By Mary Alice Murphy
In pre-meeting announcements before the Silver City-Grant County Chamber of Commerce monthly luncheon on Dec. 7, 2017, Silver City Mayor Ken Ladner said the Gospel Mission is in need of sleeping bags and wool blankets to provide to its clients. Open hours are 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Santa Claus, also known as chamber director Scott Terry, thanked Ladner for the LED lights lighting the downtown for him and his reindeer, as well as for visitors to the town.
New Mexico District 38 Representative Rebecca Dow said she combines her passions and her jobs at Apple Tree Educational Center in Truth or Consequences and as state representative.
"Based on the population, the number of non-profits in Silver City is amazing," Dow said. "They are doing wonderful things."
She said in many communities, 40 percent of the women are on anti-depressants.
The upcoming 30-day session focuses on the budget. "We can start pre-filing bills next week," she said. "New Mexico is slow in recovering from the recession. We see a surplus, but it is due to cuts in the last session."
New Mexico has a requirement for a balanced budget. "When I first heard the term revenue enhancement, I wasn't sure what they were talking about. It means new taxes. That's one approach to having more money in the coffers. I prefer removing barriers to doing business. I prefer to talk about incentives. The government can only give away what it takes from someone else."
"We need to get businesses growing, to get more state revenue from businesses, not taking more from residents," Dow continued. "We need to remove barriers. If businesses grow they pay taxes and generate more state revenue."
She said tax reform would be a big issue again. A lot of talk says loopholes need to be eliminated, but some don't. The state's tax code in a recent survey said that New Mexico's tax structure is one of the worst in the nation. "Some carve-outs we need, like incentives for physicians to work in rural areas. Tax reform will be back on the table. Ideas such as increasing the corporate tax have been mentioned. Others say the food tax should be re-instated."
"I understand why municipalities are in support of the food tax," Dow said. "When we removed the food tax, other costs went up. But those on SNAP or EBT are not taxed on anything they buy with their cards, but are taxed more on other items. If we reinstate the food tax, it is an opportunity to lower everyone's gross receipts tax. In general, over the long haul it's good. People will not pay more. Republicans don't want a higher tax on corporations, Democrats don't want a food tax. I don't know what will happen. Each would generate about $200 million."
She said the state has the LEDA and JTIP programs which help small businesses. "But we need to be a more business-friendly climate."
Dow spoke about education. "We need to improve our student outcomes and improve education with the funds we do have. Spending more on a per-child basis hasn't helped. More dollars don't equate to better student outcomes. Right now, the funds are unrestricted, so the districts can spend the dollars wherever. A study showed that in some districts, 48 percent of the dollars go to the central office administration. We want to make sure the dollars go to the students. We can't do the job of the school boards, but we need to make sure education benefits the students."
She said she was named to the Health and Human Resources Committee. "It's a heavy committee, we meet at least three times a week. Sometimes, we review 10 to 12 bills, but if it's a big one, we spend the whole meeting on it. Sometimes, we get the bills beforehand, but later in the session, we don't see them until we get in committee."
In last year's 60-day session, the Senate and the House each presented 1400 bills. "I answer two questions to start with," Dow said. "Is this bill constitutional? And will it help or hurt businesses?"
She handed out the copy of a bill, which she said had many supporters and many lobby groups in favor of it. "I'm also in the Labor and Economic Development Committee. This bill was one of the first I saw. It was referring to public works projects. Whoever is doing it has to pay prevailing wage. The employer has to keep track of what each employee is doing, because the prevailing wage for a truck driver is not the same if he gets out of the truck and digs a hole or puts in a wire, for instance. When an employee is doing three or four different jobs in a day, it's easy to make a mistake. Right now, if a mistake is made, the business can correct it. If you have a trend of making mistakes, you're considered a bad apple and could be removed from the system. This bill had many amendments to the current bill. It stipulated that if you make a mistake and then fix it, you have to pay the employee three times the mistake. Any person can request your wages, such as your for-profit competitor and can sue you. Right now, Workforce Connections reviews the error. In the amendments, they determine if you have errors, you cannot be in another public works job for three years. Why would I be against this bill? Say, you have a contractor in Silver City that wants to get a road job. But if you make an error, it will go to a contractor in Arizona, who will not have to pay the prevailing wage and will not pay as much GRT as a local contractor. This bill prevailed in Labor and Economic Development. There is such a thing as human error. You can try to amend or kill bills. Sometimes, bills have a title that sounds so good."
