State lawmakers did not know Jeremiah Valencia during his short, tormented life. But 13-year-old Jeremiah’s death dominated debate at a lengthy legislative hearing Thursday. At issue was a bill to make intentional child abuse resulting in death a first-degree felony that carries a life prison sentence, regardless of a child’s age. Under current state law on child abuse, life sentences can only be given to defendants who intentionally kill a child younger than 12. Someone who abuses and kills a child between 13 and 18 can receive a sentence of up to 18 years.
One of the biggest winners in the just concluded 60-day session of the New Mexico Legislature was a man who never set foot in the Roundhouse and, in fact, never came close to crossing the state border. His name is Donald J. Trump, the president of the United States. Republican Trump lost New Mexico in November by 8 percentage points, and Democrats control both the state Senate and House of Representatives. Even so, several pieces of legislation aimed at Trump failed to get traction in the Legislature. Senate Bill 118, sponsored by Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, would have required presidential candidates to disclose five years of personal income taxes to get on the general election ballot in New Mexico.
Gov. Susana Martinez personally lobbied the Senate’s top Democrat to support a controversial bill that would have created an exception in government rules and allowed state agencies to extend their leases at a building owned by donors to her campaign. Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said Monday that Martinez asked him to support the measure after he had voted against it in a committee hearing. “I was concerned about having a state law that overrides an agency’s rule,” Wirth said. But during a later conversation, Martinez asked him to reconsider, Wirth said. As majority leader, Wirth held off bringing the measure to a vote by the full Senate, and he asked another senator to vet its legality.
In an extraordinary maneuver, state senators killed a bill Saturday that they had approved four days earlier after one of them said he had misled his colleagues about connections between Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and real estate developers who stood to benefit from the legislation. Democrats charged that the bill, which would have extended a building lease for state offices in Albuquerque, had turned into an example of pay-to-play politics, while members of Martinez’s administration maintained they had made an honest mistake based on incomplete information. For her part, Martinez said through a spokesman that neither she nor her staff ever discussed with campaign donors the leases addressed in the measure. At issue was an unusual and late-breaking piece of legislation, Senate Bill 430, that met with skepticism at just about every step of its journey through the Capitol until its sudden death Saturday. Sponsored by Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec, the bill would have carved out an exception to state rules on renting property.
State Sen. Michael Padilla, an Albuquerque Democrat who was raised in foster care and has largely focused his legislative efforts on reforming New Mexico’s child welfare system, has introduced a measure to create a task force on child homicides. The proposal also would give the state attorney general authority to order an independent investigation into a child abuse death. The team would include medical experts, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, child welfare workers, tribal members and others. It would be tasked with evaluating investigations of a child’s death, as well as examining how agencies and individuals responded to concerns about the child before the slaying. The task force also would make recommendations to the Legislature on needed reforms.
Senate Bill 294 comes as New Mexico experiences a steep rise in child abuse cases.
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.
For the second time this legislative session, a Republican broke ranks with his party to vote down legislation aimed at further regulating abortion procedures in the state. Rep. James Smith, R-Sandia Park, voted against a House memorial asking three state agencies to coordinate reporting when infants who show signs of life outside of the womb after abortion procedures. “If you were bringing a bill banning late-term abortion, I’d be with this,” Smith told sponsor and Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, in committee. “But this is concerning.”
Smith joined three Democrats Monday afternoon in the House Regulatory and Public Affairs Committee in tabling Montoya’s memorial on a 4-3 vote. During debate, Montoya mentioned how the University of New Mexico, which provides abortions during the first and second trimester of pregnancies, likely is not practicing “the particular abortion procedure that is producing born alive infants.”
Smith responded that the Legislature isn’t the correct body to “go after a potential violator” if it didn’t know who the violator was or if a violation was happening.
Just a few things we had that couldn’t quite make a full story. —People who share “sensitive images”—i.e. pictures of genitals—with children will be subject to a fourth degree felony under a bill passed unanimously by the House Judiciary Committee. Children, Youth and Families Department Secretary Monique Jacobson testified about how a man sharing pictures of a penis with a child got a misdemeanor because prosecutors couldn’t prove that the penis belonged to him. “We want to make clear it’s not OK, whether it’s yours or someone else’s,” she said. —Another proposal to change bail in New Mexico failed in the House Safety and Civil Affairs Committee without any discussion.
The New Mexico Attorney General introduced a team that will review the state’s criminal justice system, particularly violent crimes, and identify solutions for problems they find. The group, called the Multidisciplinary Violent Crime Review Team, was revealed on Wednesday in Albuquerque and is made up of state and local leaders. Balderas warned the team and members of the public, “this is not going to be an easy process.”
The idea to create the group came after Rio Rancho police officer Gregg Benner was fatally shot earlier this year by a repeat offender. The first phase will include a look into this case. Balderas called the shooting “a breaking point for the general public.”
Julie Benner added that she wants to see changes to the criminal justice system in the state.
The New Mexico Senate voted to confirm Monique Jacobson as the Secretary of Children, Youth and Families Department on Monday afternoon. The Senate voted 35-2 on her confirmation. Those who spoke in favor of the confirmation said they were impressed with the work Jacobson has accomplished in the short time she has been in charge of the department. Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, told the body he was concerned when he first heard of Jacobson’s appointment, but that he changed his mind when he saw Jacobson’s enthusiasm for the job. “She has taken on the task with energy and zeal,” Soules said.