Editorial: Tax cut and DOJ plans have merit; but gutting mayor’s powers do not - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Tax cut and DOJ plans have merit; but gutting mayor’s powers do not

Like his ideas or not, Dan Lewis has returned to the Albuquerque City Council and he’s loaded for bear.

Councilor Lewis, who was recently chosen the council’s vice president after four years out of office, unveiled proposed legislation last week that would dramatically diminish the mayor’s powers during a public health emergency, lower the city’s gross receipts tax, prohibit the mayor from mandating vaccines for city employees and push to renegotiate the Court Approved Settlement Agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Lewis’ proposals are a mixed bag. Cutting taxes and reopening the DOJ agreement are good ideas. But gutting the mayor’s abilities to protect the public are not.

•  Lewis’ proposal, Ordinance-22-2, would strike existing mayoral authority to order the closure of streets, day cares and places of “mass assembly” like theaters and sports venues; to require retailers to set limits on how many “medical, health and sanitation” products they sell to one person per day; to order private employers to take precautions such as implementing full or partial closures; to cancel city-sponsored events; and to reallocate up to $1 million of city resources to combat the proclaimed emergency.

The city’s current Civil Emergency Powers ordinance gives the mayor the authority to issue proclamations in consultation with the City Office of Emergency Management and to assume “extraordinary powers.” Lewis’ proposal would limit the mayor’s powers to issuing “advisories or recommendations,” not public health orders.

The current law makes sense — a mayor needs to have the power to act quickly in times of emergency. And the current law correctly allows the council to step in and extend, terminate or amend the public health order, already limiting the mayor’s authority.

That is unlike the state’s emergency powers law, in which Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s public health orders can be extended by the governor’s administration every 30 days and require no legislative approval or oversight.

• Lewis also proposes to eliminate a tax hike Keller and the City Council implemented shortly after Keller took office in 2018. The 3/8 of 1% gross receipts tax increase implemented on July 1, 2018, was intended to boost spending on police and other public safety measures. The enabling legislation requires 60% of proceeds go to public safety, but that provision expired two years ago, although the Mayor’s Office says the tax still supports public safety programs.

Lewis is correct that repealing the tax hike would put money “back into the pockets of hard-working Albuquerque citizens.” The city’s current budget is $1.2 billion, which is $105 million, or 9.5%, over the previous fiscal year. Meanwhile, the city has received hundreds of millions of dollars of federal relief funds and inflation grows.

• In addition to the two proposed ordinances, Lewis has introduced a resolution that would direct the city to push to renegotiate the terms of its Court Approved Settlement Agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. CASA was desperately needed given the high incidence of excessive use of force by Albuquerque police over the years, and there is still work to be done. But renegotiating CASA is overdue, especially in light of U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s guidance that agreements cap monitor fees and go through a termination hearing after five years. An independent monitor has overseen the Albuquerque Police Department since 2015.

• Lewis has also introduced a resolution that would stop the city from mandating COVID-19 vaccines for city employees. The Journal Editorial Board supports Keller’s current policy mandating vaccinations or requiring employees to regularly provide proof of negative tests — as daily case counts hit record highs and hospitals implement crisis standards of care.

We endorsed Lewis last fall in part because of his commitment to ask hard questions and to provide a robust check and balance to the mayoral administration. He has done that, but two of his first shots are off the mark.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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