Legislator wants to let Metro Court convene grand juries

If former New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Sol Watchler was right about grand juries and ham sandwiches, the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court might see more cold cuts.  

House Bill 19, sponsored by Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, D-Albuquerque, would allow the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court to convene grand juries, which are currently only held in state and federal district courts. The proposal, Hochman-Vigil said, is “an administrative clean-up measure.”

The Albuquerque lawyer added that some cases involving grand juries currently go back and forth between Metro and state District Courts and her bill would allow for more autonomy, particularly in Metro Court. “This allows for Metro Court to have better control over their own caseload and allows them flexibility to run these cases in the best, most efficient, manner they see possible,” Hochman-Vigil said. Felony cases in Bernalillo County sometimes start in Metro Court, but go to District Court if prosecutors decide to use a grand jury.

Senate approves bill requiring background checks on all gun sales

The state Senate narrowly approved a bill Thursday that would require just about anyone buying a firearm to undergo a background check. This legislation has been a priority for gun control advocates, but all 16 Republicans and four Democrats in the Senate said it would not prevent the sort of mass shootings that have spurred calls for such laws. Scheduled for the first anniversary of a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead, the Senate’s vote was the biggest test yet for gun control during this legislative session. Majority Democrats won the day on a 22-20 vote. Senate Bill 8 now heads to the state House of Representatives, which already has passed a law on background checks this year and might approve this measure.

Full House to vote on medical aid in dying

A bill to allow medical aid in dying is headed for a vote in the New Mexico House of Representatives after a committee of lawmakers on Wednesday tweaked the legislation, requiring a physician to be included among the two health care professionals needed to sign off on a terminally ill patient’s decision to end their life. House Bill 90 has prompted some of the most emotional discussions of the legislative session, raising issues of life, death and the government’s role in deeply personal medical decisions. The bill also has prompted several rounds of amendments by lawmakers weighing exactly how the process should work for patients seeking such a choice. Under what is known as the End of Life Options Act, a terminally ill patient who is mentally competent and has only six months to live could ask a prescribing health care provider for drugs that would allow him to end his own life. The patient would have to speak with a health care provider about alternatives, such as further treatment, and make the request in writing with witnesses.

Minimum wage hike passes House with phased-in raise for tipped workers

The New Mexico House of Representatives voted Wednesday night to raise the statewide minimum wage to $10 an hour in July and increase it annually starting next year. But amid heavy opposition from the restaurant industry, lawmakers backed off immediately abolishing the lower minimum wage for tipped workers and instead elected to phase it out over the next few years. Democrats made boosting the minimum wage a central promise of last year’s campaign and argue House Bill 31 will amount to a raise for about 150,000 workers across the state. With a bigger Democratic majority in the House this year, legislation proposing an increase of several dollars per hour was bound to pass the chamber. But HB 31 is still likely to meet opposition in the state Senate, even from some Democrats, spurring what will likely be a round of negotiations over just how high legislators on both sides of the Capitol can agree to raise the minimum wage.

State aims to halt Medicaid copays and premiums

The New Mexico Human Services Department is taking steps to reverse a number of Medicaid policies enacted by former Gov. Susana Martinez that state officials say would create unnecessary financial strain on hundreds of thousands of low-income patients and limit access to medical services and prescription drugs. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Wednesday she has directed the agency to seek approval from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to eliminate $8 copayments for patients receiving nonemergency services at hospital emergency departments or purchasing brand-name drugs, and $10 monthly premiums for about 50,000 adults covered by Medicaid under expanded eligibility rules. Both cost-share policies for patients in the state’s Medicaid program, called Centennial Care, were set to go into effect March 1. The copays would have effected about 650,000 people, according to a news release issued by Human Services spokeswoman Jodi McGinnis Porter. The agency sent a letter Tuesday to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, asking to halt those policies as well as a policy limiting eligibility for retroactive Medicaid benefits, which took effect Jan.

Looming redistricting task prompts legislation

Everybody around the state Capitol seems to have a favorite example. There’s the state House district in Northern New Mexico that is split in two by a mountain range and wilderness. You couldn’t drive across it if you tried. Then there’s the state Senate district that stretches some 180 miles from Santa Fe to Ruidoso. When it comes to political districts that have been precisely if nonsensically contorted, the New Mexico Legislature has got some real doozies.

Andy Lyman

Smith criticizes cap on property valuation increases

An influential state senator on Monday railed against a law that changed the way New Mexico taxes residential properties, saying the 2001 measure was supposed to help low-income people but instead has hurt them while providing a windfall to wealthier homeowners. Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, in remarks on the Senate floor, also said the law has robbed counties of needed tax revenue. Smith, D-Deming, called the fallout from the law the “unintended consequences of the do-good of the Legislature.” The senator made the remarks in response to a story in Sunday’s New Mexican, which examined the law’s history and effects. It was designed to protect longtime homeowners in gentrified neighborhoods like Santa Fe’s east side from being taxed out of their residences due to rising property values.

After failed indictments on sexual assault charges, father tries to rebuild family, career

In the late afternoon of August 30, 2017, Jessica Lowther was on the phone with her husband, Adam. Recently back from a routine business trip, Adam called to say he was headed home from work and would take their two young children to their taekwondo lessons. During that call, Jessica answered a knock on her front door. A handful of Bernalillo County Sheriff’s officers and at least one investigator from the Children Youth and Families Department stood at her door. A female officer said they needed to do a welfare check on the two Lowther children.

House Republicans, pushed further into the minority, feel frustration at lack of input

After a midterm election in which Democrats wrested back control of the Governor’s Office and expanded their majority in the state House of Representatives, Kelly Fajardo feels almost invisible at the Roundhouse this year. Fajardo, you see, is a Republican representative in a Democrat-dominated House, where members of the GOP are now outnumbered by the largest margin in two decades. “It just feels like we don’t matter,” said Fajardo, R-Los Lunas. “Our job is to create good policy, and when you’re going, ‘I don’t need you. I don’t need to listen to you,’ that creates a problem,” she said.

Recreational pot bill proposing 9% tax clears first hurdle

Proponents of legalizing marijuana have long pointed to a prospective windfall they say state and local governments could enjoy by taxing products that now circulate on the black market. But the sponsors of a bill to legalize marijuana in New Mexico have an unlikely goal. They don’t want to tax it too much. And there’s a reason why. “Our goal was to stay under 20 percent,” said Rep. Javier Martinez, a Democrat from Albuquerque who is co-sponsoring House Bill 356, known as the Cannabis Regulation Act.