Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

3-3 Battle of the Political Stars


Monday, February 27, 2006

3-1 No Special Session?

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- It appears we may not see a special legislative session. Gov. Bill Richardson said he would let us know last week, one way or the other.
He didn't exactly do that, but his actions spoke as loudly as if he had given us the official word.
By executive order, last week, the governor put into play many of the initiatives he wasn't able to get through a balky Senate. Richardson's need for a special session is now greatly lessened.
There is the matter of $250 million of special project goodies left on the table. But there are ways to get money into some of the projects he wants, while making lawmakers suffer the loss of their pet projects.
And there is always the possibility that a majority of legislators could decide they want a special session. There obviously are some who want various of the projects that didn't make it through.
And there are lawmakers upset about the governor bypassing the legislative process who may want to go into session and undo Richardson's executive orders.
But most likely they will decide to just complain about the bullying governor. Election years are not good times to have special sessions.
The biggest failure of the 2006 Legislature was the killing of ethics reform by the Senate. The governor's anti-corruption package was defeated when a majority of Senators voted to strike the enacting clause of the bill, meaning that even if passed, it would have no effect.
At a time when public confidence in government has been eroded by the treasurer's office scandal, movement in the direction of corrective legislation would have been wise.
One of Richardson's solutions was to give more oversight of the treasurer's office to the state board of finance, which he controls.
Many lawmakers didn't like that, but instead of just letting it die and claiming they ran out of time, senators used a cheap tactical maneuver that enabled them to tell their constituents they didn't vote against ethics legislation.
Lawmakers had better get busy in their interim committees during the next few months and develop some tough anti-corruption legislation for next year's Legislature. Otherwise, they may encounter some strong anti-incumbent sentiments in their primary and general campaigns.
Unfortunately, senators don't have stand for reelection this year. And they are the problem. So maybe it will be two years before we see any real reform. In 2008, all 112 legislators have to run.
It also is important to note that the Senate failed to pass a joint memorial, approved unanimously by the House, to create a special interim committee to develop ethics legislation.
However, we can't view senators as the only bad guys. Sometimes, in the middle of their terms, they take the rap in order to protect their colleagues in the House who have to run.
By next year, lawmakers at least should be able to develop and pass laws tightening procedures in the treasurer's office. But further anti-corruption measures need to involve a discussion of reforms that will apply to all public officials. That includes legislative candidates, and lawmakers are always slow to police themselves.
Gov. Richardson's executive order increases state oversight of the treasurer's office, establishes a code of ethics and conduct for the office, sets campaign contribution rules and establishes a whistleblower program,
There will be no problem assuring that this order will be followed for the next 10 months. State Treasurer Doug Brown, appointed by Richardson to serve the rest of Robert Vigil's term, already was implementing those recommendations.
Another executive order issued by Gov. Richardson last week imposes tough, new regulations on payday lenders. He also directed the Energy and Minerals Department to prepare for the creation of a Transmission Authority to get New Mexico's wind energy to market, and announced his support for a minimum wage increase in Albuquerque through the city council rather than by referendum.
WED, 12-6-00

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

2-27 Spaceport Blastoff

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- New Mexico's spaceport is ready to blast off. The 2006 Legislature appropriated $100 million over three years to provide the bulk of the project funding.
It also reauthorized $8.6 million originally appropriated in the mid-1990s for space-related economic development activities. It will be used for planning and design of the spaceport.
Legislation was passed allowing cities and counties in southern New Mexico to tax themselves in order to help fund the spaceport. And the state was authorized to invest in the companies NASA chooses to build the successor to the space shuttle, if that business is brought to the state.
The one appropriation not passed was a $250 million transportation package that included $25 million for roads and runways at and around the spaceport. Failure to pass that legislation may be the most likely reason we could see a special legislative session sometime this year.
But even without that money, Rick Homans, the state Economic Development Department secretary, says the state has enough money to begin funding the project. The commitment to the spaceport by lawmakers was obvious, according to Homans, so there is no reason not to proceed.
The failure of the transportation appropriation was not the fault of the spaceport funding. The commuter railway funding in the bill would have encountered significant debate and the Senate ran out of time for that luxury.
Homans was superbly prepared for lawmaker questions about the spaceport. Prior to the beginning of the session, this column began posing some of the major questions that needed to be asked.
Those questions were well-covered by legislators from both houses in a large joint hearing on the opening day of the session, when very little normally happens.
Present for the hearing were heads of the companies who would be doing business with the spaceport. Once those questions were out of the way, the package of bills necessary to get the spaceport off the ground, or underground as the case happens to be, moved quietly through the Legislature.
One of the major concerns with the spaceport was why it has to be publicly financed when a billionaire entrepreneur will be its anchor tenant. The answer given was that the spaceport will be no different from airports, which are built with public funds, but with private companies paying to use them.
The main difference seems to be that most of the public money for spaceports, so far, has come from states rather than the federal government, which primarily funds airports.
But from looking at NASA's major facilities in Florida, Texas and California, it's likely federal money would have built this spaceport in a large state, and not in New Mexico. Florida and California were two of New Mexico's main competitors in landing the Virgin Atlantic business.
Although most New Mexicans are under the impression we are building the nation's first commercial spaceport, that's not the case. Twelve years ago, the Legislature was approached by several small companies with stories about how the communications satellite business was going to take off in a huge way and there would soon be a shortage of launch pads.
New Mexico appropriated $10 million to get started on a spaceport.. (Remember that $8.6 million leftover money from the mid-'90s?) Several states got their spaceports up and going before New Mexico. And at that point, the need for new satellites began to dwindle.
Cell phone technology improved and the industry wasn't taken over by expensive, bulky satellite phones as expected. Satellite technology also improved and they didn't have to be replaced as often as expected.
We were lucky on that one and saved nearly all our money. With the attraction of Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, New Mexico is way out in front in the passenger spaceflight race.
It's still a risk. But with Branson in our corner, the possibilities for success appear much better than any previous spaceport ventures.
MON, 2-27-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)

