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Columns

  • What are we measuring?

    The smart-alecky middle schooler was getting A’s in all subjects except history, where he was scoring F’s. The history teacher asked what the problem was.
    Brimming with snotty self-confidence, the kid coolly demanded a payoff. Very simple, he said. He knew the teacher’s evaluation depended on his grades. This school had a performance-based pay system, so his test results would affect his teachers’ future pay. The kid was extorting money from all his other teachers to score A’s on tests, so they could get their pay increases.
    This was not a New Mexico school district. It was an episode of an undistinguished TV sitcom called “Til Death.” New Mexico does not currently have a performance-based pay system because there is widespread disagreement between the Martinez administration and — so far — a majority of legislators on how to assess performance, or even whether it should be done. But, oh boy, did that story hit home!
    The show is not produced here. Apparently, New Mexico is not unique in being deeply confused about how to pay teachers.

  • Lessons learned from fracking conversation

    Re: Los Alamos Monitor Sunday Jan. 5, 2014: Defusing the explosive conversation on fracking.

  • Reimagining, transforming N.M.’s economic future

    In a recent op-ed, Paul Gessing — president of the libertarian-leaning Rio Grande Foundation — pointed out that our state desperately needs new economic leadership.
    Looking at the facts, it’s impossible to disagree: unlike the rest of the country, New Mexico continues to lose thousands of jobs every year, a sign that our private sector is struggling and a reminder that continuing budget cuts pose a substantial threat to public sector employees.
    But new economic leadership simply isn’t enough. We also need the right kind of leaders with the experience and creativity necessary to fundamentally re-imagine New Mexico’s economic future.
    Here are three examples of how we can transform our state’s economy while respecting those essential qualities that define who we are.
    First, we need to recognize that New Mexico’s economic future is hiding in plain sight. Our state is home to thousands of entrepreneurs with new, innovative ideas. These are our state’s real job creators — if we support them. Instead, state government has largely ignored them. We’re wasting hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts trying to lure big-box stores to New Mexico. That’s a failed and false strategy.

  • Retirement plan limits largely unchanged in 2014

    Anyone who’s bought groceries, filled their gas tank, or paid insurance premiums recently would probably be surprised to learn that, according to Department of Labor’s Consumer Price Index for Urban Consumers (CPI-U), the rate of inflation is relatively flat — only 1.2 percent from September 2012 to September 2013.
    That’s bad news for people who were hoping to boost their contributions to an IRA, 401(k) plan, or other tax-advantaged retirement savings accounts, since the IRS uses the CPI-U’s September year-over-year performance to determine whether or not to make cost-of-living adjustments to many of the retirement contributions you and your employer can make in the following year.
    Here are highlights of what will and won’t change in 2014:
    Defined contribution plans. The maximum allowable annual contribution you can make to a workplace 401(k), 403(b), 457(b), or federal Thrift Savings plan remains unchanged at $17,500. Keep in mind these additional factors:
    People over 50 can also make an additional $5,500 in catch-up contributions (unchanged from 2013).
    • The annual limit for combined employee and employer contributions increased by $1,000 to $52,000.

  • A rose by any other name

    People often claim that humans are unique in that they are the only animal that cries. This is, of course, untrue. Elephants and chimpanzees cry.
    Similar claims have been made citing humans as the only animals that laugh.
    However, scientists have shown that many animals laugh, including dogs, gorillas, owls, meercats, penguins, camels and even rats.
    I don’t exactly know what type of rat jokes will tickle a rodent’s fancy, but it must be pretty cheesy.
    Humans can talk to each other. Well, so can porpoises, dogs, birds, chipmunks, even insects.
    Humans use tools. Again, not as unique as many might think. Elephants, dolphins, sea otters, crows and even octopuses use tools.
    Ah, but humans do seem to be the only creature on Earth that assigns names to everything. It’s not done to emphasize meaning or to effect better communications, but rather to control things (or each other).
    So what’s in a name? How much merit do humans put on the names we give things?
    Well, a rose by any other name would still be a rose, but would you try to show your love for your girlfriend by buying her a dozen fungalscabs? Or a bouquet of grizzledrops?  There’s a good reason we gave flowers names like violets, jasmine and marigolds.

