New Mexico figures to be in the middle of a passionate national debate: Whether to lift a ban and open a horse-slaughtering plant in Roswell.
Back in 2006, a prohibition was placed in the U.S. preventing horse slaughter and the last plant was closed in 2007. But in 2011, Congress quietly removed the rider enforcing the ban from an omnibus spending act.
Now a company in Roswell — Valley Meat – wants to open a plant and sell the horse meat in other countries and is suing the US Department of Agriculture and its Food Safety and Inspection Service over the lack of inspection services for horses going to slaughter.
A decision could come within two months.
There’s a market for horse meat in places like Europe and defenders of the plants say a licensed, inspected U.S. facility is a more humane way to kill old and incapacitated horses who are often shipped to places like Mexico.
“Beginning in 2006, when inspections were temporarily prohibited, these U.S. horses continue to be slaughtered in foreign countries like Mexico and Canada,” the New York Times quoted Bill Bullard of R-CALF USA, a cattle organization saying. “We believe the Mexicans do not adhere to the same humane standards as in the United States, and so some of our members won’t sell their horses.”
Last year, Gov. Susana Martinez weighed in, also opposing the Roswell horse slaughter plant and saying her administration would send a letter to the USDA asking it to turn down Valley Meat’s request.
For the second time this legislative session and for the third time in the space of eight months, Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, is back in the hospital.
As of 4:58 p.m. Friday, few details are known about why but in his two previous hospitalizations, Sen. Sanchez had to have angioplasty procedures to clear blockages in his chest/heart area. Sanchez is 62 years old.
Toward the end of Friday’s Senate floor session, Sanchez went to the Senate Lounge to lie down after he started feeling ill, his chief of staff Lorraine Montoya-Vigil told reporters.
Senate President Pro-tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces said the doctor on duty thought he should be taken to St. Vincent Hospital for observation. He was taken to the hospital by ambulance, Papen said. The lounge area was blocked off and the Senate floor session was cut short, Papen said.
His current condition may affect the confirmation hearing of Public Education Department Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera since Sanchez is one of 10 members (six Democrats, four Republicans) of the Senate Rules Committee conducting the confirmation hearing. The confirmation hearing is scheduled to resume Saturday morning at 10.
We’ll keep you posted.
Update: New Mexico Watchdog spoke to Senate Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen at about 9 p.m. Friday and she said that Sen. Sanchez was feeling better and “he’ll be on the floor of the Senate tomorrow.”
Although she’s been on the job for more than two years, the first day of the confirmation hearing for Hanna Skandera, secretary-designate for New Mexico’s Public Education Department, centered on her qualifications.
“There is obviously a difference between a teacher and an educator, and I believe I’m well-qualified for the job, and I think that was established today,” Skandera told reporters after the Senate Rules Committee opened its hearings by taking public comment in a packed room in the Roundhouse.
Opponents of Skandera’s appointment focused on a provision in the New Mexico Constitution that the education secretary must be a “qualified, experienced educator.”
“Teaching K-through-12 is whole different universe,” said Bernagene Shay, a member of the National Education Association union and the Rio Rancho Schools Employees’ Union, “and Ms. Skandera has no experience in the classroom.”
“The constitution does not say ‘qualified K-12 teacher,’ ” Skandera supporter Terri Cole of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce said. “Hanna Skandera is a qualified educator.”
Before coming to New Mexico, Skandera worked as a senior policy adviser to U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and was a deputy commissioner of education for Florida’s Department of Education under then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
But Skandera has never worked as a teacher at a K-12 public school.
Since taking over the PED in January of 2011, Skandera — appointed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who campaigned on reforming the state’s lagging performance in public education — has been a target of some Democrats and members of the teachers union.
Skandera has been waiting two years for a confirmation hearing and, earlier this week, Rules Committee chairwoman Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, brought her name up for debate.
