Let’s face it: The new year is going to be a hell of a ride.
The economy is in the tank and New Mexico faces a $400 million budget shortfall. A new governor has taken office and a wave of change will soon crash across all state agencies and trickle down to impact schools and youth services. Not only that, but the state’s political boundaries are shifting. Oh, and the federal government is eying New Mexico as the nation’s new nuclear bomb factory—as well as the final resting place for the nation’s accumulated waste from nuclear power plants.
But don’t give in to the temptation of apathy or despair. After all, the descent into chaos can also offer some interesting opportunities. Right?
At the very least, arm yourself with knowledge of the most important—and emerging—issues of 2011.
ECONOMIC RECOVERY—WITH A TWIST
Although the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions reports that New Mexico is slowly climbing out of the recession, the numbers remain worrisome. In November, the unemployment rate was 8.5 percent and the state’s job growth from November 2009 to November 2010 was negative 0.5 percent (that means 4,400 jobs up and disappeared).
That stinks—especially for the rising numbers of families that don’t know if they can afford to stay in their homes or buy enough to eat. But the economic downturn just may offer opportunity, as well.
Everyone is talking about jobs, incoming Democratic State Land Office Commissioner Ray Powell says.
“What we’ll be doing in the Land Office is looking for ways we can be creative and innovative in working with the private sector and local communities across the state to try and create meaningful, sustainable jobs,” he says. “And we can do that while taking care of the land—because we can’t maintain jobs unless we’re maintaining the health of the land.”
Powell believes that potential for economic growth lies in development of renewable energy. New Mexico not only has the land and resources for such development, but also the intellectual capital.
“We also have the technology that really sets the standard coming out of the national labs and our university,” he says. “What we want to do is make sure those jobs stay here and don’t get exported to a company that takes the technology that was developed here.”
He points to the success of Albuquerque’s Sandia Science and Technology Park and Mesa del Sol’s Innovation Park—which together provide as many jobs as computer chip maker Intel.
“I know it sounds a little grandiose, but there’s no reason why we can’t lead the world in that sector,” he says. “Our young people educated in New Mexico can be going out and solving renewable energy problems across the globe—and have the checks come back to New Mexico.”
State Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, is similarly optimistic that positive opportunities exist in New Mexico right now.
“The fiscal crisis that we’ve been riding out over the last two years creates an opportunity that only exists in a time like this,” Wirth says, “and I think the big opportunity in 2011 is to reform our tax code here in New Mexico.”
Democrats and Republicans alike, he says, can work together to reform tax rates that have become too high and a tax base that has become too narrow—in large part because the Legislature has carved out exceptions to the gross receipts tax for industry and special interests.
“We’ve narrowed the tax base because there aren’t as many people paying it—the rates here in Santa Fe are over 8 percent, which makes it extraordinarily regressive,” he says. “If we were to eliminate some of those exceptions, that would have the effect of broadening the base and lowering the rate to a much fairer tax code.”
And who doesn’t love lower taxes?
DEFEATING NUCLEAR AMBITIONS
It’s well-known that the Land of Enchantment is also something of a nuclear wonderland—or nightmare, depending on one’s perspective. The state hosts the Trinity Site, two national nuclear laboratories, the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, the nation’s only underground nuclear waste dump and a uranium enrichment facility.
And there are more plans in the works, including a new facility to manufacture nuclear bomb triggers—or pits—at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
“We can and must throw off our political fealty to nuclear weapons and oppose the massive plutonium pit factory planned for Los Alamos,” Los Alamos Study Group Executive Director Greg Mello says, speaking of plans by the US Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration to build a new weapons manufacturing facility at the national laboratory. “That’s a far larger investment than any government initiative in our state’s history save the interstate highways, [and it] threatens to define who we are and what we do for the critical decade ahead,” he says.
But New Mexico might be getting more nuclear waste, as well.
On Jan. 26-28, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future will head to New Mexico to discuss bringing the nation’s spent commercial nuclear waste here. For decades, the federal government had planned to store waste from nuclear power plants within tunnels inside Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. Opposed by the citizens of Nevada, as well as US Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., Congress has steadily decreased funding for the repository in recent years and, in March 2010, the Energy Department withdrew the facility’s license application.
Now, the commission is trying to figure out where to put the waste.
“Of course, some of the boosters in the southeastern part of the state think they know exactly what to do with it: Bring it to WIPP,” Southwest Research and Information Center’s Nuclear Waste Safety program Director Don Hancock says, referring to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, which was built to store transuranic waste from nuclear weapons. One of the main supporters of such a plan is former Republican US Sen. Pete Domenici, who now sits on the Blue Ribbon panel.
“WIPP and Yucca Mountain are the only places with holes in the ground—and the only place with a hole in the ground and waste already in it is WIPP,” Hancock says. “And some are saying it’s the solution.”
For more information, visit the commission’s website, brc.gov, which hosts live streams and archives its public meetings.
