Study: New Mexico public defenders office need 67% more lawyers to be ‘effective’

The state agency that provides legal representation for indigent defendants is drastically understaffed, according to a recently released study which says the Law Offices of the Public Defender needs 67 percent more lawyers that it has to provide “reasonably effective assistance of counsel” as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. That’s 602 more attorneys — more than double the 295 the agency currently has.  

“It frightening,” Public Defender Commission Chairman Thomas J. Clear III told House Appropriations and Finance Committee members Friday. “I have warned it is a problem that is going to cost this state a lot of money, and this report verifies it.  “I applaud our attorneys …[who] handle these cases, but quite frankly, the defendants aren’t receiving any kind of quality representation systemically,” he added. Completed by the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense, the study is an outgrowth of a 2016 crisis within the state agency.

Republicans file lawsuit over congressional redistricting

The Republican Party of New Mexico and six other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit Friday in the 5th Judicial District Court alleging a new map of the state’s three congressional districts, approved last month by the heavily Democratic Legislature, is “a political gerrymander” that weakens the voting power of residents in southeastern communities. The suit says legislators “ran roughshod” over traditional redistricting methods to give Democrats an advantage. Communities of interest were split around the state, according to the suit, but particularly in the southeast, long a Republican stronghold. “Fracturing these communities of interesting drastically cracks — and thereby dilutes — a significant block of registered Republicans,” the complaint says. It names Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart and House Speaker Brian Egolf, all Democrats, as defendants.

Ethics watchdog issues report on payday loan industry lobbying

It has become a cycle of despair for low-income residents with poor credit scores: They take out a high-interest installment loan to tide them over in tough times and soon accumulate an unmanageable load. They pay off old debt with new loans at rates of up 175 percent. For years, state lawmakers have unsuccessfully tried to introduce legislation capping the interest rate for such loans at 36 percent. Their efforts have failed repeatedly. An attempt last year to forge a compromise — with a 99 percent cap on the smallest loans, of up to $1,100, and 36 percent on higher amounts — stalled in the House of Representatives.

Gov. Lujan Grisham gives OK for legislature to make some cannabis law changes

In addition to high-profile efforts to improve public safety and education, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has called on lawmakers to address cannabis during the 30-day legislative session. 

Lujan Grisham issued a message on Thursday afternoon, authorizing lawmakers to add changes to the Cannabis Regulation Act to the legislative agenda. 

The governor’s message pertains to SB 100, which is sponsored by state Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque. The bill, if passed, would increase production limits for cannabis microbusinesses, allow state regulators to require education requirements for cannabis servers, allow liquor license holders to also obtain a cannabis business license and allow some cannabis businesses to employ workers who are under 21, but over 18 years of age, as well as other changes to the law. 

The state’s Cannabis Control Division announced earlier this week that it planned to work with the governor and lawmakers to increase plant limits for cannabis microbusinesses as a way to combat expected shortages in April when sales are expected to begin. The division also announced an emergency rule change for non-microbusinesses, but production limits for smaller operations are written into statute. SB 100 proposes to increase plant limits for microbusinesses from 200 to 1,000 mature plants. The bill would also allow cannabis businesses that previously only sold medical cannabis to employ workers who are 18 years of age.

2021 Kids Count Data Book indicates positives but also continued challenges

The advocacy group New Mexico Voices for Children released the 2021 Kids Count Data Book on Wednesday and said that, according to the data, New Mexico saw 20,000 additional children enrolled in Medicaid in 2021. Emily Wildau, the New Mexico Kids Count Data Book coordinator, said that data was one of the biggest surprises for her to come out of the annual assessment of how New Mexico is doing in terms of how children are doing. “That was one of the biggest things that really stuck out,” Wildau said. Every year NMVC releases the Kids Count Data Book that assesses how New Mexico children are faring. Wildau said that this year, because of some data collection challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the data is based on earlier surveys and resources.