A win for New Mexico’s vulnerable population

New Mexico lawmakers made consequential changes for the state’s most vulnerable people during the short 30-day legislative session this year, made possible by a tidal wave of cash. Top of the list of consequential bills is the big boost in teacher pay. Lawmakers bumped salary minimums for Level 1, 2, and 3 teachers to $50,000, $60,000, and $70,000, respectively, a major goal of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislators who publicly declared their intention to make New Mexico’s teachers the best paid in the region. Compared to states like Texas, Utah, Arizona, Oklahoma and Colorado, they’re about middling right now. 

The hope is the increases will sweeten the allure of teaching. Vacancies among the state’s teaching ranks are high and growing.

New Mexico In Depth renews partnership with ProPublica

ProPublica has selected New Mexico In Depth as part of its Local Reporting Network for the second time in as many years, a huge distinction. 

You might remember New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica teamed up in 2020 and 2021 to work with reporter Bryant Furlow as COVID marched across the globe.The year-and-a-half partnership proved extremely impactul, with Bryant’s stories:• Forcing one of New Mexico’s largest hospitals to stop automatically testing and segregating Native American pregnant women after we exposed the practice, which was based on whether women lived in Native communities. We discovered the hospital’s practice through rigorous and lengthy relationship building with clinicians within the hospital. 

• Documenting that New Mexico provides almost no oversight of the care provided by neonatal intensive care units even though the tiniest, most premature babies died at up to twice the rate at one of the state’s largest hospitals compared to the rate at another major maternity and newborn facility only a few miles away in Albuquerque; and despite 31 states having laws or rules requiring oversight of neonatal intensive care hospitals.• Showing how the nursing home industry fought to water down safety requirements in the years before COVID stormed across the globe, leaving them and the clients facilities cared for vulnerable to the devastating virus. 

Bryant is known for reporting that leads to change. 

His reporting has exposed off-label sedation of jail inmates with prescription drug cocktails, embezzlements, and lax oversight by the state’s insurance regulators — reporting that prompted new state legislation on insurance rate-setting transparency. 

With New Mexico In Depth over the years, he was the first reporter to challenge the state’s decision to cut off Medicaid funding to behavioral health providers through rigorous, thorough reporting. 

He’s authored hundreds of health care and medical research news stories for medical journals, including The Lancet journals’ news desks, where his recent reporting has spotlighted neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome, vaping injuries, the seizure by the US Border Patrol of children’s medications and volunteer health care efforts at migrant shelters along the U.S./Mexico border. Since 2008, New York-based ProPublica has become known for rigorous and thoughtful journalism, winning six Pulitzers, five Peabody Awards, nine George Polk Awards, two DuPont Columbia Awards and four Emmy Awards.  

Our partnership with ProPublica, which begins in January, is part of New Mexico In Depth’s core mission: to collaborate with national and local news organizations to bring resources, new skills, and more journalism to New Mexico communities, where investigative reporting is in short supply. 

We look forward to continuing to strengthen our capacity for investigative reporting in years to come. 

Trying to understand fear of critical race theory and diversity programs

I’ve been watching school board races across the country — in places like Southlake, Texas and Guilford, Conn. — because of the debate over  “critical race theory” and growing opposition to diversity and equity programs.

These are mostly white, affluent communities near big cities. Imagine my surprise this week to discover the debate is happening in my town, too. Patrick Brenner, a vice president of development for the Rio Grande Foundation, a prominent conservative think tank in New Mexico, is running for the school board in Rio Rancho, New Mexico’s third-largest city composed mostly of Anglos and Hispanics. According to Brenner’s personal blog, he believes the district’s teachers are being trained in critical race theory, which will result in “All white people” feeling guilty “for being white,” including his 8-year-old daughter.

Housing shortage hampers community re-entry for prisoners

Statewide, there’s a shortage of available housing for offenders exiting prison.State lawmakers got the bad news Wednesday during a hearing of the Courts, Corrections and Justice legislative committee. There are many challenges to placing prisoners in communities, according to New Mexico corrections officials and a program manager for an Albuquerque transitional living center.Like many corrections systems, New Mexico has long struggled to keep offenders from bouncing back into incarceration, a cycle known as recidivism.In late 2019, the rate of offenders returning to behind bars — measured in the three years after a person gets out — stood at 57% “from a high of 60%”, but well above the department’s target of a 45% rate, the New Mexico Legislature’s budget arm noted in a recent report.The lack of housing increases the turnstile of recidivism. Having a stable place to live helps the chances of successful reentry for a formerly incarcerated person. Said another way, it lowers the likelihood a person will return to prison. I’ve learned over the years reading government reports and scholarly studies that housing, like education, has positive effects on a person’s life as they return to society. Don’t take my word for it.”Having a stable home is a fundamental part of reentering society, providing a place from which to orient oneself while beginning to search for employment, reestablish social networks, and get treatment.” That’s an excerpt from a December 2019 report by the Criminal Justice Policy Group of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.It might seem a bit esoteric, worrying about how many former prisoners go back to prison, but it affects all of us.  The person trying to escape the cycle and their families.

