For a window into how legislation is made, few moments were more educational than a sparsely attended meeting Tuesday afternoon in a cavernous, mostly empty room on the University of New Mexico campus. On the surface, the meeting was congenial as two state lawmakers, legislative staff, attorneys and representatives of civic organizations hammered out the beginnings of draft legislation that would fill out the details of the state’s first independent ethics commission if voters give the go ahead in November. But beneath the amicable discussions there was a rematch of sorts, perhaps noticeable only to those aware of the contentious history surrounding the idea of an independent ethics commission. For almost 15 years, lawmakers offended by the notion that they needed anyone to watch over them squared off against other legislators who touted independent oversight as a way to restore public trust in government. Legislative opposition knew no political party, with both Democrats and Republicans chafing at the idea of an independent oversight body.
An interim committee hearing included harsh criticisms and personal stories of detention at private facilities which have contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee held a hearing Monday afternoon concerning two privately-operated prisons in New Mexico that detain immigrants. These include Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, which is run by CoreCivic, and the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, which is run by Management and Training Corporation. Legislators heard from an immigration attorney, advocates for immigrants and some in the country without authorization. The committee invited Ronald D. Vitello, the acting director of ICE, but he did not attend or even acknowledge the invitation.
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.
Gov. Susana Martinez signed a bill Thursday to pay for this year’s 30-day legislative session but vetoed funding for one particular Senate committee. House Bill 1 provides $4.7 million for the session and another $16.1 million for a year-round staff of lawyers, economists, analysts and other aides. But Martinez nixed $19,100 for the Senate Rules Committee, which is responsible for vetting the governor’s picks for Cabinet posts, university regents and a long list of other appointments in New Mexico government. Martinez accuses the committee of holding up confirmation hearings for dozens of her nominees. The money she vetoed had been earmarked for the committee to meet in between regular sessions of the Legislature, though it held only one such meeting last year.
State Sen. Linda Lopez is calling for the head of the New Mexico Public Education Department to resign over comments last month touting Manifest Destiny as one of the “fundamental principles of the country” — remarks that drew a scathing rebuke from Pueblo leaders. The department says Secretary-Designate Christopher Ruszkowski has reached out to tribal officials to express remorse after his comments at a charter school conference were reported in The Albuquerque Journal. But the remarks have still stirred outrage among indigenous New Mexicans who argue Ruszkowski demonstrated a lack of understanding about the history of westward expansion and the role of the education system in dispossessing Native Americans. The comments even drew the attention of The Washington Post this month. In a letter to Ruszkowski, Lopez wrote that he had still not explained what she described as “ill-advised comments.”
State Sen. Mimi Stewart will replace fellow Albuquerque Democrat Michael Padilla as Senate majority whip, elevating her to a leadership position for the first time after 23 years in the New Mexico Legislature. Senate Democrats, meeting behind closed doors Monday, chose Stewart to replace Padilla, who Senate Democrats voted to remove from the post because of an old sexual harassment case that took place before he was elected to the Senate. Stewart, a retired educator, said she believes she was chosen because of hard work. “You know I’m a teacher by trade,” she said. “I told my students, `I have eyes in the back of my head.’
More than a year after Albuquerque Public Schools denied her public records requests related to an incident involving her autistic son, Laura Gutierrez is taking the state’s biggest public school district to court. Her lawsuit, filed last month in Albuquerque’s state district court, alleges APS wrongly withheld public records responsive to requests she made in late 2015. She is asking for the school district to release the records and pay damages for violating the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA). Under IPRA, public agencies can be fined up to $100 per day in damages for not fulfilling public records requests if the person who brings the suit can prove damages. “I have decisions I need to make as a parent, and without these records I can’t move forward,” Gutierrez said in an interview.
The best thing that may be said about Republican State Representative Rod Montoya’s recent opinion piece regarding the state budget was that it was highly misleading. While mostly rehashing tired attacks on Democrats heard during election time – and short on any specifics—his main point in writing seems to be to accuse the legislative majority of “wast[ing] time on green chile legislation” while important issues went supposedly unaddressed during the legislative session. Nothing, as they say, could be further from the truth. First of all, the Legislature did pass a balanced budget for next year, FY ’18. That budget, which now sits on the Governor’s desk, was responsible and bipartisan—at least in the Senate where it passed 34 to 4. Unlike the reckless one offered by Governor Martinez and her uber-partisan Republican helpers like Rep. Montoya in the House, it prevents any further cuts to K-12 classrooms and other key services such as law enforcement.
Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed several bills and signed three others Thursday. One of the bills she vetoed was designed to address institutional racism in state government. In her signing message, Martinez said the bill would put too much of a burden on state agencies “without any assurance that the bill would actually identify or reduce institutionalized racism in the workplace.”
The bill sought to evaluate anti-institutional racism policies for state agencies, including in hiring, promotion and retention. Martinez objected to the bill’s attempt to create a statewide evaluation of race and gender gaps in these same areas. Martinez also attacked the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Linda Lopez, saying Lopez “blocked several Hispanics from serving in the highest levels of state governance by refusing to hold confirmation hearings for Regents.”
Voters in next year’s general election will get to decide on a proposed constitutional amendment to establish a state ethics commission. The measure could lead to creation of a commission to investigate possible public corruption cases and campaign finance violations. Both the House and the Senate on Friday night approved a compromise resolution. That followed the action of a special committee consisting of three senators and three state representatives who reconciled two versions of House Joint Resolution 8. A resolution that unanimously passed the House last week spelled out many details of how the ethics panel would operate.