“Secretary-designate Skandera is a policy person,” said Shirley Crawford, superintendent of schools in Capitan. “We need to stop wasting time and move forward.”
“Policy in theory and policy in practice are very different things,” countered Ellen Bernstein of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation. “Credentials matter.”
Members of the Rules Committee — made up of six Democrats and four Republicans — asked Skandera few questions Friday. They’re expected to get into more substantive debate Saturday morning at 10.
If Skandera’s confirmation fails to get a majority in the 42-member body of the Senate — 25 Democrats and 17 Republicans — she loses her job.
The political stakes are high, and the Skandera hearing has been the topic discussion as the 60-day legislative session moves into its final two weeks.
Some critics of Martinez say Skandera is committed to undercutting public schools. “It’s about privatizing (schools), it’s not about improvement,” one speaker said Friday.
“First and foremost, I’m an advocate for things that work,” Skandera said after the hearing, adding, “I don’t think there’s a silver bullet in education, but I think there are things that are proven to work, and I think that’s what this administration is about and what I’m committed to being about.
“I think I’ve demonstrated consistently that I’m for our public schools and their success.”
Here’s video of Skandera talking to reporters after Friday’s hearing:
On the eve of a crucial confirmation hearing in the Senate Rules Committee, opponents of Hanna Skandera have based some of their criticism of the would-be secretary of the Public Education Department on the grounds that she has never been employed as a classroom teacher.
But neither has current U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
In fact, a review by New Mexico Watchdog shows that only two former heads of the country’s education department have K-12 teaching experience and only one served as a faculty member on the university level.
Skandera’s confirmation hearing has gripped the Roundhouse as a political showdown shapes up between Skandera, who has served for two years as the secretary-designate and close advisor to Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, and Democrats who have clashed with education reform measures Skandera and the governor have been pushing.
According to the New Mexico Constitution, the leader of the PED must be a “qualified, experienced educator.”
Before coming to the department, Skandera worked as a senior policy advisor to U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and prior to that was a deputy commissioner of education for Florida’s Department of Education under then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
But Skandera has never worked as a teacher or administrator at a K-12 public school.
“I don’t think we should close our eyes to that issue,” Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, has said on a number of occasions.
Current Secretary Duncan used to be the CEO of Chicago Public Schools and prior to that he ran an education foundation. His bio says while running the non-profit, Duncan “was part of a team that later started a new public elementary school built around a financial literacy curriculum” but a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education confirmed to New Mexico Watchdog that Duncan was never a classroom teacher.
He’s not alone.
An Internet search shows the only U.S. education secretaries with K-12 teaching experience were Rod Paige, who served in the first term of George W. Bush, and Terrel Bell, who served under President Carter. Both men were high school teachers at one time.
Former Secretary Lauro Cavazos, who served under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, was once a faculty member at the Tufts and Virginia schools of medicine.
Unlike the New Mexico Constitution, there are no provisions in the U.S. Constitution spelling out the qualifications for a presidential nominee and Skandera critics have questioned her credentials.
“I know she has worked for departments of education but she’s worked for departments as a public policy person,” Ellen Bernstein of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation union told Associated Press in 2011. “I think that is problematic for us as teachers who definitely want a secretary of education to understand what goes on every day in the classroom.”
But Skandera has her defenders, including former state Rep. Andy Nuñez.”She’s done a great job,” Nuñez said. “She’s a dandy.”
Nuñez may have had a political falling out with Gov. Martinez but says he’ll stand up during the confirmation hearings to endorse the 39-year-old secretary-designate.
“Bill Gates may not have education experience but if wanted to be president of New Mexico State, you better believe he’d be qualified,” Nunez said.
The confirmation hearing in Senate Rules is scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m. Friday (March 1) and committee chair Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, and Majority Leader Sanchez said the hearing could well continue on Saturday.
On Thursday, the Senate was abuzz about the hearing and the various scenarios that may play out.
