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Monday, March 03, 2008

Ortiz y Pino: A Time Traveler's Guide to the 2009 Legislature

This is a guest blog by Jerry Ortiz y Pino, a Democratic State Senator who represents District 12 in Albuquerque.

JerryYou don’t have to own a crystal ball to realize that next year’s New Mexico State Legislative session will face an enormous agenda of unfinished business ... even before it tries to address the next generation of great new ideas coming down the pike.

In an earlier piece (in the The Sun News) I described what I think will have to be the next session’s main preoccupation: finding additional tax revenue to keep the Ship of State afloat.  We are coming out of an unprecedented period of economic prosperity in New Mexico.  Revenues have been growing at a rate sufficient to permit both generous tax cuts and ambitious program growth.

That period is now just about at its end.  Adjusting to the new realities of State Finance may be painful.  It will certainly require some additional courage or creativity on the part of a Legislature which has grown accustomed to rarely having to say “no” to any of the interests seeking its assistance.

However, even in the new era of economic belt-tightening which we are entering, there still will need to be solutions devised for the most troublesome of our social problems.  Pleading our state’s poverty as an excuse can never replace determined action. Our very real poverty is simply a complication we have to deal with in confronting the knottiest of our problems.

Here are a dozen guideposts to help keep track of the action leading up to next year’s legislative battles.  These are: three big ticket items; three time bombs; three cries for justice and three leftovers on the table.

Three Big Ticket Items for Our Shopping Cart
There are three big expenditures lurking over the horizon, awaiting action.  We ran away from them this year, postponing the inevitable for twelve months, hoping for some kind of fiscal miracle to spare us from shelling out the almost one billion in total new dollars that they will require.  That miracle isn’t going to occur.

In 2009 I believe we will have at last to stop running from them.  The ultimate cost of resolving them is only growing more difficult with each passing year, not easier.  Each of them is estimated to require $300 million or more (in 2008—by next year they will all have bigger price tags).

These three major purchases are the new public school funding formula; the bail-out of the public employees’ health insurance fund, and the Governor’s health care reform package (or some acceptable alternative to it).  All three have another characteristic in common: the longer we wait to act on each of them, the more expensive the ultimate hit will be.  We can run; we can hide, but we can’t escape.

Three Time-Bombs About to Detonate
Similarly, we postponed acting on three other issues that may not yet have a firm cost estimate attached, but that absolutely demand action before the symptoms already in evidence explode into major problems for many New Mexicans.

The first of these is the burgeoning issue of property tax inequity.  This year it surfaced as “property tax lightning” (the term coined to describe the unexpectedly large jumps that happen when new owners buy properties that haven’t had updated appraisals in years and that therefore haven’t been assessed at anything close to what that property’s real value would indicate).  In the past it was the fear that many elderly persons on fixed incomes might lose their homes because of escalating tax rates.

The numerous complaints that the property tax appraisal and assessment system is treating individuals unfairly suggest that we ought to address it before the entire system breaks down.  We don’t have the same kind of problems here that California faces with its Prop 13 consequences ... yet. However, since for most New Mexicans their home is their largest item of wealth, their most valuable possession, anything that threatens that home’s value demands legislative action.

The second is the continuing dilemma of how to finance highway construction and maintenance in this state.  Costs are sky rocketing; the Feds have seriously cut their support levels for this huge need and local governments are feeling the pinch themselves.  It is crucial that New Mexico figure out some new revenue stream to pay for this immensely important infrastructure and that we do it fast.

The third is the burden that County governments are being asked to shoulder in the financing of jails.  The rules for imprisoning and holding criminals are largely creations of State government.  Who gets locked up; how long he is held; under what terms he can be released; what minor parole infractions merit re-imprisoning him ... all of those are outside the authority of local government to control.  They are just expected to pay the bills for them.  And they are going broke doing so, shelling out scarce local dollars for something that probably ought to be part of State Government’s budget, not theirs.