I'll be out of office the rest of the week. Can be reached by email or cell 505-699-9982.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

2-24 Games Politicos Play

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- Recently a rookie state senator commented that the Senate had all the guns in a fight with the governor. He's wrong. In a democracy, the guns are spread, albeit unevenly, among all public officials.
By the end of the 2006 Legislature we got to see what kind of heat the various participants were packing.
We saw bills that obviously weren't going to make it through the process because the Democratic leadership of one house or the other had assigned them to too many committees, or to committees known for killing such measures.
We saw bills languish because committee chairmen refused to let them be heard or acted upon. We saw bills make it to the floor of the House or Senate and sit on the table day after day without being considered.
We saw battles between the House and Senate over which chamber was holding up the other's bills. The common revenge, in this battle of equals, was to stop hearing any of the other chamber's bills.
We witnessed the tug-of- war between Gov. Bill Richardson and the Legislature over action on the governor's package.
In the final hours of the session, Republican members of the House and Senate finally got to unholster the minority party's small-caliber weapon -- the mini-filibuster. Unlimited filibusters, as sometimes seen in Washington, aren't allowed in the New Mexico Legislature.
But the rules permit a few hours of extended debate. That doesn't pack much of a punch until the final morning of a legislative session, which must end at noon. Then all bills still remaining are fair game.
And usually they are all shot down in one final filibuster. This year, after a session-ending filibuster in the House, Rep. Dan Foley, one of the filibuster participants, said the tactic will continue until Republicans are treated fairly.
That means only one thing. Filibusters will continue, because the minority party will always be treated unfairly. Would anything change if Republicans became the majority party?
Back in the '80s, coalitions of Republicans and conservative Democrats took control of both houses of the Legislature and the minority party still was treated unfairly. In fact, coalition leaders found some ingenious new ways of violating minority rights.
Take a look at Congress if you want to see New Mexico in reverse. Democrats threaten a filibuster and Republicans call them obstructionists. They ask that the issue just be given an up-or-down vote. That's only fair, they say.
That's a tactic New Mexico Democratic legislators haven't used. Democrat leaders usually just make a grudging acknowledgement of the minority's rights. Does that indicate our lawmakers are less mean than those in Washington?
Probably so, but it could also mean that some of the bills meeting their death in the final hours of the Legislature weren't favorites of Democrat leaders either.
Many of those bills were part of the huge package sent down by Gov. Richardson. How convenient to let Republicans take the rap.
Of course, the governor understands this too and he has numerous weapons in his arsenal. He has a veto pen, which also can be used for line-item vetoes of appropriation bills. And he can call lawmakers back into a dreaded special session during campaign season.
The special session issue is a two-edged sword for the governor. If he calls one, the outcome could be the same as in the regular session. Former Gov. Toney Anaya called three special sessions one year with no luck. The Senate decided not to even show up for the third session.
But if Richardson doesn't call a special session, the image of the powerful governor is gone, and with it, some prestige on the national scene.
Gov. Richardson must choose his weapons carefully for this one. He would be smart to quit trying to act like Lyndon Johnson and go back to using the diplomatic skills at which he has already proved himself most adept.
FRI, 2-24-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)


