Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Interview: Sen. Tim Jennings

I met with Sen. Tim Jennings in mid-March in a small hearing room on the third floor of the Capitol. The interview was summarized in my column that is syndicated by New Mexico News Services to seven newspapers around the state. The column will run this week and next week. Most of the interview was recorded. The transcript follows. It is slightly edited. Most of the editing deals with those pauses that are in every conversation. Also, a couple of digressions do not appear. Mark Bralley, photographer for Capitol Report New Mexico photographer, took the photograph of Sen. Jennings.

A Democrat and leader of the Senate, Jennings’ district includes Artesia, central Roswell and sprawls across Chaves, Eddy, Lincoln, and Otero counties. The title of his Senate job is President Pro Tempore, placing him third in succession to the governor. His day job is sheep rancher. The day of our visit was the second gathering of the health group. It has met several times since March.

HM: How did your group, the working group, that’s in the other room (begin)? It’s not official, is that a correct impression?

TJ: We’ve got task forces and domestic czars for everything on God’s green earth under this administration. I don’t want to call something another task force again. The governor called us together. He didn’t ask us to just pass the House bill. He came up and asked us if we could find some areas to help him, to see what areas we could find where there might be agreement on some of the health care issues.

We had already had a couple of health care groups and committees that had looked at it, the health care group and some of our senate committees, there was probably a feeling among the leadership that we weren’t to the point yet of being able to afford the package that was going to afford the package that was going to come out of that group. We thought we’d better get the people together…

HM: That was the Senate’s feeling?

TJ: He didn’t seem to express a lot of desire in the house plan that took 27 days to craft either because he gave us a list of things, which was mostly what we started with. We felt that we should get a group of more… (thinks of word).. financially… (HM: financially careful).. Financially careful would be a good way. We went to a group of people that were dealing with the long term issues on the state’s budget, with health care issues who were probably not part of the other group (that developed the plan to start).

We wanted to weigh were we could go and what we could sell that was par4t of the governor’s package. Some thing would move his agenda along. That’s how we came up with this group. (Lists what each member brings.) Sen. Beffort, a long term health care person on the Republican side. Rawson (very astute on the finance committee and very attuned to details). Komadina a doctor. Sen. Ingle was their leader. Michael Sanchez who was our leader and a pretty strong proponent of doing something with health care. Smith, long term watcher of the dollars. Linda Lopez…she’s had some experience in health care, not only employment by health care groups, but she’s in tune a lot with the medicaid issues. Jerry Ortiz y Pino… was somebody different who was actually a single payer advocate. There’s a large number of people who are single payer advocates in the bodies. They had a large constituency there. He’s a lot more liberal that a lot of us. You know what. It’s not a deal about picking the health care. It about where we can go, what levels can we go to. To pass all of this, you’re going to have to have a lot of buy-in.

Then of course, you have the “old grump,” me. That’s how this group came about. It doesn’t mean this group might be the final group on making the decisions. This is a group to see if there are areas where we can find some of the financial resources in areas that the governor had laid out… (things) that he had asked us to do.”

Then we had our first meeting and one day (chuckles) and that evening all the vetoes came out. That was kind of interesting. It was real strange. He called us to ask us to do that and to my colleagues’ credit, they came to this meeting. A lot of people might have said, screw that. Obviously there was a method in something in there. Either he either wanted us to crater his health care plan so he could blame it on somebody. I don’t know why he would do that. To ask us on one week, so we responded, and he turned around and vetoed us. Most of us think it was silly.

Like he was trying to have a failure so he could blame it on somebody. He was trying to construct a failure to blame the failure of his health care plan on somebody.
That’s the only thing I can come up with. That’s strictly my opinion. It certainly wasn’t written. I would hate to get anybody else’s projects vetoed because of my opinion. The health care plan…we can’t do everything that everybody wants. When you look at the health care plan and look at adding (new spending) which could be up.. One report was that 335 or 350 million a year. All of a sudden that changed down to 30 million.

From our people, most of us believe it’s going to cost about a billion dollars over three or four years. We had a public school funding task thing out there for $300 million. We have highways that needed at least $300, just for maintenance, because they spent all the money on the Railrunner, the maintenance budget.

We have a problem with educational retirement, that is probably in the neighborhood of a couple of billion dollars in shortfalls there that we have to figure out. You have a least $200 million of money into the retiree healthcare plan right away.