You could call this issue getting a fiscal handle on our state’s out-of-control, super-expensive correctional system.  Privately owned and operated prisons paid-for by State Government; “corrections” facilities that rarely rehabilitate those they house; scandalously high recidivism rates, and a dearth of good alternatives to incarceration—all are symptoms of a penal system hemorrhaging red ink.

Three Cries for Justice
The legislature fell short again this year in resolving the plight of those in our state living in non-marital relationships, “domestic partners.”  There are very real issues of discrimination in this regard, issues that won’t vanish just because we chose to ignore them this time around.  Look for this to continue being a huge battleground next year.

Then the issue of eliminating the death penalty is certain to again stir its advocates and its opponents to protracted action.  Will 2009 be the year that finally this brutal remnant of the frontier mentality gets put away once and for all?  One can only hope.

Finally, I would include in this group of issues the many forms of injustice we have built into the very framework of most of our social programs as a consequence of inadequate funding levels. 

We maintain a “waiting list” for many developmental disability services; we fund mental health care at a level so low that it permits treatment for only some of those who are desperately in need of it; we require our social service contractors, non-profit agencies operating on a shoestring, to pay a higher wage than previously and to continue to provide health insurance to employees—but we haven’t increased their reimbursement rates.  All of those are penny-wise/pound-foolish games that not only delay services but treat citizens unjustly, with a classic double standard.

Three Scraps Left on the Table
We still have no ethics reforms.  Plenty have been suggested; a few made it into legislation that got debated; nothing came out the other end of the sausage-making machinery.  The challenge remains: we need to act to restore the public’s confidence ... before we lose it permanently.

The Railrunner commuter train funding scheme didn’t get approved, either.  If it is to ever realize its potential for keeping I-25 safe and for reducing our dependence on automobiles, this issue of paying for commuter service will have to be re-visited.

The third leftover in this grouping is the knotty issue of nuclear power: cleaning up uranium mines; protecting against future environmental and health damage caused by mining, milling, transporting, fabricating and reprocessing radioactive products and of course, where or how to safety store the waste produced by the nuclear industry: in weapons, medical procedures and energy production.

Big Uranium wants to start up the machinery again; will we be tempted by the money?  And can it truly be viewed as “clean energy” when it takes as much fossil fuel to produce as it saves?  This is a debate that has barely begun.  I see it on the agenda for many years to come.

Three Items on My Personal Agenda for 2009
I’ll end by discussing some of my own areas of concern, the concerns of a very junior State Senator who represents a district in Central Albuquerque that in some ways accurately serves as a microcosm of our full State—but in others is completely atypical.

I want to get something done about the potentially scandalous situation regarding legal guardians.  These are individuals appointed by Courts to handle the affairs of adults judged incompetent.  For starters we need to get a handle on what’s out there.  Since the Courts aren’t monitoring or checking up in any way, the fear is that abuses may have cropped up in the system.  Every year of delay in addressing this means additional elderly or handicapped adults may be being taken advantage of.

I also want to fund the depleted uranium testing program for soldiers returning to New Mexico from war zones in the Middle East.  In time the hope is to convince the Federal Veterans Administration that this problem has to be admitted and dealt with.

Finally, this state is allowing a potentially valuable resource to be wasted: the minds and skills of the 200,000 or more adults who live in New Mexico who have not finished high school.  Many are not literate.  They want to work, want to be part of the solution, not the problem ... but until we put together a serious effort to expand  programs in Adult Literacy, Adult Basic Ed, English as a Second Language and drop-out recovery, we will have to watch this vast potential get wasted ... or get twisted into criminal careers.

That’s my travelers’ guide.  The revised edition will be available in 2009.

This is a guest blog by NM State Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino. Click to read previous guest blogs by the Senator here and here. Guest blogs provide readers with an opportunity to express their views on relevant issues and may or many not reflect our views. If you'd like to submit a piece for consideration as a guest blog, contact me by clicking on the Email Me link on the upper left-hand corner of the page.

