
A bill that hopes to fix a $6.2 billion hole in one of the two major public employee pension plans in New Mexico cleared a big hurdle early Monday evening (Feb. 11) when Senate Bill 27 passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee without a dissenting vote.
“Employees are scared because there’s a $6 billion hole in the bucket,” Española city employee Joaquin Maestas told the committee during public comments. “We’re all willing to make sure our retirement is there for us.”
The bill had been held over from last week after state Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, complained that he thought the original version of SB27 was too penal on the lowest-paid employees in the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA).
On Monday, bill sponsor Sen. George Muñoz returned with an amendment that exempted contract employees who make less than $20,000 a year from the 1.5 percent increase in employer contributions and provided a higher cost of living adjustment (up from 2 percent to 2.5 percent) for retirees who have worked 25 years and whose annual pension amount is less than $20,000 a year.
PERA’s executive director, Wayne Propst, told New Mexico Watchdog those concessions will have only a “de minimis” effect on the numbers aimed at getting the pension plan back on solid financial footing.
A number of representatives from police and firefighters unions said they are opposed to the fixes in SB27 that call for higher employee and employer (taxpayer) contributions and a slight cut in benefits for future retirees, especially in jobs that can be described as high-risk.
“It’s a younger men and women’s job,” one firefighters union member told the committee.
But Propst said PERA statistics show “no relation in mortality between public safety and non-public safety” state employees.
In the end, the committee passed SB27 onto the Senate Finance Committee where, if it passes, the bill will go to the Senate floor.
The state’s other major pension plan — the Educational Retirement Board – has similar bills in the House and Senate aimed at fixing the ERB’s estimated $6 billion in unfunded liabilities.
Click here for more on the progress of the ERB pension legislation.
The moving company turns out an annual report of what’s called “in-migration” (the estimate of people moving into a given state) and “out-migration” (those moving out) and New Mexico was the only western state and only Sun Belt state in 2012 that finished in the top 10 among states reporting more people moving out than moving in:State % of outbound moves 1 New Jersey 62.3% 2 Illinois 59.5% 3 West Virgina 57.9% 4 New York 57.7% 5 New Mexico 57.6% 6 Michigan 57.5% 7 Connecticut 56.0% 8 Maine 55.8% 9 Kentucky 55.3% 10 Wisconsin 55.0%
When asked about the report on Monday (Feb. 11), Gov. Susana Martinez said it was another example of how the Legislature should adopt a pro-business agenda for the state:
“What we have to do is No. 1, become more competitive with our surrounding states at a bare minimu. This is a national economy, a worldwide economy. Businesses and families can do anywhere they want in the world. They want to go to the places with the best education for their children, where they can grow for their business.
“Are we competitive with our tax structure? Or our we so high and so costly and have such a poor education system that they don’t want to live here? We can’t keep doing the same thing over and over and over-taxing businesses that they can’t keep their doors open and they move and they’re taking their families with them. We’re moving up in our education system and we need to keep going forward with reform and we need to make sure our small businesses have a tax structure they can live with so businesses start coming here instead of moving away.”
The Democratic Party of New Mexico pointed the finger at Gov. Martinez and Republicans, with its chairman Javier Gonzales saying in a statement:
“Governor Martinez and Albuquerue Mayor RJ Berry have fallen asleep at the wheel when it comes to creating jobs for New Mexicans. Susana is focused on her national image and not dealing with job crisis here in New Mexico. In Albuquerque, property crime is up and over 4,000 jobs have been lost under Berry.
They campaigned on creating jobs for NM, instead New Mexico and Albuquerque keep ending up on all the wrong lists. People are giving up hope and literally fleeing the state. Plain and simple, our Governor and Mayor have failed New Mexico families and it is time for them to go.”
Four of the seven Republicans in a House Judiciary Committee support a bill that closes what gun-control advocates refer to as the gun-show loophole.
The bill, which stalled in the committee before passing 13-3, heads to the House floor.
To help secure passage, Garcia worked with Republicans in dropping a requirement that the Department of Public Safety oversee background checks and deleting any provisions dealing with private transactions for firearms, as well as exempting people with concealed-carry permits.
“The ideal thing would have been to capture the whole market — 100 percent of sales through background checks — but I’m happy with the outcome.”
“I think it’s something we can live with,” said Rep. Paul Pachecho, R-Rio Rancho, a retired policeman who staunchly opposed the bill when it came before the committee but eventually voted for it. “It was a difficult choice.”