So right off we have a few issues out there that we need to watch our spending on. We’ve spent an awful lot of money lately. We’ve hired a lot of people. We added a lot of costs to the state.

The retiree health care, right away we need an infusion of a couple of hundred million dollars to get that back on a financially sound basis. The highway spending, just for maintenance, not bridges, is at least 50 or 60 million for each district.

When we went into the session, we had about 300 million dollars to spend. It started out and kept falling. Then we sitting here with our country, which it appears to everybody but the president, that we’re going into a pretty good recession, probably one of the biggest recessions our country has been in since the big one.

We have some concerns there that we have to really watch and see where we are.

H: These issues are the menu for now and 2009?

TJ: Probably for the next five years. There’s a lot of concerns in there. Do you raise the taxes to increase the highway funding and have it go back to the same highway commissioners that spent the last set of money? I mean I don’t know. These are just questions that people ask me.

I don’t want to vote for a tax increase if the same guys are going to take the money that we put in there and authorize more projects that commit the funding to other projects like the Railrunner. And the Railrunner’s fine, just that people didn’t up to what they said they would do. It’s been all the way to this thing on the highway thing…

We all know that the cabinet secretaries are pretty well directed on what to do. People are directed how to respond to health insurance, what they can talk about, whether they can oppose it or not. I doubt very seriously that (Transportation Secretary) Rhonda Faught dreamed this whole idea up about all that stuff in her head. That came from somewhere else. (Faught has) grown up in the highway administration for those of us who have been here. A lot of people have a great deal of respect for her. I like some of her programs. It doesn’t mean she’s a bad person. We just have a difference of opinion.

In speaking of that, there’s one thing that the Senate knows and understands. It’s OK. We have learned how to tolerate differences among each other and differences of opinions without retribution. I think the executive branch and I think the house should take a lesson from the senate. We are together and functioning better together as a unit. It doesn’t that we still don’t have ideological differences between the Republicans and the Democrats and there are more Democrats there, so they tend to win more issues. That’s true. But people are free to express their opinions without fear of retribution

I don’t agree with him. It’s all right. It’s nice to know how he believes. That’s OK. That’s what a democracy is about is the freedom to express your views. That’s what’s most important. That what makes us different from other countries that aren’t free.

HM: Asks if Jennings thinks SF is weird.

TJ: Santa Fe is a very unique place, not only in our state but in our country. It’s more liberal than we are (in Chaves County). It’s OK. I like coming here. But I enjoy coming here. But I like going home. It’s a nice place to come for a visit.

HM: Shifting a little if I may… You have brothers who have been mayors.

TJ: Funny thing about our family. Our parents, I think, were both Democrats. Our family is divided with six children. We’re three and three. Three wayward children. (Former Rio Rancho mayor John Jennings is one of the wayward) That’s all right. It’s diversity. It’s OK. In our family, we have a great deal of respect for other people. We have always been expected to speak our minds, to speak our piece. That is something we are elected to tell people exactly what we think. We don’t generally put it a lot of sugar on it.

Our father was a lawyer. Very plain spoken. Very direct. And I think very well respected. All of his children have that directness. Now my mother, she always says nice things. She’s a believer that your word should be sweet in case you ever have to eat them. Accurate and true. She was always the one on the more tempering side.

(Elected siblings) My twin brother Tom was elected the mayor of Roswell. At one time all three of us were in elected office. My godfather was former state senator Dr. Emmett Jennings.

(Takes call from a woman thinking about running for Chaves County Clerk. “It’d be fun, but it would be a lot of work. I think you could do the job; I just don’t know if you want the headaches.”)

(Jennings carries two cell phones because of the quality of the service from ENMR-Plateau. His district crosses the cell phone service areas.)

I can talk almost all the way up here (to Santa Fe) from Roswell on Plateau.

HM: Anything else…

TJ: Health care is an issue that my wife and I have been very much in tune with for over 20 years. Out of my 34 years of public service and 30 years in the senate. We have sponsored an awful lot of legislation on health care. Everything from the high-risk pool to mandating coverage for mammograms, mandating coverage for smoking cessation services. A lot of people complain about some of those issues. They’re all things that make good economic sense. And they’re good about reducing the cost of health insurance. Early detection of cancer or stopping smoking are all things that reduce the cost of insurance and health care. The high risk pool, my wife wrote the bill. (A daughter has Downs Syndrome.) “She should have the availability to have her own insurance and have her own home. That’s part of the American dream. Health insurance is something that we are in tune with.