Friday, February 17, 2006

2-22 Not Enough Time

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- The 2006 Legislature accomplished the task for which short sessions are designed. So they've packed up and gone home. Now it's up to Gov. Bill Richardson to decide whether he wants to call them back to tend to his unfinished business.
Originally, legislative sessions weren't scheduled for even-numbered years. Biennial budgets were crafted to covered two years. But several decades ago lawmakers decided too much changed during a two-year period to make biennial budgets workable.
So quickie sessions were authorized to set a budget in odd-numbered years. There was no reason other matters couldn't wait another year. In case of emergencies, the governor was given the power to add items to a session, but since most governors back then were former legislative leaders, that privilege was not abused.
But along came a governor with a boundless supply of energy and an expectation that everyone should want to work the 18-hour days he puts in. It has lost him staff members and now it is losing him some lawmaker support.
It isn't just Republican legislators who said "enough of that" this year. Senate Democrats felt the same way. Sure, all the items Richardson assigned to lawmakers at the beginning of the session might have been handled if lawmakers had done nothing else.
But New Mexico's legislators are social creatures. They gather for a brief time every year to make many important decisions. To do that, they need to get to know and trust each other and become as much of a team as possible.
Some of that interaction takes place in floor sessions with the public and press watching. Birthdays and holidays are celebrated. There is some form of diversion almost every day.
New Mexico's legislators also are political creatures. When constituents come to town, they are introduced to the chamber. Often those constituents desire further recognition, so they are given passes to sit on the rostrum, near the speaker of the House or president of the Senate.
And sometimes those constituents are interested in getting memorials passed honoring themselves, their organization or a particular cause. All this takes valuable time, but reelection campaigns always are around the corner and they are valuable too.
Important people also like to address the Legislature. Among them are the state's five members of Congress, who schedule different times to be in town and spend a day with the Legislature. Any remaining time is devoted to business. And sometimes that isn't much.
All states do it, but New Mexicans may spend more time on niceties than most. I'm pretty folksy, but sometimes I'm criticized for getting down to business more quickly than is considered socially acceptable in New Mexico.
I only have a third of a column left and I'm just getting down to discussing the end of the 2006 Legislature. How's that for making a point?
Considering that this was a budget session, lawmakers accomplished quite a bit. In addition to a $5.1 billion state budget, they passed $900 million in construction projects, including a healthy start at a $225 million spaceport and a $393 million commuter train.
They approved 80 percent of Gov. Richardson's Year of the Child initiative, drafted a constitutional amendment to create a water trust fund, cracked down on meth labs and got a start on anti-corruption legislation.
But they didn't get very far on Gov. Richardson's agenda. They didn't pass even a compromise form of the minimum wage bill he dearly wanted. They barely got started on his anti-corruption measures. Once again, they didn't regulate payday lenders. And they approved very little of his tax-cut package.
Richardson has 20 days following the session to decide whether to sign or veto what lawmakers did pass. Those decisions will be linked to whether he decides to call a special session while he and House members are seeking reelection later this year.
WED, 2-22-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)


Thursday, February 16, 2006

2-20 It's Great to Be a Senator

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- It's great to be a New Mexico state senator. They all have four-year terms and halfway through that term they don't have to run for reelection, as House members do.
Not coincidently, during the election in which they don't have to protect their seat, all state officials are running for office. That means all 42 senators can take a free shot at higher office and still hold onto their Senate seat if they do not win.
Usually they don't win, possibly because they feel too comfortable knowing they'll still hold public office, win or lose. The two senators seeking higher office this campaign season give some indication of being in that category.
Sen. Sue Wilson-Beffort of Albuquerque announced for office eight days before the Feb. 14 filing day. Sen. Joe Carraro, also of Albuquerque, waited until the day before the filing date.
Wilson-Beffort is running for lieutenant governor. Her late entry occurred only because the state GOP had a very tough time finding anyone to fill out its gubernatorial ticket. She's guaranteed a primary election victory and will be a welcome addition to the Republican ticket.
She is intelligent, articulate and a hard worker. The chances of winning against the powerful Richardson/Denish ticket are slim but Wilson-Beffort will carry her party's message well and likely will engage in some of the attack-dog activities that have come to be the role of lieutenant governor and vice presidential candidates.
How well her running mate, Dr. J.R. Damron of Santa Fe, will carry the GOP message is still to be seen. Party leaders have worried about his newness to public speaking. Some party members report being disappointed by his presentations.
There is no problem with U.S. Senate candidate Joe Carraro's presentations. A longtime veteran of both houses of the New Mexico Legislature, Carraro is an able speaker on any subject and loves taking the microphone during New Mexico's version of filibusters.
This isn't the first time Carraro has taken a shot at Congress. He usually gets in late and is underfunded. But one can never tell when the year might come that everything clicks.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee has not targeted this contest. Incumbent Sen. Jeff Bingaman typically wins by 16 points or so and enjoys a high job approval rating. But New Mexico became a red state in the last presidential election, so Republicans can always hope Jeff could be knocked off.
Carraro says that now he is in the race, national Republicans will take another look. He has recruited former Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp to be his national finance chairman. That has to help the likable, straight-spoken Carraro.
But the GOP leadership's favorite in the race appears to be Farmington urologist Allen McCulloch, a political newcomer who has already raised $140,000 for his campaign. Medical doctors have done well in politics recently and state GOP leaders seem to like the possibility of having two of them head the state Republican ticket.
Sen. Cynthia Nava of Dona Ana County may be another state senator to try for higher office. She reportedly has her eyes on the Public Regulation Commission seat currently held by the embattled Shirley Baca of Las Cruces. Filing day for those positions doesn't roll around until March 21.
The PRC has five members, elected by districts, who regulate public utilities, insurance companies and other corporations. Nava serves as chair of the Senate Education Committee and is well-respected in the state's second most populous county.
While it's great to be a senator this year, it's no fun to be a House member. Rep. Luciano "Lucky" Varela, the legislature's top fiscal authority, must give up his seat in order to be a candidate for state treasurer.
Varela faces tough Democratic primary opposition from former state Treasurer James Lewis. If Varela loses, he will be completely out of politics -- for the time at least.
MON, 2-20-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)


