Rep. Christine Chandler speaks to Los Alamos County Council Mar. 3. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Rep. Christine Chandler expressed her concern to Los Alamos County Council members Tuesday about the proposed Department of Energy budget for Los Alamos National Laboratory, particularly the cut to the Environmental Management legacy waste cleanup budget for Los Alamos which has been cut by $100 million to $120 million. Chandler was on the Council agenda to report on the 30-day legislative session.
“It’s causing the Secretary of the Environment (James Kinney) a great deal of concern and I think long-term it’s obviously not in the interest of this community or the Lab to have such a dramatic cut when we really need to be moving waste off this site,” Chandler said. “I am encouraging the Secretary to use all resources available to him to ensure that our waste reduction plans are not impeded by activities on the federal level.”
She said it concerns her greatly that DOE seems to be moving really in the wrong direction, not recognizing that it could have a huge impact on mission.
“It’s like they’ve compartmentalized this idea that EM is over here and mission is over here, and in fact, without the EM movement, the renewed mission of the Lab could be seriously impeded. I know you all are going to Washington, DC and I plan to try to make some comments too because I’m very concerned about that. I just want to encourage you to continue,” Chandler said.
Council Chair Sara Scott said the cleanup is one of the County’s high-level federal legislative priorities.
“Restoring that funding and keeping it stable, because again, going up and down with the funding makes it really hard for folks to plan and have confidence that this is going to get done, so that’s a discussion we’ll have with our federal legislators, their staff, NNSA and DOE in a couple of weeks when we head out to Washington, DC. We’ll spread the message that this is across the board a concern,” Scott said.
Chandler said she is also concerned that other states seem to have priority at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in Carlsbad for their waste.
“I really find that to be an unacceptable position for this state to be in. Idaho has priority because of some settlement they have no doubt as a result of litigation. They’re talking about bumping South Carolina shipments up over ours and I really feel that this is the time for the community and the state to take a stand in terms of cleanup and shipments to WIPP because the few that we get are not satisfactory in terms of alleviating the burden on (Plutonium Facility 4) etc.,” Chandler said.
Council Vice Chair Pete Sheehey commented that it’s an outrage that the President’s Budget would cut the funding in half.
“We’ll all be pushing very hard on that,” he said.
Earlier in her presentation Chandler said she is very proud of this year’s legislative session, noting that 727 bills had been introduced and 88 had passed both houses.
“The budget this year was set at about $7.6 billion. That’s a 7.6 percent increase over last year’s expenditures. There was a 4 percent raise for all state employees including teachers. Public education received a 6.7 percent increase. The Early Childhood Education and Care Department received a $40 million increase,” she said. “Higher education received a 4.4 percent increase. I am very happy about that. Last year, it got it a 1.2 percent increase and I feel like we now need to start turning our attention to higher education in the state. For the last two years there has been a tremendous effort and focus on pre-K and K-12 and now I think the time has come for us to start working on higher education as well. We are starting to see signs of that.”
Chandler said the state is maintaining a 25 percent reserve level and that she believes that the budget is responsible with very high reserves. She said the legislature is hedging against the oil and gas industry which she said is important.
“I know many of you are concerned about what’s going on with the census. We bumped the budget up significantly this year. We’ve allocated $8 million for census activities. I think that’s a great win for the state as well,” she said.
Chandler noted that this year the legislature approached early childhood a little differently than in past years and established a trust fund. This year, $120 million was appropriated to the trust fund and that beefing it up over the years is anticipated so that it can grow, she said.
“One thing I was really impressed with from the governor’s office this year was the attention she paid to healthcare. There’s a study ongoing on the Health Security Act but in the interim we were seeing bills that the administration was proposing, some of which prevailed and made it through both houses, that were designed to make changes in the event that the Affordable Care Act plunges into oblivion,” she said. “We’re hedging so that our citizens of this state will have health care for those that cannot afford health care. There are ways to do it.”
Chandler spoke about the law passed that keeps the co-pay for insulin at $25.
