Decades worth of warnings about the danger of underfunding public defenders finally came to a climax last month, when a district court judge held Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur in contempt of court after Baur, the agency head, said he could not ethically take a handful of cases in rural New Mexico. New Mexico’s continued weak budget suggests that the state’s Law Offices of the Public Defender is unlikely to receive more resources any time soon. But according to leading criminal defense attorneys, public defenders were never a priority in the state budget even during better economic times. The recent flashpoint was when Baur showed up to the 5th Judicial District Court in Lovington to represent Michelle Sosa.
State Auditor Tim Keller recently designated the City of Jal for a special audit on the city’s water billing issues. The move comes two months after Keller’s office opened a case into an arrangement where the city in the southeastern New Mexico oil patch gave a local ranch a discount on utility water worth $1.2 million over a 25-month period between 2012 and 2014. NM Political Report, in partnership with the Jal Record, first reported on the city’s water deal with the Beckham Ranch in September. Related: State Auditor to investigate Jal water deal
In a Dec. 2 letter to Jal Mayor Cheryl Chance*, Keller writes the special audit will look at Jal’s “compliance with applicable laws, regulations, policies and and procedures with respect to water utility billing practices.”
Jal City Manager Bob Gallagher told NM Political Report that he is “extremely pleased” with the state auditor’s decision for the special audit and said he has been cooperating with Keller’s office on the matter for the past two months.
A controversial congressional panel investigating abortion practices in New Mexico and the across the country is under scrutiny for its tactics and mission from some of its own members. In a report released this week titled “Setting the Record Straight: The Unjustifiable Attack on Women’s Health Care and Life-Saving Research,” Democratic members of the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives skewered the majority in the committee for using “McCarthy-era tactics” to conduct “an end-to-end attack on fetal tissue donation and women’s health care.”
The Select Panel, chaired by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, earlier this year sought subpoenas from Southwestern Women’s Options and the University of New Mexico and recommended the state Attorney General open a criminal investigation into the health clinic’s fetal tissue donation policy to the university. Related: Lawsuit alleges clinic donated fetal tissue without woman’s consent
Congressional Republicans formed the Select Panel after controversial, heavily edited videos of Planned Parenthood by anti-abortion activists went viral in 2015. Those videos led to unproven claims that abortion clinics across the country were selling fetal tissue for profit. The Select Panel is expected to release a final report on its investigation into fetal tissue donations before Congress adjourns later this month, according to Special Panel spokesman Mike Reynard.
Before he leaves to work every morning, State Auditor Tim Keller says he always talks with his young daughter about the day ahead. For him, Tuesday morning posed a problem. That’s because he wasn’t sure how to explain what he was set to present to the public. “It was little tough this morning,” Keller told a room of reporters. He released a report of proposed solutions to clear the backlog of more than 5,000 sexual assault evidence kits in police departments throughout New Mexico.
The latest update on the state’s budget situation was filled with negative news, including a large reduction from previous budget projections released in August. The current year’s budget is projected to be $69 million in the hole. For the fiscal year starting July 1, 2017, state budget experts project $300 million less money to spend than the budget in the current fiscal year—which itself saw massive cuts during the special session, with 5.5 percent cuts to most agencies. The update, presented by experts from the Department of Finance and Administration and the Taxation and Revenue Department Monday morning to the Legislative Finance Council, comes a month and a half before legislators go back to work during a regular legislative session to deal with next year’s state budget. During a special session in September and October, the Legislature plugged a $600 million budget deficit that encompassed last year’s budget and the current budget through a combination of tapping into reserves and making cuts.
Just months before Donald Trump’s surprise victory to the nation’s top office, Gov. Susana Martinez penned an op-ed about a bright spot in New Mexico’s otherwise weak economy. That bright spot is also a geographical location—the border. “We are quickly positioning our state as a gateway of international trade throughout the Americas,” Martinez wrote in June, “and we are embracing our newly found leadership role, which wouldn’t be possible without the cross-border relationships we’ve built.” Related: Why Trump would almost certainly be violating the Constitution if he continues to own his businesses (by ProPublica) Last year, for example, Las Cruces and Santa Fe, respectively, ranked as the two metropolitan areas in the nation with the highest economic growth in exports. In 2012 and 2014, New Mexico also led the nation in export growth. Nearly half of these exports—45 percent—are shipped south of the border.
Years of budget cuts to the state’s Offices of the Public Defender came to a head this week in a rural town in southeast New Mexico. A judge found New Mexico’s lead public defender in contempt of court earlier this week after his office failed to appear in five cases in a Lovington district court. District Court Judge Gary Clingman found Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur in contempt on Monday and issued a $5,000 fine after Baur failed to represent clients in five different criminal cases. Related: Citing ‘resistance’ top Public Defender resigns
The notices of non-appearance, Baur said, stem from a strained public defender’s office. “We really cannot effectively represent people,” Baur told NM Political Report.