Raul Torrez

District attorney: ‘Budgetary technicality’ to blame for unspent funds

Next January marks the beginning of the New Mexico’s 30-day legislative session, which will largely focus on budget issues, including how much money state departments, local governments and courts will get. Given Albuquerque’s high crime rate, the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s office and its funding will likely be under scrutiny by legislators. A preview of that scrutiny came in the form of a letter in October from the head of the House committee in charge of the budget and the Speaker of the House, to 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raul Torrez. 

The October letter asked Torrez to detail how he spent the more-than-$6-million in appropriations his office received almost two years ago. In a Legislative Finance hearing earlier this week, Torrez told lawmakers a misunderstanding in how to word the request for money resulted in about $1.7 million of a $2 million special appropriation inaccessible to his office. In an almost 50-page report, Torrez told the LFC that it wasn’t until August of this year that his office realized that a “budgetary technicality” regarding recurring funds left most of the special appropriation effectively unusable. 

“We reached out to our analyst and we were specifically told that the language was not necessary,” Torrez told the panel. 

During the 2018 legislative session, Torrez asked the Legislature to appropriate $4.1 million with an additional $2.5 million to help fund a pilot program called the Crime Strategies Unit (CSU) for better tracking and analysis.

Two progressives vying for a BernCo Commission seat

As the dust settles from the Albuquerque municipal election and federal candidates gear up for the 2020 elections, two friends are preparing to run against each other for a spot on the Bernalillo County Commission. 

Adriann Barboa and Adrian Carver are progressive Democratic community activists and hope to replace County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins, who will be termed out next year. With the primary election about six months away, the two have begun getting the word out about their campaigns. 

Barboa is a mother of two who identifies as a queer chicana and was raised in a pocket of District 3 near the Albuquerque airport that she said is often overlooked by politicians. She said too often politicians with the best of intentions just do not understand overlooked and marginalized people and communities. 

“When you haven’t had some of that lived experience you don’t get to see that nuance,” Barboa said. 

The nuance in Barboa’s childhood included a politically engaged father who was also a “very functioning” heroin addict and alcoholic. She said her late father was the primary financial provider for the family and it wasn’t until she was 12 that she finally realized that he struggled with addiction. That life experience, she said, helped her when she worked as a Youth Development Incorporated case worker and community organizer—she was instrumental in organizing a push for mandatory sick leave.   

“I truly believe our lived experience is policy expertise,” Barboa said. 

Earlier this year when former state Senator Cisco McSorley was tapped to lead the Probation and Parole Division of the state Corrections Department, Barboa was one of many who sought to replace McSorley.

Long-time incumbent and political newcomer emerge as winners in two ABQ council races

Two divisive Albuquerque city council district races were decided in a runoff election Tuesday night. Incumbent City Councilor Isaac Benton won his race in District 2, which includes the downtown and historic Barelas neighborhoods. Political newcomer Brook Bassan won her race against Ane Romero, who has never held a political office before, but ran for a state House seat in 2016. 

Benton told NM Political Report that his win shows that his constituency knows he’s not in it for the fame or fortune of the city council. “I’ve always just wanted to serve and I think quite a few people recognize that,” Benton said. 

Leading up to the election last month where Benton won the most votes, but failed to get more than 50 percent, accusations of dishonesty came from both sides. But it was a mailer from political group who supported Benton that caused the most controversy and division.

Cannabis advisory board meeting unable to address qualifying conditions due to lack of quorum

A state panel met but was unable to make any actual recommendations for adding more qualifying conditions to the list of reasons approved patients can use medical cannabis. 

The New Mexico Medical Cannabis Advisory Board heard thoughts and recommendations from a handful of medical cannabis patients on Tuesday on how to improve the Medical Cannabis Program. The board will send Department of Health Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel their words of support for the dozens of patients and patient advocates who spoke about things like changing state statute to broaden who can use medical cannabis and social inequalities in who owns production companies. 

The advisory board was put in place through state law to hear from petitioners who want certain qualifying conditions added to the list of reasons patients can legally use medical cannabis. There are currently almost 30 qualifying conditions that range from chronic pain to post traumatic stress disorder. 

What began as a traditional advisory board meeting on Tuesday, evolved into a de facto listening session where patients and advocates aired their concerns about the program. All but one of the advisory board members attended the meeting by phone. But by the time the board got to the last three petitions, most of the board members left the call, resulting in a loss of quorum. 

The issues raised before the loss of quorum were general suggestions for the program and not conditions the board has authority to actually weigh-in on.

State job opportunities limited for medical cannabis patients

Earlier this year, New Mexico legislators and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham overhauled the state’s medical cannabis statute. Updates to the law ranged from relatively simple definition changes to more significant changes like allowing consumption areas for cannabis patients. 

But the parts of the law that are supposed to protect patients from losing their jobs solely for being a patient in the program may also be hindering the nearly 79,000 cannabis patients in New Mexico from getting a job with the state. That’s because the law also protects employers by giving them enough autonomy to fire or not hire a cannabis patient for safety concerns or if the employer could lose federal funding for hiring a cannabis user. 

Jason Barker is a medical cannabis patient advocate and a patient himself. He said he started looking at job descriptions after the state announced a three-day “rapid hire event”scheduled for next week and aimed at hiring hundreds of new employees. But, Barker said, many of the jobs he’s qualified for are considered safety sensitive, which would require a pre-employment drug test.

Brief public hearing focused on cannabis testing standards, additional meeting scheduled

Snowy and icy roads Friday morning made for a short, and yet to be completed, public comment period for medical cannabis rule changes. 