Wednesday, February 15, 2006

2-17 Candidate Dropouts

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Candidate filing days often are as interesting for revealing who didn't file as well as for who did file. This year's Feb. 14 filings for statewide offices were no exception.
In the governor's race, former Rep. Bengie Regensburg of Mora County and Eli Chavez of Albuquerque's South Valley both were going to teach Gov. Bill Richardson a lesson for perceived slights. But come filing day, Richardson was the only candidate in the Democratic primary.
For the GOP, Santa Fe radiologist J.R. Damron will be alone on the gubernatorial ballot. Minister/teacher George Bailey of Edgewood announced many months ago, but didn't obtain enough signatures, so he filed as a write-in candidate.
In the GOP lieutenant governor's race, it wasn't a matter of people dropping out. State party chairman Allen Weh almost didn't find a candidate to drop in.
Early this month, blogger Joe Monahan mused about the GOP's potential embarrassment if it couldn't fill its ticket against the powerful governor and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish.
On Feb. 3, the day of President George Bush's Albuquerque visit, Sen. Sue Wilson-Beffort caught the spirit and agreed to give it a try. Collecting 2,000 signatures in 10 days wasn't the problem faced by other candidates. Party officials were more than happy to give her a hand.
In the U.S. Senate primary, Democrat Jeff Bingaman has no opposition, largely because former challengers Tom Benavides and Francesca Lobato now are Republicans. Lobato is a candidate again. Benavides was first to announce, but was a no-show on filing day.
Also filing in the GOP primary are Farmington urologist Allen McCulloch, Santa Fe City Councilor David Pfeffer and state Sen. Joe Carraro. Another non-filer was Steven Gavi, an assistant Wal-Mart manager in Roswell.
The Democrat secretary of state's race has plenty of takers, but not nearly as many as those who talked about it during the past year. Every county clerk and former county clerk from the Albuquerque-Santa Fe axis, along with all living past secretaries of state, consider that race every four years.
This year's entries include two past secretaries of state Shirley Hooper and Stephanie Gonzalez, plus Bernalillo County Clerk Mary Herrera and Letitia Montoya of Santa Fe, who ran for secretary of state in 1998.
First to announce her interest in running for secretary of state was Rebecca Bustamante, soon after ending her second term as Santa Fe County clerk in January 2005.
Not long after that, incoming Santa Fe County Clerk Valerie Espinoza said she was interested. Also mentioned was Patsy Trujillo Knauer, a former state legislator from Santa Fe.
Get the picture?
Filing for the Republican primary was Vickie Perea, a former Albuquerque city councilor and mayoral candidate. An early announcement of interest came form state Sen. Dianna Duran. But she's from Alamogordo and may have thought she was ineligible.
The attorney General's race once had Rep. Al Park and attorney Eric Sedillo-Jeffries, both of Albuquerque as serious candidates. But the late entry of former gubernatorial and congressional candidate Gary King chased them out. Remaining in were former Richardson legal staffer Geno Zamora and 13th Judicial District Attorney Lemuel Martinez of Grants.
On the GOP side of this race are two candidates with close ties to Democrat governors. Bob Schwartz of Albuquerque resigned his position as criminal justice adviser to Gov. Richardson in order to run. And Santa Fe attorney Jim Bibb is a son-in-law of former Gov. Toney Anaya.
Hopefuls also cleared out of two other contests when the heavyweights arrived. The state treasurer's Democratic primary is now down to Rep. Luciano "Lucky" Varela of Santa Fe and former Treasurer James Lewis of Albuquerque.
And the state Democratic land commissioner's race is down to two former land commissioners, Ray Powell and Jim Baca, both of Albuquerque.
No wonder state government doesn't understand all the state.
FRI, 2-17-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)


