Lujan Grisham signs labor bill into law, dismisses transparency concerns

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a change to the state’s Public Employee Bargaining Act (PEBA) into law Thursday, despite government transparency advocates urging her not to. 

Lujan Grisham said in a statement that the law will ensure consistency and clarity for local labor boards around the state. 

“Our public employees – including teachers, sanitation workers, firefighters and police officers – deserve uniform rules and a uniform process to negotiate fair wages and safe working conditions,” Lujan Grisham said. 

Last week, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government asked the governor not to sign the bill in the name of transparency. The group argued that a possible unintended consequence of HB 364 is that information about public employees like hire dates would be kept a secret. The sticking point for the group, according to a letter they sent Lujan Grisham, is a provision that requires employers to pass on information about new employees within 10 days, but bars passing that information on to “a third party.” But, a lawyer for a New Mexico public sector labor union told the Albuquerque Journal that the language specifically supports the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) instead of eroding it as NM FOG claims.  

In the same press release from Lujan Grisham’s office on Thursday, spokesman Tripp Stelnicki reiterated that the governor’s office does not see the bill as problematic for transparency. 

“Concerns about a specific provision involving the transmission of employee information between public agency and union are well-intentioned and valuable, as this administration aims to honor and restore transparency in government after eight years of the opposite,” Stelnicki said in the statement. “But what was publicly accessible is very much still publicly accessible.”

In a statement issued after Lujan Grisham signed HB 364, NM FOG said the issue will likely not get cleared up until a challenge is filed in court. 

“While the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (FOG) appreciates Governor Michelle

Lujan Grisham’s public expressions of support for transparency in government, only time will

tell whether courts will construe the problematic provisions of House Bill 364 in the way the governor would like them construed or in the way they’re actually written,” the statement read. 

Questions about what information on public employees should be readily accessible led to a lawsuit in 2012 between the same labor union that pushed for HB 364 and then-Gov. Susana Martinez. The Martinez administration argued that information like hire dates, salaries and names of public employees should be published on the state’s Sunshine Portal.

Labor union: Jail firings were unjustified, retaliation

Three Bernalillo County detention officers, one former officer and a local public sector labor union filed suit against the county, half a dozen jail supervisors, the Bernalillo County Sheriff and two other county law enforcement officers.  

The suit alleges top officials at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) along with the county Sheriff’s office and upper county administrators actively prevented union members from associating with the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), New Mexico Council 18, Local 2499. According to the lawsuit, in 2015 county officials were “caught red-handed” trying to “engage in an actual conspiracy” to hire staff who would work against union leaders. Then, the lawsuit says, county jail leaders continued to retaliate against vocal union leaders like Eric Allen, a corrections officer who was fired from MDC for two instances of use of force, and Stephen Perkins, an MDC corrections officer who is currently on administrative leave and is currently facing false imprisonment charges. Both Allen and Perkins were already in the news this year.

U.S. Supreme Court strikes blow against public sector unions

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that public sector labor unions can no longer mandate fees from the workers they represent. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Mark Janus, an Illinois man who argued he should not be required to pay fees for contract negotiations between the union and his employer. In New Mexico, the debate over mandatory union fees goes back decades, but has seen a resurgence in the past few years when Republicans began trying to pass right-to-work laws, or laws banning union fees as a term of employment. More recently, Americans for Prosperity New Mexico (AFP-NM) began lobbying counties to pass right-to-work laws in the private sector. With this ruling, public sector labor unions must immediately stop collecting fees beyond dues which are paid by members who voluntarily join.

State official who pleaded the 5th no longer in charge of SNAP processing

A state official who pleaded her Fifth Amendment rights 39 times in federal court in May is no longer in charge of the Human Services Department’s Income Support Division, which processes federal food aid benefits. HSD Secretary Brent Earnest announced Friday, ahead of a holiday weekend, that Marilyn Martinez will no longer head the department’s Income Support Division. Starting today, Martinez will act as chief of the department’s financial services bureau in the administrative services division. “Marilyn has been a dedicated member of the HSD team for many years, recently serving as ISD Director,” Earnest wrote in an email to employees last Friday, “and I look forward to her contributing her experience and expertise within ASD.”

Martinez appeared on the stand as a witness in an ongoing lawsuit alleging that HSD is mishandling applications for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. There, Martinez invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to answer 39 questions from an attorney representing the Center on Law and Poverty.

New allegations say food benefits falsification escalated in recent years

This month’s federal court hearing regarding ongoing claims by Human Services Department employees of widespread fraud within the department was notable for another reason besides three high state officials invoking their Fifth Amendment rights nearly 100 times. One former employee testified the department’s practice of adding fake assets to emergency food stamp applications in order to fix the department’s backlog of late applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program came directly from the department’s top brass. Shar Lynne Louis, a former employee at HSD’s Income Support Division (ISD) in Gallup who retired last summer, was one of nine current and former employees who gave testimony in the case over two hearings. Louis said she often reviewed the state’s policies and procedures and could never find anything in them justify adding fake assets. So she asked her superiors.

NM Auditor, HSD launch probes into SNAP fraud allegations

State Auditor Tim Keller announced Friday an investigation by his office into allegations that the state instructed employees to commit fraud on federal food stamp applications. Keller wrote on Twitter that he “has opened a case to look into the allegations of food assistance application fraud by HSD.”

A spokeswoman for the state auditor said he opened the case after learning about the allegations that came up in federal court. The news came one day after five Human Services Department employees testified that the department instructed them to falsify emergency applications for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. HSD officials wanted employees to add fake assets to several emergency SNAP to cut down the department’s high numbers of overdue emergency applications, according to the multiple testimonies. Federal law requires those who qualify for emergency SNAP benefits to receive benefits within seven days of applying.