Money

Proposal aims to close campaign donation loophole

A legislator from Santa Fe County is proposing to close a loophole in the state’s campaign finance law that allows state lawmakers to accept campaign donations while they are in session. State law bans state representatives, senators and candidates for the Legislature from raising money from Jan. 1 until they adjourn. But the statute only prohibits soliciting contributions. It says nothing about legislators accepting money.

State Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, left, and Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, shown during the last day of the 2016 special legislative session, are about to take on the most powerful positions in the Legislature when lawmakers convene for the 2017 session on Tuesday.

Stark differences separate Santa Fe liberals stepping into leadership roles

Santa Fe is about to become the most powerful city in the Legislature. Presumptive House Speaker Brian Egolf and new Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth both are Santa Fe Democrats, Anglo lawyers from the city’s east side. When Wirth was elected to the Senate in 2008, Egolf was elected to represent Wirth’s old district in the House of Representatives. Both have strong liberal voting records and both have chaired the committees that deal with the environment and energy in their respective chambers. Conservation Voters New Mexico, which for years has maintained scorecards for lawmakers, gives Egolf a 98 percent lifetime rating.

Tim Keller

Late, incomplete Homeland Security audit raises more questions

An overdue audit from a troubled state agency has finally been released to the public. But it raises nearly as many questions as it was supposed to answer. The New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM) submitted its 2015 audit to the Office of the State Auditor (OSA) nearly a year after it was due. The audit, conducted by an independent contractor, was reviewed and then posted on OSA’s website earlier this week. In a letter to DHSEM Secretary M. Jay Mitchell, State Auditor Tim Keller noted that the accountants identified 19 problems, most of which are related to grant management and financial controls.

Albuquerque Public Schools

Lawmakers look at slicing APS into smaller districts

Near the end of his announcement for mayor last weekend, Albuquerque City Councilor Dan Lewis took a shot at the city’s public school district, saying it needed “radical repair.”

“I believe now is the time to deconstruct this large unaccountable school district and replace it with smaller, more accountable school districts,” Lewis said at the business incubator ABQ Fat Pipe, which is located in the old Albuquerque High School building. “As your mayor, what I’ll do is lead the charge to fundamentally change education in our city.”

With more than 95,000 students in the school system, APS ranks as the 31st largest public school district in the nation—outsizing the public school systems in bigger cities like Detroit, San Francisco and Boston. Lewis is making the idea of breaking up the school district a part of his mayoral platform. To do so requires action from the state legislature. State Rep. David Adkins, R-Albuquerque, could be the lawmaker that takes on the issue this legislative session, which starts next week.

Children at school

Excused or not, CYFD says school absences could mean neglect

The state department that has been criticized for letting child abuse cases slip through the cracks is now under fire from some Albuquerque parents and school administrators for a lack of discretion when looking into student absences. Days before Albuquerque Public Schools teachers, students and parents were gearing up for a two-week winter vacation, one mother said she got an unexpected visit from Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) case workers. The mother recounted her story in an email to APS board members. NM Political Report obtained the mother’s email from CYFD, but the state agency redacted her name. “I asked through the door who it was, and a woman yelled in a very loud voice, ‘WE ARE WITH THE CHILD ABUSE AND NEGLECT DEPARTMENT AND WE ARE INVESTIGATING YOU AND YOUR FAMILY,’” the mother wrote.

The Gila River near the proposed diversion site.

The ‘politics’ of wrangling data on the Gila

A one-sentence provision in state law is emboldening at least one agency to keep public information from seeing the light of day. All officials have to do is accuse someone of having a political agenda. For more than a year, retired Interstate Stream Commission director Norman Gaume has wanted to know how much water farmers and others currently draw from the Gila River. That’s where the state plans to build a controversial new project that would divert more water from the river. Specifically, he wondered if water users are using the maximum amount of water they’re already allotted from the river.

Former Governor Rick Perry speaking with supporters of U.S. Senator Ted Cruz at a campaign event at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. Flickr/cc

Rick Perry’s Texas giveaways

Donald Trump’s selection of Rick Perry to lead the Department of Energy has prompted many Democrats to question Perry’s qualifications for the position. While he governed a state rich in fossil fuels and wind energy, Perry has far less experience than President Obama’s two energy secretaries, both physicists, in the department’s primary work, such as tending the nuclear-weapons stockpile, handling nuclear waste and carrying out advanced scientific research. That’s not to mention, of course, that Perry four years ago called for doing away with the entire department. However, there’s one realm in which Perry will have plenty of preparation: doling out taxpayer money in the form of government grants to the energy industry. What often gets lost in all the talk of the Texas job boom under Perry is how much economic development strategy was driven by direct subsidies to employers who promised to relocate to the state or create jobs there.

Minimum Wage

Dems aim for statewide minimum wage increase

As Democrats gear up for a legislative session  after retaking the state House of Representatives and expanding their majority in the state Senate, several members are looking at ways to increase New Mexico’s minimum wage. Two lawmakers have already pre-filed legislation to do so ahead of the session, which begins Jan. 17. One measure would double New Mexico’s minimum wage from $7.50 an hour to $15 an hour by January 2018. Another more cautious bill ups the minimum wage to $8.45 an hour.

Photo Credit: Paul Sableman cc

2016 Top Stories #1: SNAP fraud scandal at HSD

In April, five employees of the state agency that processes key federal benefits to the poor made explosive testimonies in court—that their bosses instructed them to doctor emergency food aid applications to hurt the very people they’re supposed to help. The following month, four more Human Services Department employees added their voices to the allegations. Then, three top state officials were called to the stand and pleaded the Fifth, refusing to answer nearly 100 total questions about their role in the scandal. Previously: Top ten stories of 2016: 10-6; #5: NM Dems buck national trend, retake House; #4: Demesia Padilla resigns; #3: AG clears final behavioral health providers; #2: State budget situation worsens

“In my opinion, we’re cheating those families,” Angela Dominguez, one of the HSD employees, said in her court testimony. The underlying question next became, why?

Money

2016 Top Stories #2: State budget situation worsens

The state budget situation was the backdrop of so many other stories this year and will remain a large story that NM Political Report and others will continue to cover in 2017 and beyond. Due in large part to the state’s reliance on oil and gas revenues to fund the government, New Mexico earlier this year found itself facing a large budget deficit amid plummeting oil prices. The state constitution does not allow the state to run a deficit; every year, the Legislature must pass a balanced budget. Previously: Top ten stories of 2016: 10-6; #5: NM Dems buck national trend, retake House; #4: Demesia Padilla resigns; #3: AG clears final behavioral health providers

During the 30-day regular session, the state House passed a version of the budget worth $6.32 billion, which actually included $30 million in new money. But by the time the Senate began discussing the budget, the situation worsened and the state braced for a whopping $359 million less in revenue than projected.