Labor union: Jail firings were unjustified, retaliation

Three Bernalillo County detention officers, one former officer and a local public sector labor union filed suit against the county, half a dozen jail supervisors, the Bernalillo County Sheriff and two other county law enforcement officers.  

The suit alleges top officials at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) along with the county Sheriff’s office and upper county administrators actively prevented union members from associating with the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), New Mexico Council 18, Local 2499. According to the lawsuit, in 2015 county officials were “caught red-handed” trying to “engage in an actual conspiracy” to hire staff who would work against union leaders. Then, the lawsuit says, county jail leaders continued to retaliate against vocal union leaders like Eric Allen, a corrections officer who was fired from MDC for two instances of use of force, and Stephen Perkins, an MDC corrections officer who is currently on administrative leave and is currently facing false imprisonment charges. Both Allen and Perkins were already in the news this year.

Lujan Grisham’s choice of Education Secretary will send big message

In the coming days, governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham will take the first major step to fulfill her sweeping campaign promises on education – appointing a secretary to lead New Mexico’s troubled Public Education Department. Her choice will speak volumes – not only about her approach to education but also about her commitment to reform in a state that is primed for change. With a Democratic majority in both chambers of the Legislature, the governor-elect is in a position to address what many regard as New Mexico’s gravest problem: the fact that it sits at rock bottom in national rankings of student achievement. The state is under court order to fix a school funding system that was struck down as unconstitutional for its failure to provide adequate resources for at-risk students. So the choice of the new secretary will speak worlds about the degree to which Lujan Grisham intends to follow through on her pledge to “build a Pre-K-through-grade-12 education system that works for every single student and family.”

Latest projections for state budget: $1.1 billion in ‘new money’

Analysts told lawmakers projections show New Mexico will have $1.1 billion in “new money” to spend compared to last year. But they also urged caution on how to spend that money, given the state’s reliance on volatile oil and gas revenues and the need to replace the money legislators used money from various state programs in recent years. Members of the Legislative Finance Committee, which hears regular budget updates throughout the year, were briefed on the numbers from their chief economist and members of outgoing Gov. Susana Martinez’s cabinet. The sky-high budget numbers were slightly lower than the August forecast, but still much higher than the state has seen since 2005, before the Great Recession of the late 2000s. The budget boom doesn’t necessarily mean that legislators will fund new recurring programs.

Committee chairwoman, and House Appropriations and Finance Committee chairwoman, Patty Lundstrom, outlined in the most-recent LFC newsletter where the money would likely go.

With contract set to expire, still no word on what’s next for immigration center at Tornillo

With just weeks before a federal contract to operate a West Texas detention center for undocumented immigrant minors is set to expire, there is still no word whether the Trump administration plans to keep the site open into 2019. 

But the shelter operators maintain that another contract extension would be just one more short-term solution to a larger problem that needs a permanent fix. 

The contract between the federal Health and Human Services’ Offices of Refugee Resettlement and San Antonio nonprofit BCFS to operate the controversial detention camp at Tornillo is due to expire at the end of this month after being extended several times since the original 30-day contract in June. 

“The ball is in their court,” said BCFS spokeswoman Evy Ramos. “We have said to them just recently this week, we can’t just keep extending this, this is not a permanent solution. Something else has to be figured out.” 

The facility — a collection of dozens of military-grade tents on the grounds of a federal port of entry surrounded by acres of farmland — has swelled from a few hundred immigrants in June to about 2,300. Its capacity was expanded to about 3,800 after the administration realized the flow of unauthorized minors seeking asylum in the United States did not dwindle despite efforts to deter asylum seekers by turning them away at the international ports of entry and urging the Mexican government to block Central Americans from traveling through that country. 

If the government didn’t extend the contract for Tornillo, it would have to build or find another facility that’s designed for long-term detention, Ramos said. But that decision is ultimately up to ORR officials.

Feds fail to prosecute crimes in Indian Country

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice declined to prosecute more than a third of cases referred to them in Indian Country. That’s business as usual according to a new report by the department. The report reveals that U.S. attorneys’ offices left 37 percent of referred cases from Indian Country unprosecuted in 2017 — a figure slightly up from 2016 and steady with data since 2011, after then-President Barack Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act into law. The percentage continues to plateau despite funding for tribal law enforcement from the Trump administration. Lawmakers like Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., see the department’s prosecution rate as failing members of federally recognized tribes.

The next legislative session could echo 2003

An incoming Democrat is replacing a Republican in the governor’s office, and will get to work with a large Democrat majority in the Legislature. The new governor will have a large budget surplus and many potential projects to fund, both those sought by legislators and by the governor. No, this isn’t a preview for next month’s legislative session, the first with Michelle Lujan Grisham as governor, but a look back at 2003. When Democrat Bill Richardson replaced Republican Gary Johnson, “it was like a dam burst,” former State Sen. Dede Feldman said, speaking of the laws enacted. In the 2003 session alone, 439 bills became law, compared to 110 the year before.

Hospital competition leaves kids in the lurch

The two pediatric heart doctors made for an odd couple at the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee: Bill Stein in his conservative gray suit and Jon Love with his blond ponytail, three earrings and shiny blue blazer – both testifying to their desire to work together. Their respective employers had been in open – at times cutthroat – competition for years. The result has been a health system in which very sick kids are more likely to be sent out of state than two miles down the road to the competitor. Stein, 42, who is employed by Presbyterian Healthcare Services, is the state’s sole pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon. Love, 56, is the lone pediatric interventional cardiologist at the University of New Mexico. Together, the specialists put forward a simple answer that pediatricians and parents of medically fragile children have been longing to hear: collaboration.

An open letter to those elected last month

Dear Democrats,

While you’re transitioning into your new roles for 2018, we respectfully ask you to consider these two words: Be better. Be better at accessibility. Be better at transparency. Be better at talking to the public about issues that are not on your agenda. Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration touted itself as the most transparent administration.

Criminal justice reform expected to be a ‘premier topic’ for lawmakers

If an interim legislative committee meeting on Thursday is any indication, 2019 could be a year when New Mexico lawmakers pass a slate of criminal justice reform efforts that were previously blocked by Gov. Susana Martinez. The Courts, Corrections and Justice interim committee met to hear recommendations from a subcommittee tasked with reviewing and crafting possible legislation, some of which addresses probation and parole standards and changing punishments for non-violent crimes. Most of the bills the interim committee discussed previously passed the Legislature with bipartisan support before they were vetoed by Martinez. A bill to “ban the box,” or prohibit private employers from asking about criminal convictions on employment applications, for example, was cosponsored by a Republican and Democrat in 2017 and made it to Martinez’s desk with significant Republican support. Still, Martinez vetoed it, saying it limited employers’ ability to properly vet potential employees.

Proposed NM rule change would allow immigrants to work as lawyers regardless of federal status

Interpretation and enforcement of immigration laws seemingly change as fast as finicky weather patterns under President Donald Trump and his advisers, mostly a group self-styled “immigration hardliners.”
In some cases, the courts have thwarted the administration’s attempts at unilaterally limiting who can enter the United States. Contrarily, Trump, without evidence, continues to tout progress on “The Wall” along the nation’s southern border and, most recently, deployed US military forces to stop what he sees as an “invasion” of migrants from the south. The uncertainty leads to big, philosophical questions on governance such as: How far does presidential power go when it comes to immigration policy? In New Mexico, the charged debate over immigration has raised a narrower question for the state’s legal community. Should people in the United States illegally—regardless of whether they are eligible to hold jobs—be allowed to practice law here as long as they’ve passed the state bar exam?