Sunday, February 12, 2006

2-15 Down to the Wire

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Right on cue, Gov. Bill Richardson threatened a special session the weekend before the Legislature's scheduled adjournment.
Many governors have used the maneuver as a final whip down the backstretch to accelerate the process to full speed and to serve notice that more attention needs to be paid to their package of bills.
As usual, it was the Senate that came in for the governor's most severe criticism. House Speaker Ben Lujan keeps a tighter rein on his House members than the Senate leadership is able to exert.
That is by design, whether intelligent or not. The speaker of the House is given close to absolute power over his chamber. The Senate has a divided leadership, split among the majority floor leader, the president pro tem and the Committees' Committee, composed of leaders from both sides of the aisle.
The House speaker can negotiate with the governor and fairly well guarantee that he can deliver. No one in the Senate can do that.
The Senate's system is designed for the majority leader to have the most power, but depending on personality, it sometimes is the president pro tem. And neither can guarantee what the Committees' Committee will do.
Most states have similar systems, although in Texas the lieutenant governor has powers in the Senate similar to the House speaker. In fact, it is claimed that in Texas, the lieutenant governor has more power than the governor.
As usual, the New Mexico Senate took great offense at Gov. Richardson's remarks and, instead of speeding deliberations, took time to take exception to the remarks and blame him for piling on too much extraneous work for a short session.
Santa Fe Sen. John Grubesic, the Legislature's self-appointed, tell-it-like-it-is man, informed the Senate it has "all the guns in this fight." Needless to say, he's a rookie lawmaker.
Richardson said the $5.1 billion budget passed by the Senate woefully underfunds his "year of the child" proposals, along with health care and safety proposals he included in his budget request.
The governor also told lawmakers they had better get busy on a minimum wage bill and his ethics reform package to address government corruption issues that have risen in the past year.
Budget negotiations among the governor, Senate and House usually continue down to the last minute, with a compromise saving a special session.
This year, a special session is even more distasteful because the governor and House members face re-election campaigns as soon as the session ends.
A minimum wage bill of some kind is likely to make it through the session. Ethics reform, however, seems to be losing traction. Lawmakers say it is just too complicated to take up in a short session. Besides, some of the proposals affect them.
During a budget session of the Legislature, many lawmakers come to town with only one major issue on their minds -- to pick off as many projects as possible for their districts.
With much more money available this year, problems in dividing it seem to be worse, rather than better because the larger amount of money has magnified the inequities between the powerful and the rest.
The governor, being the most powerful, wants the lion's share of the fat state surplus. Democrat leaders in both houses have taken generous cuts, leaving the scraps for everyone else.
If Sen. Grubesic thinks the Senate has all the guns, he'll be amazed at the bullets flying around when Gov. Richardson takes his line-item veto pen out of its holster.
Regional tensions also are running high. As usual, it's the Rio Grande corridor against the rest of the state. A $300 million package to finance new schools in rapidly-growing Albuquerque and Las Cruces is causing many grumbles. And this time, the middle Rio Grande appears as though it is in for a $225 million spaceport.

WED, 2-15-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)


