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On apples and activism

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By Sherry Robinson

Sorting out complex issues is something I like to do in these columns, but the space in a typical opinion column doesn’t always permit that. Today, we return to a couple of subjects of past columns – apples and activism.    
State Land Commissioner Ray Powell doesn’t think he got his turn at bat in my discussion of the Dixon Apple Orchard and its unhappy tenants, the Mullane family. If you’ve been reading, you know that the Mullanes and Powell are at odds over the lessees’ desire to sell their lease to San Felipe Pueblo for $2.8 million, which would stake them to a new start in Wisconsin. Wildfire and floods sapped Jim and Becky Mullane’s desire to stay; Powell is obliged to protect the land and get taxpayers the best deal.
It’s been a very public fight.
“We’ve done everything we can think of to keep the Mullanes on the land,” Powell says. “We got people out there and spent money trying to prevent flooding. We tried to be as humane as possible.”
Powell denies wanting to make political hay and insists the problem began in 2005 with his predecessor’s land deal, which gave the state ownership of improvements except for trees. It’s the only arrangement like it on state lands.
 If the Mullanes give up the lease, a new lessee would pay them only for the trees and the name – not their outbuildings, their fencing or other assets.
The Land Office has tried to reach the Mullanes, but they haven’t responded. Meanwhile, the agency is watering their trees and had arborists from NMSU look at the orchard. A few parties have inquired about the orchard, and apparently nearby pueblos are interested in the remaining 8,500 acres.
“Other orchards have told me they couldn’t compete with Dixon. The Mullanes had no mortgage, they didn’t pay for water, there was no property tax,” Powell says.
Another condition of the 2005 deal was that lessees have 20 years’ experience – a condition that originated with the Mullanes, Powell says, and has limited the pool of applicants. San Felipe doesn’t have the experience and has said it’s not interested in running an apple orchard.
In ethics courses, you learn the goal is doing what’s right; in complex cases, it’s doing the best thing for the most people. You also learn that everybody has to negotiate in good faith, and it helps greatly, although it’s not always possible, for the parties to shed emotion.
It’s probably healthy for the Mullanes and Powell to take a breather. But they will still have to sit down and negotiate. Says Powell, “It’s been the perfect storm for everyone.”
On another subject, Stephanie Maez-Gibson and Tomas Garduño wrote in an op-ed that I “mischaracterized the civic engagement work” of their nonprofit organizations, the Center for Civic Policy and the Southwest Organizing Project. In particular, I questioned fliers assailing certain lawmakers for votes against SB 9, a pet progressive bill that would require companies with multiple entities and locations to file as if they were one.
These and other nonprofits are given, at times, to oversimplification of complex issues. The left beat the drum for SB 9, claiming that it helped small business and (my least favorite cliché) “leveled the playing field.”
It didn’t really do that, as the nonpartisan New Mexico Tax Research Institute explained in its March newsletter (see nmtri.org). New Mexico’s corporate tax rate is higher than surrounding states; some on the right have suggested getting rid of it, but we can’t afford to. SB 9, which was vetoed, amounted to changing the wiper blades when the engine is knocking. On the subject of taxes, both right and left make unfounded claims. Arm yourself with some skepticism.
Sherry Robinson
New Mexico
News Service