Meet the man peering into the UNM ‘fishbowl’ 10,000 words at a time

An apartment in downtown Chicago overlooking the historic Navy Pier is probably the last place University of New Mexico officials would expect some of the most ardent criticism of their athletics program. But that’s exactly where the shots toward the UNM athletic department are being fired from. Since last November, journalist Daniel Libit has been writing investigative stories about the UNM athletic department on his self-published website NMFishbowl.com. He received probably the most attention yet when he filed an open records lawsuit last week against UNM Foundation arguing that the non-profit organization should be held to the same transparency standards as the university itself. The lawsuit stems from records Libit requested from UNM Foundation as well as the school itself regarding information on the naming rights of WisePies Arena (aka The Pit).

Senate yanks real estate bill; lawmaker says pay-to-play maneuver exposed

In an extraordinary maneuver, state senators killed a bill Saturday that they had approved four days earlier after one of them said he had misled his colleagues about connections between Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and real estate developers who stood to benefit from the legislation. Democrats charged that the bill, which would have extended a building lease for state offices in Albuquerque, had turned into an example of pay-to-play politics, while members of Martinez’s administration maintained they had made an honest mistake based on incomplete information. For her part, Martinez said through a spokesman that neither she nor her staff ever discussed with campaign donors the leases addressed in the measure. At issue was an unusual and late-breaking piece of legislation, Senate Bill 430, that met with skepticism at just about every step of its journey through the Capitol until its sudden death Saturday. Sponsored by Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec, the bill would have carved out an exception to state rules on renting property.

Budget, tax bill closer to reaching governor’s desk

The New Mexico Legislature came closer Saturday to sending Gov. Susana Martinez a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, as well as a $300 million tax package. The Senate passed House Bill 2, as well as HB 202, which could raise more than $300 million — depending on which new taxes and fees are signed and which are vetoed by Martinez, a Republican who repeatedly has vowed never to raise taxes. Both pieces of legislation will have to return to the House of Representatives for final passage because of amendments made in the session. “This budget and revenue package reflects the desire of the legislature to produce a plan that supports New Mexico families and makes practical long-term spending decisions necessary for the success of our state,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said in a news release. “By raising new recurring revenue,” Smith said, “we were able to prevent dramatic cuts and strengthen our support for critical state services like public education all while leaving an appropriate level of reserves necessary to reassure bond companies that we have financial stability needed to protect our credit rating.”

GOP senator starts process for overriding governor’s veto on teacher sick days

A Republican legislator on Friday began his attempt to override Gov. Susana Martinez’s veto of a bill that would enable teachers to use more sick days without being penalized in their performance evaluation. Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, moved to have the vetoed bill returned to the Senate so he could seek an override early next week. Martinez is also a Republican, but Brandt said he would continue pursuing the override unless they can reach a compromise in which teachers are not penalized. He said he had initiated conversations with Martinez’s Public Education Department in hopes of starting such a discussion. Related: Martinez vetoes bill on use of sick leave impacting teachers’ evaluations

“I don’t take any joy in overriding a veto,” Brandt said.

NM Auditor: Conflict of interest found in Corrections Dept. audit

A former deputy cabinet secretary at the New Mexico Corrections Department was put in charge of the financial relationship between the department and a television production company for which she had worked only months before, according to a new report from the state Auditor’s Office. It appears that Alex Sanchez waived at least $20,000 in fees owed by Lucky 8 TV, LLC, to the Corrections Department in June 2016 after having left  the company’s employ just three months earlier, the report shows. The state Auditor’s evidence for that claim is an email Sanchez sent employees of the company in which she noted the waived fees for the filming of Lucky 8’s prison reality series, “Behind Bars: Rookie Year.”

The Corrections Department could not provide any evidence or documentation that anyone other than Sanchez determined the amounts to be billed to the production company. This piece originally appeared at New Mexico In Depth and is reprinted here with permission. Additionally, Lucky 8 was allowed to begin filming a third season of its show last year even though the company still owed the state $42,000 from the previous two seasons, the audit found.

Senate Finance Committee prepares for vote on amended tax package to shore up reserves

Members of the Senate Finance Committee say they have reached an agreement on a package of taxes and fees that would help New Mexico resolve its projected budget deficit and shore up cash reserves to about 3 percent next year. The proposal amends several provisions of House Bill 202, including a tax that was opposed by doctors and hospitals. The Senate measure also would incorporate a gasoline and diesel tax increase that has already passed the Senate as a separate bill. By bringing all the elements together, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, the finance chairman, hopes to stabilize the $6.1 billion general fund and guard against further credit downgrades. It also would buffer the state against expected federal cuts in education and health care.

House committee stalls another round of abortion bills

A panel of state lawmakers spent five hours Sunday hearing and debating two bills that would have restricted abortion access in New Mexico before tabling them on party lines. At one point, state Rep. Bob Wooley, R-Roswell, bemoaned the predictability of the situation. “I was going to ask some questions, but it’s futile,” he said to the sponsors of a bill to ban abortions after 20 or more weeks of pregnancy. “We all know how this committee is going to vote. This bill is going to die on a 3-2 vote.”

Some members of the public echoed this.

House votes to hike statewide minimum wage

The state House of Representatives voted Friday night to raise the hourly minimum wage to $9.25 from $7.50 in 2018. The 37-30 vote, just days after the state Senate overwhelmingly passed a slightly smaller increase to $9, signals that a raise in the statewide minimum wage is increasingly likely as the legislative session enters its final weeks. The issue has been a priority for Democrats, who promised a raise during last year’s election, but it also has won some support from Republicans. The House vote on HB 442 was not strictly along party lines. Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, broke with her party to vote in favor of the bill, while Rep. Candy Sweetser, D-Deming, voted against it.

Partisan tensions rise after Dems table ‘born alive’ bill

On controversial abortion bills, Democratic legislators have had a tendency this year to hear prolonged, passionate testimonies and debates—then quickly vote to table the bills. That happened again Thursday afternoon, when the House Consumer & Public Affairs Committee devoted two hours to a controversial bill on what anti-abortion advocates call “born alive” infants. Several people testified in both support and opposition to the bill. Soon, Reps. Bob Wooley and Monica Youngblood, Republicans from Roswell and Albuquerque, respectively, asked lengthy questions of the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington.

Unclear how much state knows about wholesale medical marijuana sales

In New Mexico, lawmakers have debated acceptable uses of medical marijuana and some have questioned if cannabis producers are allowed to have enough medical cannabis to qualify as an “adequate supply” for patients. While politicians and medical cannabis advocates in Santa Fe argue over appropriate plant numbers, getting actual numbers from the agency that governs the program is difficult—despite the fact that producers are required to use specific software to track all transactions. Despite the plethora of debates and discussion, cannabis transaction data from the state is either unavailable or state employees do not know how to access it. In almost every legislative discussion about New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program, producers and patients sell their respective claims on how much medical cannabis should be available in the state. Depending on what day and who is speaking, the state could be in a shortage that amounts to a crisis or have such a glut of cannabis that producers have to unload product to each other.