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(Managing Editor of Santa Fe Sun News' note: although this Senator is characteristically humble in describing himself as a "very junior Senator," we continually commend his deep insights and very large perceptions. Our Editors genuinely concur that Senator Gerald Ortiz y Pino is the most intelligent, the most intelligent, the most progressive, and probably the most valuable member of the New Mexico Legislature. We are honored to publish his views in Santa Fe Sun News as well as simultaneously on Op Ed News.)
You 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 for this journal of opinion I described what I think will have to be the next session's preoccupation: finding additional tax revenue to keep the Ship of State afloat.
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 Proposition 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 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 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? 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 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 watch this vastpotential get wasted…or get twisted into criminal careers.