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Searching for common ground in rocky New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I think New Mexico got more news than precipitation in 2013. But some of the stories left me thirsty for answers, looking for common ground, wanting a better sense of our direction.

The real head-spinners were the ones involving efforts to improve the state’s lagging scores in student performance and household income – topics that have been in the forefront of public discussion in New Mexico as long I’ve been around.

Good snowfall blessed the mountains early and ski areas got off to their best starts in years. But despite improved conditions in some parts of the state, drought persisted.

The news, meanwhile, came down like cats and dogs – and usually with as little consensus.


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There was at least one resolution of a long-running question, and it was a big one.

The New Mexico Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, found same-sex marriage protected under the law and New Mexico became the 17th state to declare it legal.

Some other big stories seemed likely to carry over into the coming year.

Albuquerque voters rejected a proposed ordinance for the state’s largest city to ban certain abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. While it was a defeat in a big city for a nationally backed effort, supporters of the ban vowed to take their effort on to a smaller community and the state Legislature.

Up in Santa Fe, where ruling Democrats have been in standoff with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez for most of her first term, the annual legislative session ended on a positive note.

Some called it the “Breaking Bad Bill” for the celebrated TV series that was enlarging Albuquerque’s star on the map. But more than just helping TV and film companies, the legislation helped relieve corporate tax burdens.

Martinez, who contends that being more “business-friendly” is a key to economic growth, called it a “jobs bill.” And just about everyone called the big tax package a significant bipartisan accomplishment.

But the happy talk didn’t last for long.


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Looking for a way around three years of legislative denial on their major education reform efforts, Martinez’s education chief, Hanna Skandera, used what she contends is her administrative authority to launch a teacher evaluation system statewide.

Teachers, who think their classroom problems are largely overlooked by Martinez and Skandera, took to the street in protest of evaluations, curriculum mandates and student testing requirements. Many administrators also objected to the administration’s testing and evaluation plans. A teachers union sued to block the evaluations, lost the first go-round and filed an appeal earlier this month.

The Legislature, reflecting teacher union disdain for Martinez’s efforts to improve student achievement through school and teacher accountability, as well as for Skandera’s limited classroom experience, continued to withhold a vote on Skandera’s confirmation as education secretary.

Then, at the end of the year, came the “nation’s report card” on student progress.

As the case has been for decades, usually with Democrats at the helm in Roundhouse, New Mexico students remained at or near the bottom in math and reading scores among the states.

Just about everyone seemed to agree that poverty is at the core of New Mexico’s enduring problems, but there was no consensus on how to reckon with it. Meanwhile, attention was drawn to the state’s economic underpinnings.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported this month that New Mexico oil and gas production make it the third-largest net energy supplier to the nation. The agency also said there is substantial potential in the state for development of solar, wind and geothermal energy.

Back in Washington, federal budget tightening and criticism of nuclear weapons programs continued to threaten New Mexico’s national laboratories and military installations, both major employers and revenue sources.

In what might have been a surprise to some of her critics, Martinez accepted federal government underwriting for a major expansion of Medicaid in New Mexico – separating her from many other GOP governors – and adding another 170,000 people to the rolls by 2020.

But her critics lined up again when the administration cracked down on nonprofit mental health care providers and froze their Medicaid funding. Attorney General Gary King was still investigating possible Medicaid fraud at year’s end. The Legislative Finance Committee said it wasn’t clear to what extent services to the mentally ill and addicted were interrupted.

With drought still tormenting mountains and range, wildlife feeding and free-roaming horses were other 2013 controversies headed for more debate in the coming year.

Bears came to town all over the state and legal battles erupted over a proposed horse slaughter plant in Roswell.

In Albuquerque, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation continued on police shootings and whether the Albuquerque Police Department has violated civil rights through excessive use of force.

At the same time, there were reminders of the perils law enforcement officers face every day.

Three APD officers and a Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputy were wounded in October by heavily armed, 35-year-old Christopher Chase, who called them out and then led them on a wild chase around northwest Albuquerque.

Sandoval County Sheriff’s Sgt. Robert Baron died in December after being hit by a car while investigating a crash on icy I-25.

Not all was amiss in New Mexico in 2013, despite tragedy and conflict.

There was still plenty of blue sky and elbow room. And after a trip to booming Salt Lake City in November, seeing its traffic congestion and dense, brown clouds, I was glad to return home.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to John Robertson, the Journal’s politics editor, at or 823-3911. Go to to submit a letter to the editor.