Bipartisan push enacts nurse licensing compact

Gov. Susana Martinez signed a new nurse licensing compact on Thursday, averting what one lawmaker warned would be a health care crisis by ensuring nurses with licenses from more than two dozen other states can continue practicing in New Mexico without getting a separate certificate. A bipartisan group of lawmakers sped the bill through the Legislature in the first days of this year’s month-long session as they faced a deadline late Friday to either approve the new compact or leave dozens — potentially hundreds — of nurses with licenses from other states unable to work in New Mexico, only making worse a shortage of medical professionals around the state. “Some hospitals, as high as 70 percent of their staff are out-of-state nurses. This is critical,” Rep. Deborah Armstrong, a Democrat from Albuquerque and chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee, told representatives before the chamber voted 68-0 to approve the new compact without debate. After the swift vote, the measure headed to the governor, who signed it Thursday afternoon surrounded by Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

Clock ticking on nursing compact

Lawmakers face a hard deadline this week to make sure that dozens or even hundreds of nurses can continue working in New Mexico. Legislators have until midnight Friday to approve a new nurse licensing compact, an update to an agreement that allows nurses licensed in other states to practice in New Mexico without getting a separate certificate. Hospitals say the compact is key to recruiting in a state facing a shortage of medical professionals. Missing the deadline to join the new system would leave New Mexico with fewer nurses to care for patients, they say. Though not much usually happens during the first days of a legislative session, the high stakes amid a particularly rough flu season have forged what appears to be a bipartisan consensus that lawmakers must approve the compact and fast during their 30-day gathering that begins at noon Tuesday.

Reading bill dies quietly

For seven consecutive years, Gov. Susana Martinez has unsuccessfully pushed a bill to hold back thousands of third-graders who score below par on standardized reading tests. A pair of similar bills this year haven’t even received a hearing before a legislative committee. And with just five days left in the 60-day legislative session, it is unlikely that they will. Democratic Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said she didn’t know whether the panel would have time to hear House Bill 114, introduced by Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque. But even if Garcia Richard’s committee takes up the measure, it almost certainly would table it.

Senate passes gas tax for road fund, but governor vows veto

The New Mexico Senate, hoping to improve state roads and rebuild cash reserves, approved a bill Thursday that would increase the state gasoline tax for the first time in more than 20 years. But the bill has little chance of becoming law. “If it reaches the governor’s desk, she will veto it,” said Chris Sanchez, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. An override of Martinez’s veto is unlikely because the tax bill received support from only three of the Senate’s 16 Republicans. The measure, Senate Bill 95, would raise about $180 million annually through a range of taxes and fees.

Higher ed changes could ‘whitewash’ universities, some professors warn

Some professors, students and advocates at the state’s flagship university are warning proposed sweeping changes to the state’s higher education system could undermine academic freedom and programs like ethnic studies. A bill sponsored by state Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs would scale back the number of required credit hours students take in public university “general education core” classes and establish “meta-majors.”

“Meta-major” classes are defined in the bill as “lower division courses” that are set by the department and include general education courses and prerequisite courses. At a Senate Education Committee hearing last week, Kernan said her bill’s purpose is to make it easier for students who transfer to different universities to use the credits they’ve already earned from previous courses toward their college degrees. Kernan’s bill is supported by New Mexico Higher Education Department Secretary Barbara Damron. At last week’s hearing, Damron described meta-majors as a group of courses set under a list of broad subjects that undecided college students can choose from to create a path toward their eventual major.

Timeline on fraud investigation hazy, HSD says

An attorney for the state Human Services Department told state lawmakers Friday he wasn’t sure how long an internal investigation of alleged systemic fraud within his agency would take to complete. But he offered his best guess. “My understanding is that the inspector general plans to have more by this fall,” HSD General Counsel Christopher Collins told lawmakers in response to a question from state Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque. Collins made the comments in an interim Legislative Health and Human Services Committee hearing where lawmakers examined the food stamp scandal that has rocked headlines for the past three months. In May, HSD’s inspector general announced an investigation into allegations that department officials falsified emergency food aid applications to deny benefits to qualified applicants.

Hate crimes against law enforcement bill dies

A House bill that would add first responders and law enforcement officers to the state’s Hate Crime statute died in a Senate committee on Friday. The Senate Public Affairs Committee voted against passing the bill, sponsored by House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, along party lines. A majority of public support came from law enforcement officers representing six different counties as well as New Mexico State Police. Also among supporters were Rev. Holly Beaumont of Interfaith Worker Justice and Julie Benner, the widow of slain officer Gregg “Nigel” Benner. Those who opposed the bill said adding officers to the hate crime act would dilute the law already in place.

Opioid overdose prevention bill advances

The Senate Public Affairs Committee decided to send a bill regarding prescription opioids and overdose prevention on to the next committee without a recommendation. The bill, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, and Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, aims to require the New Mexico Department of Health to post overdose prevention information online and require some insurance providers to offer coverage for prescription opioids that make it more difficult to overdose. Some types of opioid pills have an abuse-deterrent option that has been modified to make it harder to alter the form. The idea behind making a pill harder to crush is that many addicts crush prescription pills into powder to intensify or speed up the effects. Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, raised concerns about insurance companies being mandated to carry these types of medication, even though there are no generic versions of the drug available.

Driver’s license bill moves forward after large amendment

After a marathon hearing, the Senate Public Affairs Committee advanced a driver’s license bill that supporters hope will finally end the problem the state has been facing for years. It didn’t come without controversy, in the form of an extensive amendment to the bill that passed the House, HB 99, to make it essentially a Senate bill, SB 256. It was not a committee substitute, which would require it to go back through committees in the House. But with an amendment, if it were to pass the Senate, then the House and Senate could have a conference committee to work out the differences between the two versions. The SPAC amendment passed on a party-line vote, with Democrats voting for it and Republicans against.

Bill to raise teacher salaries on hold

The Senate Education Committee agreed to hold off on taking any action on a bill that would increase wages for New Mexico teachers. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, would increase minimum salaries for teachers by $2,000 each year for about four years. After inconsistencies in the analysis of the bill, Stewart agreed to make some changes and report back later this week. Stewart told the panel that while she would discuss the nature of the bill, she was uncomfortable with some analysis done by the Legislative Education Study Committee (LESC). She said she submitted her bill to the LESC last month and was only recently informed of a large discrepancy in how much the state would be on the hook for teacher and principal raises.