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.

Bills earmark funds for school security

As gunshots rang out in Aztec High School one morning last December, a substitute teacher was left to improvise. She did not have a key to lock the door to her classroom, but ushered her students into a neighboring room and barricaded the door with a couch. The gunman entered the classroom the students had just left and fired several rounds through the wall that stood between them. The bullets did not hit any of the students, and the substitute teacher’s swift thinking was credited with saving lives. The shooting left two students dead elsewhere on campus, and the gunman — who did not attend the school — killed himself.

Senate OKs new system of choosing Lt. Gov. candidates

The state Senate on Saturday took action to lessen the chance that voters could choose a political odd couple as nominees for governor and lieutenant governor. Senators voted 20-10 for a bill that would do away with primary election for lieutenant governor. Under Senate Bill 178, a major party’s gubernatorial nominees would get to choose their own running. The bill is sponsored by Sens. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, and Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque.

House overhauls lottery bill to ensure more funds for students

The state House of Representatives on Saturday approved a bill seeking to create bigger prizes in the state lottery, but not before heavily amending the measure to protect the lottery scholarship fund for college students. House Bill 147, sponsored by Rep. Jim Smith, R-Sandia Park, cleared the House on a vote of 37-30. It eliminates a requirement that the lottery turn over 30 percent of its gross revenue for scholarships. The lottery staff and lobbyists for lottery vendors said scrapping the funding requirement actually would one day lead to significantly more money for scholarships. Democrats and Republicans alike were skeptical of that claim.

Senate committee caves to governor’s demand for more police pay, DA funds

A Senate committee bent Saturday to calls by Gov. Susana Martinez for more funding for state police pay and the District Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque, as well as calls from some fellow lawmakers to restore at least some of the funding cut from school districts last year. In announcing its version of the budget passed by the state House of Representatives late last month, the Senate Finance Committee seemed intent on maintaining the tenuous peace that has set in at the Roundhouse in the wake of the partisan clashes of the last few years. The budget would amount to about $6.3 billion and, according to the Senate Finance Committee, leave reserves around 10 percent. It would amount to about a 4 percent increase in spending over the current fiscal year. The House passed its version of the spending plan by a vote of 65-3 on Jan.

Committee halts gov’s final attempt to pass third-grade reading bill

For eight years now, the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez has pushed legislation to hold back more students who score below par on standardized reading tests. And just like every other year since Martinez took office, that legislation faltered at the Roundhouse on Friday, with Democrats questioning how the state could implement a sweeping overhaul of reading education without additional funds and whether schools should base decisions about holding back students on one set of test scores. Rep. Monica Youngblood, a Republican from Albuquerque and the sponsor of House Bill 210, told the House Education Committee this year’s reading bill was not like previous iterations. It would have given parents the option to let their child proceed to the next grade level even if the school recommended holding the child back. And it would have called for more intensive after-hour classes to bring students up to par.

Amendment to tap endowment for early ed funding moves closer to ballot

Democratic state legislators who want to expand early childhood education by spending a portion of New Mexico’s $16 billion land grant endowment won another round Friday, bringing their proposal to a pivotal point. The Senate Education Committee voted 5-3 on party lines to advance the proposed constitutional amendment, formally called House Joint Resolution 1. Republicans on the committee opposed the measure, saying spending more of the endowment now would hurt future generations. One Republican lawmaker also pointed to the market’s recent volatility and said the fund has lost hundreds of millions of dollars during the decline. Under the proposed amendment, another 1 percent would be taken from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund.

Proposed law on power plant closings draws critics

A bill aimed at easing economic woes of New Mexico communities hit by the closing of large power plants might make it harder to shut down coal-burning operations, some environmentalists said Friday. House Bill 325, introduced this week by House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, would require the state Public Regulation Commission to consider the economic effects on communities when deciding cases involving the shuttering of large power sources such as the San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico. The bill — which is scheduled to be heard Saturday by the House Judiciary Committee — also would require a utility to build any replacement power source in the same community as the facility it plans to close. “My bill is about trying to help my community,” Montoya said Friday. He said that about 45 percent of local tax revenue used by the school district in Kirtland comes from the power plant, while another 8 percent comes from the nearby San Juan coal mine.