There are six Democrats and four Republicans on the Rules Committee and four of the Democrats on the panel (Sanchez, Lopez, Jacob Candelaria and Gerald Ortiz y Pino) have been critics of the governor’s school reform measures.
Senate officials say whether Skandera wins or loses in the Rules Committee, the full Senate (made up of 25 Democrats and 17 Republicans) will eventually vote on her confirmation.
But Sen. Sanchez said if the Rules Committee vote ends in a 5-5 tie, Skandera’s fate won’t go to the full Senate but will remain in limbo. “There can’t be a committee report if there’s a tie,” Sanchez told reporters.
If it does go to the full Senate and Skandera falls short of a majority in the 42-member chamber, she loses her job, plain and simple.
If she gets a majority, she stays on.
If it ends in a 21-21 tie? In the case of votes on bills and resolutions that end in a tie, the Lt. Governor (in this case, Republican John Sanchez) casts the deciding vote.
If that holds true for a confirmation vote, you can count Lt. Governor Sanchez to vote for Skandera.
In order to get to 21 votes, Skandera would have to get all 17 Republican votes (a virtual certainty) and get four Democrats to side with her.
What are her chances?
“It’s gonna be close,” one Democrat told New Mexico Watchdog Thursday.
It’s a staggering statistic: In 2011, nearly 60 percent of alcohol-related traffic deaths in New Mexico involved a driver with more than one arrest or conviction for drunken driving.
New Mexico has a tragic litany of repeat drunk drivers involved in horrific wrecks. With a little more than two weeks left in the 60-day session in the Roundhouse, a combination of bills toughening penalties unanimously passed the House and heads to the Senate.
“It’s time,” said Speaker of the House W. Ken Martinez, D-Grant. “We’re all tired of hearing of people driving with five, six, seven, eight convictions.”
The legislation — House Bills 349, 479 and 31 — establishes new standards before people with drunken driving convictions can stop using ignition interlock devices and allows judges to require people subject to house arrest to use a breath analyzer in their homes to ensure they stay sober.
Republicans added House Bill 31 to the legislation that adds mandatory prison time to basic drunk driving sentences for offenders with previous felonies.
“The bills are really complementary of each other,” said Rep. Tim Lewis, R-Rio Rancho, who sponsored the bill toughening prison sentences. “I think it’s comprehensive, it’s bipartisan and hopefully it will get through.”
“The increased penalties are mandatory, so there’s no plea-bargaining, there’s no way of getting around (the sentences),” said Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, who sponsored the bill dealing with interlock devices. “Between the three of them, I think it will make a major difference in the safety of our roads.”
A spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez says the she will sign the three bills into law if they land on her desk as written.
“As a prosecutor, Gov. Martinez remembers having cases where people had 15, 16, 17 DWI’s or more,” said Enrique Knell. “We have got to get tougher on DWI’s. And if you’re a habitual offender, a criminal who commits various crimes, prosecutors should be able to use your felony DWI to enhance your sentence.”
The bill toughening sentencing is estimated to cost $944,750 in the next two fiscal years.
Under HB31, a fourth conviction would send a drunken driver to prison for at least six months and as many as 18 months, with increasing penalties — a seventh conviction would result in a minimum 10-year prison sentence.
The House bills come after a string of incidents involving repeat drunk drivers in New Mexico:
* In 2011, a man with 11 drunk driving arrests and at least eight convictions walked out of court because the Santa Fe District Attorney’s Office failed for more than five months to have a prosecutor enter an appearance in the case or turn over evidence to the defense lawyer.
* Last summer, Santa Fe police arrested a man on his ninth DWI charge after an officer late one night saw him driving a four-wheeled all-terrain vehicle off a busy street.
* In June, Aileen Smith, who was seven months pregnant, was driving with her husband through San Miguel County when she was involved in a wreck that sent her to Christus St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Santa Fe. Doctors performed an emergency C-section but were unable to save the baby. Authorities say the man involved in the accident has at least four drunk driving convictions on his record.