KIDS NEED MONEY, TOO
According to a report released earlier this year by the nonprofit New Mexico Voices for Children, 80 percent of the state’s fourth-graders are not proficient at grade-level reading. Not only that, but the state’s national ranking in child well-being has dropped three spots to 46. The annual Kids Count Data Book—released each year by the Annie E Casey Foundation—ranks the nation’s children on 10 indicators ranging from teen pregnancy (66 out of 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19) to the percentage of teens not in school (10 percent).
With budget cuts undoubtedly looming across state agencies, many people are nervous about what that could mean for New Mexico’s schools, which are already cash-strapped and struggling to serve students.
Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education Member Mary Ellen Gonzales, who faces three challengers in the Feb. 1 school board election, is most worried about Gov. Susana Martinez’ plans.
“The new governor has said she wants to protect the classroom, but I don’t know what that means,” she says. “I wrote her a letter requesting information because, what does that mean? Does that mean we can cut materials, but not teacher salaries?” (see “Add It Up,” page 13 for more on SFPS’ budget).
But public school budget cuts aren’t the only ones that hurt kids.
Recently, a number of programs for children also lost funding. The Court Appointed Special Advocates program, for example, had its budget cut by 14 percent.
The CASA network consists of volunteers who work on behalf of children in foster care. In 2009, 3,000 children in New Mexico were removed from their homes and placed in long-term foster care because their parents abused or neglected them. New Mexico CASA (nmcasa.org) includes 16 local programs across 22 offices. Funding cuts may lead to office closures and will affect the ability of volunteers to find the necessary—and legally required—training. This will impact children currently within CASA programs and likely mean that kids who need special advocates won’t be able to get one.
“While adults suffer challenges in these hard economic times, the impact on our youth who are struggling to become productive, responsible adults is—and could continue to be—catastrophic,” Janice Quinn, executive director of CASA’s 1st Judicial District’s program, says. “I believe our future depends on creative community public/private collaborations to provide our at-risk youth the motivation and helping hand they need to complete their educations, learn critical life skills, and explore career and employment options through apprenticeships,” Quinn says. “Their potential is huge—and we have the power as individuals to truly make a difference in their lives.”
Quinn tries to remain optimistic: Even when money is scarce, she says, individuals can offer their time and commitment. After all, that’s what nourishes the health of a community.
CHILDREN REDUX: IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT MONEY
When community food activist Mark Winne saw the figures released in mid-December by the New Mexico Department of Health, he was shocked and saddened: One in eight of the state’s kindergartners and almost one in four of its third-graders are obese.
That’s a trend that will shorten lives, reduce the quality of life and increase private and public health care costs, he says—and childhood obesity is a public health crisis that must be attacked on several fronts.
“We can no longer underfund school meal programs; they must have what they need to provide healthy food, especially fruits and vegetables, to all children,” he says. “Schools must offer effective food-education programs.”
One such program in the Santa Fe public school system is Cooking with Kids—hands-on cooking classes for 4,300 elementary school children—which costs approximately $100 per student per year (which, he points out, is far less than an adult’s one-year supply of insulin).
Learn more on the website, cookingwithkids.net, which includes cooking and tasting lessons in English and Spanish.
“We must hold the fast-food industry and the larger industrial food system accountable,” Winne says, adding that there are many ways to do that, including vigorous regulation of fast-food advertising, calorie posting and restaurant locations—which should be as far away from schools as possible.
Winne adds that impediments to healthy and affordable retail food outlets must be removed: “New Mexico has at least 12 rural ‘food desert’ counties where supermarkets are virtually unavailable,” he says. “Supporting farmers markets and the development of new, healthy food outlets are imperatives.”
This year, food activists will propose legislation to increase the availability of New Mexico-grown fruits and vegetables in public schools, Winne says. Separate legislation will provide a purchasing preference for New Mexico-produced and minimally processed foods by public institutions, including schools. To increase state funding for the development of rural grocery stories, the Local Economic Development Act will also be reintroduced.
For Think New Mexico Executive Director Fred Nathan, two school issues deserve legislative attention in the coming year.
First, there is growing momentum to increase access to smaller schools. The issue became a hot one in Santa Fe when the school board and superintendent closed and consolidated three small schools—Alvord, Kaune, and Larragoite—that served a large proportion (76 percent) of low-income students. The good news, Nathan says via email to SFR, is that Sens. John Arthur Smith, Sue Wilson Beffort, and Cynthia Nava have pre-filed Senate Bill 2 for the 2011 legislative session.
This bill, which was drafted by Think New Mexico, would provide school districts with incentives to build smaller schools—research shows small schools are cost-effective and provide better learning environments for students—and also create due-process requirements to ensure that students and their families are given a real voice in any decisions to close or consolidate schools.
The second big issue has to do with requiring school districts to actually abide by their promises to voters about how revenues from bond elections will actually be used.
Recently, the Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education and superintendent diverted revenues from the 2009 bond election to new projects that had never been presented to or approved by the voters.
To free up the funds to renovate the old Alameda Middle School, the district postponed or canceled other projects that they had promised to voters, including a $7 million upgrade for Ramirez Thomas Elementary School.
When three Santa Fe legislators—Sen. Phil Griego, Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, and Rep. Lucky Varela—asked the Attorney General’s Office whether such a diversion of bond funds was legal, the state responded that the district is not actually bound by how school district officials or employees say the revenues will be used.