Remembering 9/11 and the world it ushered in

On the morning of September 11, 2001, my wife and I and our two-year-old son were in the middle of our morning routine in a two-bedroom apartment in Connecticut 80 miles from New York City. 

We’d just returned from vacation in Pennsylvania — Lancaster County and Philadelphia — and as I readied for work I turned on the TV just in time to watch the first tower fall. After that everything is a blur, although I remember yelling to my wife in the back yard out the open window that one of the towers had tumbled in an explosion of dust and debris, a minute or so before an editor called to say I was needed in the newsroom immediately. For the next three months at my newspaper, daily life was a powerful mix of chaos and sadness as we  compiled during overly long days a running list of local people unaccounted for in Manhattan or counted as dead and attempted to tell their stories. In the middle of that grimness an elderly woman 10 miles from our apartment died of anthrax, one of five Americans to succumb to a weaponized version of a naturally occurring biological pathogen. Her death put everyone on greater edge than before, including me. 

Two decades on, I’ve made peace with the fact that 9/11 and the weeks and months afterward will stay with me the rest of my life. But as traumatic as those times were and as powerfully evocative as my memories of them are for me, time has widened my perspective on 9/11 and the world it helped create.If we are honest with ourselves, Americans should reflect on both the complicated story of 9/11 and  what unfolded as a result of it over the next 20 years.

New Mexico Early Childhood Trust Fund flush with new revenue

New Mexicans who care about child well being and the state’s newest agency — the Early Childhood Development and Care Department — woke up to good news Friday morning.As you might remember, the agency launched a year ago with a trust fund valued at more than $300 million to help pay its way. Expectations were for the fund to grow to $1 billion over 10 years, if lucky. (The agency won’t directly tap into the fund to pay for expenses. Instead, the interest earned by the trust fund will help to finance the department’s spending.) So much for the low-ball projection. Word came Friday morning that the Early Childhood Trust Fund, as it’s known, is about to double, to nearly $650 million, thanks to booming tax collections and a strong recovery in the oil and gas markets following the COVID-provoked collapse of 2020. Nearly $335 million in excess cash — basically, surplus dollars from what the state took in over what it spent during the state fiscal year that ended June 30th — will flow to the trust fund.

Herrell must stop the anti-vaccine rhetoric; it’s not the time for politics

Republican 2nd District Congresswoman Yvette Herrell made news earlier this week for signing on to co-sponsor legislation that would withhold federal dollars from schools and universities that mandate COVID vaccinations before students, teachers, staff faculty can attend.  

Don’t fret. The bill will not become law. Filed by Republican Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, it has attracted 10 co-sponsors, all GOP lawmakers in a U.S. House controlled by Democrats. It’s “message” legislation that positions Herrell in the escalating cultural war over COVID. 

But it’s a dangerous time to play politics. The more contagious Delta variant is sweeping the nation as schools and colleges and universities are preparing to return for the fall term.

Democrat Manny Gonzales wants to be mayor. Republicans run his campaign.

Eight years ago, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, a Republican, cruised to re-election with almost 70% of the vote. Yet this year, with just three weeks left for a candidate to produce the 3,000 petition signatures necessary to get on the ballot, it seems likely there won’t be a registered Republican running for the job for the first time since 1974, when the city established its current system of government. But that doesn’t mean prominent Republicans don’t have a candidate to promote. Jay McCleskey—a formidable GOP strategist—is working for Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales, a Democrat aiming to unseat Mayor Tim Keller. 

McCleskey shepherded both campaigns of former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and served as her chief strategist. He won the Albuquerque mayoral seat for Berry, twice.

Redistricting: Advocates want prisoners counted where they’re from, not incarcerated

Every ten years, the U.S. Census Bureau counts the population to determine how places have grown or shrunk, how people have moved, and how the composition of communities have changed.  

The consequences are large. New political districts from the local to the national level are formed based on the census figures. Some states pick up new congressional districts. Some communities gain or lose representation in their statehouses. The head count also determines how much money a community might receive from a range of government programs. 

Some say one practice of the census — counting prisoners as residents of the places they are incarcerated — results in an unfair transfer of political power away from those prisoners’ home communities.