Smith and her husband met with Gov. Martinez in December to urge the state to toughen its drunk driving laws.
In an e-mail to New Mexico Watchdog last month, Smith wrote:
This. Is. Not. About. Republicans. Or Democrats. This is about the people of New Mexico. This is about parents burying their children because of drunk drivers.
“I think (these bills) are going to show to our constituents at least the perception we’re trying to be tough on crime,” Lewis said. “We need it. Our constituents are telling us that. And I think we can sign it into law.”
A bill sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Bill Soules of Las Cruces to ban hydraulic fracturing in New Mexico has generated a letter from a Republican senator, also from the Las Cruces area, saying a prohibition on what’s called “fracking” would “kill the economic future” of the state.
Last week, Sen. Soules told New Mexico Watchdog his Senate Bill 547 would declare a state of emergency because of potential environmental dangers he and critics of fracking see with the practice, something the oil and gas industry deny.
“I fully understand — and as someone who teaches statistics the difference between a correlation and cause and effect prove — that doesn’t mean (environmental dangers are) not occurring,” Sen. Soules said.
But Sen. Lee Cotter, R-Las Cruces, who used to work in oil and gas, said in a letter distributed to media members that Soules — a teacher in Las Cruces — is “a Senator with little knowledge of the oil patch areas of New Mexico.”
Soules’ bill is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Conservation Committee Thursday afternoon (Feb. 28).
Here’s Sen. Cotter’s letter, which was sent out through the Senate Republican office:
Not a Prediction, a Guarantee: State Loses Greatly if SB 547 Ruins New Mexico’s Oil and Gas Industry
This will do it. SB 547 will ruin New Mexico’s oil and gas industry. It is more than a prediction, it is a guarantee.
SB 547 prohibits the oil and gas industry from being able to produce the tax revenue our state so heavily depends on. The industry provides upwards of 30% of the revenue our state relies on to fund schools, roads, public safety and healthcare.
SB 547 prohibits hydraulic fracturing in horizontally drilled wells. Currently, a vast majority of the oil and gas comes from hydraulic fracturing. If this technology is banned in horizontal wells by SB 547, the bill kills the economic future of New Mexico. SB 547 will eliminate nearly all of the drilling in New Mexico and any future drilling. New production will not take place. Companies with high paying jobs will close down, companies with even higher paying won’t consider relocating here. There will be reduced future production to tax to pay for schools, roads, public safety and healthcare.
The bill, sponsored by Senator William Soules of Las Cruces, is being presented by a Senator with little knowledge of the oil patch areas of New Mexico. I appeal to those New Mexicans who understand that New Mexico cannot afford to lose these revenues. Our state has barely begun a recovery from the recent hard times and we cannot afford to lose any revenues now or in the future. Consider the number of private industry high-paying and middle income jobs that will be lost if this industry is shut down. That takes personal income tax right out of the state’s coffers as well.
This bill is on the calendar for Senate Conservation. If it passes, kiss goodbye the 30,000 high paying jobs directly attributed to oil and gas activity in the state. Kiss goodbye funding for schools, roads, public safety and healthcare in the state. Kiss goodbye our economic future.
A bill that would raise the state’s minimum wage to $8.50 an hour passed through the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee late Wednesday afternoon (Feb. 27) but with an amendment that would exempt businesses with 11 employees or fewer.
Senate Bill 416 passed 6-4 with no recommendation, with every Democrat on the committee voting yes and every Republican voting no. Correction: An earlier version incorrectly reported the vote as 5-4.
But committee chairman Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, successfully put in the 11-or-less amendment that also calls for exempting trainees for one year.
Currently, New Mexico pays minimum wage workers $7.50 an hour. A raise to $8.50 would give New Mexico the fourth-highest minimum wage in the country.