New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program (MCP), which is run by the state Department of Health, convened a meeting for public comments on a number of proposed changes, including patient reciprocity, consumption areas and testing standards. The program’s director, Dominick Zurlo, began the meeting by announcing a second meeting to give those who could not make it due to the weather a chance to add input. Friday’s meeting was only about an hour long and comments largely focused on testing standards and mostly came from producers. 

Ben Lewinger, executive director of the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, told the MCP that the proposed microbiological, heavy metal and pesticide testing and labeling standards were problematic. 

“We feel like labeling is a very important component, but the labeling restrictions are simply unrealistic for what needs to go on a vast amount of products that are sold as medicine,” Lewinger said. 

Lewinger added that the increased amount of product producers are required to pull for testing would not only harm producers, but would increase costs to patients. 

Jennifer Merryman, from Mountaintop Extracts, agreed with Lewinger about testing sample sizes and suggested the MCP have more frequent and thorough conversations with those in the medical cannabis industry before proposing rules. 

“Perhaps we could add a little bit of local, New Mexico common sense,” Merryman said. “We’re all willing to work with you.”

Zurlo later invited those in the crowd to reach out to him with their concerns. 

Merryman told NM Political Report the proposed rules would significantly cut into the supply of smaller production companies. 

“Normally we send one and a half grams, sometimes [testing labs] will ask for two grams but not anymore than that per batch testing,” Merryman said. “Now, they’re looking to have a 23 gram sample per batch test.”

She said that standard would hurt small operations who have smaller yields. 

“That’s taking away product from that dispensary who has to compensate the loss of that money on to the patient,” Merryman said. 

Other producers also spoke about their concerns about labeling and testing standards and their common message was that increased sample sizes would ultimately equal higher prices for patients. 

What was almost non-existent in the meeting were the topics of patient reciprocity, producer fee structures and consumption areas.

ABQ radio station owner considering a run for Senate

On any given weekday afternoon in Albuquerque just after 4 p.m., on KIVA-FM, listeners can hear the brief hit song from the late 1990s, You Get What You Give, followed by the booming and conservative voice of Eddy Aragon. Aragon makes it very clear he stands far to the right on the political spectrum. 

Now, after four years of owning and operating the station that airs his daily show, Aragon said he’s considering running for U.S. Senate—with a stress on “considering.” 

“You have to imagine the tremendous sacrifice that I have to consider,” Aragon said. “Being off during the year Donald Trump is running in 2020, that’s a sacrifice to my radio station.”

But he said enough people asked him to consider running that he decided in October to explore the idea. 

Tipping things toward a possible run for Aragon is the field of candidates poised to run against U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján. Luján announced earlier this year that he would run for Senate after U.S. Sen. Tom Udall said he would not seek another term next year. Up until several weeks ago, Luján faced New Mexico’s Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver in the Democratic primary.

State Auditor: Secret payouts were ‘about abuse of power’

In a press conference Monday, New Mexico State Auditor Brian Colón announced his office’s findings regarding multiple secret payouts approved by former Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration. Colón said he was “disappointed” and “disgusted” with the way the Martinez administration handled 18 confidential legal settlements totalling $5 million in taxpayer money. The payouts were in response to a lawsuit filed against Martinez and her former chief of police, alleging workplace harrasment and discrimination.   

“This is about abuse of power, a lack of transparency, and particularly as it relates to political appointees by our former governor,” Colón said. 

The Martinez administration finalized the settlements in question just before she left office and approved by a cabinet secretary she appointed. News stories about the settlement highlighted not only a mysterious audio recording that reportedly contained a conversation between Martinez and her husband, but also an unusually long confidentiality period. 

But state law still allows settlements like these to remain confidential for 180 days. Colón said he’d like to see a change in that law. 

“I look forward to standing at the Legislature and explaining to them if we’re going to restore people’s trust in government, we have to change the confidentiality agreement, period,” Colón said.    

Colón is not the first official to call for a revamp of the state’s confidentiality law for legal settlements.

NM leaves med. cannabis security specifics up to producers

On a Sunday afternoon over Labor Day weekend, a masked man, armed with a gun, burst through the doors of an Albuquerque medical cannabis dispensary. About two minutes later, he walked back out the door, with an estimated $5,000 worth of cannabis products. In that time, the man hopped over a glass display case and corralled employees and at least one patient into one spot while he emptied a large jar of cannabis—and seconds later cannabis concentrates from the display case—into a bag. After he left, the man got into a car waiting in the back and sped off. All of it was caught on security cameras.  

In body camera footage from the Albuquerque Police Department, one of the employees can be heard recounting what the man said. 

“He asked if we had families and he was like, ‘Then you understand why I have to do this,’” the employee said.

Letters could foreshadow future debates over crime prevention, budgets

The months leading up to legislative sessions are often marked by state agencies presenting progress reports to lawmakers. Crime in the Albuquerque area has been a frequent subject to come up when talking about spending. But those conversations are usually devoted to the road ahead and not to picking apart past budgets. 

But in a letter sent last month, the state’s speaker of the House and a top financial leader in the House asked the Bernalillo County district attorney for an informal audit of millions of dollars appropriated to his office two years ago. In return, the district attorney offered a private meeting with a legislative panel to go over how money is being spent. The written exchanges hint at further budget scrutiny from lawmakers, and also a potential rift between some House and Senate Democrats. 

Progress report

On October 17, New Mexico Speaker of the House Brian Egolf and House Appropriations Chair and Legislative Finance Co-chair Patricia Lundstrom, both Democrats, co-authored a letter to 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raul Torrez about an upcoming interim meeting with the Legislative Finance Committee.