  • Indigent healthcare will be a hot topic in legislative session

    One of the hot topics before the Legislature in the next session will be the New Mexico Sole Community Provider program. We’re not talking about a recreational drug or a brand of motor oil.
    The SCP is how we cover healthcare for uninsured, underinsured and poor patients. Since 1994 SCP has helped 29 of the state’s hospitals by matching federal funding with county funding at about $4 federal for every $1 provided by counties. As budgets have withered, especially for smaller, rural hospitals, the program has been a lifesaver.
    After the federal center for Medicare and Medicaid services questioned the formula used by the state Human Services Department to disburse SCP funding, HSD revised its formula. Suddenly, the federal match plummeted from $246 million to $69 million.
    How many organizations of any kind can sustain a 70 percent cut in one revenue stream? It prompted some pretty drastic budget cuts all over the state. Gila Regional Medical Center in Silver City, for example, cut the hours of 70 employees in half.

  • Time to make jobs a top priority

    A recent economic evaluation of the states, conducted by Bloomberg, found that New Mexico’s economic health has declined from being in the top 10 from 1995-2007 to dead last, today.
    This summer, the Jobs Council, comprised of legislators and representatives from the private and public sector, was formed to come up with a strategy to get New Mexico back on track. As a legislator, whose district has been directly affected by the decline in revenue and jobs, it has been a unique and rewarding opportunity to participate as a member of the Jobs Council.
    Through innovation, investment and proactive policy making, the Jobs Council offers all New Mexicans an opportunity to rethink how we approach economic development. During our initial meetings, a plan was developed to address needs at the local, regional and state level to promote job creation.
    It was determined, with the help of economists and researchers, that we could return our economic health to the same levels of 2007 if we were able to create 16,000 “economic base jobs” a year over the next decade. A task that experts say is plausible by making a continued investment in job creation our top priority in the legislature.

  • Education reform not about kids

    These feel-good phrases sound great to the general public: “We need to raise education standards in New Mexico.” “Our kids deserve better.” “Kids First.”
    No one in our state, which has ranked persistently in the bottom of the nation in child poverty and graduation rates, would argue. But dig deep into the world where concerned parents, students and teachers are operating, and Gov. Susana Martinez’s reforms are not about kids. Her reforms — spearheaded by Hanna Skandera, a non-teacher and a non-parent — are really about corporate money and re-election campaign slogans.
    The PED won’t acknowledge the huge elephant in the room: Not every child has a supportive adult at home. Many of our state’s children live in poverty and endure abuse and neglect. In Albuquerque Public Schools alone, 6,000 of 87,000 students are homeless and 64 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Despite these challenges, APS has increased its graduation rate from 63.2 percent in 2008 to 70.1 percent in 2012.

  • For charities, New Mexico offers growth market

    New Mexico is a charity case led by the clueless. For Wall Street Journal reporter Nathan Koppel, checking into our “anemic recovery” as compared with our neighbors, state Economic Development Secretary Jon Barela and Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry did the standard litany of prone New Mexico mainlining federal dollars.
    “Our reliance on the federal government has put a wet blanket on the economy and tempered growth,” is how Koppel quoted Barela in the Dec. 28 article.
    A businessman’s reaction to the article is, “Incredible — we need to take whatever jobs we can to get out of this mess.”
    Rest assured, I’m as much against the social meddling nanny-state that seeks to transfer control of our lives to Santa Fe and/or Washington, D.C. I am equally in favor of our world-class government science sector and suggest that seeking opportunity in this research might be a plan.
    Further argument for our charity case qualifications come from the census. Our population growth has dropped each year since 2010 to almost nothing in the year ending July 1, 2013. We added 1,747 from 2012, a 0.084 percent increase. A safe bet is that the increase was entirely due to new babies. Another detail is that a few hundred people over 55 departed each year between 2009 and 2012.

  • Messing up?

     “I messed up,” a local newscaster reported an Albuquerque woman to have said while being taken into police custody for allegedly brutalizing her 9-year-old son to the point of causing his death.
    It was the evening of Dec. 29 and we were watching the local news, waiting for the weathercast to come on before polishing off the last pieces of Christmas pecan pie warming in the oven.
    “She messed up!?” I blurted out incredulously to no one in particular.
    This is a woman who allegedly has admitted to kicking her son before he died, a child on whose body were subsequently found to be bruises on his back and above his genitals, cigarette burns on his lip, chest and back, bite marks and other unspecified lacerations.
    And she “messed up?”
    This little boy died a horrific death; the handiwork reportedly of a mother whose cruelties transcend anything that might even remotely be considered “messed up.”
    For this reporter, this hideous event has become the aberrant coda of 2013, a year of aberrant behavior low and high, a year during which representatives of a once-Grand Old Party willfully shut down their nation’s government and repeatedly tried to abort a federal law calculated to bring affordable health insurance into the reach of those otherwise unable to afford it.