Legislature OKs bill to merge various local elections

Vote early and vote less often. At least, that is the hope behind a bill that was headed to the governor’s desk on Thursday to consolidate various local elections in New Mexico. Under a compromise hashed out between the Senate and House of Representatives during the last couple hours of this year’s 30-day legislative session, election day for most cities, towns and villages — including Santa Fe — would not change from the usual date in March. Conversely, the state’s largest city, Albuquerque, would have to move its elections for mayor and city council. The bipartisan legislation’s backers say the goal is to boost turnout in local elections that often draw little attention and relatively few voters.

Lawmakers send omnibus crime bill to governor’s desk

New Mexico legislators rolled five different crime bills into one, then sent the measure to the governor Wednesday in what they called a bipartisan move to make communities and prisons safer. State senators approved the plan, House Bill 19, on a vote of 32-2. The measure already had cleared the House of Representatives on a 66-1 vote. Now the bill moves to Republican Gov. Susana Martinez for her consideration. Martinez herself pushed a number of crime bills during the 30-day legislative session, including an unsuccessful attempt to reinstate the death penalty.

Last-minute shuffles cement state budget deal

It took moving a few million dollars here and putting a few million dollars there, but New Mexico had a budget by the end of Wednesday. A $6.3 billion spending plan is on its way to Gov. Susana Martinez after the Senate and House of Representatives brokered a compromise on slightly different budgets approved by both chambers. The compromise won bipartisan support in the House and Senate, a marked departure from recent years when financial shortfalls led to spending cuts and intensely political clashes over state spending. Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Gov. Susana Martinez signaled that she would be receptive to the budget. That is different from last year, when she vetoed much of the annual spending plan, at one point threatened a government shutdown and ultimately forced a special session.

Legislature sends governor bill imposing tax on nonprofit lab contractor

Gov. Susana Martinez will have to decide whether to sign a bill designed to prevent the state government, as well as local governments in Northern New Mexico, from losing tax revenue if a nonprofit university takes over management of Los Alamos National Laboratory later this year. That possibility is real, as two Texas universities have submitted bids for the contract. “We stand to lose about $30 million in gross receipts revenue to the state should a nonprofit contractor receive the [operations contract] at the national laboratory in Los Alamos,” Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, told the House of Representatives late Tuesday night before it voted 48-19 in favor of the measure, Senate Bill 17. Garcia Richard’s number is consistent with a fiscal impact report by the Legislative Finance Committee, which estimates the state’s gross receipts tax losses at $25 million to $30 million if a nonprofit is chosen to run the lab. Both the University of Texas System Board of Regents and Texas A&M submitted formal bids on the lab management contract in December.

Committee advances bill allowing spaceport to shield some records

A legislative committee gave its backing Wednesday to a bill that would allow Spaceport America to exempt many of its business dealings from New Mexico’s open records law as the state’s major open government advocacy group dropped its opposition to the measure. The publicly owned facility, which cost more than $200 million to construct, has been pushing for the legislation, arguing the bill would allow it to attract more aerospace companies to New Mexico from a highly competitive and secretive industry. And while critics had argued the measure would diminish the public’s oversight of the facility, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government said it would not oppose a revised version of the bill put forward by a top Republican lawmaker Wednesday evening. “It’s a very difficult balance,” Rep. Nate Gentry, an Albuquerque Republican, told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday evening, summing up how lawmakers have been torn this session between arguments for transparency and arguments that the facility already has cost the state too much money to pass up any opportunity to attract business. As a public agency, Spaceport America’s own finances will still be audited.

Senator calls on NMSU regents to resign over Carruthers move

The president pro tem of the New Mexico Senate on Wednesday called for the resignation of the five regents of New Mexico State University, saying they had arbitrarily stripped powers from Chancellor Garrey Carruthers. The regents voted Monday to prohibit Carruthers from hiring and firing people in executive or coaching positions at the main campus in Las Cruces and on NMSU’s branch campuses. This triggered a strong response from Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces. She stated in a letter of complaint to the regents that they had inappropriately and perhaps unlawfully delegated their responsibilities to one person while taking away authority from Carruthers. Papen’s reference was to regents board Chairwoman Debra Hicks, who was empowered by the rest of the board to make interim appointments.

No budget deal yet between House, Senate

The Legislature’s two chambers are at odds over a proposed $6.3 billion state budget. Unlike recent years when financial problems prompted rounds of cuts, partisan fights and depleted reserves, the disagreements that emerged Tuesday came down to comparatively minor questions about funding roads. The Senate overwhelmingly approved a spending plan on Tuesday that provides bigger pay raises for state police than a version of the budget passed by the House of Representatives. The Senate version of the budget, approved 40-2 by members of that chamber, also provides millions of dollars in additional funding for the district attorney in Albuquerque and returns some of the money cut from school districts last year. But the Senate also scaled back the amount of money the House had approved for roads.

Background check flap stalls confirmation hearing

A senior Democratic lawmaker says Christopher Ruszkowski, secretary-designate of the state Public Education Department, has not consented to a background check, preventing the Senate from holding his confirmation hearing. “We require all teachers and administrators and others in the [education] field who deal with children in our public schools to be cleared, and we are still unable to do that with Mr. Ruszkowski,” Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said Monday in a statement. “He is operating as Cabinet secretary without authority to do so.” Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, appointed Ruszkowski last summer. But Lopez said the Martinez administration did not send formal notice to the Senate, which the state constitution requires within 30 days of appointment.

Large chunk of Carlsbad—and tax dollars—may get swallowed by sinkhole

A sinkhole is threatening to swallow part of Carlsbad. In the meantime, it is poised to consume tens of millions of tax dollars. The state House of Representatives voted 70-0 on Monday to send a bill to Gov. Susana Martinez that would take part of the taxes on car sales to pay for the remediation of a brine well that is at risk of collapsing. “This is an absolutely critical bill for averting a disaster in [the] southern part of the state,” said Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad. The 350-foot-wide, 750-foot-long cavern sits beneath two major highways, a railroad, a mobile home park, an irrigation canal and businesses, she said.

Committee blocks bill shielding law enforcement officers

A legislative committee on Sunday tabled a bill that could have extended greater legal immunity to law enforcement officers accused of wrongdoing, snubbing a proposal touted by Gov. Susana Martinez amid heightened scrutiny of police misconduct in Albuquerque and beyond. Critics of House Bill 279 pointed to what the Department of Justice has called a pattern of excessive force by officers at the Albuquerque Police Department and the death just last year of a 6-year-old boy in a car crash involving an officer at the agency, contending there is plenty of reason to be wary of legislation that could make law enforcement less accountable. In an interview with The Albuquerque Journal before the legislative session, the governor said lawsuit settlements were being awarded to what she characterized as “crooks and thieves who are hurt or injured by police officers who are doing their job.” But that comment came against the backdrop of ongoing controversy surrounding misconduct at the Albuquerque Police Department, which is in the midst of an ongoing reform process overseen by the federal government. Meanwhile, the city government there has paid millions of dollars over the last several years to settle lawsuits, including $5 million for the family of James Boyd, a homeless man killed by police during a standoff in 2014.