“That’s a tremendous change. We were hearing stories about multiple hundreds of dollars copays on insulin. With insulin, I think the patent probably died on that ages ago but they’re still charging very high co-pays for it,” she said.
Chandler noted that the legislature shored up and improved the Health Insurance Exchange and tried to give it more authority so that moving forward it will have more planning authority and more authority over plans.
“We passed a law that will allow the state to negotiate with Canada so that we can import cheaper drugs. I thought that was really an innovation in and of itself. On the medical cannabis front, we limited it to New Mexico residents. There was legislation last year about that. The reason was apparently the federal government will not challenge a medical cannabis program if you can establish that it was contained within the state. The concern was if we allow out-of-state residents to come in that could undermine our whole medical cannabis program. I think it was an important change,” she said.
Chandler said the Public Employees Retirees Association legislation was a big deal this year and that she felt that helping to shore up PERA was one of the main objectives for the session besides establishing a responsible budget.
“It was touch and go for a while. There was pressure on some legislators by retirees who were concerned about the temporary freezing of the cost of living adjustment. That was a hard vote for some folks who have large constituencies of retirees. The Albuquerque representatives in particular seemed to have more heartburn with that than others but we were able to overcome that hurdle so PERA should be in track now for a while,” she said.
Chandler noted that amendments were made to the Public Employees Assistance Bargaining Act and the Public Projects Prevailing Wage Law that she carried, which were two priority bills for labor.
The Extreme Risk Firearm Protection Order Act passed, Chandler reminded.
“Again there was a lot of consternation over it but nonetheless it did pass and I feel comfortable that it protects people’s constitutional rights process but also provides some security when we have a sense that a person is a risk to himself or others,” she said. “There was also a small crime package that enhanced some penalties for certain crimes involving firearms.”
Chandler also discussed a bill which will make it easier for spouses in military families to get licensure in New Mexico by not requiring them to wait for six months for their professional licenses and another bill that allows school boards to issue high school diplomas to Vietnam veterans who were not able to complete their diplomas when they were drafted.
Other bills Chandler mentioned were a bill that allows for up to $6,000 income tax credit for installation of solar thermal or solar photovoltaic systems, a bill creating a pet spay and neuter fund by imposing a small fee on each brand of pet food, and the Kiki Saavedra Senior Dignity Fund that was created to support senior citizen programs.
Bills sponsored by Chandler that passed included the New Mexico Work & Save Act which creates a platform for a retirement savings program that private employers can opt into, and the Post-Secondary Institution Disclosures bill that requires private post-secondary schools to provide consumer protection type information to students before they enroll.
“The Prevailing Wage Bill that I carried last year and got it through the house, we were able to get it through the Senate and the House floor. And I worked with a couple of other legislators on clarifying when state litigation settlements should be made public. There were loopholes in that bill that allowed frankly the state to withhold settlements almost indefinitely,” Chandler said.
In terms of capital outlay, she noted that legislators we were allotted $1.8 million this year which is less than last year.
“ I assigned for Los Alamos, $200,000 for the Los Alamos County Recreational Space, $250,000 to a security system upgrade for UNM-LA, and $20,000 to the New Mexico RTD radio infrastructure improvement. This was just my capital outlay. I know that other legislators are contributing to some of these projects,” she said.
For the next legislative session, Chandler said she wants to work on the Paid Family and Medical Leave Act which she said will have huge ramifications for families and people who are having children. She said her plan for the summer is to talk stakeholders on that bill including the business community in terms of how it can work for everyone including small businesses.
“I plan on re-filing that bill until I get it passed which could be a while but it’s going to happen eventually. The trend is in that direction and I think it’s very important to foster communities and families,” she said.
Chandler noted that she was pleased to work with Chair Scott on the obstetrician problem at Los Alamos Medical Center which she said is frustrating.
“I often feel we are beating our head against a brick wall but I hope we’re going to continue to press on that and continue to work on it,” Chandler said.