I don’t claim to know anything about health care compared to my wife. My wife is an expert in the field. I’m becoming an expert in the field because of things we are going through with health care I our own family. The thing people should know is that health care coverage something that you need to have. We need to make it affordable. I believe in a competitive market. The more people you have competing, you’ll get the best price and the best value for your dollar by a good competitive market. I think that’s something we should all look at.

There’s one thing I would tell all of these individuals is that preventative health care makes a lot of difference. People need to be vigilant in their preventative health care. You have to stay on of it.

HM: Where is this group going to go?

TJ: We’re going to meet some more. We’re just trying to get to speed on where we’re going. This is all new to these people, to most of them. We’ve to look and see what areas we can do. One of things of this health care task force and the governor’s plan… It sounds real good when you start talking about health care for all, but how do you sit down and figure out, we’re going to have health care for all and all of these great things when you don’t even talk about long term care for the elderly. Where are we going to be in the next ten years, 15 years? All the baby boomers are all there; they’re all going to be in long term health care. The United States government nor the state government does not have a plan anywhere that has begun to address the long term care costs.

They’re estimating that the people our age, that one out of eight will have Alzheimer’s. You figure it out. (Does the math. Estimates.) The problem comes in that there are other people coming up in that system. The Baby Boomers are such a bubble in the population. (Younger people) can’t afford to pay for the long term care of their parents, just because of the debt load we are piling on our children.

When you look at the senate and look at our finance committee, I think we’re very much in tune with what we’re piling on down the road. We’re telling everybody you have to be vigilant in what you’re doing. We can’t pile on all the health care costs of everybody in the retiree health care association to all the government employees today. That’s what social security has done to us. They spent all our money all our money on our older generation. At some point in time we have to stop that because we can’t afford to do it. All this has to be solved. We know that. Even if our congressional delegation in Washington doesn’t have the courage to do it, we have got to do it here because we can’t deficit spend.

HM: On your lunch with the working group, was that a first time thing with the collegiality?

TJ: It was just amazing to me. I looked at our people when we all went there. It was unique how we came together We ended up split up, it wasn’t by party. It wasn’t by male and female. It wasn’t geographic area. We just had a wonderful lunch.

It’s been coming. But it’s been something I think is there.

When the governor vetoed all this stuff…. We didn’t have any wild harangue of the governor. I mean, it’s well, that’s his problem. He didn’t hurt us. He hurt the little people at Carrie Tingley Hospital (in Albuquerque) that lost all their dental chairs. They needed the dental chairs. The little acqueias (vetoed) in Senator Griego’s district; he didn’t hurt Griego, he hurt a bunch of poor farmers.

The biggest question of all that to me is why would a probably 250-lb healthy man go after and attack dental chairs for a bunch of people at Carrie Tingley Hospital. I’ve been there. I know about Carrie Tingley Hospital. It wasn’t even my stuff (it was) Cravens’ stuff. Why would anyone get even with someone else over a dental chair for handicapped individuals. That’s beyond my scope of decency.

H That off the record?

TJ: It’s on the record. This is an issue that’s very close to me. Challenged individuals. Individuals… that the public has described as having developmental disabilities. We’ve have record amounts of new money. Yet, our waiting list has steadily climbed for those individuals.

The only real money that’s come into those programs that’s never been planned has come in from the legislative side of the institution. It’s not been requested by the executive branch of government. I find that appalling. I just do.

We can have battles with those that can take care of themselves. But those that can’t, those aren’t the ones I was brought up to wage war against. I will not do that. There’s limits to money. The individuals (at Carrie Tingley (Hospital) are extremely challenged. That’s not a place I would wage war on. I would commend Sen. Cravens for putting his capitol outlay into that facility. It’s truly needed. I even feel bad because I didn’t put any of mine in there because I did think of it. I should have. I can’t see how that is something that a governor could use or anyone could use to get even with someone else because they didn’t cooperate. I would like to see a little more cooperation with those people waiting on the waiting list that can’t take care of themselves. That’s what I would like to see.

If you use any of it, that’s fine. It’s something that’s close to home. Carrie Tingley Hospital is a very special place in New Mexico.

HM: Thank you.

TJ: Did I give you enough to get me I trouble? There’s one thing I do; I will speak from the heart.

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