Monday, February 06, 2006

2-13 Minimum Wage Fight

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Should government tell businesses how much to pay their employees? If so, which level of government should make that decision? Does state government have the authority to tell local governments they can't set wage levels?
Such questions are zooming 'round and 'round the Roundhouse as the 2006 Legislature nears its close.
It all started when the Santa Fe City Council voted to raise the federally-mandated $5.15-an-hour minimum wage to more than double that amount on a phased in basis. Currently, the minimum is $9.50 an hour.
Then, along came Albuquerque and put the question to its voters. It appeared the answer would be in the affirmative until greedy employee unions decided to add other goodies for itself into the referendum, which ended up losing narrowly.
Naturally, business people in the rest of the state began wondering who might be next. They soon found out the answer was that the entire state would be the target.
Gov. Bill Richardson said he wanted to see a $7.50 minimum, phased in over three years. Speaker of the House Ben Lujan countered with a $7.50 minimum immediately.
Some local business interests said those decisions should be left to local communities while others said local communities should be prohibited from making any minimum wage decisions.
And yes, sacred principles, such as local autonomy, have been thrown to the wind as all sides jockey to protect whatever they see as their self interests.
There seems to be some agreement that a dollar increase, to $6.15 an hour might not hurt anyone very much. Research supplied by the Legislative Finance Committee staff indicates that the "real" minimum wage, an economic term, is around $6.50 an hour and that an increase to that area wouldn't result in a large amount of employees being "disemployed."
That information can be found at Click on "Bill Finder" and type in House Bill 258.
This Legislative Finance Committee's Web site also discusses the fact that a $5.15 minimum wage is heavily subsidized by the government, meaning taxpayers, since a person at that wage level qualifies for many government assistance programs, including the federal earned-income tax credit, Medicaid and food stamps.
Raising the minimum wage also means that affected employees will pay more income tax and buy more goods, thereby increasing state gross receipts tax collections.
And of course, increasing the minimum wage means that businesses will have to increase the price of their goods and services, which also comes out of our pockets. That's right, no matter what happens, those of us above the minimum wage level either pay more in taxes or higher prices to support those who are at the minimum wage.
Legislative Finance Committee research also shows that the minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, is at its lowest since the 1940s. Congress has waited longer this time than usual to raise the minimum wage.
Usually, when Congress does raise the minimum wage, it trails the "real" minimum we discussed earlier. What actually happens seems to be that by the time political pressure mounts to increase the minimum wage, the economy has moved forward to the point that the new minimum wage is merely increased to meet what already is happening.
But proposals before the Legislature attempt to take that minimum higher than what is currently happening, prompting proposals from those who normally oppose federal intervention, to wait until the federal government raises its requirement.
It is reported that 17 other states have already raised their minimums, including some of our neighbors. And some of those states report economic gains as a result of doing so. Does that mean that New Mexico, which ranks at the bottom of such categories, would be helped? That is part of the debate.
In case you're thinking none of this will ever affect you, it might. Jurors are paid minimum wage, so at least that duty becomes a little less onerous.
MON, 2-13-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)


Saturday, February 04, 2006

2-10 Rio Rancho High Schooler Upstages President

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- President George Bush's appearance in Rio Rancho last Friday wasn't billed as a major policy address, as his appearances the previous two days in Tennessee and Minnesota had been.
So the national cable news networks didn't cover it. But they should have, because there was much to be proud about, for the president and for New Mexicans.
President Bush was comfortable and sounded as though he knew his subject. He talked about how improved math and science education is vital to keep up technologically with emerging nations such as China and India.
This time, the president didn't make a speech, he moderated a roundtable discussion of corporation executives, educators, a start-up business executive and a high school student.
It likely isn't necessary to tell you who blew them all away. A Rio Rancho senior, Nicole Lopez, told of how two teachers rescued her from gang activity during her freshman year and got her interested in math and science.
It opened up a whole new world of possibilities to her in a field she never would have considered. She will enroll next year as a civil engineering student at the University of New Mexico.
Afterward, Nicole's mother confirmed the story about the gang activity. This girl could go on Oprah and not embarrass the popular TV show hostess.
President Bush started on time and ended exactly an hour later. He performed well as a moderator, keeping speakers on message and stopping them to explain acronyms and scientific terms. He put speakers at ease with his self-deprecating humor.
His opening remarks were an extemporaneous summary of his American Competitiveness Initiative. His responses to each speaker's remarks were on point and not patronizing. And he stayed afterward for further discussion.
It's too bad Americans couldn't have seen their president at his best -- at ease, competent and sincere. That familiar smirk never crept onto his face.
Of course, he still had his detractors. His audience was handpicked. His words conflicted with his administration's actions to cut funding for scientific programs, cut student loan programs and give credence to intelligent design arguments.
It almost was as big a departure for him as his pronouncement that Americans have become addicted to oil and must be willing to look for energy alternatives.
U.S. Sens. Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman both were present for the event. President Bush gave them credit in his opening remarks for having persuaded him to propose the initiative.
Last year, Bingaman led a bipartisan group of Senators in requesting a study of education in the developing countries that are now surpassing us in technology.
The results were sobering. China and India each produce at least five times as many engineers each year than U.S. universities. And their students consistently outperform their U.S. counterparts in math and science.
Armed with those results, Bingaman had a package of three bills drafted for introduction by Domenici and himself. Over 60 bipartisan Senate sponsors now have signed on.
The news that the president wants to make the initiative part of his budget proposal greatly increases the chances of success. The only problem is that the president only wants to spend half the money that Domenici and Bingaman are proposing.
With a budget already in deficit, the outlook is for an underfunded major initiative, something we have seen much of, from the Iraq War to No Child Left Behind.
But Norman Augustine, former Lockheed Martin chief executive officer, who headed the panel making the report, says America cannot afford to ignore this challenge to U.S. technological supremacy.
Domenici says Bush is heavily constrained by his budgeters, but the former budget committee chairman, who still sits on the panel, says he is ready to try every budget maneuver he knows to free up the money needed to stay competitive with our technological rivals.
FRI, 2-10-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)


Friday, February 03, 2006

2-8 Is It About Medicine or Marijuana?