“In other words, voters have no way to hold school district officials accountable for breaking promises about how bond funds will be used, other than by rejecting future bond elections,” Nathan says. “Since this jeopardizes the main source of funding for school construction and renovation projects, legislators may consider a bill to require school districts to abide by the promises they make about how bond funds will be used.”
LEGISLATIVE FORECAST: SUNSHINE AND TREMORS
“There are a lot of things cooking in the Legislature, but the new Sunshine Portal is the big news,” Sarah Welsh, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Foundation on Open Government, says. “How useful is it going to be and is it going to be expanded?”
In 2010, then Lt. Gov. Diane Denish signed a bill passed by the Legislature to increase government transparency. Currently in beta version, the Sunshine Portal website is up and running. There, anyone can search for information related to state salaries, contracts, vendors and revenue reports.
FOG also is getting ready to propose a bill that would give fair and open access to state databases, Welsh says.
“Every time the state is regulating something, they have a database that keeps track of what they’re doing and what the inspectors found,” she says. “We’re not just talking about financial databases, but things like health, environment, point source pollution.”
There is a lot of data out there in state government, she says. “Right now, legally, you really have to have a good reason to buy it from the state,” she says, pointing out that data are oftentimes protected via copyrights. Citing data.gov, she points out that the federal government already presents its data to the public: “That’s the model we would like to see New Mexico move toward.”
Undoubtedly, the state Legislature shifts and changes from year to year. Lawmakers and lobbyists come and go. Some bills die, while others rise to the floor. But in the coming year, from Congress to the Legislature, all the way down to school boards, political districts will be changing.
Every 10 years, the US government tallies the number of people living within the country. Then, with the census figures in hand, political bodies must then redraw political boundaries and reapportion federal, state and local electoral districts.
“It’s going to be a very interesting process,” Denise Lamb, chief deputy clerk of Santa Fe County’s Bureau of Elections, says. “And it’s a political process that can be quite ugly.”
Obviously, elected officials want to hold onto certain areas of their district that are politically reliable. And based on population shifts, political parties can lose seats through redistricting.
“This goes all the way from our three congressional districts—they have to have their boundaries redrawn—to the state Legislature, the House and the Senate, and the Public Regulatory Commission,” Lamb says, adding that redistricting will also occur on the county level. The City of Santa Fe will have to redistrict for the council and even the Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education. “This is going to be quite an undertaking.”
WATER, WATER, UH, ANYWHERE?
“The biggest issue for New Mexicans is two issues in one: the quantity of groundwater and the quality of groundwater,” Douglas Meiklejohn, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Environmental Law Center says.
Nine out of 10 New Mexicans get their drinking water from groundwater, he says, and yet there are a number of emerging threats to its protection.
One of the most worrisome threats comes in the form of Gov. Martinez’s campaign promise to eliminate what’s called the “pit rule.” After the state tallied nearly 7,000 cases of oil and gas disposal ponds causing soil and water contamination between the mid-1980s and 2003—and nearly 400 instances of groundwater contamination—in 2008, the state’s Oil Conservation Division signed a new rule regulating the waste ponds, or pits. Under the new rule, all pits must be permitted with the state, and unlined pits are banned altogether.
“Since the rule was enacted, it’s my understanding that there have been no new violations reported,” Meiklejohn says. “What it’s done is to impose more stringent requirements on the disposal of oil and gas waste that have the potential to pollute groundwater if they’re not disposed of properly.”
Meiklejohn also worries about an increased interest in uranium mining in the northwestern part of the state, and the anticipated weakening of regulations designed to protect water quality from the impacts of industrial activities such as mining or dairy farming.
Of course, in an arid state like New Mexico—and with a warming climate causing reduced stream flows already—water quantity is just as important. Water quantity is particularly key given population increases in the state.
“I think my biggest wish is that we New Mexicans would start talking about water on a more regular basis and identify the issues that are facing us—and then try to come to some agreement about how we’re going to deal with them,” Mary Murnane, president of New Mexico Water Dialogue, says. Like many others, Murnane believes the slowed economy offers a chance for the state to deal with a neglected issue: From where will water for additional growth come?
Without getting lost in a polarizing debate regarding whether growth is good or bad—part of a necessary economic boom or just the perpetuation of an unsustainable pattern of resource consumption—she says New Mexicans need to honestly assess their water future.
“I would like to see us, as a state, say, ‘This is how much water we have, this is what we do with it now and this is what would have to change to have water available for these other things,’” she says. “Then we can have a discussion, as a community, about what we think are good trade-offs.”
Right now, she says, no one knows what might need to be sacrificed in order to support additional growth.
The Office of the State Engineer is supposed to release its current state water plan this month, but Murnane isn’t quite sure that plan will get New Mexico to where it needs to be in terms of knowing what water supplies exist and how they may be impacted by further growth.
“It’s a hard thing: People want to live here; people want their children to live here. So how do we do it in a way that keeps water in the river, and keeps farmers in business, and keeps New Mexico a nice place to be?” she says. “The longer we wait, the worse it gets.” SFR