A state House committee on Friday tabled two pieces of legislation aimed at stopping public school superintendents, college presidents and university coaches from getting what some lawmakers referred to as a “golden parachute” when their contracts are terminated early. The House Education Committee action effectively killed both bills, sponsored by Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque. The decisions came on bipartisan votes, with some lawmakers and members of the education community arguing that the measures would hinder the ability of school districts and colleges to recruit high-quality candidates for top jobs. Much of the discussion Friday centered on recent controversy involving Robert Frank, the former president of The University of New Mexico who agreed to step down in December under a deal with the board of regents that allows him to continue collecting his annual salary of $350,000 through May. Under the agreement, Frank can continue working at UNM in a $190,000-a-year tenured position.
With the state wracked by successive corruption scandals involving top officials, several lawmakers seem to agree that this is the year for ethics reform in New Mexico. A committee of the state House of Representatives gave a boost to those hopes Thursday by advancing a bipartisan proposal to establish an independent ethics commission through a constitutional amendment. The commission would have the power to investigate complaints of misconduct by public officials, candidates, lobbyists and contractors. The complaints would be public, and the commission’s opinions could be appealed to the state courts. Campaign finance reform advocates and good government groups have fought for years to create such a body.
State lawmakers have been able to prefile legislation for the upcoming legislative session since last Thursday. Already, they have introduced some high profile bills such as increasing the minimum wage, automatic voter registration and increasing penalties for certain crimes. Two efforts to amend the state constitution to tap the land grant permanent fund to provide money for early childhood education as bills will likely also make headlines when the session starts in mid-January. As in the past two legislative sessions, proposals to increase the penalties for crimes largely come from members of the House. Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque will again try to expand the state’s three strikes law.
A House committee passed a bill Thursday that would strip public officials of their pensions if they are convicted of some public corruption offenses. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso, was originally aimed at taking all retirement funds from officials who violate public trust by breaking campaign finance or corruption laws. House Safety and Civil Affairs Committee Chairman Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, said some committee members were concerned that the original bill would unfairly take money put into the pension from a previous stint in public service. Rehm introduced a committee substitute to address the issue. “In the original version once the violation occurs it would go back and erase other retirement,” Rehm said.
Just a few things we had that couldn’t quite make a full story. —People who share “sensitive images”—i.e. pictures of genitals—with children will be subject to a fourth degree felony under a bill passed unanimously by the House Judiciary Committee. Children, Youth and Families Department Secretary Monique Jacobson testified about how a man sharing pictures of a penis with a child got a misdemeanor because prosecutors couldn’t prove that the penis belonged to him. “We want to make clear it’s not OK, whether it’s yours or someone else’s,” she said. —Another proposal to change bail in New Mexico failed in the House Safety and Civil Affairs Committee without any discussion.
The House Education Committee addressed two bills that seemed to target issues within the Albuquerque Public Schools. The committee voted unanimously to tighten educator background checks but failed to pass legislation that would add restrictions to school district superintendents in Albuquerque and Las Cruces. Both bills stem from recent issues in Albuquerque where the past two superintendents left with large severance packages and a deputy superintendent was hired without a background check while he had criminal sexual abuse charges on his record. Rep. David Adkins, R-Albuquerque, is sponsoring HB 127 which would require all educators to complete a fingerprint based background check before they start work. Currently, state statute does not outline a specific timeline for when a background check must be completed.
Next week marks the beginning of this year’s legislative session. This is a short session which means the main focus will be on budgetary issues—along with what Gov. Susana Martinez deems important enough to be discussed. If the legislation that has been prefiled is any indication, this session will also see a number of crime bills, both in reform and increased penalty efforts. House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, told NM Political Report that lawmakers need to to take a look at laws that can put an end to repeat offenders. “What concerns me are those individuals who show a propensity to violence again and again,” Gentry said.
When the legislative session begins on Tuesday, Jan. 19, NM Political Report will be on hand for wall-to-wall coverage through adjournment at noon on Feb. 18. And, actually, legislation is already starting to be introduced. Pre-filing of legislation began on Dec.
An interim committee endorsed two pieces of legislation that would expand the list of crimes that would qualify for New Mexico’s three strikes law. After three convictions for eligible crimes, the person convicted would face a life sentence in prison. The more contentious of the two was the one brought forward by Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, perhaps because it was the first time the committee had heard that particular legislation. Pacheco called his legislation “narrowly crafted” a number of times and said it was his intention to only target “super predators.” The additions would add more than ten felonies on the list of crimes eligible for the three strikes law, including involuntary manslaughter and first degree abuse of a child.
If the first meeting of a Special Investigatory Committee looking into impeaching Secretary of State Dianna Duran was any indication, the journey between now and possible impeachment will be long and grueling. Lawmakers approved granting committee co-chairs state Reps. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso, and Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, authority to hire legal counsel. Cook said the committee will likely hire an attorney within the next week. The lawyer will be tasked with guiding the committee through the investigation of Duran’s alleged wrongdoing.