“The small businesses in my district have 1-5 employees,” Sen. Griego told New Mexico Watchdog after the hearing. “They’re hand-to-mouth right now and if you force another dollar down their throat, they’ll close. What good is a minimum wage if you have five employees susceptible to the minimum and the (employer) has to release three?”
Republicans on the committee worried that raising the minimum wage would push some small businesses over the edge.
“We hear about how increasing the minimum wage will move money around and stimulate the economy,” Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington said after the vote. “The question is, where is all the money now? It’s not stuffed in my mattress. The money is coming out of my wallet and going into someone else’s. There’s not more money, only less of it.”
“All we want to do is the right thing,” bill sponsor Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española, said. “An extra dollar an hour equates to $2,000 annually. That may not sound like much for some but it’s a lot for poor people.”
SB416 now moves on to the Senate floor.
Legislation in the House of Representatives calling for a constitutional amendment raising the minimum wage was defeated in committee but a new version has come back as a straightforward bill. It’s sponsored by Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque.
After a year filled with scandals and allegations of rampant drugging of racehorses, New Mexico is trying to clean up its image through legislation for stricter penalties and tougher drug tests.
But how much will it cost, and who might end up paying for it?
A (Seattle) slew of no less than five bills are galloping through the Roundhouse, trying to cross the finish line before the end of the 60-day legislative session.
Analysis of three of the bills show little or no projected price tag for New Mexico taxpayers, but two of the bills — each aimed at establishing a fund administered by the state’s Racing Commission to drug test horses — would cost the state’s general fund $350,000 in the next fiscal year and $700,000 in subsequent years.
In a state with a general fund budget of more than $6 billion in appropriations, that’s a miniscule figure. Still, there has been opposition in some quarters by people who think the horse racing industry should pony up the money instead.
“Why should taxpayers have to foot the bill to guarantee these industries operate legally and ethically?” the Albuquerque Journal asked in a recent editorial, arguing that the $350,000 to $700,000 should come from purses distributed at race tracks.
“We’re already generating close to what the Indian casinos are generating across the state,” MacGrail said, pointing to the $64.3 million and 26 percent tax tracks paid the state in 2010. “It costs between $23,000-$26,000 to keep a thoroughbred in training, and when you factor in things like the rising cost of hay, most owners lose money. If you keep chipping away … you’ll start losing owners.”
Thus far, the two companion bills aimed at establishing a drug-testing fund have breezed through both chambers of the Legislature.
“We want that small percentage of bad trainers out of the state,” Rep. Candy Ezzell, R-Chaves County, told New Mexico Watchdog. “We want the message sent that cheaters are not welcome. It’s putting our horses at risk, it’s putting our jockeys at risk and it’s affecting tourism in the state.”
Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, has introduced SB 292, which would revoke racing licenses to people who get caught drugging horses or using “an electrical or mechanical device” to prod a horse to run faster or try to slow it down during a race.
Another issue is the boom in illegal match races cropping up in rural areas. Often held on private property, the off-the-book races have drawn hundreds of spectators who pay an entry fee, gamble on horses who run with practically no oversight or safety procedures in place.
Amid reports of horses getting drugged and breaking down, Ezzell introduced HB 509, giving the Racing Commission the authority to investigate any “race meet for profit.”
A fiscal analysis of HB 509 says its passage would incur no cost to taxpayers.
In the past year, the Racing Commission passed a number of rules changes to crack down on the drugging of horses while a number of explosive stories featuring New Mexico made national headlines — including a New York Times exposé that claimed the state had the worst record in the country when it came to injuries.
Late in 2012, the Racing Commission handed a 21-year suspension to one trainer and a 10-year suspension to another high-profile trainer accused of doping horses with a powerful pain killing drug referred to as “frog juice,” which led to at least two horses being destroyed after breaking down during races.
“Cheaters like to go to any means to have that extra edge, Ezzell said. “It’s the Lance Armstrong effect.”