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Is the medical marijuana bill all about medicine or marijuana? That's the vexing question many lawmakers are asking themselves this year.
This is another of those issues that affect only a few New Mexicans, but that take up a significant amount of time because they are so high-profile and emotionally charged.
More attention should be directed at education, health insurance, taxes, the budget and major economic development ventures such as a spaceport, which affect many New Mexicans. But it is an issue that is not going away until it is dealt with decisively, one way or the other.
Last year, it appeared that was about to happen. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Cisco McSorley of Albuquerque, whizzed through the Senate and past two House committees with only one dissenting vote. It was on the House calendar for action several days before the end of the session.
But then, one influential House member, Rep. Dan Silva, became upset that a pet bill for his district was bottled up in McSorley's Senate Judiciary Committee and he managed to keep the medical marijuana bill from ever being acted upon.
So the process had to begin again this year, in a short session, which required a governor's message to even make it germane. Once again, the measure passed the Senate easily, by a 34-6 margin, with members voting for it who never had done so before. All Democrats supported it, plus 12 of 18 Republicans.
The bill is now in the House, where Speaker Ben Lujan, of Nambe, has promised nothing more than to not derail it. A few hours after making that statement, Lujan assigned the bill to the House Agriculture Committee instead of a committee that had heard it last year.
That isn't necessarily bad news. It likely will require a longer hearing, but it means additional people will become familiar with it. And for proponents of the bill, it may be good, since additional information seems to sway committee members in favor of the legislation.
For some House members, support of the measure will be an agonizing decision. Although polls show that a majority of Americans and New Mexicans support the use of marijuana for specific medical purposes, that support doesn't extend to all legislative districts.
If a lawmakers representing these districts become convinced that for medical and compassionate reasons they should support the measure, they must be prepared to convince their constituents they did the right thing.
Had this issue passed the Legislature last year, there would have been plenty of time to explain. Senators don't have to stand for reelection until 2008. But House members will be facing their electorate in a little more than a week. The timing this year isn't great.
It also may not be good for Gov. Bill Richardson. He's not expected to pick up many votes if he signs the legislation, which he put on his call for the session. But he could lose votes from some who have strong moral reservations.
It also may not help in a national race, especially since marijuana is a federally banned substance. There are ways to structure a law to put it at least in a gray area as far as defying federal law is concerned. And that is what Richardson says he wants.
Eleven other states have such legislation, including some of our neighbors, so Richardson wouldn't be alone. But he could be the only governor seeking national office to have signed medical marijuana legislation.
Actually, New Mexico was the first state to approve marijuana for medical situations. In 1978, Lynn Pierson, a conscientious, sincere young man, convinced the Legislature to allow therapeutic research into medical marijuana. The program continued until it ran out of funds in 1986. Pierson died shortly after its passage.
A good discussion of the pros and cons of medical marijuana can be found in the Legislative Finance Committee's financial impact report on Senate Bill 258, available at Click on "Bill Finder."
WED, 2-08-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)