March 3, 2008 at 08:28 AM in Guest Blogger, NM Legislature 2008 | Permalink


We certainly could have knocked one of those three off of the list this year by passing the HSA. Unfortunately we have a Governor who likes to receive fat campaign checks from the health insurance industry, so effective and efficient healthcare was not a priority for him. Keeping profits high for the insurance industry was.

I guess all that the free-market capitalists need to do is say 'socialism' (BOO!) and real healthcare options disappear. At least that works on non-thinkers, which obviously we have aplenty.

Posted by: Jason Call | Mar 3, 2008 8:50:43 AM

One more thing, just released this week is the story that for the first time in our history, we are incarcerating 1 out of every 100 Americans. That's over 3 million Americans in jail. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 500-700,000 of those are in jail for nonviolent drug offenses.

We can no longer, as a society, afford to continue archaic prohibition-style policies - policies kept in place by Big Pharma, Big Alcohol, and Big Tobacco, (and now Big Prisons aka Wackenhut) as well as the good ol' 'tsk! tsk!' of various religious communities that politicians unfortunately must remain wary of. We can't afford the cost of incarceration, and we can't afford the societal damage that is done by taking parents away from children, and taking labor out of the workforce.

Far more damage is done by keeping drugs illegal (which raises the black market cost because of the risk involved) that could ever be caused by a society that, let's face it, already has legal drugs available - alcohol, tobacco, Prozac, etc.

Posted by: Jason Call | Mar 3, 2008 10:30:04 AM

I have a somewhat contrary view. I don't think any universal health care program will work unless it's done at the federal level. Otherwise providers will flee to states where the biz climate favors them. We already have a severe shortage of doctors, nurses and other kinds of health care professionals here. Plus the pool isn't big enough to spread the costs of sick people widely enough.

I also think what gets ignored is how badly health care is provided for those who have even the best insurance because hospitals and doctors are already overwhelmed by the numbers of people needing care. The only people who still think we have the "best" health care system in the world are either rich or well connected - or they haven't had to use the system recently.

Posted by: Nurse R | Mar 3, 2008 10:31:52 AM

Legislatures all over America will be facing similar problems and money crunches thanks to the Bush administration's outrageous defense spending and the eternal occupation in Iraq. We won't be able to do anything to fix our very serious problems at home if we keep this up.

Posted by: Old Dem | Mar 3, 2008 1:30:19 PM

The shortage of providers may be part illusion and part created by our dismal system.

The illusionary part is that it seems like there are not enough doctors because the health insurance companies have DEMANDED that providers turn over patients at a screaming rate of one per 7 minutes. The less and faster "care" meant more profits for the insurance industry. For many years caring and thorough doctors were literally kicked off insurance plan lists should they not keep an impossible pace. This high patient turn over rate created the unhappy circumstance where each doctor visit or procedure generated less and less revenue. Insurance Medicare/Medicaid re-reimbursement was continuously ratcheted downward. This in turn created a downward spiral such that the doctors MUST carry on a screaming pace because lower and lower reimbursements must cover over-head. Yet, the health insurance companies and executives reaped ever more obscene profits and undeserved parasitic salaries.

In turn, this created a shortage as the field of medicine is no longer a way to become wealthy enough to become upper middle class without sacrificing quality of life and compassion for people. Fewer people go into the medical fields because it does not pay considering the difficult educational and financial investment. Also, the quality of life and lack of altruistic mission in lieu of profit makes the field intolerable.

Medical professionals are not greedy. They are human beings that deserve decent work hours and the fulfillment of caring for others.

Having made this complaint what are some solutions?
Make medical education FREE. Do not abuse the students with such long hours. Take a bit longer to educate if necessary. Exhausting our medical professionals is unrelated to quality.
I am sure we could come up with ways (other than just greed) of making medicine a desirable field.
Universal health CARE not for profit insurance would go a long way towards restoring balance in costs.

Posted by: qofdisks | Mar 3, 2008 2:00:30 PM

gofdisks, you make some excellent points. It's obvious that we need a complete overhaul of our medical and health systems not just tinkering around the edges. The insurance companies and HMOs are the real enemy.

Posted by: James R. | Mar 3, 2008 2:43:42 PM