Update: At a little after 7 p.m., a compromise version of Senate Bill 27 passed unanimously through the Senate Finance Committee that reduced the employer contribution in the PERA pension plan from 1.5 percent to 0.4 percent. SB27 now heads to the Senate floor.
The two public employee pension plans in New Mexico contain some of the highest percentages of employer contributions in the country, a comparison of state-by-state pension plans shows.
Those contributions ultimately come from the state’s taxpayers.
The proposed changes to the Public Employees Retirement Association plan now being discussed in the Legislature would increase the amount of employer contributions from 16.59 percent to 18.09 percent, which would place the PERA pension as the second-highest in the nation, behind only Illinois, where taxpayers chip in a whopping 32.25 percent.
The state’s other big pension plan, the Educational Retirement Board, has the eighth-highest employer contribution rate in the country at 13.90 percent. A proposed change to the ERB plan being discussed in the Roundhouse freezes the rate at 13.90 percent.
Here’s a comparison, compiled by the Wisconsin Pension Plan Study of 2010 with updates from the National Association of State Retirement Administrators and the National Conference of State Legislatures:State Fund Employer Contribution Employee Contribution Pension Multiplier Illinois SRS 32.25% 4.00% 1.67% New Mexico PERA 16.59% 7.42% 3.00% PERA proposed 18.09% 8.92% 2.50% Hawaii ERS 17.00% 9.80% 2.00% Oklahoma PERS 16.50% 3.50% 2.00% Kentucky CRS 16.16% 1.75% 1.50% New Jersey TPAF 14.30% 7.50% 1.67% Arkansas TRS 14.00% 6.00% 2.15% New Mexico ERB 13.90% 7.90% 2.35% ERB proposed 13.90% 10.70% 2.35% Averages 9.44% 5.85% 1.92%
The state pensions on the list exclude most hybrid plans, public safety and plans that do not contribute to Social Security.
Carter Bundy of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees defended the state’s pension plans, saying New Mexico state workers tend to earn less than people in other states.
“Our average retiree salary in the state is well under $20,000 (a year). So it’s not like a lot of retirees are getting rich in the state,” Bundy said. “Our pension plans aren’t nearly as rich as you might think by looking at the formula.”
With less than three weeks left in the 60-day session, debate is heating up as the Legislature tries to tackle an estimated $12 billion in unfunded liabilities in the PERA and ERB plans combined.
New Mexico Watchdog has learned that Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has balked at the 1.5 percent employer contribution increase for PERA, arguing that taxpayers are already chipping in enough.
Our sources say the governor’s office is offering 0.4 percent instead.
In a statement, Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said, “Gov. Martinez has always said that pension solvency must be achieved through meaningful pension reform, not just a taxpayer bailout that provides one of the most generous pension plans in the country without addressing the underlying issues.”
“It’s disappointing that at the last minute she comes in with fairly significant changes,” AFSCME’s Bundy said.
Bundy says workers under PERA are offering their own 1.5 increase in employee contributions and a half-percent reduction — from 3.0 to 2.5 — in the pension multiplier, as well as a reduction in a compounded cost-of-living adjustment from 3 percent to 2 percent.
“That she’s not willing to do 1.5 (percent) is — especially this late in the game — it looks like someone who wants to disrupt pension reform,” Bundy said. “We hope she’ll come around.”
“We have been in conversations with legislators,” Knell said in the statement, “and are optimistic that we can pass meaningful reform this year that will make our state’s pension plans solvent for the long-term.”
Separate bills are wending their ways through the Roundhouse. A bill aimed at trying to fix PERA’s financial troubles, sponsored by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, was supposed to be heard in the influential Senate Finance Committee earlier this week, but two consecutive hearings have been canceled.
Sources tell New Mexico Watchdog the hearings were postponed while legislators and representatives from the governor’s office try to hammer out an agreement.
Earlier this session, New Mexico Watchdog revealed Martinez has threatened to bring lawmakers back for a special session if the pension issue isn’t fixed.