Gov. Martinez announces budget solvency plan

Gov. Susana Martinez announced Tuesday her proposal to balance the state budget, which involves moving $268.5 million from various state agencies. “This is a responsible budget that reduces the size of government while at the same time protects the progress we’ve made in diversifying our economy, reforming our education system, and keeps our communities safe,” Martinez said in a press release. The proposal includes taking $120 million from public education in funds that Martinez’s press release referred to as “slush funds.”

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, told NM Political Report that the proposal is a “starting point for negotiation purposes,” but that real discussions will happen in committee meetings once the legislative session begins next week. Smith, a fiscal conservative, also criticized Martinez’s proposed sweep from public schools. “I’m not as harsh on education as she is,” Smith said.

SCOTUS rules against EPA on power plant rule

In a decision on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against an environmental initiative that came from President Barack Obama’s administration. Justice Antonin Scalia, who was part of the majority in the ruling, wrote that the Environmental Protection Agency did not take costs into consideration when the agency used  the Clean Air Act for new rules related to emissions from power plants. He and the majority said  that the EPA put environmental outcomes over the potential costs to energy producers for regulation. “One would not say that it is even rational, never mind ‘appropriate,’ to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits. In addition, ‘cost’ includes more than the expense of complying with regulations; any disadvantage could be termed a cost,” Scalia wrote in the ruling.

Public defenders office still needs money to fill positions

In a report to an interim legislative committee, the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender told lawmakers the situation for public defenders in the state is getting better, but that they still need more funding. Chief Public Defender Jorge Alvarado told the Legislative Finance Committee on Friday that his office is on its way to filling 33 staff attorney positions this year, but that contract counsel is still a problem. In his presentation, Alvarado said his office is struggling to maintain an adequate amount of contract attorneys to defend cases in rural parts of the state. He added that even with a standard of having “a heartbeat and a bar card” for contract attorneys, low flat rates for contracts makes it hard to attract lawyers. The Law Offices of the Public Defender has long advocated for hourly rates over flat fees in order to properly defend clients in court.

Court: Farmworkers eligible for worker’s comp

The New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled that farm and ranch workers are eligible for worker’s compensation benefits that are available to workers in other industries. The court ruled unanimously on Thursday that denying benefits to injured farm workers is unconstitutional and called the statutory exclusion of ranch and farm workers “arbitrary.”

From the decision:
We fail to see any real differences between workers who fall under the statutory definition of a farm and ranch laborer and workers who do not. We also fail to see any real differences between farm and ranch laborers and all other workers in New Mexico that would justify the exclusion. The ruling upheld a decision in the Second Judicial District Court, where a judge ruled the denial of benefits unconstitutional. In a written statement, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty praised the court’s decision and called the court’s analysis “thorough and thoughtful.”

On behalf of the center, Legal Director Gail Evans wrote, “Finally, the men and women who pick our chile, milk our cows, and continue our tradition of being an agricultural state have the same rights to health care and lost wages as other workers in our state, when they are injured doing this dangerous and important work.”

Not everyone is cheering the decision.

Case could determine if state is bound by Fair Pay for Women Act

A pending legal case against the New Mexico Corrections Department may determine whether or not the state must abide by a law requiring equal pay for men and women. The case goes back to a complaint filed in the First Judicial District Court in 2013 against the Corrections Department by Alisha Tafoya-Lucero, a deputy warden with the state corrections department. The complaint alleges that Tafoya-Lucero is paid less than one of her male colleagues and that the department is in violation of the Fair Pay for Women Act, which Gov. Susana Martinez signed into law less than a year before. According to the complaint, Tafoya-Lucero earned $10 less per hour than Derek Williams, another deputy warden. Currently,Tafoya-Lucero is listed as the lowest earning deputy warden, whereas Williams is listed as the top earner for the job classification.

City wants 12-person jury over whistleblower allegations

The City of Albuquerque and other defendants in a whistleblower lawsuit filed a request for a twelve-person jury on Monday. John Corvino, a former trainer for the Albuquerque Police Department, filed a suit against the city. This week City Attorney Jessica Hernandez filed a response to Corvino’s allegations and subsequent demand for a jury trial. The city’s response contested claims that Corvino faced retaliation by his superiors for bringing to light possible police training deficiencies in the police academy. The allegations date back to 2013 when Corvino, when he was a trainer for APD, notified his superiors that instructors were training officers without proper certifications.

Retaliation, minimum wage trial ends in settlement (Updated)

A two-year legal battle between an Albuquerque restaurant and a former employee over a  dispute related to paying Albuquerque’s minimum wage is on its way to an end. In a settlement approved by a district court judge, the Route 66 Malt Shop and a former employee, Kevin O’Leary, agreed out of court in the case. The terms of the agreement are not public. On Wednesday after a day-long trial, both parties agreed to settle after which  Second Judicial District Court Judge Denise Barela-Shepherd dismissed the jury. The court case began in 2013, when O’Leary’s attorneys, along with the City of Albuquerque, filed suit against the Route 66 Malt Shop and the family that operates it.

ABQ minimum wage dispute headed to trial

The Albuquerque Journal reported Tuesday that a drawn out argument between a former employee and a restaurant owner over minimum wage is headed to trial. What originated as a fight by Kevin O’Leary, a former employee of the Route 66 Malt Shop in the Nob Hill neighborhood of Albuquerque, to be paid Albuquerque’s minimum wage is now shaping up to be suit about retaliation. O’Leary originally brought attention to the restaurant when he said he was forced to agree to work for a lower wage than Albuquerque’s mandated minimum wage. Albuquerque’s minimum wage was increased in 2013 after a vote in late 2012. O’Leary told news media he was asked to sign an agreement to accept $2.13 an hour as opposed to $3.83, the minimum wage at the time for tipped employees.

AG wants bids from forensic audit firms for behavioral health investigation

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas announced on Wednesday that his office is looking for private investigation firms to help with the investigation of 12 behavioral health providers in New Mexico. According to a statement from the Attorney General’s office, a request for proposals (RFP) was issued earlier this month for forensic audit firms. Balderas said the RFP is an effort to expedite his investigation into providers accused of fraud by the Human Services Department. “Expanding the pool of expertise to work with our staff will allow our investigation to proceed even more quickly and efficiently, which has always been my priority,” he said. The investigation of 15 behavioral health providers goes back to an HSD audit that found possible cases of client overbilling and misuse of Medicaid funds. Soon after the audit, the state froze payments to the providers accused of fraud, and companies from out of the state were brought in to take over.

Post-special session responses

This year’s four-and-a-half-hour special session left many lawmakers praising their own bipartisan efforts to pass three bills including a tax package, capital outlay appropriations and money for courts and health care facilities. While some lawmakers debated the bills and pointed out inadequacies of the legislation, all of the legislation either passed unanimously or by a large majority. When the Legislature announced Sine Die, many lawmakers made their way straight for the doors, but soon after a flurry of press releases were sent out. Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, touted the Capital Outlay bill as a good start to create jobs and keep New Mexican’s employed. “Our main task in the Senate is to serve people and we are doing that today.