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.
During a two-hour Senate Finance Committee hearing on HB 2, the committee learned of issues with the bill that will likely require change to the legislation. Department of Game and Fish Director, Michael Sloane, told the committee during the hearing that the department did not request the $5 million appropriated in the bill for property acquisition. He said the department is not currently considering any property acquisition projects. This led to concern among some committee members who brought up Bar L Ranch in Sandoval County, that the money was appropriated for that purchase but Sloane said any talk about the state purchasing that land was premature. Senate Finance Chair George Muñoz, D-Gallup, clarified how the appropriation happened by saying that the Legislative Finance Committee had reached out to the department but, he said, didn’t hear back.
New Mexicans should expect smoother roads and state government employees can look forward to a 1.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment in the upcoming fiscal year under a $7.39 billion spending plan the House Appropriations and Finance Committee unanimously approved Monday. The proposed budget, which represents a 4.6 percent increase over the current fiscal year, includes $300 million for state and local roads. The proposal also calls for $64 million in spending for a cost-of-living adjustment for all state government, public school and higher education employees. “This is the cleanest bill I’ve seen in the last 20 years,” said Rep. Patty Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat who chairs the committee. “There’s no love handles on this bill.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill Wednesday that makes nondisclosure agreements for harassment, retaliation or discrimination no longer a bargaining tool for employers in settlements. HB 21, a nondisclosure agreement bill, levels the playing field, according to bill sponsor Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, a Democrat from Albuquerque. When a victim of harassment, retaliation or discrimination files a lawsuit against an employer, the employer can no longer require the victim to sign a nondisclosure agreement as part of the settlement. Hochman-Vigil and other proponents of the bill said during the legislative session that more often than not the victim is no longer employed when they bring suit and are forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement as a condition for settling. That silences the victim, proponents said during the legislative session.
A bill that protects victims of sexual harassment, retaliation and discrimination passed the House floor unanimously late Thursday night. The House voted 67-0 in support of HB 21, which prevents an employer from forcing a nondisclosure agreement on an employee who is settling over sexual harassment, discrimination or retaliation. Most cases never reach the courts, said Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, D-Albuquerque, during the House floor discussion. Hochman-Vigil also said that more often than not the victim is no longer employed and cannot get a new job and needs to reach the settlement for financial survival. Proponents of the bill said during committee hearings that the bill really protects future potential victims and that enabling victims to speak about what happened to them can prevent serial abusers.
A bill that advocates say would reduce serial sexual harassers in the workplace passed by a 9-3 vote along party lines in the House Judiciary Committee Monday, and at least one Republican legislator worried the bill goes too far. Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, opposed HB 21, which prohibits a private employer from enforcing a nondisclosure act when the employer settles a sexual harassment case with an employee. Nibert said he didn’t like the fact that the bill meant that the government is regulating private business, especially since the government is excluded from the bill. But Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, D-Albuquerque, who is sponsoring the bill, said Sen. Sander Rue, D-Albuquerque, is carrying a bill that would address government employers. Nibert continued to express opposition to the bill.
The state House Judiciary Committee on Monday approved legislation aimed at preventing domestic terrorism in the wake of a deadly mass shooting in August at an El Paso Walmart that targeted Hispanics. The panel also advanced legislation toughening the state’s cyberterrorism law. Supporters of House Bill 269, which resulted from discussions among New Mexico officials about how to guard the state against such an incident, argued it will offer prosecutors the proper legal tools in a case of domestic terrorism. The bill, which now advances to the House floor, defines the state crime of terrorism and would make it a second-degree felony to commit an act meant to intimidate or coerce the public, including mass violence in a public place, or an attempt to influence policy or politics using intimidation or coercion. Under the measure, it also would become a second-degree felony to make or possess a weapon “designed or intended to cause death or serious physical injury by the release, dissemination or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals” or biological or radioactive weapons.
A bill to help victims of human trafficking passed unanimously in the House Health and Human Services Committee Monday, but the bill will die this session if the Senate doesn’t add it to the budget according to advocates. HB 101, would provide $350,000 for emergency services for victims of human trafficking. Susan Loubet, executive director for New Mexico Women’s Agenda, said the money would be used to help the victims get away from the trafficker by providing them with clothes, food and housing. Mary Ellen Garcia, with Crime Victims Reparation Commission, said the state, and the nation, is seeing rising numbers of human trafficking, creating victims of all ages. Garcia said that some believe there are 5,000 vulnerable kids in Albuquerque alone and half to two-thirds of them are already being trafficked for sex or labor.
A bill to protect victims of sexual harassment in the workplace passed easily with a 5-0 vote in the House Labor, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee Tuesday. HB 21, sponsored by Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, D-Albuquerque, seeks to protect victims of sexual harassment in the workplace by allowing the victim to decide if she or he wants a nondisclosure agreement when the employee and employer settle. Hochman-Vigil said the bill had been amended to reflect that the bill would only apply to private employers because a different bill applies to public employers. There was no opposition to the bill. Expert witness Erika Anderson, an Albuquerque-based attorney, said most sexual harassment cases settle and that often the victim feels forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
There are about 700 registered lobbyists bustling around the Capitol this year. What are they working on? They don’t have to say. A Senate committee shot down legislation on Wednesday that would have required lobbyists to report which bills they are working on. House Bill 131 also would have barred lobbyists from making any expenditures on legislators while they are in session.