Thursday, February 02, 2006

2-6 Legislature Passes Halfway Mark

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- This 30-day session of the New Mexico Legislature is past its halfway point and has buckled down to business. In less than a week, lawmakers will be frantically worrying that they don't have enough time left. And they won't.
Even in this session, which began with lawmakers complaining that their plates had been heaped too high by Gov. Bill Richardson, activity began slowly. No bills were introduced the first day, which meant the printing of bills couldn't start as early.
Lawmakers spent time in floor sessions being entertained and introducing guests. And the most important matters facing the session were not the first measures heard.
But that's not to say they aren't trying. Cockfighting, a perennial timewaster, was introduced on the second day of the session, but has not been considered by its first committee -- and likely won't be.
That hasn't kept chicken fighting from making the news however. Since it isn't germane to a budget session of the Legislature, it was introduced as a memorial naming it the official state disgrace.
The memorial's sponsor, Sen. John Grubesic of Santa Fe, explained that in addition to being cruel, cockfighting hurts tourism because people don't want to come to a backward state.
Of course, how many potential tourists would know about the practice -- unless it is named the official state disgrace, in which case it would be in every paper in the nation.
If New Mexico is to have an official state disgrace, it should be our national rankings. Or maybe we could change it yearly. This year it would be our former state treasurer, Michael Montoya, quoted as saying that bribery is the way we do business here.
Santa Fe has not had typical legislative weather for this session. Instead of a major snow storm on opening day, followed by two or three more, temperatures have been in the 50s, downright balmy for this time of year.
Otherwise, things are about the same. Gasoline prices are down for 30 days. Area wholesalers learned years ago that legislative investigations into price gouging can be unpleasant.
Parking within six blocks of the Capitol is as bad as ever, probably worse, with more staff, more state police and more New Mexicans coming to see democracy in action.
The Capitol Complex screams out for a multi-story parking garage. Plans have been discussed for decades, but still no one has stepped to the plate. Lawmakers are unlikely to do anything about it because they all have cozy spaces in the Capitol basement.
The biggest stir this session has been created by Sen. Grubesic, not over cockfighting, but for a guest column he wrote in the Santa Fe New Mexican about after-hours lobbying in Santa Fe.
After two, well-publicized run-ins with Santa Fe police this past year, the senator decided to lay off drinking. On a recent evening, he visited the bar of the Rio Chama Restaurant, next door to the Capitol and was thoroughly depressed at the activity he saw through sober eyes.
Grubesic leveled criticism at lobbyists and fellow lawmakers, but saved his biggest jabs for Gov. Richardson, a fellow Democrat, who was seated for about 30 minutes in a booth next to him.
The following day, Grubesic told a reporter that Republicans loved his comments about the governor, but otherwise he was sure he has leprosy because no one will talk to him.
Grubesic has been on bad terms with the governor ever since Richardson endorsed his incumbent opponent two years ago. The Santa Fe senator says he doesn't care if he upset the governor because Richardson is going to run a candidate against him next time anyway.
Since the next senatorial elections are in 2008, the governor is unlikely to be his biggest problem. We all know that Big Bill is much more interested in a campaign of his own that year.
MON, 2-06-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

2-3 President in Rio Rancho

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Today President George Bush will speak at Intel Corp., in Rio Rancho, to a certifiably adoring audience.
The main topic has been announced as his plan to make America more competitive in math and science.
The Albuquerque area seems to be chosen often when this president has something to promote. This time, New Mexico is a natural. Last week, U.S. Sens. Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman introduced legislation aimed at boosting math and science education.
Our senators say the president took almost everything they recommended and put it in his plan, which gives their legislation tremendous momentum. It also should give it a priority in the budget Bush sends to Congress next week.
President Bush's desire to make math and science a priority comes as a bit of a surprise since he gets pressured strongly from the religious right in fields such as evolution, stem cell research and geological history.
But technological and economic competitiveness in our rapidly changing world is becoming increasingly important, just as it was during the Cold War, when the National Defense Education Act of the late '50s sought to catch us up with the Soviet space program.
The effort was a tremendous success, but nearly all of it has long since expired. An NDEA for the 21st century may be the sort of thing the president has in mind.
Doubtlessly, President Bush also will dwell on national security and terrorism, the only subjects on which his approval ratings remain high. He will continue to refer to himself as a wartime commander in chief, with the power to authorize warrantless wiretapping and other dubious extensions of the Patriot Act.
He justifies these actions by comparing them to those of other presidents who were engaged in declared wars. None of the eight presidents between the end of World War II and the fall of the Iron Curtain maintained they had wartime powers even though we were in the midst of the Cold War.
Is the threat greater now? During the Cold War, our threat was from nuclear missiles. Bomb shelters were designated for everyone in every community. Some people dug their own. School children went through duck-and-cover drills.
And with the arrival of nuclear missiles in Cuba, our threat of annihilation became a distinct possibility.
Yet there were no claims that everything had changed, as we hear now in our post-9/11 world. The terrorists have done their job. We are terrorized and willing to sacrifice some rights to the government in return for assurances that we are more secure.
Certainly the sacrifice is small for most of us. Annoying inconveniences at airports are about it, unless we appear to be Middle Eastern.
Most Americans figure if they are law abiding citizens, they have no worry. Those of us in the news business tend to worry more than most because it usually is newspapers that are some of the first targets of any government crackdown.
I have mentioned before about a fairly recent trip to Germany that included stops in the heartland of the Nazis. Questions about how good people could stand by and let Hitler commit his atrocities were answered by stories of how innocently it started.
Germany was in bad shape following World War I. Instead of being rehabilitated, it was further punished by its neighbors. Hitler came along and instilled some national pride. He promised to crack down on those who were making life difficult for them.
The targets of those crackdowns were people on the margins, so the German majority allowed it to happen and felt safer because of it.
The situation won't get to that point here, but we have overstepped our bounds at times. Roosevelt's internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was one of them.
And now comes news that Halliburton has been awarded a Homeland Security contract to build detention facilities in the event of a national emergency.
FRI, 2-3-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)