"It's all lots of fun," Dow said to laughter.
She said last year, the state tried to sweep $160 million in settlement funds from Silver City. "Because of Tony Trujillo and his group and Alex Brown (Silver City town manager), they were tuned in to what was going on. They got it put back in. That was fun, right?"
The Environment Department is trying to require that anyone who touches a utensil or food must have a food handler's license and there must always be someone supervising with a management certificate. "For instance, at the Gospel Mission, they are serving food, or a school teacher is helping a student open a milk carton, they must have a food handler's license. It's these rules and regulations that we attempt to try to bring common sense to, but it isn't always easy. We can change rules and regulations."
She thinks "it's great to point people to the Small Business Development Center or to Christine Logan of the Economic Development Department. I love to help people learn that they qualify for a tax exemption. I can connect other people to you and we can work together."
Dow is also a designee on the Legislative Finance Committee. "That means when someone is absent, I can attend in their place. I love that committee. It's great to have Rudy (Rep. Rodolpho Martinez) and Howie (Sen. Morales) there. We work well together and brainstorm a lot. We are on speed dial to one another."
"I'm an active business person, so it's difficult for me to leave my work, but I love representing you," Dow said. "The Association of Commerce and Industry started a program called Common Ground. Representatives from both parties can look at projects and create public-private partnerships to do things, such as thinning the forest, which creates higher watersheds and makes wildlife thrive. As a result, they are seeing growth in tourism in the areas where it has been done. It creates new jobs and protects the environment. They are getting unlikely allies together, such as the Sierra Club and timber companies."
She said, sometimes, the term public-private triggers fear, but with ACI, they developed a public-private partnership for Taos Ski Valley. A private entity funded broadband and created other infrastructure. They pre-invested in utilities. "The municipality took out a bond and is now paying the investment back. No one lost land or rights, and it will belong to the municipality."
"I believe a public-private partnership could benefit Fort Bayard," Dow said. "I've seen the business plan. It has lots of ideas that can work. It breaks my heart to see the condition of Fort Bayard. The state has had no money to invest in it. It's our history. Let the non-profits, public entities and private groups work together. For instance, maybe the one who develops the RV Park can also pave the road. We are not in a position in New Mexico to reject all public-private partnerships."
She noted that downtown Las Cruces is doing a restoration of an old administrative building and prison into a high-end resort. "There are all types of possible public-private partnerships. Common Ground has 14 representatives, with PNM and Freeport-McMoRan among the sponsors. It takes all of us to work together."
"I don't want to raise taxes," Dow said. "We need to support businesses and remove barriers. I would like to see parents have more school choice. Dual enrollment is in danger, even though it is shown to have great benefits for students. In tight times, efforts that say only the state can do any of these things doesn't make sense. Dual enrollment doesn't generate dollars for the universities, so there is little funding to support it. But it's critical. I think parents should have the choice of where to send their children.
"I thank you for your vote of confidence," Dow said. "I know it's been a long time since someone represented you from a different zip code. You took a chance on me, and I work hard for you. I am working hard to meet folks in Santa Fe, who don't leave when administrations change. I'm starting to get some seniority. I am honored to serve We have nothing but opportunity in this district to solve problems and remove barriers."
Board Chairman Bruce Ashburn asked Dow to talk about how unusual it was for a freshman to carry bills.
"I had no idea what the average freshman does, because I wasn't in politics," Dow said. "I actually had two bills passed."
In one, the bill restructured the Clean and Beautiful Program. "It had 27 governor-appointed members and hadn't had a quorum in years. My bill tried to make it more efficient. I wanted it down to seven members, but we compromised on 11 representatives of the tourism districts. It had six revisions. I couldn't believe anyone would oppose it."