“Really it’s (now) a one-issue bill,” said Pacheco said. “When you go to a gun show and purchase a firearm, you go through an instant check, as you would as you were to buy one from a retail store … All the stuff that was in (the bill) before that was really bad legislation” has been removed.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez says she’s willing to support the reworked legislation — if left unchanged in the legislative process — in part because the newly worked bill would establish a procedure to align the state’s mental health and criminal conviction records with the federal instant background check system.
“We want to make sure that guns aren’t sold to a felon or someone who’s mentally ill at a gun show,” Martinez told reporters Monday afternoon. “I think I could support (the bill) if it stays the way it is.”
Ardent gun rights advocates might grumble about advancing HB77; conversely, gun control supporters could contend Garcia gutted his own bill.
Neither argument would faze Garcia.
“It’s a very reasonable compromise,” he said. “These are all improvements over what we have now … and to have our executive (Martinez) say if this thing gets to her desk in the format it’s in right now she would have no problem signing it, that’s what a policy maker expects when running good, creative, needed legislation.”
Garcia said he’s “elated” to see HB77 progress, but Pacheco said he won’t support HB402, which restricts assault weapons and large magazines.
“The cities with the most gun laws are the most violent —Washington, D.C., Chicago,” Pacheco said. “We need to be focusing on the mental health issues.”
HB402 has been assigned to the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee. No hearing date has been set.
Spaceport or space ghost?
Shortly after stepping down as governor of our fair state, Bill Richardson said that Spaceport was going to be his lasting legacy.
That may well be true but, like so many things Big Bill spearheaded for New Mexico (think Rail Runner), Spaceport may have an impact that decidedly cuts both ways. There’s no point in rehashing the criticisms of taxpayers putting up all the money to construct Spaceport America out in the vast expanses of southern New Mexico.
The bottom line is, the money’s been spent and the facility has been built and and even critics who questioned the wisdom of spending public money on the project support bills in the current legislative session to grant what’s called “limited liability” protection for manufacturers and spaceport’s anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic. Without the liability bill, Richard Branson’s company had made not-so-veiled threats that it will pull up stakes and launch tourists, at $200,000 a pop, into suborbital space somewhere else.
It’s off-putting to say the least and when you get right down to it, it is a form of blackmail but that’s what happens when you (the state, the taxpayers) build something with your own money first, in the hopes of attracting clients.
Taxpayers forked over $209 million for Spaceport and according to the terms of the lease signed when Richardson was in office, the clawback provisions are exceedingly flimsy. The range of dollars Virgin would have to pay, should it break its lease varies between $1.5 million and $2 million. No wonder Virgin’s website highlighting Spaceport prominently displays a picture of Branson clasping hands with Richardson.
It’s reminiscent of the Schott Solar deal in Albuquerque. Everybody was all smiles at Schott’s news conference in 2009 but nobody was smiling in last summer when Schott declared bankruptcy and laid off 250 employees.
Bernalillo County and the city of Albuquerque protected themselves somewhat with some decent clawback provisions but it was reported at the time that none of the $16 million Schott received from the state would be returned, thanks to terms approved by the Richardson administration.
Kudos to members of the New Mexico Finance Authority who announced last month announced they managed to extract $3.3 million from Schott Solar, but $3.3 million out of $16 million is still a lousy return on investment.
As for the spaceport, the situation is similar to instances seen in big-time sports, when unscrupulous owners threaten to move their teams if taxpayers don’t fully or partially pay for their new stadiums.
I’m afraid that’s what’s happened at the spaceport, and it’s what I fear will be a recurring theme for years to come.
I recently interviewed one of Virgin Galactic’s executives ago who said the company is committed to New Mexico.” But when I asked him if Virgin would consider offers from other states, he said, “We’re a business. We’re always going to look at other deals.”
States such as Arizona, Virginia, Texas and California have built or are building their own spaceports. It doesn’t take a business genius to contemplate scenarios in which they lure Virgin Galactic to move and buy out the $1.5 million to $2 million lease penalty.
By the way, Richardson helped get liability protection for California’s spaceport. There’s a lesson there somewhere.
As for the lessons for New Mexico? Avoid these expensive enticements for business people who, by their nature, will flit from one sweetheart deal to another. And if we do take on such projects, make the clawback provisions strong enough (perhaps a penalty of 40 percent to 50 percent of the total cost) so that any company thinks long and hard about ever breaking its lease.
There are suckers born every minute.
But we don’t have to be one of them.
This column originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican on Feb. 10, 2013.