The second bill required the availability of naloxone, an opioid drug antidote, to be available to law enforcement and to be given to a prisoner upon release from confinement. "It didn't need an appropriation because the state is getting $1 million in federal funding, which is starting to trickle down. As usual, it starts in the metropolitan areas, but the antidote is making its way to Grant County."
Colleen Morton, Silver City Arts and Cultural District executive director, asked about the cap on liquor licenses, which is one of the main barriers to increased tourism. "I think some downtown businesses would benefit from changes. I would like to hear your opinion."
"It makes no sense. It's crazy," Dow said. "So many things we have in this state are so antiquated. A person who holds a liquor license says: 'You can't take it away. It's my retirement. You have to hold me harmless.'
"If you buy a house, no one guarantees that the price will rise," Dow said. "If you buy a stock, you have no guarantees on the outcome. Why should you if you buy a liquor license? Say it's worth $600,000. The owners have a huge lobby. I went to Nashville, and there was liquor everywhere, as well as ATVs running around the streets. The malls even had little liquor stands."
She said the hardest barrier to changing the liquor laws is apathy. Those who have tried to make changes say it can't be done, so they don’t try again.
Dow also said that the speaker of the House gives bills to committees. "Sometimes, they give it to one committee so it will get through. Other times, the speaker gives it to four committees so it has no chance of getting through. It's a broken system. Why not split the $600,000 liquor license in two and be required to sell one at $300,000 or use it to expand the original business?"
Scott Terry, chamber director, said two restaurants have recently gotten licenses. "But we don't know how. We were told there were no more available."
Dow said: "They have removed the requirement for where they can be. I'm seeing that they can bring them to other places. I do agree it's an issue. I've heard so many people say it's the seventh time they have tried to bring a bill. I was passionate about rural buildings. It's the will of the people. You need seniority to get a bill through."
"We can't continue to say no to oil or gas; we can't say no to extraction; we can't continue to say no to no more liquor licenses," Dow said. "We can't say no to thinning the forests. We can't say no to everything."
The bill she brought for vacant rural buildings was turned down because it didn't have an appropriation. "Right now, if utilities are cut off, if someone wants to occupy the building, everything must be brought up to code. The current code is crazy."
"Couldn't CID look at historic buildings and say, if there is no life-safety issue, it could give waivers to those who want to occupy the vacant building?" Dow asked rhetorically. "It would work in Lordsburg and Silver City, in rural areas, for small businesses. I had so much opposition, you wouldn't believe. Who would oppose it if the building is structurally sound? It was the electrical, plumbing and mechanical unions, because they would lose jobs."
She said when she brought the bill, the owners of Little Toad called her and said they loved it. They said: "We could have built a metal building outside of town and fully outfitted it for less than revitalizing the old building for the brewery."
"Welcome to opening a brewery—$1 million in debt," Dow said. "The state gave them LEDA and JTIP funding. I would prefer to see empty buildings updated, but not at such a high cost."
She talked about the troubles that Little Lambs childcare center had when trying to find a new home. They finally closed because of the problems when they could not find a place with correct window heights, toilet and sink heights and such items. "And those are CYFD code regulations," Dow said. "We all need more child care, but waivers are not granted."
"I need to make friends with bureaucrats to help where I can because they are the ones doing the rules and regulations," Dow concluded.
An announcement was made about the Guadalupe Montessori Festival of Trees to raise funding for the school's summer program. The festival continues to take place Friday through Sunday, Dec. 15-17, at the former Curious Kumquat building. See http://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/41005-guadalupe-montessori-school-festival-of-trees-continues-this-weekend-and-next for more information.
Bea McKinney of the Silver City Museum Society announced the museum's annual Victorian Christmas to take place, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017 from 5-8 p.m. at the museum.
Don Luhrsen announced Wreaths Across America. Wreaths will arrive Thursday, Dec. 14 in the evening. Help is needed to unload them. The morning of Friday, Dec. 15, people are asked to help place the wreaths on the graves at Fort Bayard National Cemetery, and at 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 16, the annual ceremony will take place at the cemetery.
The next chamber luncheon is slated for Jan. 4, 2018, at the WNMU Sunset Room.